The acclaimed author David Grossman.
David Grossman: On ‘To The End Of The Land’, and The Politics of Language
To The End Of The Land tells the story of Ora, a mother whose son has been called to the front lines of a war with Lebanon, and who, in an act of magical thinking, leaves her home in Jerusalem to evade the ‘notifiers’ who might arrive to tell her of her sons death. In a twist of cruel irony, Grossman’s son was killed in the Lebanese War of 2006 while he was completing the novel. At one point during the interview, he explains how finishing the book saved him, and countered his own impotence: “I thought how humiliating this surrender to the mentality of a victim would be. I deeply believe that we almost always have an ability to change our situation. This liberty is sometimes the only liberty that people have. The liberty to articulate your own tragedy with your own words, not the words that other people gave you.” I have always believed that art provides a voice for those who circumstances have silenced.
I have shed some tears while editing this interview, not only because of the indescribable pain one must feel when losing a child, but also because of how much more enlightened I feel after listening to him. It is very rare that I encounter a voice that changes my own; David Grossman is one of the rare writers whose words nourish our souls, and whose perspectives provide a semblance of sanity in what is otherwise a very fucked up world.
AR: You started off working in radio, right? How does the radio as a medium differ from writing?
DG: I started working with radio from the age of nine years old. Both with radio and with writing there is an intimacy that you never get from television. I remember at a course for broadcasters I took in the late 1960’s, we were told to imagine we were speaking to a bus full of people from all regions and layers of society. This metaphor is inapplicable today, as not all societal groups in Israel today ride the bus, but even at the time I thought this was a wrong analogy. I think that to be a good broadcaster is to speak as if you are talking to one person only. Both radio and writing lend themselves to the imagination; you have only the voice and the words. In the first part of To the End of the Land, there are three youngsters, and they are hospitalized in the isolation department of a small hospital in Jerusalem. It is the evening of The Six Day War, in 1967, and the hospital is pitch dark, so they cannot see each other. They only hear each other’s voices; they have to create ‘the other’ from the voice only. Those who have read the book may remember that one of the characters is obsessed with radio plays, as I was when I was his age. This first part of the book is written in the form of a radio play. I listened to hundreds of radio plays on Israeli radio, and I even wrote some. I love this genre becomes it forces the listener to use their own imagination, and not just absorb passively.
AR: ‘To the End of the Land’ has been called one of the greatest anti-war novels in recent history. It has been praised both by Gideon Levi and Efi Eitam, spanning the political spectrum from left to right. What do you think explains the book’s non-partisan appeal?
DG: I think it is mainly because of Ora, the book’s protagonist. She is neither right-wing nor left-wing. She’s just a human being trapped in an impossible situation. Most Israeli’s – having served many years in this conflict, as soldiers of this conflict – have a very firm political position which is hard to change. The mobilization, or transformation, of these political views in recent years has been very minimal. In the beginning of the nineties, after the Oslo agreement, there was a euphoric wave of wishful thinking that swept through society, in total disregard of the complexities of political reality. Immediately after this very feeble peace agreement collapsed, there was a strong return to right-wing ideas, where popular consensus seems to have remained. A collective disappointment in the idea that peace was possible, combined with the wave of brutal suicide bombing attacks created a situation where Israeli’s largely despaired of peaceful options. Since then we have witnessed a stabilization in public opinion – a kind of fossilization of the right wing’s political stance. And then we have Ora, who reacts to all the nuances of the situation, and absorbs everything that comes from outside, whether she wants to or not. Ora takes these tiny moral steps that are sympathetic towards the left. When she’s upset by the behavior of her son who mistreated an Arab suspect, she decides to ride bus number eighteen, the most highly targeted bus in Jerusalem, at the peak of the suicide bombs. Its almost as if she were offering her life, to compensate for the wrong-doing of her son. And then a few days later, she verbalizes aggressive and hateful words and thoughts regarding the Arabs that very few people would allow themselves to say. Whereas most of us have congealed our political positions into left/right clichés, she reminds us of what it means to be a human being trapped in this absurd situation, where thoughts are contradictory. I too am sometimes doomed to react in a narrow-minded way. I think Ora’s words and actions massage the reader’s consciousness. She vacillates between extremes, and reminds us of what it means to be a mensch, or a womensch, to feel all a wide spectrum of feelings. Most of us are deprived of this.
AR: Do you think this position is something people should strive for? Is there a catharsis in confronting political reality through this perspective?
