The Anatomy of a Beautiful Soul

Israeli writer David Grossman speaks at a rally in memory of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the Tel Aviv plaza where he was shot., November 4, 2006. (MaanImages/Moti Milrod)


The highlight of the Rabin Memorial ceremony in Tel Aviv on 4 November last was, by common consent, David Grossman’s speech directed rhetorically to Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. This text has already done the rounds of the world’s liberal media, and there is general agreement that it represents Israeli pacifist humanism at its very best.

Of Israeli literature’s “three wise men”, Grossman is the one who universally gleans most respect. Amoz Oz’s reputation survives outside Israel primarily because the repentant Germans dutifully worship at his shrine. A. B. Yehoshua put his foot in it once too often when in a Ha’aretz interview he prescribed the use of “full force against the entire population” of Gaza, a prescription that was duly followed with devastating consequences. Grossman, an undoubtedly talented novelist, still manages to come across as a reasonable man, a man of principle, a “beautiful soul”.

Of course the outside world has always had to engage in a contorted degree of wishful thinking in order to continue regarding these writers as humanists and pacifists, regardless of what they write. This exercise is much facilitated by the leniency of the media. When the “three wise men” came out against the recent Lebanon war two weeks after it had started, this was widely reported and totted up to their credit. The fact that they had initially backed it enthusiastically wasn’t reported at all. It seems somehow imperative that the image of these “essentially decent” individual Israelis be cultivated in order to gloss over the world’s passive tolerance of the “essential indecency” of the Israeli state.

Grossman evoked even greater sympathy - rightly, of course - when his son Uri was killed on active duty in Lebanon. An observer from Mars, aware that Grossman is purportedly a pacifist, might have asked why the novelist had not encouraged his son to refuse service in an army that is so single-mindedly dedicated to perpetrating war-crimes. This would be to misunderstand completely the nature and extent of Grossman’s loyalty to the Israeli state, and to the racist and supremacist fantasy known as Zionism.

“I speak as one whose love for this land is tough and complicated, but nevertheless unequivocal”, states Grossman towards the beginning of his
speech. For him, “the establishment - and very existence - of the state of Israel is something of a miracle…; a political, national, human miracle.”

Given that this “miracle” entailed a half century of planning, a steady and only partly clandestine military build-up with massive support from both the West and the USSR, and culminated in the ruthless ethnic cleansing of three-quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948, one might imagine that a more “equivocal” love might be more appropriate, particularly for a moralist and humanist. But not for Grossman, who has been entirely consistent down the years in refusing to express any regret for - or indeed acknowledgment of - the Naqba or Catastrophe visited upon the Palestinians in 1948.

He criticises Israel’s present leaders for being “unable to connect Israelis with… those constitutive parts of identity and memory… that can give us strength and hope,” as if “the sound box… of their historical memory… fills only the tiny space between two newspaper headlines.” But he clearly believes that such “identity” and “historical memory” must be functionally selective (“constitutive”), entailing oblivion of the horrendous crimes that attended Israel’s birth and have accompanied every stage of its subsequent history.

Instead, Grossman describes present-day Israel as “a bad parody of that miracle” when in fact the “miracle” was already a bad parody of European colonialism in America, South Africa, and Algeria. If in present-day Israel, as Grossman puts it, “madness and vulgarity, violence and racism take control of our home”, the same could be said of the very foundation of the state - except that control was then and is now being taken of somebody else’s home.
Just as he has nothing to say against the Naqba, Grossman never once criticises the Lebanon war as a criminal and unnecessary slaughter, but as a “fiasco”; he is annoyed that “at its back [Israel’s military] reach proved all too short and brittle,” “the rear was left to its own devices”. In short, the peacenik is a military strategist rather than a moralist, a bit like the Peace Now defence minister Amir Peretz whose joint responsibility with Olmert for the “fiasco” Grossman considerately fails to mention.

Not that he is indifferent to the loss of human life: “The death of young people is a horrible, outrageous waste. But no less horrible is the feeling that the state of Israel has… criminally wasted not only the lives of its sons and daughters, but also wasted the miracle that occurred here…” The waste of Lebanese and Palestinian lives doesn’t once rate a mention, Arab lives evidently weighing less in the balance than Israeli Jewish lives - a strange position for an enlightened liberal humanist to hold.

Given the occasion, praise is in order for Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated by a Jewish terrorist in 1995 because he had signed the cynical Oslo deal with the Palestinians, “not because he was fond of them” (it goes without saying!) but because “He understood… that life in a constant climate of violence, of occupation, of terror and fear and hopelessness, comes at a price that Israel cannot afford to pay.”

This construction is very interesting and ambiguous (I am of course assuming that Haim Watzman’s translation, which reads very well, is accurate). It is after all the Palestinians who live in a “constant climate of violence, of occupation, of terror and fear and hopelessness” because - now as in Rabin’s time - it is the Israeli state that illegally occupies their lands. Seemingly this “terror, fear etc.” has somehow rubbed off on the unfortunate occupiers, and is part of the “price that Israel cannot afford to pay” for maintaining the Zionist state.

