Opinion

Not a Home? Israel Was Tailor-made for David Grossman

I’d like to hear David Grossman talk about the responsibility he and his peers bear for this country’s situation. What’s he done, besides blame others?

David Grossman speaking at the Alternative Memorial Day event in Tel Aviv, April 17, 2018
Ofer Vaknin

I’ve never read a book by David Grossman. For my sins? Maybe. I have nothing against his books or against him. It just didn’t happen. I suppose it was a case of instinctive rejection, without any connection to Grossman’s literary qualities, of course. It’s one of those things you can’t explain. I don’t know whether it’s my failure or his achievement. We can also assume, with a large degree of certainty, that I have other, far more significant holes in my education, as the saying goes.

After Grossman lost his son, I heard him speak on multiple occasions, and I too was impressed by the quiet way in which he gave expression to his grief. The loss officially made him one of the leading oracles of the dwindling left-wing camp, for it’s well known that in Israel the only thing people understand are catastrophes, which are perceived as profound and authentic. The default here is to speak the language of sadness. If Grossman had won the lottery or extolled joie de vivre and his good luck, he could not have preached to anyone. The right to speak is bought with liters of blood, not with fun.

Grossman’s fans share with him common memories and a similar ideology. They’ve read his books, he addresses them in aesthetic codes that they can decipher, understand and identity with. They feel close to him. Grossman is not a matter for outsiders. He’s located in the salient comfort zone of the Israeli left. He won’t say anything that will upset anyone from his camp. He’s taken the place of the uncharismatic, incompetent politicians. His cultural and intellectual being is based on the desire for agreement, for a public that has nothing else left. Consensuality of this kind oppresses and frightens me. After all, fundamentally, I belong to this camp, but even so, there’s something that bugs and itches me in the depths of my political awareness.

What if Grossman doesn’t give expression to my feelings? Doesn’t appeal to me? Am I a rotten fruit?

On the eve of Memorial Day he spoke at the alternative Israel-Palestinian commemorative gathering. The speech waxed canonical even before he opened his mouth. Simply by virtue of the fact that he was ready to speak there. What he said was moving and pleasant to the ear. And courageous, too, because in today’s Israel, the self-evident has become subversive. To identify with the mourning of the other side is to immediately become a public enemy. It’s totally absurd, but that’s our life in this place.

In his speech, Grossman repeated one central mantra: the precariousness of Israel’s existence as a “home” for its Jewish citizens in the present state of things. “When Israel occupies and suppresses another people for 51 years and creates a reality of apartheid in the areas of occupation,” he said, “it becomes far less of a home.” But he thereby ignored the fact that Israel has been suppressing the Palestinians since 1948. Is this something trivial? No: It’s the persistent view of the mainstream left, which clings to the 1967 lines like a life jacket, with no land-based haven visible on the horizon. In this way Grossman avoids – consistently, it has to be said – coping with the truly difficult question, in a blatantly non-fraught speech.

And he added, “When [Israel] segregates and discriminates against 1.5 million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens it is less of a home.” Whose home? Most Israelis feel that Israel is their home thanks precisely to the segregation and discrimination. The wrongs that are inflicted accord them a sense of security. The economy is flourishing, everyone is traveling abroad, buying new cell phones. Who here doesn’t feel at home?

The truth is the very opposite. It’s the occupation that enables the comfortable Jewish life. Grossman knows this. The more the Israelis distance themselves from the Palestinians with fences, walls, deadly snipers and systematic violence, and expel the refugees or make them disappear into south Tel Aviv and the Saharonim camp in the Negev – the more secure they feel.

Israelis feel good precisely because they have learned how to ignore the existing situation and not to engage in confrontation with it. Israel has not become less of a home because of the occupation: It has become more of a home. And by the same token, those who are emigrating from Israel – in ever-growing numbers – have learned how to transform Miami and Berlin into a perfectly valid Israeli home. Their conception of the Diaspora is very state-of-the-art, and for them the Israeli home is fluid, found wherever money and prosperity can be found. They cheer for Israel from a distance of thousands of kilometers and don’t give two hoots about a 15-year-old Palestinian boy who’s been shot in the head. They eat Sabra-brand hummus. Hallelujah!

You might think, from Grossman’s remarks, that the Israeli public is allowing its moral distress to undermine its confidence in the state. That’s certainly not true for the right wing, which considers his speech to be arrant nonsense, and it’s also a false view among the staunchest leftists. Does Grossman really believe that their sense of home is affected by war crimes? That’s the lie of the bourgeoisie.

Ultimately, people live their lives. No one is flagellating himself because of day-to-day wrongs. It’s poetic to think that Israel is “less of a home” because of injustice, but it remains strictly in the realm of the poetic – subjective and speculative poetics, self-pampering and privileged.

In the end, the average left-winger, white and middle class, feels terrifically comfortable. Has it good. Is prospering like never before. The occupation has done the work for him. He’s long since shaken off every hint of the conflict that’s taking place far beyond the hills of darkness, in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and south Tel Aviv. He is despairing because he can afford to let himself despair, and all that’s left to him is to be assailed by occasional pangs of conscience. After all, he’s not guilty. No way. He’s not a racist. He’s a liberal. It’s that right-wing rabble, Bibi and Miri, who make him feel “not at home.” Without them, everything would be perfect.

And by the way, I’m not sure that Grossman is the appropriate person to talk about Israel serving as a conditional home, subject to this or that moral stance. Grossman is the essence of the Israeli home. More than cottage cheese in a container. Native-born, Jerusalemite, served in the army’s 8200 intelligence unit, went to university, immediately insinuated himself into the right places. Unfortunately, even his bereavement makes him more Israeli, if it’s possible to be more Israeli. What does he know about feeling not at home? About feeling true alienation toward the place? Political and cultural alienation? Alienation of language? Ethnic alienation? Alienation of skin color? Israel is made to measure for him. He can tell an audience what’s home and what isn’t home? He has no idea what it is to feel not at home. Grossman is no dissident.

I want to hear Grossman talk about his and his generation’s responsibility for the situation. What personal reckoning has he done, other than to cast the blame on others? How can it be that for years he’s been talking about the occupation and nothing changes? Where did he err and what lesson has he learned? What was his part in the terrible wrongs? But that’s a speech we probably won’t get to hear. His audience doesn’t want to hear it and Grossman doesn’t want to deliver it. Because it’s not pleasant to the ear.