Reflections on the Body Politic

Reflections on the Body Politic

Novelist David Grossman discusses Israel and the role of politics in his writing.


In 1987 the Israeli novelist David Grossman published The Yellow Wind, a searching, sympathetic portrait of life in the occupied West Bank. The book marked a watershed in Israeli culture, presenting an image of the Palestinians that was rarely seen in the Hebrew press–not as rejectionist “others” but as poorer neighbors whose idealized past and contemporary struggle for statehood were uncomfortably familiar. The Yellow Wind was also unusually frank in its depiction of the refugees’ grievous condition and their subjugation under Israeli rule, and Grossman’s sense of mounting tension within the camps was prescient: A few months after the book’s release the first intifada broke out, inaugurating an independence struggle in the occupied territories that continues to this day.

Since then Grossman has spoken out consistently in favor of a two-state solution, most recently as a signatory to the Geneva Accord, an unofficial alternative to the road map that specifies terms for a final-status agreement. Yet as the scope of his political influence has widened, his fiction has turned increasingly inward. Perhaps in defiance of reality, Grossman has constructed an imaginary Israel where violent conflict breaks out only through allegory or emotion. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has just published the English translation of Her Body Knows, a pair of erotic novellas written at the height of the second intifada. In “Frenzy,” a man’s obsession with his wife’s infidelity leads to his own, private betrayal. In the title story, a novelist writes a vindictive roman à clef about her mother and recites it at her deathbed. Both stories are taut psychological dramas; neither makes even a passing mention of the intifada.

For our interview, Grossman suggested we meet at the Montefiore Windmill, a Jerusalem landmark. Built in 1857 by a British Zionist named Moses Montefiore, the flour mill was beset by failures and closed after a few years of spotty service. Today it survives as a symbol of early Jewish settlement beyond the Old City and as a memorial site commemorating the local struggle between Arab forces and the Zionist Haganah during the 1948 war. For Grossman, though, its history is also personal. While writing See Under: Love (1989), a structurally daring novel in which the Holocaust is reimagined from a multiplicity of perspectives, he took up residence at the artistic retreat located on the same grounds.

After a brief tour, we sat down for coffee and cheesecake in the elegant Mishkenot Sha’ananim Restaurant, near a window with a stunning view of the surrounding hills. Grossman, dressed casually in a black shirt and jeans, spoke openly, affably, with a flair for metaphor. When the conversation turned to fiction, his eyes flickered with excitement. When it turned to politics, he stabbed a finger in the air, and his tone grew sharp. One has the impression of a man torn between his creative flights and the inescapable grasp of his homeland.

What is the role of politics in your fiction?

Like most writers who work in a traumatized area, Israeli writers are judged according to how political we are in our writing. But I can’t accept that. Sometimes I write a book that has a strong relevance to the political reality of everyday life in Israel, and sometimes I write about the lives of people who do not have any straight relationship to politics but who, by being Israelis, are affected by what happens here. For example, Someone to Run With [2004] does not deal with the conflict with the Palestinians. But it deals with homeless children in Jerusalem, and the fact that there is no money to take care of them derives from the fact that so much of our money goes to security and settlements. There is this metaphor that I like, of a suit of armor without a knight inside it. This is how we are now: All our energy, all our creativity, money, effort–it all goes to defend the borders. And in the end, this is not enough. The suit of armor is only there to defend the person inside. Be My Knife [2001] and Someone to Run With and Her Body Knows–they are about the things that politics confiscates from us.

To what extent has Israeli history shaped you?

I was born [in Jerusalem] in 1954. My maternal grandparents came from Poland in the late ’20s, and the mother of my father was a widow when she came here in 1936. So our nuclear family did not suffer directly from the Shoah, but the trauma was engraved in all of us. My generation was born into a nation that really rose from ashes, and there was always this contradiction between feeling like the strongest, most powerful element in the Middle East and identifying with the broken people we saw, mad with memories. In my neighborhood, you saw people with numbered tattoos. People used to cry out in their nightmares, and we heard them. But what was strange was that people did not talk about it. In those years, it was as if they didn’t want to interfere with the momentum of building up the myth of a strong state. As children we got all the contradictory radiation of strength and fragility. This manic-depressive wave went through us all the time. Both the fears and the vanities were very strong and formative to us as children.

Much of your fiction deals with boyhood rites of passage. What aspect of childhood inspires you?

It’s the most complicated and sometimes even tragic period in our lives, even though it has its own energy and magic. Children, especially if they are sensitive, can be very lonely. It’s difficult for a child to decode and adjust to all the hidden intentions of adults. You feel you are prey to the arbitrariness of your own system, and you have almost no solace or comfort. And you are all the time betrayed from within, because you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know that every little thing is not the end of the world, that things are going to change.

It sounds like you’re describing Israel.

Israel had a history of 4,000 years before she was a baby. When I wrote See Under: Love, there was a character named Kazak, the child who was born like an old man. Israel is this Kazak. When you grow up with so many tragedies ingrained in your genes, it’s difficult to preserve naïveté–in the good sense, I mean. But Israelis like to see Israel as a kind of wunderkind among nations, and it has been. We created a culture, an agriculture, restored the Hebrew language and built our army, our democracy. It’s not the best democracy on earth, and if you’re an Arab in Israel you may not feel it’s a democracy at all. But if we look at other countries that were established at the same time, I don’t think that more than one or two of them remained as a democracy. We did, and we had all the reasons in the world not to, because there was not a democratic tradition for us as Jews.

How do you respond to the criticism that the idea of a Jewish state is irreconcilable with the idea of democracy?

