SPIEGEL Interview with Author David Grossman 'Foreigners Cannot Understand the Israelis' Vulnerability'

In a SPIEGEL interview, novelist David Grossman discusses the vicious cycle of fear and violence in Israel, the inability of foreigners to understand the Israelis' sense of vulnerability and lack of confidence in the country's future. He also expresses skepticism about Benjamin Netanyahu's belief in peace.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Grossman, you're a very political person, but you have avoided the Israeli-Arab conflict in your most recent books. Why?

Grossman: I felt that there was no way to write anything about this conflict without falling into the trap of clichés. There was no real argument anymore. Everything had been said, by the left and by the right. I didn't want these clichés in my literature. More than that I felt that because so much of our energy goes into the conflict we don't have energy to deal with the real existential things of life: being a father, being a mother, being a partner. For 10 years I preferred to write about these topics in my novels, because for me they are more important.

SPIEGEL: Is it at all possible to escape the depressing reality of the Israeli-Arab conflict?

Grossman: It is possible for so many Israelis. In a strange way you can live in this place and yet be totally detached from what happens. You can live a very comfortable life here. You do not feel the occupation, you do not see the Palestinians -- even if you live in the occupied territories like the settlers. We have paved, in reality and in our hearts, so many ways in order to detour and not confront ourselves with this reality.

SPIEGEL: Why then did you return to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in your new novel?

Grossman: For me it was impossible to fade out the reality of the conflict forever. I wanted to find a way to integrate politics and my inner life. When I started, I felt I must try to find a way to integrate the outer sphere of reality with the private world -- to show how the brutal reality penetrates the most intimate spaces.

SPIEGEL: The book is a very pessimistic one. At one point Ora, the main character, says of Israel: "I know that this country doesn't have a chance at all." Is that also your feeling?

Grossman: For me it is not a book about despair. It's a book about life with all its facets, about the relationship between people and the founding of a family. One of the strongest movements for me in the book is how Ora rediscovers her youth love Ofer and how she gets him out of a decades-old depression just by the power of her love.

SPIEGEL: At the same time, Ora's son Ofer appears to fall in the war.

Grossman: I don't write this explicitly, I leave the ending open. But it's a very realistic fear, for every parent here in Israel.

SPIEGEL: Your second son Uri was killed during the Lebanon war in 2006. Is this book a kind of autobiography?

Grossman: Everything I write is autobiographical, even if I don't know it when I start writing. However, I started writing it three years and three months before my son Uri died in the war. Uri knew about the book and when he came home from the army for the weekends, we used to discuss what I was writing about. Every time, he asked me what new things I had done to my characters in the meantime.

SPIEGEL: Did you change the manuscript after his death?

Grossman: No, the main thing is not what happened to me. The main theme is the acuteness of life here in Israel. And even if a catastrophe like the death of a son does not befall you, one feels this immediate effect of political events on one's own personality. Many deny this reality, they simply ignore it. But at some point you are caught up by reality -- at the latest when your boys reach puberty, and the shadow of the army starts to fall on them. An international TV program once interviewed a young Israeli couple und asked how many children they wanted to have. The beautiful bride said immediately: "Three." And the interviewer asked: "Why three?" And she said with a smile: "So that if one of them is killed in a war or in terror we shall still have two left."

SPIEGEL: You, too, were a father of three, before your son Uri died.

Grossman: We did not have three children out of this calculation, but I must admit that this thought had crossed my mind when we started having children. The option of personal catastrophe is connected to the special fate of this country. As I fear for my children, all my life I lived with this fear of what happens if a catastrophe occurs in Israel. The question of whether we shall exist here in the future, whether we will still live here within a few decades time, prevails subconsciously in the mind of most Israelis. We are living with difficult and partly violent neighbors, most of whom don't want us here. Some of them even threaten to eradicate us. I take them very seriously.

SPIEGEL: You describe a feeling which people in Europe and the United States don't usually know.

Grossman: From the outside Israel looks like a bully-militant fist. Foreigners cannot really understand the vulnerability of people here and their lack of confidence in the fact that Israel will still exist in a few decades. I read that Germany plans the construction of its roads several decades in advance, and that sounds perfectly normal. But no sane Israeli would make such long-term plans. If I do it, I feel a kind of pain in my heart as if I violated a taboo by allowing myself quantities of future that are too great.

SPIEGEL: In your book, there is a generation gap: While Ora, the mother, dreams of peace, Ofer wants to be a soldier and go to war.

Grossman: Yes, but as a young woman Ora was also part of this military machine. From my experience, many young people going out of the army suddenly start to see the reality as so much more complicated. Being in the army at this age has very little to do with political affiliation. This is why armies are built of young people: You can easily manipulate them.

SPIEGEL: So the enthusiasm Ofer and his comrades feel is not a new phenomenon?

