Elective Affinities / Reality Bites

Writers Amos Oz and David Grossman, two of the most prominent members of the Israeli peace camp, meet for a serious conversation about the state of the nation and the situation of the left in particular. Despite differences of nuance, they will both cast the same ballot

he road to Arad has changed, too. In the Bedouin township of Lakiya, large homes have replaced the galvanized aluminum huts; in Hora there is dense construction; and at Kseifa you see the turrets of mosques. The hills of the winter desert south of Shoket Junction are speckled with seemingly numberless new buildings that spring out of the hard, barren soil in the great governmental vacuum south of Be'er Sheva, in the anarchic reality that roils up between Mount Hebron and Gaza. On both sides of the winding asphalt strip are makeshift car-wash stands, hastily erected shopping centers, and huge election billboards urging us to vote for Dehamshe and Tibi. It's a kind of twilight zone.

Amos Oz receives his guests in a warm winter sweater and a warm embrace and a warm gaze. Since closing the chapter on his parents in his last book but one, he is far more liberated. Since completing that masterpiece, "A Story of Love and Darkness," he is relaxed and lucid and sharp, overflowing. David Grossman, for his part, lowers his head like a prodigy before his rabbi. With restraint and politeness and reverence he accepts the natural authority of the master, the mentor, the elder of the tribe. Quite some time goes by before he begins to loosen up and starts to feel comfortable.

Slightly more than half a year ago, there was a minuscule confrontation between the two writers. Oz thought it was right to boycott the anti-Semitic Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize laureate Jose Saramago, Grossman thought otherwise. That's how it usually is between them: Oz is more centrist, more stately, far more critical of Europe and the left. When all is said and done, though, the longer the conversation goes on the more it is plain that the differences between them are not great. Both are Meretz voters, both reject the Palestinian refugees' right of return, both support the Clinton blueprint for a solution. Both admit the mistakes of the left, but insist on its justness. Oz advocates a unilateral withdrawal, Grossman is closer to the indefatigable diplomatic efforts of Yossi Beilin. Oz won't let go of a fundamental optimism, Grossman allows himself more pessimism. Oz's style is the aggressive selectivity of a writer-statesman, Grossman is more hesitant and personal. Oz's logic and rhetoric are impeccable; with Grossman the contradictions are captivating.

Have they carried out a serious spiritual stocktaking? In his latest book, a collection of articles on current events, Oz tries to formulate an orderly dovish conception for the era after the Big Bang. He tries to create the foundation for an end-of-occupation proposal that could be relevant even in the absence of end-of-occupation. However, it is apparent that both he and his younger guest have not yet recovered. Both of them are still dizzy, still wandering among the ruins. In their different ways, they are both trying to cope with a life in which hope is lost, life in the age of terror.

The return of Jewish destiny

My opening question is simple: What scares them the most, and is there hope?

Oz: "The good news is that for the first time in 90 years of conflict, everyone knows what the solution will be. The bad news was when the Palestinians were incapable of enunciating the word Israel and the Jews couldn't say the word Palestinians. Today the Jews know that the Palestinians are not going to disappear and the Palestinians know that the Jews are not going to disappear. The fantasy that the other side will disappear has itself disappeared. And everyone knows exactly what the solution will be. We even know where the lines of partition will be."

If things are so good, why are they so bad?

Oz: "Because the patient is more or less ready for the operation but the surgeons are cowards. I can't remember a time when there was such a nadir of leadership in both nations. If there were a leadership today capable of saying `Let's do what everyone knows has to be done,' the whole thing would come to pass within a few months. Everyone knows that most of the settlements will have to go, that a few blocs will remain in return for an exchange of lots, that there will be no sweeping right of return. So what are they waiting for? What are they waiting for?

"The calamity - and I don't use the word lightly - resides in the personal cowardice of the leadership groups. And also in the two leader figures. Sharafat, I call them. And of them it can definitely be said that like has found like. Because I have a deep suspicion that both of them prefer this reality to the post-solution reality. Neither of them knows how to live the morning of the day after the solution. That is also why it holds no attraction for them. What for you and for you and for me seems to be a new dawn is for them dusk."

David Grossman, do you agree? What we just heard sounds fairly optimistic. The whole problem boils down to Sharon and Arafat.

Grossman: "I agree that what we have here is personal cowardice of two individuals whose reputation rests on bravery, on the ability to face up to danger. I also agree that it's possible that the solution is close. Both because it is known and because the Americans are fed up and the world is fed up and they might impose a solution on us. But I am more pessimistic than Amos. I am afraid that even if we arrive at peace it won't be a rosy, eternal peace. It will be a series of spasms of periods of peace followed by violations and then more peace. Until maybe one day we reach a type of stability - but not on our watch. Not in the lifetime of those present in this room.

