David Grossman, a Man Who Owns Israel

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published September 29, 2010, issue of October 08, 2010.
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In his remarkable recent New Yorker profile of the Israeli writer David Grossman, George Packer observes that the heroine of Grossman’s new novel “embraces the breadth of Israel’s tragedy, a country that can take nothing for granted, not even its own existence.” (The novel, “To the End of the Land,” is newly available in English.) Yet Packer’s lengthy article, though tinged with tragedy to be sure, is colored as well by resolve, even triumph. For the Grossman he portrays is a steadfast Israeli patriot, a man who owns Israel.

Speaking to a crowd of 100,000 people in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on November 4, 2006, the eleventh anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, Grossman introduced himself “as a person whose love for the land is overwhelming and complex, and yet is unequivocal, and as one whose continuous covenant with the land has turned his personal calamity into a covenant of blood.”

The “personal calamity” to which Grossman refers is the death of his son, Uri, in the last hours of Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon.

In Israel, there is hardly any space between the political and the personal. Grossman is well known as one of the nation’s finest writers and still better known as a bereaved father. When he participates, as he is wont to, in the weekly demonstration against the eviction of long-time Palestinian residents from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, his presence — though he mingles in the crowd, seeks no special attention — sanctifies the action. As the social and political historian and one-time diplomat Shlomo Avineri puts it, “Bereavement is holy in this country.” Holy, and altogether too familiar.

It is against that background, knowing that David Grossman is a man I embrace, that I take issue with one, just one, of the statements Packer attributes to him: “The Israeli family does not want to know about what its son is doing out there in the Army. It’s unbearable. How can you bring into this softness of life — tenderness, familial life — how can you bring in the atrocities of occupation, of dealing with occupied people, humiliating them? There is this silence, as if both sides had agreed on not asking questions, not telling things. This is, on a larger scale, our inability as a state to contain the question of the occupation. We cannot really settle it with our self-image.”

Would it were so. Would that the silence reflected merely exhaustion, or avoidance. Indeed, would that the silence were pervasive.

But it is most assuredly not pervasive.

On Sunday, September 26, the day the so-called moratorium on new housing construction in the West Bank came to its scheduled end, there were dozens of celebratory rallies in the West Bank and in Israel itself. Here are some of the words of one celebrant, Gershon Mesika, head of the Shomron (Samaria) Regional Council, as reported on YNet: “From this stage I turn to Hussein Obama and tell him, ‘The Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.’ Throughout history leaders have conspired against the people of Israel, but they live on, while [their leaders] have disappeared off the history pages. So we will continue to build and develop the communities, in spite of the opposition of all the oppressors, inside and outside.”

That, I fear, is where Israel’s self-image is these days tending, if not hurtling.

As to the “oppressor,” President Barack Obama, he plainly understood that the 10-month moratorium was scheduled to end just as the American midterm election campaigns were heading into their final stretch. Ten months is such an unusual time period — the mind inclines toward nine months or 12 — that Netanyahu’s choice of 10 months was plainly intended as a trap. Surely, no American administration would take the political risk of leaning on Israel just before elections; no one wants to incur the wrath of the Jews or the evangelicals. And the fact is that we do not yet know to what degree Obama is prepared to take that risk.

My bet is that he will lean, and lean hard, not only because he does not want, once again, to be outmaneuvered by Netanyahu, but also because he is a true friend of Israel. And true friends of Israel must want the negotiations to go forward.

That is not to say that even if they do go forward, they will produce a serious agreement. But if they do not go forward, the unintended beneficiary of the failure will be Hamas.

Nor is it just fear of the rise of Hamas that renders the continuation of the negotiations urgent. It is also what David Grossman so powerfully calls “the atrocities of occupation.”

George Packer writes that Grossman uses “the language of a man who belongs to Israel,” and that is so. But the Israel of cherished humanitarian and democratic values, the Israel that was once determined to demonstrate how a nation state could simultaneously be both particular and universal (compare the Book of Jonah) — that Israel belongs to David Grossman.

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