DG: I think she possesses an honesty and a flexibility, unlike most of us, both Israeli’s and Palestinians, who are stuck. After many years of denying the severity of our shared reality, after years of just giving hollow names to this terrible situation, without really feeling how terrible the situation really is, suddenly when it was given to the readers in the form of a very intimate story taken from their lives, they could see and admit that yes, we are living within a very long tragedy. It wasn’t until the book was published in other languages, and people started to speak to me about the novel from their point of view, that I realized how harsh our situation really is.
AR: Can you give an example of the kind of reactions you received?
DG: Most questions were “How can you live a normal life in such a terrible, extreme situation?” or “How come you do not leave Israel? You have the option to leave Israel.”
AR: Do you ever think of leaving Israel?
DG: I can go lecture in all kinds of universities in other places, but I don’t want to. Why? Because Israel, even when it freaks me out, is my home. It’s a place that is relevant to me. I don’t want to be in a place that is only half-relevant to me.
AR: What makes it relevant?
DG: It’s a place that I can decode. I understand why people act in the way they do, even when I hate what they do. Of course, when I like what they do, it’s a more familiar feeling. I understand people’s fears, anxieties, and hopes regarding the future – from my own body and soul. I know the energies of the people here. I feel I can connect immediately to all kind of waves and contrary waves, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. The language is also central for me. Everything is articulated in Hebrew. Hebrew is a home, it’s like a mother to me. It contains residues from past generations who are embedded within it. When I hear even the most vulgar slang on the street between two soldiers, it often echoes Biblical metaphor and language. There is a feeling of belonging that I never have in any other place, as luxurious, or as safe as these places may be.
“I’m afraid nothing will start, peace-wise, unless we start working against all these instincts of fear and suspicion, unless we are able to distinguish between the real dangers that Israel faces in the Middle East and the echoes of danger, the paranoid feelings, memories of past traumas, etc. It’s a very delicate task for us Israelis to do, to be able to act against our immediate instincts of survival. All that is required from us to survive, ironically runs counter to the nature of the survivor. And we are a country of survivors. We have developed such heightened survival skills that it prevents us from living a normal life.”
AR: Do you believe in Israel? Do you think that Israeli’s believe in Israel?
DG: I think most Israeli’s feel a very strong and primal affinity for this place. By the way, this is something that neighboring Arab’s fail to understand – the depth and the primacy of our connection to Israel, to this homeland. They often reduce it to a kind of religious or territorial affinity. It’s something much deeper. It’s really the only place on Earth that for two thousand years, Jews have turned to when they prayed, but also when they thought of a better future. It is interesting that you ask this question, because I think this question is unique to Israel. Only Israel is questioned, and questionable to other nations, religions, and cultures, who, almost sixty-four years since Israel was created, still do not take this country for granted. There is always a cloud of doubt that hovers above our heads. We are almost never treated like any other nation. We are almost always regarded as a metaphor for something else.
AR: What about your own feelings about Israel?
DG: Israel is still not the home it should be, and that we deserve. We have not had a place where we felt confident and secure for almost two thousand years. Even after sixty-three years of sovereignty Israel has not managed to become this home. There are others with competing claims, the borders are not fixed, either we are invaded or we invade. When you live in a house where the walls are mobile, and are moving all the time, you don’t know where you end, and the other starts. It creates this temptation in others to invade you, or for you to overreact and invade them. We spoke earlier about the sense of not having a future here, about the fragility of our future. We are not sure that Israel will survive all the challenges that surround us. We live in a hostile region, and Arab countries never really internalized the right of Israel to exist here. So even when we dream about peace we dream in a very realistic way. It will take many, many years, in order to root in the heart of both Israelis and Palestinians, and Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, etc. that Israel is here to stay, and Israel can both contribute and benefit from this region. I’m afraid nothing will start, peace-wise, unless we start working against all these instincts of fear and suspicion, unless we are able to distinguish between the real dangers that Israel faces in the Middle East and the echoes of danger, the paranoid feelings, memories of past traumas, etc. It’s a very delicate task for us Israelis to do, to be able to act against our immediate instincts of survival. All that is required from us to survive, ironically runs counter to the nature of the survivor. And we are a country of survivors. We have developed such heightened survival skills that it prevents us from living a normal life.
