In May 2008 Israel celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. Palestinians marked the occasion as well; they mourned it as the anniversary of al-Nakba, “the catastrophe.”
The land that is now known as Israel and Palestine holds immense historical and cultural significance for Jews and for Arabs. Both claim it as a homeland, and Arabs and Jews have coexisted in that spot for millennia. Over the centuries a number of rulers attempted to expel the Jews, but many stayed or migrated back to the area. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Jews suffering persecution in Europe and elsewhere started the Zionist movement, which called for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In the face of increasing Jewish immigration, Palestinians resisted this claim to land they saw as theirs, and tensions between the two groups intensified.
After 6 million European Jews were killed in the Holocaust — known in Hebrew as the “Shoah” — and hundreds of thousands more made refugees, the United Nations partitioned Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Arabs in Palestine and neighboring countries rejected the partition plan, but on May 14, 1948, Jewish leaders proclaimed the independence of the state of Israel. Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon declared war on the new nation. By the end of the yearlong Arab-Israeli War, Israel had emerged as the victor. Palestinians were left without sovereignty, and seven hundred thousand fled or were forced out as refugees.
In 1967 Israel defeated its Arab neighbors once more in the Six-Day War, gaining control of several new territories, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which have been under Israeli occupation ever since. To this day, the almost 4 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza remain stateless. Despite repeated peace talks, the conflict has continued. There has been loss and suffering on both sides: checkpoints, failed negotiations, suicide bombers, military strikes. Over the decades, mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians has deepened, and cynicism has grown.
For years Israeli author David Grossman has used his writing to shed light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seeking to humanize both sides. He has been called the “moral conscience of Israel,” and his fiction and nonfiction have been translated into twenty-five languages and have garnered many awards. He is also a committed peace activist and the head of Keshev, an organization that tracks the way Israeli and Palestinian media portray the conflict. He firmly believes in Israel as the Jewish homeland, but he is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government and its policies toward the people of Palestine. He has detractors on both sides but is also widely respected.
In 1983 Grossman published The Smile of the Lamb (Picador), the story of a young Israeli soldier serving in the West Bank who befriends an Arab storyteller. It was his first novel, and also the first novel written in Hebrew to depict Palestinian life. In 1988 Grossman wrote the nonfiction book The Yellow Wind (Picador), about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — an occupation that he has called “immoral.”
Grossman received international attention during the summer of 2006, when fighting broke out between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah militias in Lebanon. Grossman initially supported the Israeli Defense Forces, but as the conflict escalated and civilian casualties increased, he publicly urged his government to agree to a cease-fire and negotiations. Just two days later his twenty-year-old son Uri, an Israeli tank commander, was killed in combat in southern Lebanon.
At the time of Uri’s death, Grossman had been working on a novel about an Israeli soldier. Uri had been helping his father with the book, telling him stories about his experience serving in the West Bank. In the book the soldier’s mother intuits that her son will be killed and tries to protect him. Grossman later said that writing the novel, which was recently published in Israel as Until the End of the Land, was his way of trying to protect his son.
Grossman’s eulogy at Uri’s funeral was published in newspapers and magazines around the world. In it he said, “We have to guard ourselves from . . . simplistic thinking, from the corruption that is cynicism, from the pollutions of the heart and the ill-treatment of humans, which are the biggest curse of those living in a disastrous region like ours.”
Moved by the eulogy, I looked Grossman up when I visited Israel and Palestine as a freelance journalist earlier this year. On the day we were scheduled to meet, I awakened before dawn to photograph the Bethlehem checkpoint, where every day thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children begin lining up before sunrise to pass from the West Bank into Jerusalem. From there I went to the Western Wall and watched Jewish men, women, and children place their faces against the stone and pray. At each place I felt sorrow and wondered how such an intractable situation could ever be resolved. But that afternoon I observed a project that brought Jewish and Arab children together to learn about each other’s cultures and religions, and I was reminded that the simplest acts of commonality — laughter, empathy, and play — are perhaps the best path to coexistence.
