A Truthful, Tragic Story

Reporting any conflict is a difficult task for a writer. Reporting the bitter and apparently eternal struggle between Israelis and Palestinians requires particular reserves of courage. In the Middle East, the bleak force of history is so overwhelming and the mutual hatreds so virulent that to proffer any opinion is to guarantee being met with angry opposition from some quarter. When the writer in question is a citizen of one of the warring nations, yet is also opposed to the political orthodoxies of his people, the hostility is often particularly intense. So it is with David Grossman.

For years, Grossman has been one of Israel’s foremost novelists. It is, however, journalism and political activism that have made Grossman a divisive figure in his native land.

A longtime member of the Israeli left, he has consistently opposed his country’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and has been equally tenacious in arguing for an equitable peace settlement with the Palestinians. He has earned the opprobrium of many Israelis for doing so and has also suffered professionally—in the 1980s his career as a radio presenter came to an abrupt end because of his criticisms of state policy. Grossman writes regularly for The Guardian in Britain and a number of Israeli and American publications. Death As a Way of Life: Dispatches from Jerusalem [U.S. title: Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo, Farrar Straus & Giroux] brings together 35 columns written over the past decade. It is a powerful, prescient, and, above all, immensely sad book.

The first article here marks the signing of the Oslo accords by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat; the most recent was written in September last year, with the savage conflict renewed once again. In between, Grossman does not merely mark the key events in the downward trajectory of the peace process; he also charts his own voyage from optimism to despair.

Grossman writes with skill and erudition; his observations are both forthright and subtle. Even at the time of Oslo, he does not believe the two sides will magically be transformed into friendly partners. Instead, he takes a more cautious view: “The two sides have signed on to the agreement because they realize they have no other choice,” he writes. “After decades of mutual bloodletting, they have come to terms with the idea that if they do not live side by side they will perish together, in a maelstrom that will engulf the entire region.”

Even that, of course, turned out to be an overly hopeful assessment. Eight years later, with another Intifada almost a year old, a Hamas suicide bomber killed 15 people in the Sbarro pizzeria in central Jerusalem. Grossman—hardly uniquely—seems to lose all hope in the aftermath: “When I saw the footage on television, my first thought was: This is hell, and I’m living in it. At this hour the Israeli Cabinet is convening to discuss how to respond. Tonight or tomorrow it will come, the retaliation. But will it really change anything? Will it be of any use to the dead? It won’t even be of any use to the living.”

Grossman consistently pulls off a remarkable feat in these columns—the depth of his emotional involvement with the conflict rarely clouds the clarity of his perceptions. He remains adamant that the violence is, ultimately, rooted in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. Furthermore, his is a rare voice raised in opposition to the actions of successive Israeli governments in blocking the peace process. As early as 1995, he wondered: “Have the negotiations with the Palestinians really been conducted in a way that we think will bring about normal neighborly relations, or are they turning (perhaps intentionally?) into one more stage of humiliation for the Palestinians, into an imposition of surrender on them?”

For all of his criticisms of Israel, however, Grossman is not blind to the failings and flaws of the Palestinian side. He is firmly opposed to the granting of the so-called “Right of Return” to Palestinian refugees forced out of their homes at the time of Israel’s creation. He also complains about the lack of protest from within Palestinian society when militants massacre Israeli civilians: “Where are you, Palestinian intellectuals who should be denouncing this? Where are the writers, where are the humanists?”

This is a vital and emotive book. David Grossman is a valuable witness to the horror of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the injustices that fuel it, and the inhumanity at its center. As the peace process began to falter, Grossman sounded a note of caution: “This road has to be walked to its end. There’s no stopping before our destination is reached. If we don’t walk to the end, we will find ourselves walking back the way we came.”

He was, tragically, right.