David Grossman: The Dissenting Patriot
by Marilyn Cooper
In 1987, the editors of the Israeli weekly newsmagazine Koteret Rashit marked the 20th year of Israeli control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by dispatching the young, up-and-coming novelist and journalist David Grossman to spend seven weeks among Palestinians and Israeli settlers living in the West Bank.
Most Israelis at the time saw the situation with the Palestinians as a fairly stable one and were shocked when they read Grossman’s lengthy article depicting turbulent day-to-day conditions in the West Bank, and his prediction that the current situation was a breeding ground for a future violent revolt. The article created an uproar. Grossman received death threats, his family car was sabotaged and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, speaking on Grossman’s own Israeli public radio show, angrily accused him of having simply invented the problems he had written about between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. But Grossman’s article proved to be eerily prophetic: Less than six months later, the first Palestinian intifada erupted. With the 1988 English publication of his original article as the book The Yellow Wind, Grossman rapidly became one of Israel’s most internationally recognized and acclaimed authors.
Grossman, who was born in Jerusalem in 1954, held fairly conventional political views for the first part of his life. He was ten years old when he first met a non-Jew and describes himself as a teenager who “felt unambivalent pleasure about Israeli power.” Until his mid-20s he viewed Israel as a vulnerable country “whose main imperative was to survive” in a region surrounded by enemies. Grossman was part of the first group of Jewish Israeli high school students to study Arabic in an intensive program designed to train its participants to become future intelligence officers, and he served in that capacity in the Israeli army during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Toward the end of his army service, he met his future wife, Michal, a radical left-wing Zionist, and after they spent a year furiously arguing about their ideological differences, she “converted” him into a critic of Israel and he became a “dissenting patriot.” They married in 1976, and after he finished his military service they returned to Jerusalem, where Grossman studied theater and philosophy at Hebrew University. But rather than simply studying literature, Grossman soon decided he was going to write it.
Alongside Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua (both of whom he calls close friends), Grossman is widely considered to be one of Israel’s foremost living novelists. He began to be known outside Israel with his second book, The Smile of the Lamb (1983), the first Israeli novel to be set in the West Bank. Grossman is often compared to the Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel García Márquez because, like the Colombian author, he often employs elements of magical realism and rarely uses traditional linear narratives. French-born American literary critic and Harvard University professor emeritus George Steiner calls See Under: Love (1986) “one of the greatest feats in all of modern fiction.” In the 1990s and early 2000s, as Grossman became more focused on his family life, his fiction became increasingly less political, and he wrote a series of popular light novels, explaining that anything else he wrote about the geopolitical situation would “simply be a cliché.”
On August 12, 2006, just two days after Grossman, Oz and Yehoshua held a joint press conference urging the Israeli government to declare a ceasefire in the Israel-Hezbollah War, Grossman’s son Uri was killed by an anti-tank missile while serving in an IDF operation in southern Lebanon. The morning after Grossman learned of his son’s death, he told Oz that he did not believe he would now be able to finish the novel he had spent the last three years working on. Oz urged him to continue the project, saying, “The novel will save you.” Immediately after the end of the shiva period, Grossman rewrote the entire book. The resulting novel, To the End of the Land (2008), is a deeply personal exploration of the intersections between one family’s loss and the larger political landscape. It became one of the best-selling Israeli novels ever, and Grossman describes it as “an act of having chosen life.”
Grossman recently met with Moment senior editor Marilyn Cooper in Washington, DC to discuss the situation in the Middle East and the interplay between art and politics. In person, Grossman is physically slight and surprisingly soft-spoken. But he had strong words as he decried what he calls the current Israeli government’s “war on culture.” Almost ten years after his son’s death, he still becomes very emotional when describing his loss. As his sometimes collaborator, Israeli cinematic artist Michal Rovner, says of him, “The thing that strikes you first is how delicate he is. He is not trying to protect himself. He is almost like E.T., like they sent him from another planet—someone who is extra-sensitive, almost skinless—to come and detect all these fragments about the human society that he lives in.”
What is the role of writers and artists in the Middle East today?
First and foremost, I think the role of the author is to tell a good story. But in places that have long suffered from a state of war, there is a tendency for people to shrink from reality and to avoid contact with reality because reality is so painful, violent and hateful. So people try to protect themselves. Literature can massage the reluctant soul and help us to remember how multilayered life is. Life is full of options and the ability to choose. Literature can remind us that the enemy is not solely the enemy. He is another human being who became the enemy. The writer’s job is to make him less simply “the enemy” and more of a full human being. We do this for our own sake, not just for his sake.
Part of the problem in the current situation is a cruel indifference to the suffering of others. Israelis are unable to burden themselves with the wounds of others; they have become experts at not seeing other people’s suffering. Empathy is the best service a writer provides to such a society. Literature allows the story of the hated Other to become real and exposes injustice.
Everything you write potentially becomes political. When an author creates a character and makes him multilayered, specific and nuanced, and insists on his being an individual—the work of imagination is itself a political act.
Do writers bring a unique quality to this dialogue?
Writers have no advantage over other people when it comes to talking about the situation in the Middle East. We have no advantage over carpenters or journalists or photographers or teachers. But we have one skill that makes us more useful in these situations: our sensitivity to the language. In situations such as this conflict, language is the first thing to be manipulated and distorted by the government and by the army, or even by our own fears. And when language is distorted, it no longer describes reality. Instead, it reveals the many ways in which we are afraid of reality. Writers tend to have a natural instinct to refuse to collaborate with such manipulations.