Indeed “it may be too late to heal us completely”, although it might be thought that healing Israel’s victims might be the primary concern of a morally responsible humanist. This self-pitying and egocentric tone is one of the most characteristic and irritating features of those Israeli peaceniks who have failed to accept that the logical consequence of rejecting Israeli militarism is the rejection of Zionism itself.

Grossman concedes that the Palestinians are “no less tortured than we are”, implying not that an oppressive settler-colonial state is torturing the indigenous people who get in its way, but that both peoples are equally tortured by history. Indeed the victim, ultimately, is as much to blame as the victimiser: “the Palestinians are also guilty of the dead end that we’ve reached”, “they bear part of the blame for the failure of the peace process.”

Presumably this is because they have consistently refused to accept Israel’s various “generous offers”, all of which were far more generous to the occupier than the occupied. The precise nature and degree of Israel’s “guilt” and “blame” in this process is never spelt out, but if Olmert doesn’t soon “make them an offer that their moderates can accept” (“moderates” being, by circular definition, those who will accept anything Israel “offers”) “We will pound ourselves on the head and shout, why did we not use… all our Israeli creativity, to extricate our enemy from the trap in which he ensnared himself?”
Once again the circle of self-deception and self-disculpation is complete. Apparently the Palestinian “enemy” (who was made an enemy when dispossessed of his/her homeland, let us not forget) has “ensnared himself” in a trap, and it is up to the creative Israelis - who ultimately had no hand in setting this trap - to extricate him, presumably by generously bestowing the title “state” upon the miserable ghettos in which the enemy will henceforth eke out his/her miserable existence.

This brings us to the political nitty-gritty. “All thinking people, in Israel and in Palestine, know… the difference between…their dreams and wishes, and… what they can get at the end of the negotiations. Those who do not know that, whether Jews or Arabs, are… trapped in their hermetic fanaticism, so they are not partners.” With one clean sweep Grossman disposes not alone of Hamas, but also of internationally respected Israeli Jewish dissidents such as Ilan Pappe who do not accept that negotiations must inevitably lead to a powerful Jewish state on 90% of historic Palestine alongside a helpless assortment of Palestinian Bantustans under Israeli military domination on the remainder.

Next, Grossman maintains that the democratically elected Hamas regime “refuses to negotiate with us”. This crass falsehood inverts the truth: Hamas has offered a ten-year Hudna - something considerably more than a “truce” - to provide space and time for normalisation and negotiation. It is Israel, as always, that has contemptuously refused to consider this offer. Similarly contemptuous of Palestinian democracy, Grossman calls on Olmert to “appeal to the Palestinians… over Hamas’s head”, i.e. the head that these same Palestinians have voted into government in the first truly exemplary elections ever held in the Arab world, and would almost certainly give an even greater governing majority were new elections to be held.

The “offer” which Grossman urges Olmert to make is posited in terms of an unexamined dualism: either the Palestinians will accept it - i.e. the Bantustan solution - or “instead remain hostages to fanatical Islam”, which presumably has kidnapped the minds of Ilan Pappe and other secular activists the world over who aspire to a solution guaranteeing Palestinian rights rather than Israeli privileges. All other options are dismissed as “hermetic fanaticism”.
Similarly President Assad of Syria must be offered “terms that will reveal his trickery” (after all, he’s an Arab, so he must be a trickster). “Offer him a peace process lasting several years, only at the end of which, if he meets all the conditions,… will he get the Golan Heights.”

One would never think from Grossman’s phraseology that Israel illegally occupies the Syrian Golan Heights, is bound under international law to return them, and is enabled to hang on to them (and the rest of the Occupied Territories) only by the grace of limitless and unscrupulous US power! Instead, hypothetical Israeli compliance with international law is presented as a generous concession to tricky Arabs who don’t really deserve it as things stand, but just might deserve it if they behave themselves.

There has been much outrage on the part of global civil society (matched by embarrassed silence from political elites) at the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman to a senior ministerial post in the Israeli cabinet. Lieberman is an outspoken advocate of ethnic cleansing, a neo-fascist who states openly that social stability is attainable anywhere in the world only if races are kept separate. Grossman refers to “the brutal kick democracy received when Avigdor Lieberman was appointed…” and explicates the apathy with which this kick has been greeted in Israel by the national consensus that “We will live and die by the sword, and the sword shall devour forever.”

Undoubtedly Lieberman is a villainous demagogue, but at least he fearlessly spells out the racist and supremacist implications of Zionist ideology. With Lieberman you know where you stand, and self-styled democrats and peaceniks can polish their humanistic credentials by flinging mud at him. With David Grossman, however, the same premises lead to a discourse in which everything has become muddied and inverted, the occupier has become the victim, the victim has become a twisted fanatic, and only the humanistic man of letters has retained any kind of wistful integrity. This discourse is understandably popular with those who, sometimes with honourable if misguided motivation, wish to believe that Zionism can be a liberal, humanistic ideology rather than one that is supremacist and racist to the core.

In short, if Lieberman repels by his consistency, Grossman attracts by his dissimulation. One is as dangerous as the other.

Raymond Deane is a founding member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and is a freelance composer and author.

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  • Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign