Long night's journey into night
"Hamavet Kederekh Hayim" by David Grossman, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 190 pages, NIS 75 (English edition: "Death As a Way of Life: From Oslo to the Geneva Agreement" translated by Haim Watzman, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 192 pages) .
"Death As a Way of Life" is a collection of dozens of articles by David Grossman which have appeared in the Israeli and foreign press over the last 10 years - years of human and political disorientation, years of shutting our non-shooting eye in order to see the Palestinians only through a gun sight.
This book is an incomplete mosaic. It does not contain a daily record, but only flickers of events, directional signs, benchmarks: Yitzhak Rabin; Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon; the pope's visit and the spiritual high that even Muslims and Jews experienced. Grossman can be as sharp and hurtful as a surgeon operating without anesthesia, but also as gentle and forgiving as an understanding psychologist. He knows that being overly defensive is proof of existential anxiety and insecurity. He knows how to transform the Sharon-Arafat scorpion dance from a personal affair into a bi-national tragedy. He sees the human in the political, writing longingly about Rabin, who mastered himself and his endless suspicions, and evolved from a soldier into a man of peace. He employs the imagery of a gifted writer, yet has no qualms about sharing his dire predictions with the reader and anyone else willing to listen.
Grossman's voice is a unique one in the Israeli chorus of words. His literary output is widely hailed. Every book he writes is on the best-seller list almost instantaneously. His political voice, however, is down in the lower reaches of national consensus. For many years, his lucid, humane views have been guaranteed minority status. The current anthology is a cross between appreciation of his writing and rejection of its message.
The essence of this book is also its weakness: It is too cutting-edge, too up-to-date. It describes the state of affairs as of last night - a long night that has gone on for almost a decade. It is as if the author genuinely hopes that his book will be incomprehensible to readers of the next generation. As if he is fervently praying for conditions to change; for the leaders of this country and their followers to be replaced by peace-lovers; for all the horrors of today to fade into oblivion; for the ongoing political stupidity, the fixed mindset of the leadership, the cosmic dread, the terrorism, the vengefulness, to disappear. Between the lines, it seems clear that he would give anything for his brilliant statistics to find their way onto the garbage heap.
Shouting for peace
The book is very painful. Things could be so different. I read every one of these articles on the day they appeared. Read them and forgot them. Today, it is hard for me to look at my reflection as it is mirrored in this pithy anthology of truths about the past decade. And if it is hard for me, think about those who disagree with Grossman, who need it so much more. The major weakness of this book is that the author did not write more. Why didn't he shine his light into other corners? Why didn't he shine it on religion, on religious Jews, on God who sits in heaven? Why not on the hilltop youth of Judea and Samaria; on the pro-occupation and pro-assassination rabbis; on the father, the sons and the evil spirit of Sharon? On men who murder their wives? On the many potential army recruits who are already violent juvenile delinquents? Grossman's book concentrates its beam, leaving readers with a one-dimensional outline of the period. The rest we have to fill in ourselves, jogging our own imaginations and memories to answer the question of what the author would say.
Grossman's is a consistent voice, a voice at once determined, sensitive and humane. He shouts for peace, hoping the clamor will drive away the dark. He whistles in the regional gloom to banish the demons and the fear. In contrast to other harsh critics of Israeli society (Yeshayahu Leibowitz, for example), Grossman is process-oriented and empathetic. He understands both sides. At the same time, there is nothing ambiguous about his position: It is peace or nothing.
These, in a nutshell, are the insights that leap out at us from the tormented pages of this book, forming a permanent topography, a kind of Grossmanesque tableau. He appears to be writing about a malleable situation, one that man and nature can alter, but his real subject is deep and immutable. Grossman's interest is not in the fruit, but in the roots, not in the tumors, but in the cancerous cells. When we liberate the Palestinians, we will finally liberate ourselves, he writes. Because the relations between Israel and the Palestinians are those of a couple going through a particularly ugly divorce, using the most despicable means to torture one another, growing more and more addicted to revenge, frittering away their lives in a quarrel that slowly becomes their reason for living. As Grossman writes to the Arab author Emil Habibi in an open letter after his death: We are two different peoples and yet so much alike. We veer between totally misunderstanding one another and understanding each other too well, armed with piercing insights that delve deep into the subconscious of the other, sometimes to the point of cruelty.
Grossman addresses the Israeli public as a writer, in the same way that he went to Germany "only after my name was on the cover of a book, i.e., when no one could dismiss me as just some anonymous person." Writers in their prime have a tendency toward the ideal, the theoretical, the unattainable. Grossman thus tries to strike a balance, repeating over and over, in one form or another, that in the Middle East, innocence is a luxury that we cannot afford.
But that is not what the reader - at least not this reader - is looking for in Grossman. We need him pure and innocent. We need him asking questions without always answering. We need him standing at the gate, tugging at the hem of the leaders' cloaks. Many will sneer, but maybe one will listen and pay heed. Maybe one will understand and dare. And for that one, it will all have been worthwhile.
The most important contribution of this book is its attempt to probe the depths of our existential fear. The question is repeated in many different ways, sometimes in wonder and sometimes in anger: How did this horrible distortion to which we have grown accustomed come about? How is it that many on both sides find the prospect of war more cause for celebration than the prospect of peace? The prospect of peace is very daunting to nations that think in absolutes and to hard-core extremists. Peace demands painful concessions. Purists and staunch ideologues do not know how to use the wonderful tool of life called compromise.
Grossman has assumed the role of national psychologist. With the help of structured imagery, he tries to do with the adult world what he did with a whole generation of children, who grew up on his book about the imaginary adventures of a little boy named Itamar.
Imagine a boy whose favorite pastime is doing a wolf puzzle, who is asked one day to take those very same pieces and put together a dove - that is how Grossman describes Rabin's emotional state in 1995. And ours, too. Only since then, we've been homesick for the wolf, because the monsters born in the interim, in our camp and theirs, are much more scary and much more dangerous.
Elsewhere, he goes even deeper, straight to the core. The way Israelis deal with the Holocaust is not always wise, he writes. Sometimes we manipulate it, turning Holocaust-related fears into an outlook and a value system. Time and again, we discover that, whether we want it or not, nearly every one of us is a carrier pigeon of the Holocaust.
These are the illnesses, all of which can be treated with a single miracle cure. Yitzhak Rabin's move toward peace, writes Grossman, was not only an attempt to end the violence between Israel and the Palestinians, but also to cure ourselves of the "Israeli disease" - that inner hatred, that relentless, lethal nervous tension that has penetrated the deepest tissues of our being. Violence, says Grossman, has seeped into every fiber of our communal and private lives. Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, is a metastasis of the brute force, hatred, disgust and cruelty, which we have become accustomed to directing not only toward our enemies but toward ourselves.
A direct line runs from "The Yellow Wind," Grossman's first chronicle of occupation, to this book. Grossman was a fiery redhead then, and we believed there was such a thing as "enlightened occupation." We have gone through so much since then.
Grossman is the real Israel. He is the dream and he will be the reality. He represents all that is beautiful in us, everything that enables us to go on living in this land of the ugly where blood is spilled on both sides. Now all we have do is wait for his Palestinian counterpart - someone who can hold up this kind of realistic mirror to his people, someone who can confront the small minority that is murdering hope and the majority that sighs and remains silent, and tell them: Wake up from your slumber. The peace camp is alive - and it will win.
Avraham Burg is a Labor MK.
Like us on Facebook and get articles directly in your news feed