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.