AR: You have mentioned in some of your interviews that you started writing this book half a year before your oldest son Jonathan entered the army. In the novel you write about being a parent, about the choice to bring children into a world of war. There is a scene that really stuck with me where Ilan and Ofer are wandering around Jerusalem trying to find special ways for him to get back home and Ofer says, “Well -
DG: “Just run as fast as you can.”
AR: How can you be a parent in a place like this?
DG: You have just asked the most painful and most poignant question. The scene you quoted from the book was a real story from our life. My sons studied in downtown Jerusalem, and when the explosions started I started to think up schemes so that they could escape in case of an attack. At the time, there was not one street or alley that was untouched by violence or brutality. How is it possible to raise children in such a situation? On the one hand, we want to raise our children to be human beings, to be kind souls, sensitive people, who are able to absorb everything that the world pours on them. Not to be overly defensive and obtuse. And then, we send them into a catastrophe zone. Not only the occupation and the roadblocks, settlements and terrorists, but even here in Israel. The brutality that we are exposed to ever since we are born here to the extent that we no more really feel it. There is a story about two young fish who swim in the sea and they suddenly meet an old fish, “Hi guys, how is the water today?” the older fish asks, and they say “Alright, OK!” and they swim on from him and after some seconds one of the young fishes asks the other, “What is water?” We are like these fish, so used to swimming in a sea of anxiety and brutality that we no longer know otherwise. I remember once when our daughter was three years old and she was playing behind us here on the carpet and we were watching one of the news magazines and suddenly I told Michal, my wife, “You know, we would never allowed Ruti to watch horror movies, but what she absorbs just by listening to the voice of the news magazine is much more poisonous. We really tried to protect her from it, but how can you protect a child from their environment? Reality here is like an acid that eats through every protective coating. How can they not be brought up to be suspicious, terrified people? This is one of the main challenges of life in Israel. How can we be both Athens and Sparta? Of course, I would prefer to live in Athens, and there are a lot of ‘Athenian’ dimensions to life in Israel. It can be such a meaningful place to be. I love the voltage of this place. I love the way people are warm to each other, the immediacy and straightforwardness, the way people take everything personally, and address each other personally even if they don’t know each other. But I know that for the foreseeable future at least, we also have to be like Sparta, we have to be able to defend ourselves. I hear frequently from my Arab friends and colleagues, that had Israel not had an army, it would not exist. I don’t think you have to be a military expert to understand this. But the question is – on an individual and a nationalist plane – how can we defend ourselves without making the army a goal in and above itself? How can you be strong, and yet not idealize power. How can the militant mentality not be adopted unilaterally? Because the moment we surrender to this, I believe Israel will be in existential danger. We need to be able to defend ourselves, but at the same time to seek dialogue, to normalize relationships with our neighbors, to integrate into the region.
AR: Hasn’t this militarization of society, already happened? Take for instance Ofer’s interaction with the Palestinian prisoner, when he forgets the Palestinian man in the freezer. Even if he didn’t mean to, he did it.
DG: He is responsible. He was collaborating with a broader system, as we all do. We are all guilty of ‘deep-freezing’ the Palestinians – we keep them isolated from our present; in our mind, they remain suspended. It seems that only when they impose their presence upon us with violence, does Israel ‘deal with them’ – usually with violence, almost never through dialogue.
AR: Do you think there is potential for individual people to effect change? It seems like power is so centralized today.
“The ‘enemies’ perspective is valuable for other reasons. They are usually the first to recognize processes of deterioration within us, because they see the face that we turn towards them – the violence, superstition, racism, and de-humanization within our gaze. Each one of us wants to believe that these bad qualities are necessary to help ‘war the war’ against your enemy, but the enemy knows – even before you do – to what extent these qualities have infiltrated the innermost part of your being.”
Novelist David Grossman leading a protest march in Sheikh Jarrah, April 9 2010, Photo: Oren Ziv.
DG: How do you maintain your individuality in a situation that confiscates individuality. War requires collective unity – collective thought, action, and obedience. Individual thought – especially oppositional individuals who think differently, and can articulate themselves, are persecuted because they are suspected of eroding unity and decisiveness. By the way – I think this collective mentality is very dangerous. We have to look at every given reality from several perspectives. Even from the point of view of an enemy. You never get the whole picture by looking through your own eyes only. This applies to marriage, to raising children, to friendships, as well as with politics. Only when we integrate multiple points of view – including the inconvenient and threatening ones – will a common sense of reality emerge.