At sundown that day, I met Grossman at a Jerusalem cafe with spectacular views of the Tower of David, the Old City walls, and the Judean Desert. As we talked, the sand-colored hills turned amber, and I could understand why both Israelis and Palestinians cherish this land they call “home.”
Blackshaw: You have said, “All of us, Israelis and Palestinians, are the children of this conflict, which has bequeathed us all the deformities of hatred and violence.”
Grossman: If you are born into a conflict that has lasted for so many years, you live your life with an existential fear; you aren’t sure that you are going to have a future. It has an effect on everything, including the way you raise your children. From the moment you have a child, you feel he is loaned to you, not given. It affects the way you look at other people, too. You suspect anyone who might be an enemy, and gradually you turn almost every “other” into an enemy, because this is how you are programmed.
I see this in the way we run our government in Israel and the way we use our power. I see this in our tendency to deny the humanity of our enemies. And our enemies do the same thing to us. It is inevitable, almost. I mean, if you really want to fight someone, you have to dehumanize him; otherwise it would be too painful. You develop all kinds of distorted psychological mechanisms in order to function in this zone of occupation, of terror, of war.
Blackshaw: What is the role of literature in this context?
Grossman: Literature is one of the few places where we can allow ourselves to explore tenderness or sympathy for the other. The purpose of writing or reading literature is to experience life from the point of view of another person and to rid yourself of all your defense mechanisms; they are useful and efficient when you are a warrior, but at a certain point this suit of armor infiltrates your inner organs. For the author, when you write a novel, you identify with your character; if that character is your enemy, you deliberately go against your survival instinct, because you want to understand how the other experiences life and regards you.
We have to be prepared for war in this region of the world. It’s the most violent neighborhood on earth today. But at the same time I think it’s essential for us, both as human beings and as Israelis, to see how our enemies read the text of this reality, because if we do not see reality from their point of view, we shall not detect the hesitant signs of peace and reconciliation that come up. And we, the Israelis, are missing them all the time. At almost every crossroads we have reached with the Palestinians, we were given the option to go the way of dialogue, peace, and trust, or the way of violence, and both sides have almost always chosen violence. And when we have gone the way of dialogue, we have done so in a violent, belligerent way. This is how we are trained. It is difficult to change the minds and hearts of people because, terrible to say, after so many years they feel secure in a war zone; they know how to function there and are reluctant to move to another zone, even if it’s a more promising one. People get used to their deformity.
Achieving peace here is not only a matter of striking a political agreement or a military truce. You have to change the hearts of the people and make them realize what is in their own best interest. But it is desperately difficult to do this, and it gets harder all the time.
Blackshaw: It’s difficult for many people in the U.S. to understand why the problem between the Israelis and the Palestinians is so intractable. Here’s the basic story line that is conveyed: The Palestinians and the Jews both lived here a long time ago, but then the Jews were forced out. The Jews spread around the world and suffered discrimination and ultimately genocide. They came back to the land they were from, where the Palestinians still lived. Is this story line correct, or is there a better way to understand the conflict?
Grossman: It is hard to summarize such a complicated history in a few words. Your description is true in general, but of course each side in the conflict has its own narrative. It is truly the homeland of these two peoples. Many Jews were expelled from it and suffered a lot, and then there was the Shoah — or, in English, the “Holocaust.” But facts are not enough. If you want to understand the conflict, you have to feel it. You have to take the emotional point of view of both peoples: the fear, the despair, the lack of certainty about the future, the lack of confidence in other human beings. The Israelis have a feeling of existential solitude, of being different from any other nation, and a collective memory of having been persecuted for centuries. The Palestinians are a people who, in the last century, were crushed by many different occupations. Before the Israelis, they were under the occupation of the Turks, the Egyptians, the Jordanians. There is a heavy consequence of being subjugated for so many years: it breaks the spirit of the people.
We are talking about two peoples so heavily damaged and distorted by past and present traumas that they can no longer identify what their real interests are. And quite often they act against those interests just to cause some damage to the enemy. Both peoples need a long and deep process of recovery, and this recovery will not start until they have identities that are separate and not interwoven, identities that allow each other just to be and to start to build up their own nation without occupation, terror, or hatred. Only then will both of them start to recover and lead the lives that they deserve to live and have been deprived of for so long.
