Israel’s Conscience Goes Global

With Mideast peace talks as a backdrop, the U.S. publication of David Grossman's novel is a window into Israel's uneasy present.  


The Israeli writer David Grossman’s new novel To the End of the Land, which was published in the United States this week, has generated the kind of buzz that publicists dream about. Paul Auster likened Grossman to Flaubert and Tolstoy and declared the book a work of "overwhelming power and intensity." Novelist Nicole Krauss was even more emphatic. In a long blurb, she gushed, "Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same…. To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude."

It’s easy to snicker at the breathlessness of such praise (and many did), but it testifies to the reverence with which Grossman is regarded in liberal circles in America and Europe. Though much of his recent fiction (most of which has been translated from Hebrew into English and published widely abroad) deals with quotidian topics like marriage and adultery, drugs, love, and life as a teenager, Grossman is known — and venerated — outside of Israel primarily for his critiques of Israeli policy. Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg, writing recently in Newsweek, characteristically described Grossman (and his fellow novelist Amos Oz) as Israel’s "national consciences." In June, Grossman won the prestigious German Book Trade Peace Prize for his efforts as an "active supporter of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis."

This week, Grossman is the subject of a long, laudatory essay in the New Yorker by George Packer. The article, along with the publication of Jessica Cohen’s English translation of To the End of the Land, the story of a woman wandering across Israel to escape the possible news of her son’s death in combat, completed after Grossman’s own son Uri died in Lebanon in 2006, will likely only add to the Grossman mystique in America. And as fragile peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians threaten to collapse, Americans are looking to Grossman for a distillation of the Middle Eastern moment.

But in Israel, where the book came out in Hebrew in 2008, perceptions of the novelist are more complicated. David B. Green, opinion editor at the English edition of the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, singles out Grossman’s "dignity, grace, humor and — foremost — imagination," as the qualities that have made him "a national treasure." But other Israelis are wary of Grossman’s international reputation as an emissary from the "liberal, peace-loving, moral Israel that all those who would like to divide this country into two neatly warring camps of light and darkness wish to promote," the Israeli writer Hillel Halkin tells me. In a country where, as Grossman himself once put it, Israeli couples "have three children so if one of them dies, there will be two left," To the End of the Land could never just be about politics.

On August 12, 2006, a month into Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon, a missile struck Uri’s tank. He was 20 years old. News of Uri’s death came as Grossman was finishing up an early draft of To the End of the Land. The woman at the center of the plot, Ora, has a premonition that her soldier son, Ofer, will die in combat. Wracked by fear and despair, she succumbs to a fantastic thought: If the military can’t find her they can’t notify her, and if they can’t notify her then Ofer’s death hasn’t happened. Ora sets off on a hike across Israel, avoiding all sources of bad news and reflecting on Ofer’s life. By telling his story, maybe she can save him. "The point is to be in motion," she thinks, "the point is to talk about Ofer." Echoing his protagonist’s quest, Grossman wrote in an afterward to the Hebrew edition, "I had a hunch — or more precisely, a wish — that the book I was writing would protect [Uri]."

The tragic scrambling of reality and fiction heightened anticipation for the novel, which became an instant best-seller and critical hit when it came out in Israel. Writing in Haaretz, Michael Gluzman, a professor of literature at Tel Aviv University, argued that the novel’s importance "exceeds the ordinary realm of literature."

Grossman’s status, too, goes far beyond the ordinary literary realm. Born in Jerusalem in 1954, he stepped onto the international stage in 1987 when he wrote a long article about life in the West Bank that later became The Yellow Wind. Grossman, who is fluent in Arabic, made the then 20-year-old occupation less abstract, more human. When the first intifada began later that year, readers worldwide embraced The Yellow Wind as a blueprint for understanding the uprising. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish translated the book into Arabic. The New Yorker ran two lengthy excerpts.

But in Israel, not everyone was thrilled with Grossman’s work. In a later interview, Grossman described receiving threatening letters and phone calls and finding his car sabotaged. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, he said, rebuked him for portraying the Palestinians as chafing under Israeli rule. The year after The Yellow Wind was published, Grossman was fired from his job as host of the morning news program on Israel Radio after a dispute with management over the network’s coverage of Yasir Arafat and the PLO.

Since then, Grossman — who believes in a two-state solution and has said that the basic inspiration for Zionism was a "noble idea" — has remained critical of Israeli policies. In 2003, he participated in the signing ceremony of the Geneva Accord, an unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement brokered by former negotiators. In 2006, a few months after Uri’s death, Grossman delivered a landmark speech to 100,000 Israelis in Tel Aviv. "Israel has, for many years now, criminally wasted not only the lives of its sons and daughters, but also the miracle that occurred here," he declared, "the great and rare opportunity that history granted it, the opportunity to create an enlightened, properly functioning democratic state that would act in accordance with Jewish and universal values."

Earlier this month, Grossman joined a boycott of a new cultural center in the West Bank city of Ariel, an action that has stoked the ire of many on the right. Ariel mayor Ron Nachman called the boycott "tantamount to incitement to rebellion." A few weeks ago, a ministry of Education official complained to the newspaper Maariv that Grossman and other leading Israeli authors "express alienation to the point of automatic identification with Israel’s enemies in their writing." It’s not the first time Grossman has been charged with undermining the Israeli project: Conservative academic and pundit Yoram Hazony writes in his 2000 book The Jewish State that Grossman teaches "Israelis that it is weakness that gives birth to virtue," a lesson that threatens "to demolish the foundation on which the entire edifice of the Jewish state rests."

In his recent fiction, Grossman has avoided politics. As he told the German magazine Der Spiegel last year, "Because so much of our energy goes into the conflict we don’t have energ
y to deal with the real existential things of life: being a father, being a mother, being a partner." Grossman added that he preferred to write about those topics because for him "they are more important." To the End of the Land marks a return to big political themes that Grossman addressed in earlier novels, such as The Smile of the Lamb and See Under: Love, which dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Holocaust.

The writer Haim Watzman, who has translated many of Grossman’s books and essays into English, told me that he and his wife have been unable to pick up To the End of the Land: "We have two sons in combat units and we’re not sure we want to go where this story may take us."

Where To the End of the Land takes readers is into an Israel that feels feeble and teetering, a country full of uncertainty. A sense of looming disaster hangs heavy over the novel. In the opening pages, a teenaged Ora is quarantined in an abandoned hospital in Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War. Egyptian radio broadcasts announce Israel’s defeat. Feverish, bathed in sweat, Ora drifts in and out of consciousness; she has nightmares about Arab soldiers pouring into Tel Aviv. At one point, she remarks about Israel, "I know that this country doesn’t have a chance at all."

It is an anxiety that resonates powerfully in Israel today, says Nitza Ben-Dov, a professor of Hebrew literature at the University of Haifa. To the End of the Land is so relevant, she says, because it encapsulates the Israeli predicament: "We love this land, but we pay such a terrible price for this love."

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