AR: You mentioned this once as being one of the most important aspects of journalism.
DG: With writing as well…That’s what writers do, they envelop every given human situation from many points of view. And sometimes even when they have done this well, the reader still sees something that the writer may have missed, something that can only be seen from the outside, through the reader’s eyes. The ‘enemies’ perspective is valuable for other reasons. They are usually the first to recognize processes of deterioration within us, because they see the face that we turn towards them – the violence, superstition, racism, and de-humanization within our gaze. Each one of us wants to believe that these bad qualities are necessary to help ‘war the war’ against your enemy, but the enemy knows – even before you do – to what extent these qualities have infiltrated the innermost part of your being.
AR: You keep speaking generally – when its quite clear you are referring to Israeli Palestinian relations.
DG: Look at what Palestinian society has faced from us since 1967. The oppression, the brutality, and the dehumanization that was directed towards them, have infiltrated our internal organs as a society. This is how we treat each other now.
AR: Can you give examples?
DG: Well, the recent wave of manifestations in Israel, of middle class Israeli citizens who feel that they are being crushed by society, who feel that society is so obtuse to their needs and to their wishes. There are people who want to live here and to raise their children here and they are being deprived of this chance because the state treats them without any sensitivity, just uses them as soldiers, and taxpayers. The amount of racism within Israeli society grows more and more. Our democracy is reduced more and more, and this is inevitable: You cannot maintain a regime of occupation on the one side, and hope that you will remain totally democratic. It cannot be.
AR: Do you think these social problems are directly related to the occupation?
DG: It’s not only the result of the occupation, there are other elements which probably we should not get into here and now, but the occupation formulates in the national psyche a certain behavior. If you believe you are superior, you become drunk with power. You start to believe that power is the only way, and you cannot prevent this from infiltrating into the way you regard other people, even your own brothers.
AR: You made references earlier to language and media. Do you have any comments on how Israel is viewed in European media, in Swedish media more specifically? I don’t know if it’s your field of if it even interests you. We talked about the importance of presenting multiple narratives.
DG: Israel is increasingly criticized and isolated. Of course there are strong reasons to feel resentment towards the way Israel behaves, but I feel that if you want to help us out of this situation, you must also be sympathetic towards understanding the Israeli cause. This conflict is not a football game that requires one to love one team and hate the other. If you really want us to solve this problem, be attentive to both the Israelis and to the Palestinians. Do not forgot there is something quite impressive about what Israel has achieved here. And we must not forget the wider frame of the situation: The hatred towards Israel did not start in 1967 after the Occupation, it was there much before that. The idea of Israel, of the people who came back to their homeland after being exiled for almost two thousand years, and after the Holocaust, and built itself anew and created a democracy is a lofty idea after all. Immigrants from places like Russia, Poland, Morocco, Egypt and Iraq, had never lived with democracy, and yet succeeded in creating a mostly democratic nation. And we created agriculture, and culture, and hi-tech, revitalized the Hebrew language which is a miracle in itself. There is a level of innovation here that when considered outside out of the political context represents something worth fighting for – not in terms of armies, but in terms of devotion to ideals. Of course things went wrong, things have been distorted, especially after the Occupation following the Six Day War. But for myself, this creates an even bigger incentive; To strive towards the idea of what Israel could have been and should have been, and maybe can be in the future.
AR: I want to get back to your ideas about language. You speak about the language conditions us, that once it gets corrupted or reduced it begins to limit people’s souls and detaches people from the realities of life. How do you view what has happened to the Hebrew language in Israeli society, and what role do you play there as a writer? 46:04
DG: First of all, I think the reduction of language is an international trend. Our world is so dominated by mass media, especially television. There are some islands of informed journalism, but mostly reality programs dominate. The quality of media goes further then merely reducing language. Language is a tool for describing experience, and as such, the linguistic reduction relates to a much larger narrowing down of the way we touch the world. We think that the media molds itself to communicate with the masses, but the truth is, it is the media that turns people into masses, and sometimes even into mobs, motivated by all kinds of sentimentality and kitsch, hidden vigor, terrible and cruel competition between people, and racism against the poor, the weak and the ugly.
AR: And in Israel?
