An Aspiring Social Scientist

David Grossman: ‘We should not be the prisoners of our own stories’

The revered Israeli author talks about the trappings of Nations’ legislative stories that makes us a victim of ourselves. As the elections in Israel is looming large, it is pertinent that we reconsider some of his words of wisdom.
Photograph: Pulkit Mogra
Photograph: Pulkit Mogra

When I met David Grossman in Hapina Hayeruka café in the vicinity of Yarkon river in Tel Aviv, I was amazed by his punctuality. I double-checked this gingerly-haired man with sharp features in a simple deep blue t-shirt. I was glad to get some extra minutes with him as we hit on a long conversation about literature, politics, and possibilities.

Surfacing the background

David, please tell something about your familial background and how do you define your relationship to the state of Israel?

Grossman: I come from a very small family the origins of which are from the city of Rogue and Warsaw, Poland. My mother was born in Jerusalem during the days of British Mandate and my father came from a little town in Poland named Dynow in 1936. He started as a bus driver and later he became a librarian in the municipal organization of transportation. So, I had my private library, I could have ordered everything I wanted. As far as my relationship with Israel goes, I was born in Israel, I am an Israeli citizen. I want to stay here because I think Israel is meant to be the home of the Jewish people and it’s a place where we can implement so much of our heritage, our values, and our identity. I am a writer, I write novels, fictions, documentary books and lots of articles where I mainly write about things that irritate me here and things, I wish could be different and improved.

A little bit of history

Given the history of plurality of the region of Levant, do you think that Zionism and the Arab National Movement somehow fell short in addressing the concerns of these diverse communities in an inclusive way?

Grossman: Yes, I understand it. I will talk about us. We the Jews came to the state of Israel, which was created in 1948, in the aftermath of the second world war and the Shoah (“the genocide against the Jewish people”) where one-third of our people were murdered in the cruellest industrious way. I surely wish for a future when we shall have the opportunity to live lives that are more loosened and not stiff from the point of identity and the story, we tell ourselves. But I also understand that it takes some generations to recover from such a tragic history like ours. And even when I criticize it, I try to understand where it comes from—this fear, this “existential fragility”, the feeling that we do not have this solidity of existence that other people do have. I always remind myself it takes time and I hope that we shall have peace with our neighbours because without having peace we shall never get this quietness of the soul and this ability to stop believing that we shall live by the sword and die by the sword. It still has not happened in all the seventy-two years of independence of Israel. I am sure, it will happen and then if we shall be allowed to live normal lives here without fear, without suspicion, without being hated, without violence that is committed against us and that we commit against others. When that happens then this place will stop being only a fortress and become a home.

You mentioned this idea of “Israel being a fortress and not a home yet” in your anthology Essays in Literature and Politics. Do you feel this sense of insecurity still prevails?

Grossman: Yes, if you rely solely on the power you never feel secure because there is a chance that your enemy will be suddenly stronger than you, more cunning than you, crueller than you or more fanatic and without any inhibitions. And then Israel will suffer heavily. I deeply believe that we must have two roles. One is to be strong in the Middle East and the other to have the ardent will to achieve peace. Believe me, you do not want to live one moment in this region as a Jew or a Christian if you are not able to protect yourself. It’s a violent, tough region. But a strong army alone is not enough. Only when the two roads are open to you—the way of peace and the way of being strong, only then there is a chance that we shall have here a future, a good future and a good relationship with our neighbours. Relying on one leg only makes us very fragile and shaky.

Literature and Politics

Your honest and intense work of non-fiction, The Yellow Wind that came up in 1987 is a record of your on-ground talks with Palestinians in the occupied territories, especially in the West Bank. So, what impact this encounter with the “other”—the so-called enemy brought about in your life and your perception about the conflict?

Grossman: First, to define someone like an enemy is to dehumanize this someone. If you want to kill someone as a moral person you should forget he is a human being who can suffer. Because most of us are normal, moral people and we are not even built to perform such cruelties. So first we must deny the humanity of the other and declare him an enemy and this gives us the legitimacy to fight and kill. When I went from my safe, secured small home from the south of Jerusalem to the refugee camp I was quite terrified. I never did it before and didn’t know what to expect. I thought people will be very violent towards me. I remember entering the camp, I stood there and due to fear my shoulders were up. And it was a terribly hot day as I planted myself in the heart of the refugee camp and then people started coming. First, the young people came, looked at me very suspiciously and asked—”what are you doing here?” I said, “I am an Israeli and I came to listen to you.” Then they asked further—”what do you mean to listen to us? Is it an interrogation?” I said “No. I want to hear your story. You will tell me what you want. I will not tell you what I want.” More and more people gathered. Children came and looked at me and they did not believe I am an Israeli because I was the first Israeli they saw without uniform and a gun.

