3 Questions: Kai Bird on 'Israel & Palestine'

March 3, 2017

The Executive Director of the Leon Levy Center talks about an intriguing upcoming event and his plans for the Center.

Earlier this month, the GC's Leon Levy Center for Biography hosted "Israel and Palestine Through the Lens of Biography & Memoir," featuring Dan Ephron, the author of Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, and Sari Nusseibeh, the philosopher, former PLO representative in Jerusalem, and author of the memoir Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life.

The discussion was led by Kai Bird, who became Executive Director of the Leon Levy Center early this year.

Bird, who is also the author of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 (Simon & Schuster, 2011), recently spoke to the GC about the event and his plans for the Center:

What makes the Israel and Palestine discussion so noteworthy and timely?
Well, I can't seem to go to a dinner party in New York these days without hearing anguished discussions about our new president: "He whose name cannot be spoken." So we thought a panel on 'Presidential Transitions' with such presidential biographers as Robert Dallek, Michael Tomasky, and John Farrell would remind people that the Republic has survived any number of colorful, and even wildly eccentric, presidents.

Likewise, the viability of a two-state solution to the dreaded Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now a much discussed topic on the Op-Ed pages, so we thought it would be timely to fly the great Palestinian philosopher Dr. Sari Nusseibeh in from Jerusalem to discuss his memoir with Dan Ephron, a veteran foreign correspondent and author of the remarkable book, Killing a King.

The event was part of the Leon Levy Center's annual conference, which this year is focusing on Political Icons: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. How did you decide on this year's theme, and how does this event fit within it?

Our biographers this year will be discussing a wide range of 'political icons,' including Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Whittaker Chambers, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Christopher Hitchens. Our evening panel on Israel and Palestine will deal with Yasir Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Rabin's assassin Yigal Amir. I'll let our audience decide which are the good, bad, or ugly.

What do you hope to achieve in your new role as the Center's Executive Director?
Our mission is to promote the scholarly discipline of biography -- which is, after all, one of the oldest and most artful vehicles for conveying human history. I've been writing biography for more than three decades, and so now I hope to use the resources of the Leon Levy Center for Biography to promote the art of the biography within academia. But more specifically, I want to fund the work of great biographers whose work will be widely read both inside the academy and among general readers. We're looking for great writers who can become articulate public intellectuals.

Reservations are required for the event, which is free and open to the public. The event will also be live streamed.