Kai Bird: Cancel the Apocalypse

Kai Bird

Kai Bird, as a Pulitzer-grade biographer and historian, is drawn to the apocalyptic. He’s been “obsessed with things atomic,” as he says — with bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer; with the Bundy “Brothers in Arms,” McGeorge and William; and now with the Middle East, where he grew up, and especially Jerusalem, “a city where apocalyptic literature was born and nurtured.”

So it is striking that opportunity is the keynote of Kai Bird’s memoir Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, from his boyhood past the check-points of Arab and Israeli Jerusalem in the 1950s. His half-century chronicle is of promising roads not taken, yet in both the book and our conversation, he is talking today about an epochal turn, in Arab and Israeli thinking, out of stalemate toward secularism and sanity. There’s an extension in spirit here of the stubborn pragmatism that Mustafa Barghouthi voiced with us about a non-violent route out of fanaticism.

At the core of Kai Bird’s vision, Barghouti’s too, is an old idea among Zionists, early and late, of a “Hebrew Republic.” It is the vision inside Bernard Avishai‘s writing from Jerusalem today and his 2008 manifesto The Hebrew Republic. It was much the same vision that fired a fabulous, largely forgotten character that Kai Bird introduces from the 1940s, Hillel Kook:

Even though he was a member of the Irgun and working with Menachem Begin at that time… [Kook’s] argument was that the new state should be secular, very much a division between synagogue and state; that this would open the door to a society inclusive of non-Jews, Christians or Muslims that were also in the state; … that the state would be imbued, drenched in Jewish culture as such; but the state’s identity would be based on its language: Hebrew. And as such, the state of Israel would become a state like any other state. The Hebrews of Israel would be Hebrews, like Frenchmen in France. It would be a modern 20th century secular state…

I would argue, as does Bernard Avishai in his brilliant book, that Israel is going in that direction. Most Israelis live along the Mediterranean Coast in Tel Aviv, and they’re highly educated, inventive, cosmopolitan, high-tech and productive members of their society. They’re secular, and yet they are drenched in Jewish culture and in the Hebrew language. And If Israel becomes more of a Hebrew republic and less of a Jewish state as such, that opens the door to becoming good neighbors with their own Israeli Arab citizens but also with their neighbors in the West Bank and Egyptians and Syrians. It becomes less a religious conflict, and more a question of where the borders are going to be between these states…

Ironically, the radical revisionists of the 1930s and 40s envisioned a secular republic. They did not talk about a Jewish state. They talked about a state where Jews could simply be modern human beings filled with multiple identities, not simply a religious label… But today we’ve been going for 60 years in the other direction, precisely because the conflict has been prolonged, because Israelis are drenched in a sense of victimhood, not only from the Holocaust, but now from all the wars and the suicide bombers. And they face an enemy, the Palestinians, who also are drenched in victimhood and see themselves as the victims of this 60-year conflict. So it’s a terrible tragedy. So this notion that a secular Hebrew republic as such, a more secular Israel, will evolve over the next 20 or 30 years of globalization is a hope, I would argue, that this conflict can eventually be resolved.

Kai Bird in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 7, 2010.

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  • Emanuel Appel

    The above comments are a subtle replay of Arab and anti Jewish wishful thinking – denying the Jew to be master of his own house.

    Certainly, there is no place in the Arab/Moslem world where such ideas are seriously proposed. From Morocco to Bagdad, there is no question that Arab culture and Islam is firmly in charge and no one proposes otherwise. Only in the Land of Israel do cowards and malicious foreigners seriously propose a secular “Hebrew Republic”.

    For all practical purposes, Israel today fulfills those requirements. But that is not enough for the subtle enemies. No, they require more “gestures” to make the minority feel at home.

    The Arab will never feel at home unless he’s in charge. If he wishes comfort, he can find it in Amman or Damascus.

  • Potter

    The first comment is the very reason why Bird, Barghouti and Avishai’s mature vision may have a very difficult time coming into being soon though I have a lot of hope that this third way movement will move us closer to a day when there is no state of war.