For three hours I stood in the blazing sun until an old woman, all wrinkled, who reminded me of my own grandmother, came to me and said—Taal (“come with me”). She took me to her hut, the place where she lived for almost forty years since she became a refugee. She asked— “what do you want to hear?” I said—”how did you get here?” She started talking. I knew Arabic so wrote what she said. Soon her daughter joined in and started telling about the home that they have abandoned or been expelled from—the two ways in which they were not at home. I was surprised to find that her granddaughter of five or six who never lived in the village knew of every stone, every curve of the road and every flower as if she was born and raised in this place. Then other people joined in and started talking. It was an amazing feeling. I guess they realized that I just came to listen to their stories. Maybe I have good answers, but I did not come to argue. I just came to hear their stories and their tragedy. And the more I sat there, and I sat there for several hours, more and more people came and started to tell their stories. And the stories were so heartbreaking and sad. So, the need to tell the story to the enemy because it is the enemy whom we really want to like, understand and feel empathy towards us. Then at night when I moved back to my Jerusalem, my Israel I felt as if a beehive is in my head with all the things I heard. I remember walking in the streets of Ben Yehuda I wanted to scream—

“We don’t know what happens half an hour away from here. We don’t know how much suffering and frustration and rage is accumulating there.”

I continued to travel in the occupied territories for another nine weeks and I published this book called The Yellow Wind just before Independence Day in 1987. And it was the twentieth anniversary of the occupation. It came like a shock to most Israelis who never bothered to think of what it means to be an occupier of other people.  The book became such a mark of public debate and It happened just before the first Intifada. It was hard but the reality was imposed on the Israelis first through the book and later through reality—a knowledge that we are occupying other people.

As a writer, you have always talked about the wisdom of fiction which provides an endless option to human situations. What do you think this idea of “engaged literature” can do for this land?

Grossman: Literature is a very good way to decode the world, to understand it and to prevent the alienation between people. If it is well written, it really helps you to understand what it means to be another human being. How can you understand the inner constitution of another human being, not the inner constitution of you that we impose on another, which is the usual way of a relationship between people. Literature helps to demilitarize yourself from your own constitution and allow other stories to pour into you. And once you do it you cannot take shelter from and is invaded by the story of the other. I remember writing a novel eleven years ago called To the End of the Land which is about a woman who has two sons and one of them must go to the war. This woman is sure that her son will be killed, and she decides to run away from her home to flee the bad news. Two and half years of writing and still I didn’t understand her decision. I was so restless that one day I sat down and wrote her a real letter with a pen and an envelope. I wrote, “Dear Ora! Look at me, Why are you like that? Why don’t you surrender?” Suddenly I realized how idiotic I was. It is not she who has to surrender to me, it’s me who must surrender to her—to the option of Ora inside me, a woman inside me. I stopped resisting how to write a woman inside me and there she was and the whole book came alive and it was flowing.

It was the same when I wrote about an old Palestinian storyteller in The Smile of the Lamb, somewhere in the occupied territories of the West Bank or any other character, younger or older than me. Literature allows me to be just bereft myself of all the defence mechanisms that are narrowing us and reducing us. In every one of us, there are so many options. And yet we have one life, usually one gender, one or two languages with which we describe reality which means it is very narrowed down. But when you write it is as if you are giving a massage to your consciousness and awareness and you can become other options of life. It is not as if I am losing my identity. On the contrary, my identity gets enriched because suddenly I know how to touch the world with the eyes and hands of other people as well. So, it is a way to widen yourself more and more. Therefore, when people ask me—”what will you do when nobody will buy your books, will you still write”? I say- “Yes.” Because the need is existential before the need to be read.

In your first novel, The Smile of the Lamb (1983), the character Khilmi talks to his son Yazdi about the “weapon of stubborn patience and infinite weakness” that can solely throttle war crimes and the fascist position on the other side. Do you think this weapon is still available and useful?

Grossman: Everything is more extreme now. On both sides, very little patience and belief are left regarding the future. I will talk about us—Israelis. I think about our relationship with the future. We had a long and tragic history and we have a strong and agitated violent present. But we have little sense of the future. Only the settlers or the extremists have their messianic future where Israel will stop being a democracy and become a halachic state, ruled by the laws of Halacha which is just contrary to a democratic state. But we do not really believe that there is a future for us. I say something which is disturbing and very painful for me, but we do not really believe that our future is secure. I will tell you a little story. Years ago, I saw a documentary about three Israeli couples just getting married. An interviewer asked the newlywed—”How many children would you like to have?” And two of them immediately said— “Three”. The man was a little taken aback by the decisiveness and he asked: “why?” And the bride answered—”we want to have three because if one of them is killed we shall still have two left.” I saw the interviewer going pale under his make-up. I also got pale as I realized how right she was, and this thought that I did not even dare to think but it somewhere hovered over me as an Israeli that we don’t know what will happen to our children. And I thought again how the state of war distorted us to the extent that instead of saying that we want to have three or four children because it’s wonderful to have children to widen your contact with the world, her calculation was so terrible. This fear that goes through umbilical cord in our people is so painful and destructive. I always think that we as Jewish people throughout history have survived to live our lives and, in the end, we find ourselves living for survival only. While we could have afforded and can afford ourselves lives that would be much richer and more multi-layered than just survival. We have this enormously strong army that should have afforded us this life, this generosity in the negotiation with our neighbours. And it’s not that they are not making terrible mistakes, they are. But I wish our military may allow us to take some risk and be more generous in the negotiations with them. Because what we must gain from peace is not only solving all kind of formal problems like irrigation, territory etc. They are important but not existential things. But because peace will allow us to have a life which is much better than now. We shall be able to Be much more than what we are right now.