DG: If you really listen to our Prime Minister and the Palestinian Prime Minister fighting like two roosters in the United Nation, you will find that there are almost no real words, no real intentions, no sympathy for the misery of the other. Not any drop of vision. Nothing but a patchwork of clichés flung from both sides. Our leaders, along with many of us, are no longer in contact with the reality that surrounds us. We are trapped within our fears and our despair. We have grown apathetic. I think that literature has – to a limited extent – a power of flexibility. It allows us to look at ourselves through the eyes of others – of our enemies, our victims, or our victimizers. But also through the language that writers use, its richness and subtlety, by paying so much attention to one individual that we are writing about, and suddenly showing how every individual is a whole world in and above himself, writing counters the collective thinking that erases the faces of both Israelis and Palestinians. Literature confuses the labels – “they are settlers, they are ultra-orthodox, they are terrorists” – and redeems individuality. Even a simple description of love between a man and a woman, can suddenly remind us that we can regain the human qualities that this political situation has erased. Writers will not use combination of words that others use. It’s not because we are looking for “nice words”, but because we feel that such idioms have been exploited and worn out. They lose their primal vitality. The first instinct of a writer – or the first instinct of a person who because of this instinct will become a writer – is to feel out with words reality in the most nuanced sense of the word. This is what we do. We come to situations that are overly worn out. Two thousand years ago people wrote about love, war, and betrayal. We keep repeating the old stories again and again. But what we can do, is to shake this worn language that lost its vitality and its authenticity, and find new metaphors that catch the reader unprepared.
AR: I’m interested in the duality described in the book. Ofer comes back from the West Bank, and goes to an upscale restaurant in Jerusalem. How do people live in this schizophrenic situation, where the reality of Occupation is there, and everyone knows about it, but somehow a parallel hedonistic life goes on as if it weren’t happening? How can you drink a glass of wine just after having forgotten someone in the freezer?
DG: People are very flexible. Even in the most atrocious situations, people go on with their daily routines. Villagers living on the mouth of a volcano are able to go on with their lives, denying, ignoring, and suppressing the threat. In the scene you described, Ofer comes home after three weeks of serving in very threatening, aggressive and hostile circumstances. I remember this scene very well, both as a soldier and as a father. The young soldier enters his home, and it strikes him how ‘disarmed’ the house is, how dangerously exposed it is. He looks at all the pictures, the objects that try to beautify and make it more pleasant. And suddenly he explodes. The fragile separation between his two realities comes crashing down. He cannot handle the illusion, cannot reconcile the two realities – the one he comes from and this one here. His parents know vaguely where he has come from, but they don’t really want to know. It’s unbearable for them to know that their tender child is now playing a totally different game. That he has within his soul, the “functions” of brutality, of soldier-ness. Ora looks at him, and in a second she understands how she would have felt had she been a Palestinian meeting her son in the roadblock. It frightens her. Our reality forces us all the time to change roles, to understand, if we want to understand. It’s very hard to want to understand.
AR: Writing this book bridged the divide between your life before and after your sons death. I read in The New Yorker how during the shiva, not only did people stream in, but also many letters came from the Arab world.
DG: There were quite a few letters coming from Egypt and Lebanon, Jordan and many Palestinians, people who – most of them I never knew. The obituary I read in the funeral was translated into Arabic, and was published in at least one Lebanese newspaper. And there were very strong reactions to this. In many cases Arab people wrote to me of how this was the first time they felt sorrow for the death of an Israeli soldier.
AR: What do you make out of that?
DG: I think that when you know someone in a personal and intimate way, as I understand that they have known me through my books and through my articles, you cease to hate him on the basis of ignorance, racism, prejudice, or stereotypes. You are committed to the individuality. And once you are committed, you act differently – you become a human being. You are no longer a political pamphlet. You act instinctively. In the Bible it is written (Hebrew phrase), “The nature of men’s heart is bad from his youth, from the beginning.” I also believe that the reverse is true, that the nature of man’s heart is also good from his youth, and it’s only a question of circumstances that allow one dimension to flourish or the other. We live in a reality in Israel that encourages only the (Hebrew phrase), “evil from his youth.” We see in the rare moments when there are meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, especially abroad, out of the radiation of the conflict – how Israelis and Palestinians are attracted to each other, how they really need to be with each other. There is a deeper cognition there. There are so many similarities between Israelis and Palestinians, even our sense of humor is the same. We are so close to them on so many levels. Our national personality – in terms of talents, ambition, meticulousness, the self-irony – there are so many things that really make us alike if we only get the chance to explore it and to be together. I am sure that when there is peace we will amaze the world by the immediacy of good and normal connections on a grassroots level. Not that this peace would be easy to achieve or to maintain. Peace means heavy compromises on both sides, and this means a lot of angry, vengeful and rageful fanatics on both sides will do everything they can in order to assassinate this fragile peace.