    But where will the extremists including the subtle extremists on either side go? or how do you get them to let go of their ideas and fears? their entrenched victimhood.

    I would like to see a peace plan to a referendum right away. I would bet the most resistance from the israeli side for it even to come to a vote. Israeli’s, I think, feel that they have the most to lose by a fair compromise, that they can prevail through military might and oppression. That referendum alone would say something about both sides that perhaps some will not want to reveal.

    The comment above is the subtler way of reminding us that there is a large sector on both sides, Palestinian and Israeli, Jew and Arab, with feelings that they can’t let go of-such that they can no longer hear themselves saying what they really are saying. I hear racism and talk of exclusion. Thus, for instance, we are supposed to agree that there is one “arab culture” from Morocco to Bagdad and that’s plenty of land for those Moslems. We don’t want to hear that we have dispossessed anyone. Why do we need a Palestinian state? This is our land, It’s for the Jews, We won the war, Arabs go away.

    This is also wishful thinking is it not?

    The message from the bunker is that Israel does not have to be a light unto nations after all.

    Dare to propose or rally for something more mature and you are a threat, a coward, a malicious foreigner, a subtle enemy. This is the new way of saying you are anti-Semitic, anti-Israel.

    In Israel today as a result of this ingrained thinking a subtle and not so subtle fascist campaign exists, with the current government complying, to stamp out criticism.

    This is the false “Hebrew Republic” that exists now as Mr. Appel claims; it is the fulfillment of those ideas that it’s necessary to be an occupier and oppressor of human rights of it’s Arab citizens as well as those multitudes in the lands designated to be a Palestinian state by international consensus.

  • Emanuel Appel

    Mr. Potter calls for a referendum. A referendum on what?

    Millions of Jews have already voted on this referendum – for a State of Israel. They live there as citizens and have fought for it since 1920.

    Now, he can nitpick and use Leftist nonsense like “fascist” to describe the only people in the area who are not , yet the real “fascists”, the ones who fought with Hitler ( the Mufti’s people in the Balkans and as a fifth column in the Middle East) are described as “oppressed”. Rather , they’re “depressed” that they can’t murder Jews as they used to when they ran the Middle East.

    “Mature” are his terms for national suicide in favor of the medieval Moslem idea that the Middle East is “their” area and no one else is allowed to practice national sovereignty.

    This “subtle” mind is nothing more than a foolish , bigoted one clothed in “sweet arguments”.

    Sell the soap somewhere else.

  • Potter

    The referendum can be as described in this interview with Kai Bird. The referendum can be on the Geneva accords- or you pick any plan that brings a just end to this conflict for both sides. The idea, Mr. Appel, is to go around the leaders and let the people speak.

  • Emanuel Appel

    Dear Potter,

    During wartime, no one goes around the leaders and “let the people speak”. Those are musings of a naive mind.

    The conflict will only end when there is a decisive military victory. The “conflict” is almost unprecendented in modern history. No where else does the defeated party DEMAND victory and a return to the status quo ante.

    The idea of “justice” for the defeated is laughable ( an Arab idea along with the demand to make war for 60 odd years and have their people placed in the bosom of its enemy and restored its property in Israel as part of “peace”. I don’t see too many Germans demanding a return to the Sudetenland or western Poland. Mr Bird’s motherinlaw’s memory of her lost property in Graz, Austria is a pipedream. She can transfer her interest to some arab if she wants.

    The ‘right of return’ just guarantees another civil war.

    Good fences make good neighbors.

  • Potter

    Shaul Arieli is one of the list of figures behind the Geneva Initiative ( not the Geneva accord as I mistakenly wrote above) of 2003 which proved at the very least that there is a way to a peace agreement- if there is will enough. The reaction in Israel to this was interesting– as though it was a threat.