Contemporary situation

Talking of power with unlimited authority, you said it is dangerous for both—Israelis and Palestinians, the occupier and the occupied, can you explain?

Grossman: I think it is corrupting to be an occupier and its corrupting to be occupied. And you see this in both people—the thirst for strength, for military superiority. How one can be easily drunk with the power you have and with the ability to do whatever you want and there is no one who can stop you. You start feeling like a God. And I heard from soldiers who serve in the occupied territories that once you cross the green line, the border between Israel and West Bank you are like God. There are no rules and you can do whatever you want. Very few soldiers who took part in all kind of harassment, shooting, killing Palestinians, sometimes without any danger that they form against them, only 1% have been verdict to minor military punishment. And surely it is corruptive to be occupied for so many years and don’t forget we are occupying the Palestinians for fifty-two years but before us, it was the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Turks. They are living lives of occupied people for more than a century. It affects the relationship of the people, in their attitude towards life, in many other things. If you give up the option of taking your destiny in your own hands and then you become passive, pathetic, fatalist, you become more and more fundamentalist and nationalist. It is corrupting.

How do you define the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians and what according to you is the most disturbing aspect of the conflict?

Grossman: If there were relationships, it is scrapped now. There are very few frames where Palestinians and Israelis are collaborating. For example, there is the NGO, Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families for Reconciliation and Peace, to which I belong to. It is a wonderful example of people who paid the heaviest price for war by losing their loved ones and yet they decided not to surrender to the vicious circle of revenge and counter revenge. They instead tried reversing the wheels by initiating a dialogue between the people. So very few contacts and relationships. Most Israelis and Palestinians are prejudicing, they are stereotyping each other. There is much more hatred between the two people now than thirty years before.

Envisioning future

Do you think the common cultural heritage between the Mizrahi Jews and the Palestinian Arabs can act as a strong nostalgic element that might help to bring them together after all these long periods of hostility?

Grossman: Not only nostalgia but It can be an important part of the identity of the Mizrahi Jews or the Oriental Jews. Because they had shared the milk of their mothers, the oriental food, melodies, stories, memories, history and suffering—so many parts of identity. I think that after many decades when the ruling Ashkenazi taste in art, food, or writing the history is subsiding, there is a correction. You see more and more Mizrahi identity becoming conspicuous, more present. You open the radio now and probably you will hear Mizrahi melody and Mizrahi singer which never existed when I was young. It was never understood back then and even mocked at by Ashkenazi. But now because it’s so meaningful and it touches so many layers it became not only legitimate but very popular and so it will be, I believe in many other walks of life. You asked a very good question as this might serve as a bridge between us—the Israelis and the Arabs. Because they will see that the borders between these identities are artificial.

Finally, what message would you like to give to the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians and what kind of future you want for them?

Grossman: I wish them not to be trapped in the story that is ruling our life as Israelis or Palestinians. Every one of us has an official story—the story that we submit to strangers. And this story is mostly the story of misery, of sadness and suffering. And we tell this story again and again and we know to change it a little, to round it a little, to sharpen it until it becomes very efficient. We give this story, this visiting card to strangers and we know this will gain us the love, or empathy of this stranger and he will identify with us. And when we are telling this story repeatedly, we do not notice to what extent we are becoming prisoners of this official story of us. That it paralyzes us, it traps us, it makes us a victim of ourselves. And it is so important to look back and say this official story was true to its time twenty years back. But now I can be in a totally different place. I can behave differently. I don’t have to be subjugated to this story anymore. I might remember it and try to understand the logic behind what happened. And this applies to not only individuals but also to societies, countries and nations. Nations also have their legislative stories; they are big stories of the dawn of a nation. They were very important stories in the beginning back then but maybe now we can think differently. We should not be the prisoners of our own stories. So, this is what I will wish for the young people today to not become prisoners of their story but rather to shape it to become more flexible, more alive in our lives.

Photograph: Pulkit Mogra
About the Author
Anam is a PhD student from EFL University, Hyderabad, India. She was awarded the Israel Government Fellowship (2018-19) for her research in Israeli-Palestinian Literature at Tel Aviv University by MFA, Israel Government. Her current research revolves around the civilizational identity of Jews and Arabs in the Mediterranean/Levant. She is also interested in philosophical debates around culture, Identity and world ethics.
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