Spiegel Interview with Author Leon de Winter 'The Europeans Are Chasing Illusions'

Dutch author Leon de Winter talks with SPIEGEL about his new novel, which is set in 2024, the threats mounting against Israel and the assimilation of Muslims in Europe.

SPIEGEL: Mr. de Winter, your new book -- "The Right of Return" -- is a novel, but it actually describes a political vision. In the book, it is the year 2024, and Israel has shrunk to just a few square kilometers around Tel Aviv, which is surrounded by enemies. Are you simply playing with some ideas here or is this a serious prediction?

Leon de Winter: Both. Israel is menaced by two threats. On the one hand, by the hatred of its enemies, which today is primarily stirred up by Iran, and on the other hand, by the erosion spreading throughout Israeli society. There are three groups that have little in common: the Orthodox Jews, the Israeli Arabs and the secular Jews, who currently make up the majority of the population. But this majority is dwindling. The conflict between these three lifestyles is every bit as much of a threat -- if not even more dangerous -- to the existence of Israel as its outside menaces.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean you're afraid that Israel, as a predominately secular Jewish state, could soon be history?

De Winter: I am not a prophet. When I was young, I really wanted to be a prophet, sometimes even the Messiah. But that is what all Jewish boys at a certain age want to be. They all wake up one morning and are absolutely positive: I am the Messiah! Who else would they be? And then they have to attend school, and reality catches up with them. I don't disseminate messages; I tell stories about individuals. On the other hand, you cannot tell stories about Israel in the year 2024 without writing about politics. That just doesn't work.

SPIEGEL: This is not the first time that you have made skeptical remarks about Israel's future. This story sounds like the proclamation of a catastrophe.

De Winter: And that's what it is. The book is a thriller with a sad, almost desperate undertone. But concern about Israel's future was not my starting point here. I focused on a father whose 4-year-old son has suddenly disappeared without a trace. What happens then? His wife leaves him, he can't work anymore, and he quits his job as a professor at Princeton and starts looking for his son. He feels guilty because, for a brief moment, he failed to watch over him. Later on, he realizes that his son's disappearance has to do with global politics.

SPIEGEL: But he doesn't care about politics; he's only interested in his own misfortune.

De Winter: That's right. My story starts in the past and ends in the future. That was my personal framework for articulating all my fears -- in a fictional context. At the same time, I hate science fiction because the present provides enough excitement. I don't need the future to write myself into a rage.

SPIEGEL: Do you think the conflict in the Middle East can be resolved through negotiations, or will the strongest win out in the end?

De Winter: It will depend on who gives up first -- who won't be able to take it any longer because it costs too much: too much energy, too much time, too much blood. And that will be the secular Jews, who have no ideology, who merely want to live their lives.

SPIEGEL: In your vision, many Jews leave Israel and emigrate to Europe or America, where life is easier. In the real Israel, an increasing number of Jews are acquiring a second passport, but it doesn't look like they really want to leave. It's more a modern form of life insurance, just in case things go wrong.

De Winter: It's more than that. Immigration compensates for emigration because Russian Jews are still coming into the country. Nevertheless, take a look at Los Angeles or New York, where there are now large communities of ex-Israelis. And you even have them here in Holland. I wonder what will happen if it comes to a new conflict with Hezbollah. Very soon, the majority of Israelis will live within range of the rockets launched by Hezbollah and Hamas. Contrary to Islam, Judaism has a very weak tradition of martyrdom. In the end, we are powerless against a people who are prepared to sacrifice everything.

SPIEGEL: That said, the number of suicide attacks has declined sharply.

De Winter: Just because there is a wall that stands in the way of the terrorists doesn't mean that their frustrations have disappeared! Look, the age-old yearning of the Jews to return to their historical homeland has engendered the same desire on the Palestinian side: the return to the homeland. It's already a reality for the Jews, yet it remains a dream for the Palestinians. And, as far as the lower number of attacks is concerned, it's an illusion. It will only be a matter of time before they rise again. While we are sitting here talking, the smuggling of arms continues, from Iran to Lebanon via Syria and from Egypt to the Gaza Strip. Nobody can do anything about it. It's the calm before the storm.