    Arieli wrote A Struggle to Change Public Opinion in Haaretz a few days ago, relevant to this discussion:

    At the end he says:

    Israel has indulged in a great deal of foreplay in these negotiations, mostly with itself. Barak and Olmert got closer than Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu, but not one prime minister has mustered the courage to reach the point where an agreement actually has a chance to be conceived. Until we get to that point of our own free will, the Palestinians will prefer to remain in the cozy embrace of the international resolutions, in the hope that they will be implemented, against Israeli interests.

  • Emanuel Appel

    Dear Potter

    It’s funny that normal men simply cannot get it through their heads that the Arab will not accept a deal that gives him 98% of what he wants so long as the Jew gets something permanent – his house.

    The Israeli PM at the time of Clinton’s efforts, Ehud Barak, offered most of the West Bank INCLUDING parts of Jerusalem but Arafat said “no”. That convinced most Israelis, not suicidal, that a deal couldn’t be made.

    You place your hopes on this initiative or that initiative discussed in Ha’aretz, Israel’s Palestinian paper written in Hebrew :), but it’s just talk and speculation. Have you ever seen or read of the Arab who spends an equal amount of time trying to figure out peace? No, he spends the time figuring out War and Terror. He spends his time sending propaganda out to foreigners instead of dealing with the people in front of him.

    Why should he if there’s plenty of people like you to encourage him in his stupidity?

  • Potter

    Mr. Appel,

    It’s funny that normal men simply cannot get it through their heads that the Arab will not accept a deal that gives him 98% of what he wants so long as the Jew gets something permanent – his house.

    This is an old song.

    The opposite is more true with regard to those( including leaders of the present government of Israel) who prefer to promote the Jew as victim. This is not the spirit upon which Israel was founded as you must know. Nor is the spirit of being a victim what actually kept Jews going for so many centuries.

    Gone on the days when Israel could seriously claim that it always had it’s hand out for peace. God forbid if Arabs actually will NOW accept a deal. Still on the table is the just reaffirmed Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. There has been NO official response from Israel to date. Why not?

    Arafat is gone. Sharon took the negotiating table away for 8 years spending the time trying to teach Palestinians a lesson of some sort. It’s now harder to give up the increased and increasing settlements and lands taken. The majority’s loss of interest and faith in the process and an end of conflict is replaced with a false security heavily dependent upon military might- which boomerangs ( as in Operation Cast lead”- The Gaza War), and ugly walls and checkpoints, which incite more anger, monuments for the world to see and speak about. israel does not look too good, too moral.

    So few normal israeli’s have contacts with normal Arabs. And I don’t doubt it because I have experienced it and it hurts, that there are many angry Palestinian Arabs. I don’t blame them either, they have cause. I support their determination, for isrel’s sake as well as theirs, to end up with at least a modicum of justice and a place of their own. I am convinced there are many who will settle for that in a heartbeat ( the joy of normal life).

    In the meantime the resistance goes on as it should. If it did not- Israeli’s would be saying, as some are even now, “Look at how well and happy they are!” But now, finally, the power of passive resistance is being felt, with it the drive towards economic development and preparations for a responsible statehood. Israel will have less and less of a say in the matter.

    PS- You mention Barak. He was forced into making a “generous offer” ( if you read the accounts) which was then made more appealing before Israeli’s voted in Sharon which was a vote for the military approach and which was a referendum of sorts. Olmert offered something “generous” as a lame duck. Then there came “Operation Cast Lead”, a severe cruel punishment on all Gazas for Hamas/Islamic Jihad etc. rocket fire into Israel. The results of the last Israeli vote in 2009, was also referendum of sorts which gives us Netanyah who makes no generous offer.

    But “generous offer’s” the “great deals” can be brought back to start things up again. Why not?

    You are obviously not aware of the work of Salam Fayyad, Sari Nusseibeh, Yasser Abed Rabbo, Sam Bahour – just off the top of my head.

  • Emanuel Appel

    Dear Esteemed Mr. Potter,

    I’m afraid that there is an impasse here.

