MONTREAL—Israel’s decades-long control of the Palestinians is eroding its claim on democracy and condemning Jewish Israelis to a perpetual state of conflict, says David Grossman, one of the country’s most acclaimed writers.
“If you occupy another people for what will soon be 54 years, in June, then your status as a democratic state is very shaky,” said Grossman at the Blue Metropolis Festival, an annual international literary event held in Montreal. Grossman, winner of the 2018 Israel Prize and numerous international literary awards, spoke from his home in Jerusalem where he was born 67 years ago.
“It is very hard to call my country a democratic country while it continues to occupy another people, the Palestinians, for so many years,” he said.
He was in conversation with Derek Penslar, a Harvard professor of modern Jewish history, formerly at the University of Toronto.
Grossman, an outspoken political essayist as well as author of such novels as To the End of the Land and See Under: Love, was blunt in his assessment of “the distorted situation” Israelis are in today.
If someone had told him just before the 1967 Six Day War that Israel would become an “empire” and occupy Palestinian territory for a half-century he would have called that person crazy, he said.
What worries Grossman as much as the “misery” of the Palestinians is the effect on Israeli Jews whom he described as “addicted” to the occupation.
“The occupation is a nightmare for so many Israelis; but, at the same time, we got used to living this situation…We found the advantages of it. We know how to function as occupiers, we are so efficient and talented about it that we have no opponent on the other side. The Palestinians are so totally broken that they cannot wage peace with us, let alone challenge us.”
Grossman indicated the Palestinians must have their own state. “Unless they have a home, we shall not have our home…In the end, this distorted reality will explode in our face.”
Israel today, for Jews, is as much a “fortress” as it is “the home it was meant to be,” said Grossman, who faulted recent governments, and particularly those of Benjamin Netanyahu, for making no real effort to change the situation.
Israelis are trapped into voting for “belligerent government leaders again and again,” and “doomed” to a continual state of war, said Grossman whose son was killed in the Lebanon conflict 15 years ago.
Grossman hopes for a future when Israelis, having resolved the problems with their neighbours, are able “to explore all the layers of life and not survival only.” It’s a peace he has never known, yet he still believes Israel is the only place where Jews can truly be comfortable.
He added that non-Jews, who represent 20 per cent of Israel’s population, should feel equally at home in the state. Grossman has tried to melt the “congealed, frozen narratives” that Israelis and Palestinians cling to.
“There is a saying in the Talmud that there is no joy like the undoing or untying of doubts…I say there is no joy like the untying of a stereotype…When we see someone we were programmed to see in one way only from another point of view, there is a flow of emotions, understanding and ideas.”
Grossman deplored “the vulgarity and brutality anyone who dares to criticize” the Israeli government encounters. In response to Penslar’s suggestion that artists might be dismissed as “bleeding hearts” who should leave questions of security to the experts, Grossman responded, “We have listened too long to the generals, and look where they have brought us.”
Penslar and Grossman also discussed Grossman’s most recent novel, Life Plays With Me, which is now available in French translation and due to come out in English in August.
Grossman was inspired by the extraordinary true story of a woman living in a northern kibbutz and born in 1918 in Croatia, who contacted him after reading one of his articles.
The entire one-hour conversation between Penslar and Grossman is available online.
The theme of Israeli-Palestinian relations continues at Blue Metropolis on May 2 at 1 p.m. with the annual feature Jerusalem of the Mind, a dialogue that gets beyond conflict and politics, sponsored by Gabriel Safdie. Participating writers are Israelis Ayelet Waldman and Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, and Palestinian authors Ala Hlehel and Amjad Iraqi, moderated by Joseph Rosen, a humanities professor.