It is difficult to change the minds and hearts of people because, terrible to say, after so many years they feel secure in a war zone; they know how to function there and are reluctant to move to another zone, even if it’s a more promising one. People get used to their deformity.
Blackshaw: Do you believe Palestinians and Jews will ever embark upon anything similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, where victims on both sides of the conflict testified publicly as to how they’d suffered, and perpetrators on both sides had the opportunity to ask for forgiveness?
Grossman: I really wish for that to happen, but we are still very far away from that. Three years ago, when the Israelis and the Palestinians were preparing to enter into negotiations, conductor Daniel Barenboim and I and dozens of other writers and musicians introduced an initiative calling for both sides to apologize for the injustices and crimes and atrocities that we’d inflicted on each other; to show empathy; to start the negotiation process by recognizing the pain and suffering of the other. From my contact with both Israelis and Palestinians, I know how important it is for each party to feel that the other recognizes its wounds.
We knew when we proposed the initiative that it had no practical chance of succeeding, but sometimes you have to do things that are not practical, because in the climate of this conflict people have become too practical and sober; they are rotten with sobriety, to the extent that it paralyzes them. They don’t have any goodwill toward each other. They suspect any move the other makes is a trick, a gimmick, an attempt at manipulation. To counter this, I think it’s important to have some acquired naiveté. I’m not saying I’m a naive person; I am too old to be naive, and I have had some experiences in my life that forbid me to be naive. But I advocate acquired naiveté. That you say, OK, I know all the limitations of human beings; I know the temptations of power; I know the temptation to do evil. And yet, if I believe only in these mechanisms, I will reproduce and regenerate only them. I want to sow some seeds of goodwill in this conflict. If I treat my enemies as human beings — and I know that they are human beings, even when we fight them; they have names, and they have families exactly as we have — then I believe that these little seeds of hope will grow sometime in the future.
It is the nature of this situation that people on both sides see themselves as victims. They do not believe in their ability to change anything. They feel they are doomed to fight, to live by the sword and kill or be killed. But if you show people that they have an alternative, suddenly they are not victims. They see that there might be a way out, that this is not the only scenario.
Blackshaw: Are you suggesting that perhaps reconciliation does not have to wait until there is a peace process?
Grossman: No, I do not believe we can achieve a real reconciliation without solving the practical problems first, and even when the practical problems are solved, it will be many years before the wounds heal and the hatred goes away. It could be generations, the trauma is so deep. I also think that, even after there is peace, we shall continue to have terror and aggression between the two peoples, though perhaps on a more limited scale. Because if there is peace, it means that there was serious and painful compromise between the two peoples. And if there is a painful compromise, it means a lot of frustrated, angry, vengeful people on both sides who will try everything to shatter this fragile peace. We are in a kind of limbo; the two leaderships are paralyzed, and into this so-called vacuum all of the fanatics and extremists are pouring. We are two scarred peoples, distorted by years of violence. There is so much temptation to act in destructive ways, which are also self-destructive. There is such a thirst for power and revenge in both peoples. They have tried only once the way of peace — in the Oslo agreement in 1993, which failed — but they never tire of exploring violence, even though it leads only to more violence.
Blackshaw: In situations like this, sometimes a paradigm will shift dramatically, as with the fall of the Berlin Wall. You don’t see any hope or way out, but then something happens you didn’t expect.
Grossman: I think it takes courageous leaders on both sides, and we do not have very courageous leaders. Our leaders — Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Olmert — are paralyzed by inner politics. Perhaps such a change can happen if a leader can provide his or her people with a real vision — not a naive vision, but a vision based on what can be achieved, if the other side will have it. But we are not even close to that.
Blackshaw: In your speech at the memorial for Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli radical, you said we should approach peace with “the same determination and creativity” with which we approach war. What would this determination and creativity look like?