"You asked what the most frightening thing is. What most frightens me is that I am no longer confident of Israel's existence. That doubt was always there. I think that everyone who lives here also lives the alternative that maybe Israel will cease to be. That's our nightmare. But over the years we stabilized the nightmare and patched it up and whitewashed it. What has happened here in the past two years is that suddenly the possibility that Israel will no longer exist has become concrete. It's no longer some sort of hallucination. No longer a mere nightmare. The possibility exists that the great, heroic experiment that took place here will cease to be. That frightens me very much."

Illustrate, please: When in the past two years did that existential fear seize you?

Grossman: "Quite a few times. I think that in this gust of violence we have seen the disintegration of a certain layer of culture that makes possible the illusions that are needed to maintain a more or less tolerable fabric of life. Consider even what happened in the Central Elections Committee or in the Likud primary. Suddenly you see that all sense of shame has disappeared; that even mechanisms of social hypocrisy that are needed to maintain the fabric of life have vanished. And in some way it is all connected to life under terrorism. Because if you live in a reality in which you see people torn apart, in which you see the living flesh torn, it is very difficult for you to go on believing in something. And then you see how all the mechanisms are falling apart: of both the private body and the public body. And you come to the conclusion that in order to maintain culture, and especially in order to maintain democracy, a certain type of illusion is needed, involving a social agreement that is based on a great deal of good will. And this has been undermined here. Simply undermined. When I hear now that friends of mine are sending their children abroad, when people say, Great, your son is in India, very good, let him stay there - there is something going on that places in great doubt everything we came here for. The reason we came here was so that we would not have to send our children abroad. So that we would not want them to be in India. We came here so that, even if there was danger, one's instinct would be not to flee but to stay. Today that is no longer self-evident."

Oz: "I don't feel the same way David does. My existential fears are no longer Jewish and Israeli ones - they too have been globalized. Huge clocks are ticking today. First of all, there is a wave of fanaticism that is sweeping not only Hamas and the Kahanists. It's a worldwide wave. Its most flagrant and shocking manifestation is Islamic zealotry. Of the 29 conflicts that are bleeding today around the world, there is a Muslim side in at least 27 of them. From Chechnya to Somalia, from Algeria to the Philippines. But Islam is not alone. There is Christian fanaticism with manifestations of European anti-Semitism and there is Jewish religious-nationalist fundamentalism. And they all resemble one another in several senses. All of them are walking exclamation marks.

"There is also a postmodern clock that posits everything in a relative light. Maybe there is a connection between the two developments. One form of extremism engenders another. Either there is only one truth and whoever does not share it must be killed, or everything is true and everyone is equal, so murderers, too, have the right to murder.

"The third clock that worries me is that of globalization. I don't mean the globalization that people are protesting against, but some sort of infantilization of the entire human race. I am talking about brainwashing on a scale never before seen, a system of stimuli that arouse appetites, which is replacing everything we have come to know as culture. So when you talk about a lack of culture, David, it doesn't have to do only with Hamas and with the shattered bodies. It has to do with the feeling that we were born to buy or sell. With the feeling that anything goes. With the terrible infantilization that is affecting all of humanity.

"I will say something that is not popular: there is no culture without hierarchy. It just doesn't exist. There is no culture in voting and no culture based on a survey of buyers and no culture according to popularity ratings. There is simply no such animal. Therefore my fear is not local. It's obvious that in a world of the fourth world war, a world in which a person with an envelope full of bacteria or chemical poison or radioactive contamination can threaten a whole city, I am scared to death. But this is no longer the old fear of a pogrom in which goyim with axes will come and kill us. It is not the fear that Israel will be destroyed."

Grossman: "Amos, it is impossible to ignore the fact that we are increasingly isolated here because of all kinds of threats and ostracisms ... I hope I don't sound paranoid, but my feeling is that since the start of the intifada, and in its wake the wave of anti-Semitism and the attacks on Israel around the world, something in us has changed. I think that the modern Israeli of my age, who already thought he was international, universal, who is plugged into the Internet and has a dish on the roof and satellite TV and MTV has suddenly begun to feel how the tragic element of the Jewish destiny is again closing in on him. He is suddenly caught in something that he thought no longer existed.

"There is a feeling that the Jew who came to the Land of Israel and built a state in order to connect with a certain solid base, with a concrete existence, has suddenly again become a symbol of something else. After all, the Jew was always a kind of metaphor for something: he was never perceived as the thing itself. And now that is coming back. In the past two years nearly every Israeli has felt it come back all of a sudden.

"People always had a problem relating to us, the Jews, as human beings. There was demonization and idealization, but both are actually different forms of dehumanization. Zionism, despite everything, healed us of that. It restored us to the practical, the human, the historical. But now we are again returning to that symbolic place. I find this dangerous. It also reinforces the sense of persecution that exists within us in any case. And it sucks us into the wound that exists in Judaism, into its sacrificial and traumatic content. Our creativity and vitality and social solidarity and moral passion are fading away now and giving way to the tragic feelings of Jewish destiny that seem to be closing in on us again."

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