SPIEGEL: The Europeans are trying to mediate in the conflict between Iran and the West. They keep returning to the negotiating table to prevent a possible nuclear threat against Israel…

De Winter: ... but what good does it do? Remember the so-called troika, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and the UK: Joschka Fischer, Dominique de Villepin and Jack Straw. They flew to Tehran and back, drank tea and coffee with Iranian politicians and negotiated over the Iranian nuclear program. Imagine that: three respectable European intellectuals negotiating with guys who grew up in the Tehran bazaar and would sell them their own watches! That's the kind of results that it produced. They told us that they had pursued a constructive dialogue but had not yet attained their objectives, and so they said that negotiations had to continue … And these three educated, sensible, and critical European intellectuals went along with this! And then, in the fall of 2003 -- in other words five years ago -- they held a press conference: We've reached our goal! Actually, nothing has happened, no agreement, absolutely nothing.

SPIEGEL: What do you think the Europeans are doing wrong?

De Winter: They are chasing illusions. At the time, I met Fischer during a reception at the headquarters of Springer Verlag (publishing house) in Berlin, and he came to me and asked: "What do you have against me? Why do you write such negative things about me?" I said: "I have placed so much hope in you, but you have disappointed me." And he was really taken aback. I tried to explain the situation to him. He had to be told that the Iranians weren't taking him seriously; they were making a fool of him. Fischer's response to this was that we had to pursue a dialogue and return to the negotiating table again and again.

SPIEGEL: But Fischer was right. What would have been the alternative?

De Winter: We could have told them: If you don't stop, we'll wipe you out!

SPIEGEL: You can't really mean that.

De Winter: Yes, I really do. I would have told the Iranians that if they don't halt their nuclear program today, we'll put the fear of God into them tomorrow. And they would have stopped because that's a language they understand. You can't go to these people and say: "Listen, if you renounce generating nuclear power, we'll help you produce something else. And if you don't do that, well, we'll be very, very sad." "Okay," is definitely what the guys in Tehran would say "That's a threat that we take seriously, and we'll meet your demands." What a ludicrous idea.

SPIEGEL: That is, with all due respect, the slightly simplified worldview of a novelist who lives in nice, little Holland and doesn't have to make such decisions. A foreign minister has responsibilities and has to be more cautious in his judgments.

'We Know Who We Are Dealing with Here'

De Winter: But we know who we are dealing with here. These people pursue their objectives with all possible means. If we wait to see what happens, then we have already accepted their ground rules. We are placing our fate in the hands of fanatics and fundamentalists. When you deal with diplomats from Iran or politicians from the Middle East, you cannot act as if you were dealing with the state governor of Hesse or Bavaria! It's another world. You cannot negotiate without threatening to use force, especially if you want to prevent the development of nuclear arms by people who are practically longing for the apocalypse.

SPIEGEL: You have misread at least one situation in the past with your hawkish positions. Shortly before the war in Iraq, you published an essay in SPIEGEL, which could have been interpreted as a call to arms. You wrote that we have to cut off the monster's head -- meaning Saddam Hussein's -- and that if that didn't happen, the monster would send our heads rolling. But now we've learned that Saddam's secret military arsenal was a myth.

De Winter: At the time, Saddam Hussein acted as if he had weapons of mass destruction. He threw the United Nations inspectors out of the country; he ordered thousands of Kurds to be killed with chemical weapons.

SPIEGEL: That was long before that.

De Winter: What do you mean by "long"? He did it, and we had to assume that he would do it again at any time. And, besides, getting rid of a tyrant is never a wrong move, even if later on you have to accept the chaos that we are all familiar with for a period of time.

SPIEGEL: In the 1990s, Philip Roth wrote a novel called "Operation Shylock," in which the Jews abandon Israel because it has become too dangerous. Did you have this book in mind when you wrote yours?

De Winter: No. I had the idea for "The Right to Return" when I wrote my last book, "Malibu." I read something about the Mameluks, who were not originally Muslims, but were abducted as children or taken from their parents as "taxes" to be raised as warriors. I was captivated by this story. What happens to children who are basically forced to switch sides? What would a Mameluk story be like today? I've transferred the whole thing to the future, the future of Israel. Roth's "Shylock" is a great novel, but it has no connection with reality. That's not my field. I write realistic thrillers.

