It was March 1967. I was spending the year at Hebrew University. For the long spring break I planned a visit to Greece and Turkey. Then, after too little thought, I decided that it made sense that, rather than return to Israel from Turkey, I fly to Beirut and travel from there through Damascus, Amman, and east Jerusalem. I would come “home” via the Mandelbaum Gate, the Israeli border crossing between east and west Jerusalem.
At the American embassy in Greece I obtained a clean passport, one with no “incriminating” Israeli stamps. It was a fascinating trip. Even in Damascus, I rarely felt in jeopardy as a Jew. I faced more hassles as a woman traveling alone.
The highlight was the Old City and environs. I never imagined that in seven weeks’ time I would be able to return to these places without subterfuge. Then it came time to return. The border crossing consisted of a fifty-yard concrete expanse, once a busy street. At one end was a small structure occupied by Jordanian border police and at the other, a portion of a stone house that once belonged to the Mandelbaum family and was now occupied by Israeli border police. Flags and a flimsy divider indicated where one country ended and the other began. As I crossed over that divide, I realized I could shed the cover story I had relied on for the past week. Only then did I recognize that for the first time in my life I had been a Jew in “hiding.”
In Mandelbaum House two bored border police sat behind a counter. One asked the purpose of my “visit.” In Hebrew I explained that it wasn’t a visit but a return. As I began to describe what I had done, the second guard ignored the tourist he had been helping and joined his colleague in peppering me with questions: where had I been, what had I seen, and how had I fared.
After about fifteen minutes, I turned to leave. As I maneuvered my luggage out the door I heard one guard, using a slightly off-color term, admiringly say, “Yesh lah batzim” (she has guts). The other quickly responded, “Aval ein lah sechel” (but she lacks common sense).
As I look back from a perspective of fifty years, I am not sure about the first attribute, but I am about the second. And I am glad for it.
Prof. Deborah Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University; her publications include Denying the Holocaust (1993), History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2005), and The Holocaust: An American Understanding (2016).