David Grossman: looking for an end of “the situation”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with David Grossman (52 min, 26 meg)

David Grossman is considering my question: why the “good guy” solutions have availed so little in the Middle East, over such an ominously long time.

Patriot and peacenik, critical-thinker and oppositionist, Zionist and humanist, David Grossman is a good guy, and then some. I feel grace, something like nobility, in his presence as in his prose. One knows that his son Uri was killed, age 20, at war in Lebanon in 2006, when David Grossman was in the thick of writing To the End of the Land, his epic novel of 21st Century Israel. But the nobility of suffering is not what I’m looking for or feeling as much as the steady brave honesty of the inquiries that David Grossman undertook even before Uri was born — of the unrelenting question “What happened to us?” as he put it almost a quarter century ago. The Yellow Wind, translated into English in 1988, was his non-fiction examination of the brutal, brutalizing occupation of the West Bank. “I could not understand,” he wrote, “how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched… The history of the world proves that the situation we preserve here cannot last for long. And if it lasts, it will exact a deadly price.”

David Grossman has seen more deeply into the Middle East nightmare, and been seared by it more than most of us could bear. And still I’m unclear after our long conversation here whether his brilliant penetration of the madness has equipped him and us to find a way out.

The basic Grossman diagnosis in The Yellow Wind was that by the 1980s, Palestinians and Israelis were living under a curse “placed on both peoples — the curse of self-destruction, the curse of the fear of peace.” Both parties are much worse off today, he tells me: programmed to hate and now paralyzed to help themselves — deeply damaged, disabled people, desperate for outside intervention. This is the strong case for putting the Middle East into locked-up receivership. But don’t we also keep seeing the power that paralyzed people develop to fend of their best friends?

Can we imagine a peace “contract” fair enough, and political leaders dedicated enough, to create a ten-year interval of stability that would begin to change hearts? Or must changes of heart come first? How many more “wars for peace” can we rationalize, like the Second Lebanon War? And how should we apply the curious strategy that David Grossman has contrived in To the End of the Land for his heroine Ora, as a means of distancing herself from the madness, “the general almost eternal conflict” that has engulfed her for 40 years? With the help of her Palestinian driver, Ora dutifully, grudgingly delivers her son to his Army unit for an extended tour of duty. “Don’t hurt anyone… and don’t get hurt,” she admonishes the boy, and then she deliberately disappears in a long hiking tour of the Galilee. Her thought is that no bad news about her son can be delivered if she cannot be found to receive it.

It’s important to David Grossman that President Obama is reported to have read To the End of the Land on vacation last summer, but I am still figuring how the book might instruct him. Barack Obama remains for David Grossman the one figure on the political landscape with the “contradictory capacities” to present a transformative vision of peace to the Middle East and at the same time rescue two damaged peoples from a trap of their own making.

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  • nother

    Just watched the film Budrus that documents the oppressive farce of a fence that Israelis erected right through the the olive tree farms in the village of Budrus.

    When I think of Israel I sometimes think of individuals I grew up with who were bullied and marginalized only to attain success in later years with their brains and fortitude; and yet when I come across these guys now they’ve become incorrigible and cocky in the company of others and thus more and more isolated. Whether that’s based on some deep-seated insecurity, resentment, fear, arrogance, or whatever, they are in a bubble that will POP if they don’t begin to integrate Arab citizens of Israel into their culture and politics, and to celebrate the culture of their Palestinian neighbors. The solution is humility.

  • Potter

    David Grossman is blessed with such wisdom and insight.

    Years ago I read “The Yellow Wind” in the New Yorker Magazine. Prior to that, after the 1967 war and the “Greater Israel” movement into the occupied territories I had taken notice of what was happening to Israel and it upset me since this state’s birth was so celebrated in my family. Contrary to what Grossman says- that there is nowhere else on earth for Jews- my experience is that the US has been a very good place for Jews to be. Not always and not everywhere for sure. I could never understand anti-Semitism. But I am not anti-Zionist. Were it not for the Holocaust, I don’t know if there would be an Israel; it was a necessary result.

    This shameful mindset in Israel (here amongst some) that Arabs are subhuman (and terrorists only), eternal enemies that need to be defeated, has worn a deep groove, and has been passed down parents to children- even cited in the Bible. That has not served Israel’s survival prospects. Israeli’s seem to look outward for threats but not at the threat within themselves. As Grossman says they are so fear filled about survival they cannot feel compassion, cannot compromise. And as Grossman says they are militarily strong, have the upper hand and so do not have to make peace which means to be just.
    The arguments are strong still: the righteous say “The land is ours. God gave it to us” “We suffered we are entitled” “Never Again”. They say this without thinking about what they are doing to others, nor it’s consequences as though they are willing to fight forever, or rather to live this uncomfortably and send their sons and daughters to die for this.

    I read David Grossman’s “Death as a Way of Life” years ago. This slim book has my underlines and dog ears on practically every page. It’s the beginning of the even more mature ( and maybe weary) insight in this interview. He divides the sides into people who want war and people who want peace. I like this simplicity.

    Grossman presence here, his voice in literature, show another kind of Israeli, one that yearns for peace. Our Israeli friend, a veteran of 5 wars, just passed away despairing of this outcome- that Israel would survive. I heard Grossman’s own same fears again in this interview. Surprisingly he talks about Israel’s “dubious existence” which he admits is a self-fulfilling prophecy. He seems to join other “paralyzed” Israeli’s as he speaks with understanding about the why of these fears, this post trauma from all history, this fear of peace, this inability to risk for peace. Not that he would not risk himself I think, but that Israeli’s inadvertently, blindly, risk it all by not risking for peace.

    All that is enabled and reinforced by leaders who are, not statesmen. They are those who don’t transcend and are into greedy power politics. The people ( most- the silent majority?) support that by and large- or they look the other way at what is becoming of their country. So it seems.

    The blindness astonishes. Why can’t Israeli’s, and Jewish supporters everywhere see that risking for peace, is the lesser risk than increasing Arab anger, increasing international criticism and sanctions. Why do they risk and dare with continued occupation, settlement building and no peace process? Why do the people prefer to live in this bubble which they know will burst, an uneasy dis-eased one at that, supporting selfish and stubborn even fascist policies and politicians that diminish them all as a state ?

    It hurts to hear how much Grossman is depending on Obama to do something. Bernard Avishai also does (or did). I have nothing to base my own hopes on that.. not even after re-election.

    Thank you for this interview- Grossman is wonderful; this interview a gift. May he continue his work in his own inner peace knowing he is doing his part.

  • jewelllry

    Thank you for this interview- Grossman is wonderful; this interview a gift. May he continue his work in his own inner peace knowing he is doing his part.