SPIEGEL: In "The Right of Return," Jewish children are transformed into Muslim terrorists to spread fear and desperation throughout Israel. That's not especially realistic, either. Actually, it's more like introducing a new level of anxiety…

De Winter: Exactly, the ultimate horror.

SPIEGEL: Do these Jewish suicide bombers serve as a metaphor for those Jews throughout the world who oppose Israel or at least sharply criticize the country?

De Winter: Yes, definitely. On the one hand, I unconditionally support the right to freedom of speech. Everyone should be able to say whatever they want to say -- even if it's absolute nonsense. It wouldn't be fair to say that those Jews who back the anti-Semites are just a bunch of sick or crazy people because there are some intelligent people among them. But there is an absurd or pathological element to it: the fear of being identified as a Jew or, actually, as a bad Jew. They would like to be good Jews and well liked because of it.

SPIEGEL: In your home country, the Netherlands, there is a widespread fear of Islamization. You have written a great deal on this topic yourself, and some of this sounds rather apocalyptic. Does this still reflect your view of the world?

De Winter: Not during the day. Only when I wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning and can't fall asleep again. That's when I really start to worry about everything -- about my taxes, my children, my dog and my cats. And, of course, about the state of our society and what will happen to it. We are living in exciting times. And you know the Chinese curse: "May you live in exciting times!" Not since the end of World War II have things been as exciting as they are today. We are experiencing a new phenomenon: the mass immigration of Muslims to countries where the "infidels" live.

SPIEGEL: What do you expect the consequences of this will be?

De Winter: There are signs that a modern Islam is emerging. An increasing number of young, liberal Muslims are trying to practice their own form of religion because they have been inspired by the idea of freedom. But, of course, radical Islam remains a problem. It has a very strong appeal for frustrated young men with violent tendencies who at some point in time discover that the world is full of injustice and want to do something about it. It's a bit like an adventure: the dramatic farewell videos, the last message to the world and then -- the explosion. On top of that, there is the promise of sex after death, something many of them can only dream of. I can understand how young men become fanatics. But I also see something entirely different: how it is primarily young Muslim women here in Holland who become integrated into society; how they get an education and move forward because they have their freedom. And they seize this opportunity.

SPIEGEL: So it's only a matter of time before the problem solves itself?

De Winter: We don't know how long it will take and how many victims it will claim. It could take 40 or 50 years before integration has really occurred. Everything is in a state of flux, and nobody can say where the journey will take us.

SPIEGEL: And, in these exciting times, you are now moving to the US with your family?

De Winter: Yes, we're going to Los Angeles for a year, to the most multicultural city in the US. I want to experience first-hand the election campaign and the period immediately following the elections. I feel comfortable in the US, and especially in LA, where there are no real locals and everyone is an immigrant.

SPIEGEL: Does your love for the States have something to do with your Jewish origins?

De Winter: That's certainly possible. But if that were the case, then I would feel most at home in Israel. I travel a lot to Israel, but I wouldn't want to live there.

SPIEGEL: Why not?

De Winter: Because of all the things that we have talked about. If I had lived during the 1920s, I would probably have also emigrated to Palestine. But today? I don't see it as the duty of every Jew to live in Israel. As far as I'm concerned, America is the Promised Land because everyone can live there as they please, no matter where they come from and no matter which god they worship -- as long as they work and respect the laws.

SPIEGEL: A fairly idealistic view of the United States.

De Winter: Please leave me with at least one illusion!

SPIEGEL: Your last novel, "Malibu," was published six years ago. Usually it takes you two to three years to write a new book. Why did it take so long this time?

De Winter: I tried to save the world. That's also a terrible Jewish habit. Above all, I tried to save Europe. I really thought that I could make a difference by writing political commentaries, columns, lead articles, essays for SPIEGEL. It became an obsession. I couldn't do anything else. I spent the whole day on the Internet and got upset about everything. That's not healthy for a writer.

SPIEGEL: Are you feeling better now?

De Winter: You can't imagine how wonderful, how liberating it is to write a novel, even one with such a sad story. It's such a relief to be able to control reality instead of being swallowed up by it. In my novels, I'm God. Everything obeys my command.

SPIEGEL: Thank you for this interview, Mr. de Winter

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Henryk M. Broder at de Winter's home in Bloemendaal.

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