AR: You went back to writing the day after the shiva, and George Peckard described beautifully in the New Yorker piece how both Amos Oz and Abraham B. Yehoshua, were there, and how they said that this book would save you.
DG: Amos and Yehoshua, are two giant writers, and also very good friends of mine. We speak about what we write. They knew about the story that I had been writing for the last three years and three months, and then Uri fell. I said to Abraham, “Bully, (that’s what we call him. He’s not really a bully, it’s just a kind of loving nickname) I do not believe that I will be able to save the book now.” And Amos said, the book will save you. I think that it was the book, and even more than the book, my family, my wife and our children, our two children, and our friends that saved me. I should say that in Israel, the idea of friendship is very strong and rooted. This is one of the things I love Israel for, the intensity of friendship here. Many other things helped, but yes, also going back to my table after the shiva. It was not easy, I remember insisting on a phrase or a metaphor and then thinking, “Are you nuts?” All around you the whole world has collapsed, and you are insisting on one word or two words. When I found the right word, the right nuance, there was a feeling of tikkun, of something correct in a world that was so wrong. I had an instinct to create characters, to create a language for them, to invent and fantasize, to infuse love and warmth and passion, to regain the nuances of feeling again, the nuances of reality. For me it was a way of choosing life, because in such situations there is very strong temptation to surrender to the gravity of despair and of grief, of feeling like a victim, to remain passive and apathetic, indifferent and cynical. I thought if I surrendered to that then I really would lose everything, not only my son. And I thought how humiliating this surrender to the mentality of a victim would be. I deeply believe that we almost always have an ability to change our situation. This liberty is sometimes the only liberty that people have. The liberty to articulate your own tragedy with your own words, not the words that other people gave you.
AR: Could you tell me something about your son ?
DG: I’m sorry, I don’t – I cannot talk about him in public. I talk a lot with him, personally, but I cannot talk publicly about him. Not yet, I don’t know. Maybe, in the future.
AR: Ora is very much engaged with magical thinking, and at some point towards the very end, she says “Maybe I did it wrong, maybe it should have been the opposite.” Did the book, beginning to write it when your son went off to the army, signify a similar shift in your own thinking?
DG: I started writing the book after years where I felt I didn’t have the language to describe our reality here in Israel. During the Geneva accord, I wrote dozens of articles, and was very politically active. I was left very frustrated when nothing in reality actually changed. I wanted to describe our situation through fiction, yet I couldn’t find the right language, nor the right story. Everything seemed so cliched and worn out, and then, half a year before Jonathan left the army after three years, and half a year before Uri joined the army, there was an overlap of a week. We travelled to London for one week, to breathe other air. I suddenly had this idea of a woman who refused to collaborate with the machinery of the army, of the bureaucratic ways through which people are notified about the deaths of their children. Ora refuses to collaborate with the system. In her past she was hurt by war. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, her lover Avram fell captive, and she is determined to escape this cycle. I thought that if I followed this idea, that was so intriguing to me, it would allow me to make a book about walking through Israel, as the book takes place while they are walking. While I was writing it I told my wife “I’m writing a walkie-talkie novel.” They walk and talk. Surrounded by the nature of the Galilee and the generosity of this beautiful landscape. You know, many people who have completed the Israel trail (a foot trail that covers the whole of Israel) since the book was published, call me and say “We just wanted to tell you that we are on page 338.” They don’t say where they are on the ground but where they are in the book (laughs). 1:10:30
AR: You say you were in London when the idea took root. Was this idea intriguing – if you escape?
