"My action speaks for itself; the interpretation, I leave to others" - was the little that author David Grossman would say to the press about his public refusal to shake Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's hand at the Emet prize ceremony last week. And since he has left the interpretation to the press, the only choice is to rise to the challenge and try to understand the intent of the writer and why he chose the way he chose to say it (that is, not to say it).
Few in Israel do not know what Grossman has thought about Olmert since the Second Lebanon War. He said it outright in his "hollow leadership" speech a year ago at the memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin ("Look at those who lead us...behold their petrified, suspicious, sweaty conduct. The conduct of advocates and scoundrels....") But is personal and political criticism, lethal as it may be, a reason not to shake the hand of Israel's prime minister? Clearly, it is not. An adult knows how to separate his opinions from his behavior. Grossman's action, therefore, should be sought not in his opinions but in his emotions.
Grosman is angry at Olmert. He wants to punish him, to strike where it hurts most. Avoiding a handshake with the prime minister is a symbolic step whose power is greater than the power of a thousand well-crafted words in a newspaper or in the city square. It expresses the non-recognition of the very existence of the man standing before you. Everyone knows that ignoring another is the cruelest punishment in the social repertoire.
Why does Olmert deserve such a punishment from Grossman? Not because he stands at the head of a hollow leadership. Not because as prime minister he did not "formulate or take a step that could open up a new horizon for Israelis, for a better future" (as Grossman said in that address). Olmert is, in fact, now trying to spearhead an appropriate diplomatic initiative, that is, at least in spirit, in keeping with Grossman's viewpoint. If anything, Grossman should be encouraging him, not ostracizing him.
There is another reason why Olmert should be punished: He has managed to leave the Second Lebanon War behind, while Grossman can never leave it behind. Olmert got out of it in one piece, while Grossman lost his son. The bereaved father sees the demise of protest against that war and wants to resuscitate it; he sees the evanescence of the Winograd Committee and is deciding to take its place. His private gesture screams "J'accuse": You, Ehud Olmert, are responsible for the unnecessary deaths of dozens of young soldiers, including my son. You have gone on, but I neither forget nor forgive.
Grossman will surely object to this interpretation. He would prefer that his action be understood as an act of public protest, not as an expression of personal pain. "I am not saying these words out of feelings of rage or revenge," Grossman said to the prime minister last year. "You will not be able to dismiss my words tonight by saying a grieving man cannot be judged. Certainly I am grieving, but I am more pained than angry. This country and what you and your friends are doing to it pains me."
But Grossman is a man of words, not of dramatic gestures. If his motive were purely political he would have formulated it magnificently as he has done in the past, drafted public support and left no room for interpretation. Therefore, I am convinced that the man who avoided shaking Olmert's hand was not David Grossman, the famous writer and public figure, but rather David Grossman, the private person and bereaved father. The first has a wide-ranging arsenal of words to use against the prime minister, the second has run out of words.
That is the only interpretation of Grossman's action that can be accepted with understanding. If he appeared at the ceremony as a public figure and a man of letters, he should have shaken the prime minister's hand, and found another public way to express his protest. After all, Olmert was not there in his own right, but rather in his function as prime minister, a symbol of the state and its citizens. Ingnoring him might be understood as an arrogant and childish display of disdain for the institution of prime minister and what it represents. Since Grossman has not so far been characterized by arrogance or childishness, I believe that this time he was indeed caught up in his sorrow. The country pains him, but his personal loss pains him more.
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