    First, whenever an outsider refers to Israel as playing the “victim role” despite the well documented aggression against her, it closes the discussion. It’s just a nasty inversion of blaming the object of aggression, similar to blaming Czechoslovakia or Poland for starting WWII. Perhaps those countries did commit aggression by not giving in to Herr Hitler.

    Second, the list of people you gave me as proponents of “peace” ( Sam Bahour, Yasser Abed Rabbo, Sari Nusseibeh, Salam Fayyad) just reinforces my conviction that negotiations are fruitless because the last thing they want is “peace”. Rather, they want “victory” through non military means. They want the destruction of Israel.

    Sam Bahour doesn’t even belong in the land of Israel. He’s an American born businessman who migrated to the West Bank. His Wikipedia bio lists an article he wrote for Counterpunch, a vicious LEFT wing anti Semitic journal. In it, he categorically rejects the very idea of Jewish nationhood and inflates the number of “refugees” from the original estimate of 750,000 to 5.7 million, the descendants. If you think Israel will let 5.7 million Arabs into her territory, you’re living in a fantasy. They’re free to move to Jordan or those parts of the West Bank that may become a PLO state.

    The other names you furnished are not connected in any way to a sincere peace movement. Sari Nusseibeh is an academic whose role is to serve as a Trojan Horse. The others are not even worth while talking about as “peace warriors”.

    No, I’m afraid, dear Potter, that you are a partisan for the other side. Good. Tell your boys that they’re not smart enough to win at the negotiation table without overwhelming help or aided by suicidal Jews. Keep looking for them.

    So, I bid thee farewell and enjoy Kai Bird’s fantasies.

  • Potter

    When will it be time for Israel’s supporters to get beyond World War 2 and the Holocaust and look to the future, to normalize, to stop depending on those sympathies which have worn very thin because of such abuse.

    Sam Bahour who returned to his parents homeland to try to get something positive going on the economic front is no more a stranger to the that land than any of the many Jewish Americans with NO immediate or recent roots who have made aliyah with the same purpose in mind.

    The victory that the others want is simply justice. They will settle for the implementation of international law which in the end Israel will have to come around to. Maybe l’ll I be gone for all the kicking and screaming and rejoicing that may occur.

  • I wonder if the path forward is to take the petition and present it to the UN for a vote. If the parties outside of the Middle East agree that it is a fair document, perhaps they could use economic pressure to in effect impose it on the parties — no aid to any side that doesn’t go along with this.

    How is this justified? Well, the Middle East conflict is a threat to the entire world. The rest of the world is bigger, stronger, and can take the position that it will not be allowed to go on.

  • Shlomo

    Forget 1967. The world should force Israelis back onto the 1948 partition line.

    America should also stop funding Israel. Let the Jewish State sink or swim on its own. If it “disappeared” like the USSR, Burma, Ceylon, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Persia, Rhodesia, and Siam… so what? Let Jews live wherever they want in the world, just not in a racist, Arab-hating entity.

    Also, knock off the tired “We are eternal victims” shtick. It’s wearisome.

    How tragic, too, that Jews now do unto Palestinians what German did to them 70+ years ago. The same arrogant racism that Goebbels spewed is now repackaged by Israeli hasbarists to demonize Arabs. “The Eternal Jew” has morphed into “The Infernal Arab.”

    Firing homemade qassams (“flying coffee cans with fins”) in RESPONSE to Israeli aggressions is not comparable to a modern, militarized state using hi-tech weapons on civilians. Unless, of course, the wehrmacht’s “war” on the Warsaw Ghetto was a fair fight among equals, too.

    The world is finally debunking myths created by Leon Uris and others. People are now learning Jews used terror to create their state…and continue using terror to maintain it. Hitler claimed all his aggressions were in response to actions done by others. The IDF does the same.

    The moment Uncle Sucker stops subsidizing Israel is the day Jews exit their state en masse for more civilized climes.

    Since Israel seems incapable of being peaceful, the day of its demise looms ever nearer. Its committing evil deeds shocks some just lik priests acting like pedophiles shocked others. We need to stop enabling abusers.

    Time for Israel to stop being a blight unto nations.