Grossman: “Determination” means we do everything we can to change the situation. We restart again and again the stalled dialogue between us and the Palestinians. I called upon Prime Minister Olmert to go to the Palestinians, to talk to them, to allow a dialogue, to create some hope for them, to look at them not only through the rifle’s sight, but to see their misery and their calls for justice and to devise a generous and courageous solution, one that allows us the guarantees we need but will not keep us stuck in this deepfreeze of suspicion and animosity.
Blackshaw: You once said that Rabin’s assassination was a significant turning point in Israeli politics and the peace process. What was so extraordinary about him?
Grossman: I don’t think there was anything extraordinary about Rabin. I think he was sanctified here after his death, but had he been more courageous before he was assassinated, maybe we would have been in a totally different situation. Of course, the same applies to almost every Israeli leader: had they all been more courageous and clever, we would be in another situation.
What was impressive about Rabin was the shift he made toward the end of his life. When he was in his seventies, after so many years of having been entrenched in his hard-line positions, he was courageous enough to change his ways. And I think he did so not because he realized the misery of the Palestinians, but because he saw the danger to Israelis. He realized that peace is perhaps the most important component of security; without it, the future of Israel would be tenuous. And when he turned toward peace, he did it in a decisive way, which I deeply appreciate. It is not easy at such an age, or at any age, to change your mind in this manner.
I don’t think Israel has recovered yet from Rabin’s assassination. Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister after Rabin and took many steps backward. Though I don’t see how one event can change our situation for the better, it’s clear that one event, like an assassination, can change our situation for the worse.
Blackshaw: You have spoken about the very existence of the state of Israel as a miracle, but you say that, over the years, that miracle has been squandered. What do you think Israel could have been?
Grossman: I am a secular Jew, so I am very careful when I use this term “miracle.” Let’s call Israel a kind of “secular miracle.” It was against all odds that we got this state: a rare combination of international upheaval and the guilt that the world felt after the Shoah. And with all my criticism of Israel and what happens here, I never forget that I was privileged to be born into a generation that can live in a sovereign, independent Jewish state. And I want Israel to be a Jewish state, even though it’s not a popular position on the Left in Israel. I think it’s important that there be one state, among the almost two hundred nations in the world, that preserves the Jewish culture, traditions, history, identity, and language.
It’s also remarkable that we created a democracy here among people who had never experienced democracy. Most Jews came to Israel from places that were absolutely nondemocratic: Russia, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Romania. We knew nothing about democracy, and yet we created one. It is not a perfect democracy — I would like to see a much more free and daring system of government — but we have something solid.
I think the real problem started after the Six-Day War in 1967. Suddenly there was a mutation of us as a people: we went from a frightened and threatened little nation to a semi-empire occupying other territories. We learned the pleasures of having power, of subjugating others. That is a strong intoxicant, especially for a small nation that hadn’t had much power before. We became used to having cheap labor. We also became used to all the maladies that being an occupier entails.
I want to be clear: I do not think that if the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were ended, all our internal and external problems would be solved. The Arabs will not start to love us when we end the occupation, and we will still have to be strong and on guard in this region of the world. But ending the occupation would allow us, for the first time, to start to confront the inner problems of identity and of how much we allow religion to dominate our politics and our life here.
I think the worst things happen to both politics and religion when they are intertwined, as they are in Israel. Religion should not be part of the government and should not have such a strong influence on policy. . . . If we become trapped by total adherence to the Bible and the Koran, then we shall all be doomed.
Blackshaw: What role should Judaism play in Israeli politics? Is it possible to separate the Jewish cultural identity from Judaism?
Grossman: I am a secularist and yet very much Jewish. It is important for me to be connected to the Bible, to the Talmud, to the Mishnah, to the Jewish way of thinking. It is a strong cultural, familial, and emotional connection, and I cannot imagine myself without it. That said, one can be very much Jewish and not believe in God.
I think the worst things happen to both politics and religion when they are intertwined, as they are in Israel. Religion should not be part of the government and should not have such a strong influence on policy. I am suspicious of people who take the Bible as instruction for how to act in politics. I am suspicious of fundamentalists who look at the world in absolute terms and do not make any compromises, because this is a region that yearns for compromises. If we and the Palestinians do not have the ability to compromise, if we become trapped by total adherence to the Bible and the Koran, then we shall all be doomed.