DG: The book is about Ora’s escape from the news, but it’s not an escapist book. On the contrary, I think she believes she found a way to fight back, not to be a passive victim that just sits and waits for the notifiers. She says in the beginning when the idea of running away pierces her, “It takes two for bad news, one to deliver and one to receive, and what if I’m not there to receive?” So she does something actively, she leaves her home so they will not be able find her, and she has this magical thought, that all the wheels of notification will be interrupted. And she runs away to the end of the land, to the Lebanese border in the north of Israel. On her way she practically kidnaps Avram, who was the great love of her life. Avram is a very hurt and damaged person. He was like a volcano of ideas, creativity, passion, love and sexuality when she fell in love with him. He fell captive in the hands of the Egyptians and was tormented and tortured until he was released. He came back broken. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with life. She takes him with her, and tells him the story of Ofer. She tells him all the smallest details of his upringing; of the nights in which she breastfed him, of the intimacy between a mother and a baby: Those moments when she and him were alone in the dark and he drinks her milk and he looks at her eyes, and she feels that she is imprinted in the pupils of his eyes forever, and becomes eternal for a second. Never in her life has she been as beautiful as she was then, in his eyes. Or the moment when he stands up on his feet for the first time and he looks at the world, you know, and all his perspective changes: The way he hears things, the way he sees things, the space he occupies in reality, his position vis-a-vis other people, has all changed. And she keeps telling all these small stories to Avram, as if by doing so she were mobilizing the force of life on her side. This book is about the wholeness of life. This is what is worth fighting for: The wholeness of life here in Israel, not only in the little family of Ora, or even my own family. There is always this echo chamber filled with the fear of death. This existential anxiety is what creates this uniquely Israeli combination. When we do all the little things parents do for their children, like going to hear from the teacher how they are progressing at school, or taking them to flute class – we do it because we are good parents, of course, and because we care for our children, and because it’s our duty. I also believe that through these actions there is a silent dialogue we engage in, with danger, fate, and destiny. We say to destiny: “Look, we do our share. We fulfill our part of the agreement. Please spare this child.” There is a kind of silent, unspoken agreement that hovers above the everyday routine of bringing up our children. And when danger hovers above our beloved ones, it feels like all the effort that we have infused into our children fades, that they are defenseless. Ora tells Avram the life-story of Ofer to re-infuse and refuel all the caring and love towards her son; this is the only thing she can give Ofer in order to protect him. She cannot give him more weapons. She cannot even kidnap him from the army. He would not have accepted this. He wants to be there. So she does the most primal and basic thing that a mother can do for her son. She tells their life-story.
AR: You’ve also been very involved in the Sheikh Jarah Movement in the last few years. You have said that you don’t have much hope for peace. Does Sheikh Jarrah, or even the middle class protests – are these indicators that something new is on the horizon?
DG: You have to make a separation between the two events Sheikh Jarrah is not a symbol of hope, unfortunately. We are a group of people who gather every Friday for two hours; we never exceeded the number of three or four hundred people at the maximum. We are determined, and stubborn, and we are making a point by standing there, saying that there is an alternative to the current relationship between Israelis and Palestinians in this region. We keep this alternative alive, but no more than that, I’m afraid. Apparently our ideas are, for the time being, not very attractive. It’s a totally different story when it comes to the social civic protest, which brought together almost half a million Israelis, to protest against the way the government treats us, to the brutality of privatization, to the lack of sensitivity towards people’s basic needs of everyone, to all the symptoms of the relationship between us and the Palestinians, as I said, now having infiltrated into our own society. The beauty of this protest is that it really unites all layers of society – it’s very democratic, it’s very friendly. It’s terminology is not a violent one, there was not one case of violence, you know, of severe violence in all these months. Look at what happens in the Arab countries around us. Look at Gaddafi, look at how Bashar al-Assad is slaughtering his own people. We can be proud of the way it is being held here. I think it’s so important, this new phenomena, because it allows Israelis to experience something we have been deprived of for forty four years, since the occupation of ’67, since the political debate polarized us and really tore us apart as a society. Now we can explore the very sweet taste of solidarity. Every society needs solidarity, In Israel we need it even more. The solidarity we are used to is an imposed solidarity that responds to external threats. But what has emerged with the social protests is a voluntary solidarity, a sense of responsibility for others. And these are basic, deep, human, yes, but also Jewish and Israeli values. And this is a sign of recovery. Recovery of a society that has started to understand how important equality and democracy are, and that has a renewed sensitivity to the deprived and unprivileged. It is still not a political demonstration, on the contrary – the organizers are really very careful not to mention any political orientation. And the right-wingers are reluctant to join it because they understand that people who talk about equality and democracy and sensitivity, very soon they will start to ask the question, “Where did all the money go to?” And the answer is, most of the money went to the settlements, and to the huge army mechanism we have built in order to protect the occupied territories and the settlements within it. But for the time being, I’m very proud of this movement, especially because it comes from the younger generation, who for years haven’t done anything social or political. We always ask how can it be that there is not any expression of youth, of rebelling against this distortion of the situation here? And now, here they are – I don’t know what the result of it will be, yesterday was the conclusion of the committee that was formed by the government to see what the government should do in order to improve the situation. I just read this morning in the newspaper what should be done, I don’t know what the impact will be, or if it’s really a serious attempt at addressing the problem.1:24:40
AR: It’s funny because I think in, certainly in Sweden at least, it took a long time for people to understand what was going on, partially because they couldn’t fit into the ordinary narrative.