“As a writer, I am loyal to literature. That means that I try to see the wholeness of life and the complexity of our conflict and the inner contradictions of our conflict. By documenting it with as many nuances as I possibly can, I am doing the most important mission possible for the Israeli reader. I am acquainting him with the complexity of the situation and I am not allowing him to turn a blind eye to what is actually happening around us.”
Why do you think that is?
I think writers feel reluctant to join the choir; we don’t want to speak in the clichés or catchphrases that everybody else uses. We know that in the end, such words really say nothing. They do not bring us any closer to understanding one another, or to reality. Writers, by their nature, are people who continuously insist on being nuanced. We strive to find the most nuanced expressions or idioms to capture and describe reality.
The Israeli Minister of Culture, ex-Brigadier General Miri Regev, said last February that the Israeli government will not fund you and other left-wing authors because they don’t consider you to be “loyal to the State of Israel.” How do you respond to this?
I do not have to prove my loyalty to Israel. It is a fascist demand to ask anyone, especially an artist, to prove his loyalty.
Do you consider yourself to be a loyal citizen of the State of Israel?
I am loyal to the idea of Israel. I am loyal to the way of life in Israel. I am loyal to the Hebrew language and to Hebrew literature. I am loyal to the miracle that enabled us to have a state three years after the Shoah. I am not going to prove this, though, and I do not have to prove it.
What does the government mean by “loyal to the state”?
They want me to give unquestioning support to everything they are doing. They want me to sing with their choir.
Furthermore, they never funded me. I have never needed their funding. On the contrary, because I am quite widely translated, I bring a lot of foreign currency to Israel. But there are artists and writers who need government funding. The country has a serious obligation and duty to fund and support diverse opinions. This is the spirit of democracy, and we should take pride in the fact that Israel is a democracy. But Israel is now a declining and deteriorating democracy. This, unfortunately, is one of the results of the long state of war. It is not only the Palestinian and Israeli people who suffer from the situation; Israeli democracy itself suffers because of it.
The government wants us to be loyal to a very narrow part of being an Israeli. They want us to be loyal to a partisan worldview. It is an extremely limited kind of loyalty. For me, as a writer, I am loyal to literature. That means that I try to see the wholeness of life and the complexity of our conflict and the inner contradictions of our conflict. By documenting it with as many nuances as I possibly can, I am doing the most important mission possible for the Israeli reader. I am acquainting him with the complexity of the situation and I am not allowing him to turn a blind eye to what is actually happening around us.
What is your reaction to the Israeli Ministy of Education’s refusal to allow Dorit Rabinyan’s novel, Gader Haya, to be part of high school curricula because it depicts a romantic relationship between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian artist?
It’s unbelievable. This shows the gap between the complexity of literature and the narrow-mindedness of certain politicians who believe that they can throw out a net to trap and silence creativity. Similarly, my new novel, A Horse Walks Into a Bar, is banned from most religious schools. But despite things like this, art flourishes in Israel. Art is a metaphysical organ—it grows when times are dark, just like a blind man’s hearing.
How did the death of your son affect your writing and your political activism?
My writing has changed because I have changed. This was inevitable. As for my political ideals, they were the same before this happened. I have long been struggling to achieve peace. I have always been quite outspoken: I wrote three books about the conflict before Uri’s death. But there is more urgency now in my political stances because I know how painful the price is that we pay for being in this situation. For me, the loss of a loved one made this more clear, but all of us—Palestinians and Israelis—are potential victims of the situation. I am now more urgent and demanding in my desire to start a dialogue between us and the Palestinians. It is important not because peace alone can solve all our problems. On the contrary, I think we need to be strong militarily—we cannot trust the goodwill of other countries toward Israel because they have never shown goodwill toward Israel. Israel is not wanted in the Middle East. We must have a strong military, but we must also do everything possible to lower the flames of this conflict. We must work hard to achieve better relations with Arab countries. Right now there is a rare opportunity because of the reshuffling in the Middle East. There are countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt that are terrified of the Shiites and of Iran. They are interested in creating a bond with Israel. It amazes me that Israel’s government and prime minister, as far as I know, are doing next to nothing to use this very rare circumstance to try to have better relations with these countries.
In real terms, can writers and artists help create peace?
The very act of writing or of artistic creation is one of making peace. War causes people to become an undistinguished mass. Literature recognizes each human being and shows how there are actually a huge number of options available to every single person. In a very real way, writing is an anti-war act. To write about a human being helps you to feel empathy for people who are quite different from you, even those who are your enemies. You try to find a place within yourself where you can see the conflict from the other person’s point of view. Too often we are not in contact with realities. We are only in contact with our nightmares or our wishful thinking.
Retaining the ability to use your imagination during times of despair or war or when living with any form of oppression is a sign of freedom. If you can use your imagination, then you are free.
Are you proud of Israel?
I am proud of Israel, but I am not proud of the government of Israel. I’m proud of different aspects of Israel and of people I feel close to. But I am not proud of settlers or the settlements. I like some of the settlers and some of them are my friends. But the whole notion of settlements is a destructive and immoral idea. And first and foremost it is destructive to Israel.
Twenty years ago there was still hope for peace. Right now, people are trapped in a situation where they live in fear of being stabbed every second. The security situation in the past was never this desperate. There is no hope right now and you do not see any positive movement from the government. In the last 12 years, since Netanyahu has been in power, you do not see any hope. We do not know where he is leading us. The main goal of leadership is to make the situation better for the next generation. He is not doing this.
But there are so many things in Israel that I love and that I am very proud of. I would never live anywhere else.