Blackshaw: Rabbi Michael Lerner has said, “Jews jumped from the burning buildings of Europe and landed, unintentionally, on the backs of Palestinians. Because our pain was so great from the Holocaust, we didn’t notice the pain we caused them.” Do you agree with this?
Grossman: There was a lot of indifference to the pain of the Palestinians. There was this feeling that, since we were victims, and since we so desperately needed a place for ourselves in the world, we were allowed to do almost anything. The Shoah made the dichotomies so sharp for us; it had an effect on the way we confronted the Palestinians, and it still has an effect on the way we face conflicts. But please don’t forget that our fears are not all imaginary, that even today there is a death threat on us, coming from Iran, whose government claims that Israel should be eradicated.
What I don’t like about statements like Lerner’s is that they tempt one to draw a comparison between what was done to us and what we are doing to the Palestinians, and the two are incomparable. I have complete respect for the pain of the Palestinians, but we never thought of exterminating them. We never had a genocide plan.
Blackshaw: What do you say to U.S. Jews who are proud of their heritage but opposed to Israeli government policy?
Grossman: I see no contradiction. For Jews in the United States, Israel is not just another country. It is a country that extends itself toward them. Even if they are loyal American citizens, they have some expectations of Israel; they have some wishes. If they are silent, if they do not make their opinions heard here, Israel will believe that all Jewish Americans support Israel’s occupation of Palestine. If U.S. Jews continue to support the megalomaniacal hallucinations of Israel and to finance the occupation and allow only the right-wingers in American Jewry to express their opinions, they actually support the deterioration of Israel. I am sure they do not want to do that. It is important that Jewish Americans who oppose the occupation communicate their point of view here, because we mainly hear from the right-wingers, who are much more vocal and sure of themselves.
There is a competition among politicians in the U.S. to see who is the greater supporter of Israel. It’s going on in the current campaign for president. But the question needs to be asked of each candidate: Will he continue to trap us in our mistakes, or will he be more loyal to the larger Israeli interest, which is to stop the occupation and push us as strongly as possible toward peace with the Palestinians?
President Bush is regarded as one of the greatest friends to Israel, but he has not been a real friend. Just think how many dozens of times Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been sent to our region, and not one checkpoint has been removed. So what is the real meaning of this friendship? If you see your friends going astray, you do something to save them from their mistake. The U.S. fails to do this for Israel, because it has a mistaken idea of what Israel’s best interests are.
Blackshaw: During a lecture last year, you said that the language used to describe the world is growing increasingly narrow, much like the world itself. What did you mean?
Grossman: As the world shrinks, we feel the need to minimize the surface of our soul that comes into contact with its harshness, because if we feel more, we suffer more. It is much more comfortable to entrench ourselves in the official position that we are the victims, that we are right and they are wrong, that they want only to kill us and will always try to kill us. Reality then adjusts to this position.
Since language is an extension of your soul, if you close the doors of your soul, the language with which you describe reality becomes limited and superficial, and you surrender to stereotypes and prejudices. For example, the way Palestinians are described in the Israeli media — and vice versa — is based mostly on caricatures and stereotypes. I am the head of an organization called Keshev, which investigates the way the media, both Israeli and Palestinian, cover the conflict: the terms they use, the size of headlines, the pictures they print. It is almost insulting to see how public opinion is shaped by media manipulation. The mass media tempt people to think in a narrow, banal way. Living under threat, you feel how language narrows and reduces itself, how people talk in clichés. People repeat the same slogans because they don’t have the energy to be articulate, to separate reality into its nuances and subtleties. They don’t even want information that is contrary to their beliefs and their survival instincts.
After your children reach a certain age here, you cannot shield them from reality — not only the reality of the conflicts, but of the Jewish people’s tragic past. . . . At an age when parents in other parts of the world are telling their children the facts of life, we have to deal with the facts of death.
Blackshaw: What happens when people act against this shrinking of the language?