DG: In Israel, since there was nothing mentioned of Palestinians or of the occupation, suddenly they lost the ability to easily decode what was happening.
AR: You can’t even report from Israel without mentioning the occupation.
DG: Yeah, it was so refreshing because suddenly we – people who reacted to the situation – journalists or essayists or writers – we had to find a new vocabulary, we had to use words we had not used before, and formulations we had not used before. For so many years, we wrote essays only about the occupation. This consumed all our energy, there was not energy left to deal with things that are not less important.
AR: Is there something you’d like to add, that I haven’t asked about, something you’d like to get out?
DG: Yes. But I would have preferred if it would come as a question from you. President Obama is now reading the book, he took it to his vacation two weeks ago. I hope he read it. First of all, I’m very proud to have him as a reader. But what is more essential, through reading this book, or other literature about the same situation, President Obama can get a deeper knowledge of the situation than what he gets through his political analysts, with all due respect, and from the TV. There is something about literature that exposes the reader in a new way, in a different way, to a reality. And I deeply wish that when he reads the book, he will feel the real price we are paying, of living our lives for three generations now without any hope for the future, with this heavy despair, the way we have become hostages to this conflict. I believe that America and President Obama are maybe our last hope. They have the power to change reality here, because Israel is so heavily dependent on the economy of the United States. I think that both sides are so incapable of doing the right thing and they are almost doomed to act against their interests because this is the distorted logic of military and political conflict; that you start to act against your interests, and you continually fabricate ideologies to justify your mistakes. If the United States really is our friend, they will put Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers together, and metaphorically knock their heads together until they start to take the inevitable steps towards an agreement. Both peoples know perfectly the final lines of the political solution. Every reasonable Israeli and Palestinian knows it – not the fanatics and the fundamentalists. And the longer we live without a solution, the more fanatic and fundamentalists we shall have on both sides. Right now there is still a slight majority of reasonable people on both sides capable of recognizing what Israel can gain and give up towards achieving peace, as well as what the Palestinians are capable of. If we wait a little longer, the power of the terrified people in both parties will become more and more extreme, fanatical, and racist, until their power will achieve a majority. Then we are doomed. Then we shall not have peace, only constant war and ever-growing waves of violence.
AR: What do you think of the American veto in terms of the UN vote on Palestinian independence and statehood?
DG: I think it’s a shameful act, America should have supported the creation of the Palestinian state, even now, even before the negotiation. I, of course, would have liked it to be achieved through the negotiation, but there is no negotiation. Israel should have been the first country to recognize the Palestinian state, and to say “Let’s regard it as a new page or a first step in a real peace process between us.” All of that has been lost.
AR: So basically, America should support the state of Palestine, just as Israel should, in the UN?
DG: Yes. It is for the benefit of Palestinians and Israelis. It will allow us the chance to start to recover from this abnormality, and give us the chance to live a normal life, as we deserve.
AR: Where is Israel heading politically, and also where it’s heading religiously?
DG: Both answers are the same. The more people grow desperate, the more they will turn to the places that guarantee them the illusion of confidence, of security – within nationalism, and fanaticism. The situation seems rigid and frozen, but there is never a ‘status quo’ where people are involved. We see processes of deterioration of our ‘so called’ liberal, pluralist, and democratic society. This is why it is in our best interest as Israelis to achieve peace. Only when peace is achieved, can we start to start to recover as a society, and to regain the balance of democracy, of openness, of pluralism and liberalism, that we had some decades ago.
Boris Kralj’s photo book ‘My Belgrade’ tells a story about a country which does not exist anymore. Belgrade represents the artist’s personal point of view on the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Foreword by Joerg Kochs and an Interview by Kevin Braddock. Published by Die Neue Sachlichkeit, ISBN, 978-3-942139-12-0.To order a copy of My Belgrade click here.
The cover of David Grossman’s book ‘To The End Of The Land.’