Grossman: It existed from the very beginning. This ceremony of taking your son to the army is part of the Israeli identity: Because of our situation here, we are programmed from birth to be warriors. However, after Ora brings her son to his army unit, she asks herself: How come I am more loyal to the army and to the state than to my child? She starts to rebel, flees to the north of Israel, in order not to be at home when they want to deliver the news of her son's death. She simply refuses to collaborate with this machinery of death.

SPIEGEL: In the Gaza war against the Islamistic Hamas at the beginning of the year, the Israeli side only suffered very few victims. Was that because of the Israeli army's brutal conduct?

Grossman: The whole situation of the occupation legitimizes brutality. I remember the testimony of a soldier who was in Gaza in the first intifada who said, "The moment I crossed the borderline I started to feel like God. There was nothing that could have stopped me." It is an irresistable temptation.

SPIEGEL: Especially when a war like this is religiously legitimized by the chief military rabbi.

Grossman: Young people, especially, are susceptible to this. On the other hand you must remember that for four years there was rocket shooting from the Gaza Strip. There was ongoing provocation. Israel had withdrawn its soldiers and settlers from Gaza. The Palestinians could have used this partial sovereignty in order to build up their land. Instead Hamas decided to bombard Israel.

SPIEGEL: You are known as a leftist peace activist, but you are starting to sound like the average mainstream Israeli politician.

Grossman: Not at all. I thought it was a mistake of Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Gaza unilaterally instead of coordinating it with the moderate Palestinians. The unilateral withdrawal empowered the narrative of Hamas, which says that Israel understands only power. On the other hand already on the third day of the war, I wrote an article for the front page of Haaretz calling for an immediate stop to the Israeli attacks. I wrote that we Israelis must, for once, try to act against the lethal logic of violence.

'The World Denies our Right to Retaliate in Principle'

SPIEGEL: But you were not against a military operation in general?

Grossman: All my life I have tried to prevent the use of military power, but I also insist on Israel's right as a sovereign state to defend itself when attacked. It is strange that Israel is the only country that is immediately criticized when it retaliates after years of rocket terror.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps because the scope and strength of this reaction were disproportionate?

Grossman: The world denies our right to retaliate in principle. At the same time, the government in Jerusalem conducts a war which leads to many civilian victims. It is a tragedy that we believe we have to constantly decide between total pacifism and monstrous violence. My hope is that we shall find an adequate language for the complex situation between us and the Palestinians.

SPIEGEL: The liberal-left Meretz party you support only received three seats in Knesset during the last election. Do you sometimes feel a bit lonely as a member of the Israeli peace movement?

Grossman: It is right that we currently don't have too many people (in parliament). Our ideas are not very popular at the moment. It is very hard to talk to Israelis about chances of peaceful co-existence.


Grossman: From the perspective of most Israelis our government tried to make peace in 2000 at Camp David, but the Palestinians betrayed us. Israelis failed to see their part in this mistake. I think both sides were not mature enough for peace. They came to this peace as they come to war.

SPIEGEL: Many Israelis consider President Barack Obama to be as naïve as Bill Clinton was back then at Camp David.

Grossman: We need a mediator from the outside. I think Obama is much better equipped than his predecessor, George W. Bush, because of his multi-focal look at reality. I wish Obama would stand up for his vision. I wish he would impose on us the solution that we all know it is inevitable.

SPIEGEL: Two states for two people -- even a right-wing prime minister like Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be accepting this model now.

Grossman: Basically the left has succeeded. The majority of Israelis now accepts the two-state solution, a concept people like Amos Oz, me and others have advocated for almost 40 years. But I am skeptical about Netanyahu. Before his speech at the Bar-Ilan-University ...

SPIEGEL: ... where he for the first time accepted the idea of a Palestinian state ...

Grossman: ... he invited me for a talk. My impression is that he does not really believe in the option of peace between us and the Palestinians. He will do everything in order to create an illusion of a peace process but will not fulfill it. His speech was merely paying lip service to the Americans.

SPIEGEL: Many Israelis have become very cynical over the years. But you haven't?

Grossman: If you become cynical, you later become apathic and then you will not really do anything to change the situation. It may sound terribly old-fashioned, but I believe in the good powers in people. We Israelis have lived for more than 60 years in a reality of fear and violence, of animosity and hatred. If there is a leader who will enable us to explore these good parts within us, Israel could be a much better place to live.

SPIEGEL: In the book, Ofer whispers into his mother's ear when he leaves for the war: "If something happens to me, you have to leave this country. You will having nothing left to lose." Have you ever considered emigrating?

Grossman: After what happened to us, of course my wife and I asked ourselves how different it could have been if had we left 25 years ago. I have received many offers to work abroad. Israel is the only place on earth where I am not a stranger. I regard it as a privilege to take part in the creating of this country. In the Mishna ...

SPIEGEL: ... a commentary of the Hebrew Bible ...

Grossman: ... there is a phrase saying the one who has experienced a miracle does not necessarily recognize it as a miracle. I recognize the miracle: We Jews do have a state.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Grossman, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Christoph Schult.

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