Grossman: I remember when I wrote The Yellow Wind twenty years ago, it came as a shock to Israelis, not because of the reality that it described — they more or less knew what was happening with the occupation — but because I’d come up with a new language to describe it. It was not the language that was used in the papers. At the time, I was the anchor of a morning news show on Israeli radio, and I knew the language that was imposed on me, the words I was not allowed to utter on the air. I was not allowed to say “the occupied territories.” Israelis never admitted back then that we were occupiers. We called the occupied territories “Judea” and “Samaria.” We weren’t prepared for the possibility of a Palestinian uprising, because we’d never looked reality in the eye and called it by its true name.
My novel The Smile of the Lamb was the first novel to be written in Hebrew about the occupation. In that book I portrayed some characters who were Palestinian, and I tried to give voice to their opinions, to expose Israeli Jewish society to their stories, to their suffering and claims.
Usually we are protected from the interior life of the other, even when the other is close to us; even when the other is our husband or wife or child. We do not want to be fully exposed to what goes on inside them. And we especially do not want to be exposed to the interior of someone who is different from us or threatens us. When I write, my goal is to open this closed box, to understand what it means to experience life from the point of view of another human being.
Blackshaw: Your last novel was the first time in ten years that you wrote about the conflict. Why did you decide to take a break from the subject, and why did you return?
Grossman: I took a break because I felt that so much of my life was being confiscated by the conflict. Everyone here talks about politics and the conflict, but nothing really happens. And I felt that so much of our energy was going to the borders between us and the Palestinians that people did not have the energy to deal with the existential problems of being human — not being an Israeli or a Palestinian, but being a parent, a child, a lover. I felt a need to reclaim my individuality.
Then, when my second son was about to join the army, which I knew would send him to dangerous places, I wanted to write about the reality that he was going to face. Three and a half years before he was killed, I started to write a novel about a young Israeli soldier, a tank commander, like my son Uri was. Uri was an enthusiastic partner in writing the book — he fed me information about the occupied territories, the roadblocks, and the dilemmas soldiers faced. In the book the soldier’s mother has a premonition that he will die in an upcoming military operation, and she does everything she can to protect him. I had the illusion that this book would protect Uri. Writing it was my way to cope with the fear and anxiety. The day after Uri was killed, my friends Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua came to our home to the shiva, and I told them, “I don’t know if I will be able to save the book.” And I think it was Amos who told me, “The book will save you.”
Blackshaw: Did the book change after Uri was killed?
Grossman: No, only the writer changed. The story was always there: about the tender fabric of a family, of raising a child, of couplehood; and about the struggle to keep all that intact amid the brutality and cruelty and violence around us. It is about the attempt to create and maintain and protect the intimate life of a family. It is about war and the existential fears of Israelis, both as individuals and as a nation.
Blackshaw: You served in the military yourself in the early 1970s. What was that like?
Grossman: I did most of my army service in the Sinai Desert. For me, as it probably was for many youngsters, military service was about being away from home for the first time and living with people my age in unusual conditions — being in the desert, bearing a lot of responsibility, and doing things we had only read about in detective books. I did not have any inner conflict about serving, only the feeling that I was doing something necessary. But I did not serve in the populated occupied territories, and I was not confronted with Palestinians. After I’d finished my stint in the army, I started to ask questions and to doubt the need for the occupation, which I’d begun to regard as a serious moral and practical burden. But I must say that, even today, serving in the army is a necessity for Israelis. Israel needs its army just to survive in such a hostile and dangerous and violent region of the world. If we did not have an army, we would not exist.
Blackshaw: In your eulogy for your son Uri, you described him as the “essence of Israeli-ness, an Israeli-ness that has almost been forgotten.” What is Israeli-ness?
Grossman: Because I try not to talk about him, I will not go into his Israeli-ness. But Israeli-ness in general is the emotional voltage of the people here. Israelis are straightforward. Sometimes it’s too much and can become aggressive or intrusive, but I like it. If given the opportunity, they can also be sweet to each other in a way that I have not seen in any other place in the Western world. There’s a warmth and caring that keeps this country going when the mechanisms of the government are collapsing or not functioning. This part of Israeli-ness — this solidarity — is something that we’ve lost of late, and I miss it terribly.
Blackshaw: How has it been lost?
