A Sunday Morning Voice From Israel

I think of myself as a relatively literate person – spend enough time around gymnasiums and ball fields, and a guy who reads can get this impression – but apparently I’m no Eleanor Wachtel. I’d never even heard of David Grossman, the (apparently) quite wonderful Israeli novelist, but Michael Enright and The Sunday Edition brought him into my kitchen yesterday morning.

There’d been an April series of interviews and discussions recorded in Israel, most of which I hadn’t heard. The culminating interview was yesterday’s 25 minutes or so (ah, the pleasures of commercial-free radio!) between Enright and Mr. Grossman, a sympathetic and thoughtful commentator on the eternal (in my life, at least) Middle East Problem. Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan have, in the western popular mind, pluralized this Problem, but it always comes back to roost in Palestine, the Holy Land (aren’t they all?), the Greater Israel of the extreme Zionists. And in the centre, the modern state of Israel and the territories it occupies or otherwise influences and warns. The Jewish Question remains, though it has been re-cast in their reclamation of an ancestral homeland in the years since 1948.

“We are a story,” says Grossman of the Jewish people, an enormously polarized one that he wishes was just a bit less compelling. Extremes make for good fiction, but they make ordinary life tenuous and painful. A little moderation might be nice, he thinks: “[Jews] are idealized or demonized, but these are simply the two faces of dehumanization. I just want a solid existence, a place to be, and for us to live an enjoyable life.” (The same is true of Aboriginal people everywhere, including those occupying land near my home town of Caledonia.) Most Israelis want only the same thing. But unlike Grossman, most Israelis have no idea how their Palestinian neighbours live, and they may not want to. (Digressing again, I’d say the same is true of many Caledonians.) “Most,” he told the CBC’s Michael Enright, “cannot rise above the fear that they have for each other. This fear is almost mythological.” (If I were to digress again, I would say something about a similar fear in and around a small Ontario town. But I’m too disciplined for that.)

Contemporary Israel’s fear is a recent innovation, though the ignorance of conditions in the West Bank is of long standing. “For the first 21 years of the occupation,” says Grossman, “there was no hatred from Israelis toward Palestinian. They were inconsequential; they were almost as children.” And the Israeli media tended to act not as a lens but as a buffer, insulating Israelis from the reality of military occupation. At least, that is, until Grossman wrote a series of late-‘80s articles about living in occupied territory, a series that eventually became the novelist’s best-known work, a non-fiction sensation in Israel called The Yellow Wind. (It is a must-read, already on order from my local library. Are libraries not the greatest institutions ever? I’ll probably go overdue on this book, and I’ll be happier to pay the fine than you were to read another digression.)

The Yellow Wind reminded Israelis that they are occupiers, a dysfunctional dynamic that can only distort both peoples. Grossman is not engaging in knee-jerk national self-loathing – “we are not the only bad guys here; Israel is not surrounded by the Salvation Army” – but I think he paints a most intelligent, humane and, as far as I can tell, fair portrait of conditions in Palestine. He spoke very strongly yesterday about the great wall that Israel is building to insulate itself from Palestinian guerrilla attacks: “A wall will not stop Palestinian misery and poverty…You cannot impose a border upon your neighbours. A wall is against dialogue. We must acknowledge the harm we have done to each other. We must pay a maturity tax.”

I’m glad Mr. Grossman came into my house. His is a weary but stubbornly hopeful voice, one that deserves a wider hearing and more of my attention. Coming soon to a bedside table near me.