Opinion |

David Grossman’s Mistake, Natalie Portman's Success

How sad that our national author — a man who has served as our conscience — must learn a lesson in morality from a Hollywood actress

Eli Yassif
Eli Yassif
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Author David Grossman, left, accepting the Israel Prize for literature, in the presence of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.
Author David Grossman, left, accepting the Israel Prize for literature, in the presence of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Eli Yassif
Eli Yassif

I’ll begin with a full disclosure: I was David Grossman’s homeroom teacher at the Hebrew University High School. I was even his literature teacher during those years, and he has said on several occasions that I was one of the people who persuaded him to move from the world of Middle Eastern studies to that of Hebrew literature. Indeed, as the Talmud says, “a man is not jealous of his son or his student,” and not only am I not jealous of my student, but I’m proud of him and what he brings to Israeli literature.

I wouldn’t mention all this, except that, to quote Proverbs, “The wounds of a friend are trustworthy, while the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”

I can only regret what Grossman did (or didn’t do) regarding the Israel Prize. He should have refused, unhesitatingly and without qualms, to accept any prize — especially the Israel Prize — from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The former is bringing about the destruction of democracy and Israeli society, and the latter is nurturing the occupation while bringing about the destruction of public education and Israeli academia.

Accepting a prize from their hands – even if Grossman denies this, and even if other Israel Prize laureates play innocent – means accepting their actions and coming to terms with what they symbolize in the Israeli reality of 2018. This was an utterly anti-educational act, because in its wake, why shouldn’t anyone who receives any benefit from this evil government on condition that he reconcile himself to its ceremonies and its actions say, “After all, even Grossman agreed to accept the Israel Prize – who are we, that you should complain about us”?

For while it’s impossible to say this about any of this year’s other Israel Prize laureates, Grossman had been on the dais just the evening before at a joint event for Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families and served as a spotlight illuminating the road, a moral compass pointing out the right direction. His words warmed our hearts with hope that perhaps, if there were still such people among us, all was not yet lost. He won a standing ovation from the entire audience.

Yet a mere 24 hours later, we encountered a different Grossman. Some people will say this is nothing but the human complexity which Grossman takes such pains to portray in his novels: A man can be both a moral conscience and someone who connects himself to the actions of that same evil government which he just denounced so forcefully.

The answer to that is clear and unequivocal: In a horrible reality like that of Israel on its 70th anniversary, there is no place for literary complexity, but only for a loud, clear pronouncement: I will not participate in your actions and I will no longer march down the path of the warped, rotten Judaism that you seek to lead us down.

How sad it is that such forceful, unequivocal pronouncements – in fact, not mere words, but real deeds – are coming instead from overseas, in the form of a brave, admirable decision by a young Israeli-American actress.

How sad it is that David Grossman, our national author, the moral conscience to whom tens of thousands of Israelis have looked up for years, must learn from a Hollywood actress how to sacrifice personal interests on the altar of morality and conscience.

Nevertheless, perhaps something good will come of this disappointment and we’ll learn an important lesson from this event. From now on, let us walk down the path marked out by Natalie Portman – we won’t accept prizes, we won’t sit on committees, we will no longer cooperate with this evil government. It wants to destroy the “elites,” and therefore, these “elites” will no longer play its game.

I have no doubt that in generations to come, historians and any moral person will ask, “What did you do? After all, you accepted prizes from their hands.” And our answer will be, “We didn’t accept them. We turned a cold shoulder to those who sought to destroy democracy, the law and Israeli academia.”

Eli Yassif is a professor emeritus of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University.

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