Grossman: In the beginning of Israel, there was a sense that we were all dependent on each other, that we were all taking part in a unique and unprecedented venture. There was a sense that a miracle had cast us together — people coming back to their homeland after almost two thousand years, and against all odds, creating a country and a culture and industries and agriculture. Despite all of the differences among us — coming from different backgrounds and different parts of the world — Israelis had the same goals, the same values.
This feeling does not exist anymore. The miracle, in a way, faded out. Now it is a very different situation, because many Israelis have contradictory aspirations. There are differences among the religious and the ultrareligious and the secular Jews. For some Israelis democracy is the pupil of the nation’s eye, and for others the pupil is religion. And of course there are the political battles and harsh debates that split this nation into many parts. It is hard to create solidarity under such circumstances.
Blackshaw: In your novel Be My Knife [Picador], one of the characters speaks of trying to find language that will shield his young son from the brutalities of the world. Can children, Jewish or Arab, ever be shielded from the violence of this conflict?
Grossman: The conflict is always there. From a very young age we are exposed to this brutality. I sometimes think it ironic that we forbid our children to watch certain movies, but we allow them to see news stories that are even more terrifying. But no, after your children reach a certain age here, you cannot shield them from reality — not only the reality of the conflicts, but of the Jewish people’s tragic past.
I remember when my eldest son, Yonatan, came back from kindergarten and told us he had learned for the first time about the Nazis and what they had done to the Jews. And he said, “I don’t want to be a Jew. See what they are doing to us?” And he started to ask me about what the Nazis had done, and through that, for the first time, he really started to understand what it meant to be a Jew. And I did not want to expose him to that. I feared that if this pure and naive child were exposed to human cruelties, he would become infected; he would never be the same child again, and, in a way, he would never be a child again. If I opened these terrible horizons of evil to him, something in him would be polluted. And of course it was. At an age when parents in other parts of the world are telling their children the facts of life, we have to deal with the facts of death.
Blackshaw: I want to ask you about this passage from Be My Knife: “I once read that our sages of blessed memory had the idea that we have one tiny bone in the end of the body, it was the end of the spine. They call it the luz. You can’t kill it, it doesn’t crumble after death and can’t be destroyed by fire. It is from this that we will be re-created at the resurrection. I used to play a little game with myself. I would try to guess the luz of the people I knew, design the final thing that would be left of them — that indestructible thing from which they will be reborn.” Tell me about the idea of the luz.
Grossman: Like the protagonist in the book, I would ask people what their luz is, and I got wonderful answers — people told me about old loves, or their belief in God, or that their luz was parenthood. I want to believe that every human being has his or her essence. But my luz is not necessarily the same as yours, or my wife’s. If we are lucky, we get to be exposed to the luz of our loved ones.
Blackshaw: I was moved when, in your eulogy for Uri, you spoke of your daughter Ruthie, who said, after learning that her brother had been killed, “But we will live, right? We will live and trek like before, and I want to continue singing in a choir, and we will continue to laugh like always, and I want to learn to play guitar.”
Grossman: Yes, we’ve tried to go on living ever since. Like everybody else here in Israel, we have a need for some stability. You might be surprised by the normality of Israeli life and the vitality of this country and the warmth of its people. It’s a country of deep contradictions. Parents want to raise kids within a bubble of tenderness and softness. But when the children go outside the home, they are exposed. The question is how to create this tenderness and be caring and loving when reality is a horror movie. How do you do it?
I don’t know, but I maintain hope, because I can’t afford the luxury of despair. I look at my two children and tell myself that I want them to live in a better reality. I don’t want them to live in opposition to their values. I have a strong belief in this country, in what it can create and what it should create, but I see so many Israelis and Palestinians act against their own interests. They are so driven by hatred and fear, so eager to take revenge, that they can’t look ahead to a reality that will allow more space for the other.
One experiences the extremities of the emotions here, on both sides: joy and sorrow, despair and . . . well, I am careful to avoid the word happiness, but the ability to enjoy life. The question is: How can we allow both ourselves and the Palestinians to live a bearable life — not so extreme on both sides, but just a bearable life?