It’s a strong argument, and I can’t say I can settle all the contradictions, because I want Israel to be a Jewish state. Among the hundreds of states that exist in the world, I want to have one–not two, but one–that will be able to fulfill and implement the Jewish heritage and values and way of life…. It’s horrible that a country like ours, with 6.7 million people, gives up on one-fifth of its population. Palestinians should have as many rights as possible, as a national minority that accepts that they live in a Jewish state. This is the greatest test of our democracy, to show that we as Jews–who always have been a minority–know how to be a fair and generous, considerate majority toward the non-Jews here…. Of course, in these days, we do not feel that being a majority helps us to recover from the traumas of the past–sometimes on the contrary. But maybe this is an interim stage, a time to finish the conflict with our neighbors, settle our borders, write a Constitution, to become more part of reality. This is our curse, that in a way we are never part of reality, we are always living in another dimension as well. On the one hand, it gives you this air of spirituality, of uniqueness. On the other hand, you start to regard yourself as a society that does not obey the rules of normality: of politics, the economy, relationships.

It seems like that sort of condition is a ripe breeding ground for magical realists, yourself included. The section in See Under: Love in which the Polish novelist Bruno Schultz transforms into a salmon and swims away from Nazi-era Danzig has been interpreted by some critics as an Israeli myth of creation. Others suggest you were also commenting on Israel’s problem with political reality, as you just mentioned.

No, no, no. For me, the part of Bruno was about how to maintain your humanity in an impossible situation. The power of creativity against arbitrariness: This is what Bruno is about. Of course it can be applied as a political text. OK, but in that sense, if I write a cookbook, then it will also be interpreted as something political. In the first story in Her Body Knows, there is a couple who are driving together from Jerusalem to the Negev, to find someone in the desert. The atmosphere is very condensed; it’s a very claustrophobic story between them in this bubble of the car. I came to Italy when the book was published, and an Italian journalist said, “Mr. Grossman, is this car an allegory for the situation of suffocation between Jews and Palestinians?” Come on! I mean, really. Reality is so much more interesting than that.

Speaking of reality, what do you think of Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza?

I think it’s very important that Israel begin to get out of the occupied territories, because after thirty-eight years of dealing only with the question of settlement and occupation, people start to think that this is a situation of eternity, or divine decree. On the conceptual level, it’s important that Ariel Sharon, the person who is the most responsible for our tragic situation now–who deliberately planned, thirty years ago, the myth of settlements and put them in the places that will be an obstacle for any future peace treaty–it’s so important that he will uproot them himself. And I use the word “uproot” because I don’t want to whitewash this. People are going to be uprooted, and it’s going to be very cruel, very violent. Blood will be shed, I’m sure of that.

Does it upset you that part of this proposal includes the acceptance of some settlements in the West Bank? Furthermore, what do you think of America’s support for keeping these settlements, which President Bush has called the “demographic realities on the ground”?

Sharon has said that we have a great friend in the White House. I wish we had a lesser good friend, who helps our real interests–not the interest of the Likud Party…. You see, it is possible that Israel, with the help of the United States, could break the arm of the Palestinians and make them sign a contract according to the Bush vision. It’s good for Israel in the short term, but it’s not good for the relationship between us and the Palestinians. If you want someone to be your partner, you don’t break his arm.

It’s interesting to hear you use that phrase. You tend to describe the “body politic” quite literally in your essays.

I write from the body.

Thinking about Israel’s separation barrier in this way, I begin to see it as a scar. How do you see it?

At the height of the piguim, the terror acts here in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, people felt they needed this wall as a psychological medicine, a placebo. When it first started going up, I wrote an article against it in Yediot Ahronot. Nobody responded, dead silence. Then Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the minister of defense at the time, called me and said, “Come to my office. I want to explain something to you.” He gave me a lecture with all kinds of electronic tricks with lights on a map, and I thought, “Whatever he tells me, it is so wrong.” Now, I want to be clear: I think we need a border to defend ourselves but also, and more important for me, to create the notion of a border. We have had a very ambiguous attitude toward the idea of a border, all throughout our history. It’s this dance we have had with other nations–our strong drive to assimilate, and all the efforts of the anti-Semites to put us in ghettos, has created this uncontainable, undecipherable element inside us, but at the same time it radiates something of restlessness. Listen, I’m 50 now. All my life, the border has moved. All my life! How many times have we invaded Egypt in the south and then evacuated? Lebanon in the north, and evacuated. The east border with Jordan and the Palestinians–it’s so unclear where we end and they start. It’s like living in a house with mobile walls. No, we need a border, but it must be one that we and the Palestinians agree on together. Only a border that is agreed upon together will be defensible. I’m not naïve, I don’t think that terror will stop. Not at all, not at all. We will have to live with terror, and anyone who promises Israelis that peace will bring about real tranquillity is a crook or a fool. This is something very difficult to admit, but we will have to continue to check people before they get on the bus, when we go to the cinema. We are living in this shadow, for now and for many years to come. But terror is not an existential matter.

Is the right of return an existential threat?

The Geneva Accord has a solution for this. It’s a very clumsy solution, I know, but it’s a very complicated problem, so you cannot cut it like a Gordian knot. According to the Geneva Accord, Israel would absorb a certain amount of people for humanitarian reasons. The numbers vary from 30,000 to 70,000. If we don’t have an agreement, and if we create this ghetto wall around us, then we annex something like 400,000 Palestinians in order to keep the settlements. We are so afraid of the 50,000 people who will come back through the Geneva agreement, but we are so generously accepting 500,000 through the wall? The logic of it–oy!

How do you respond to those who advocate for binational statehood?

After 100 years, if everything is wonderful, the situation will be like the Flemings and the Walloons in Belgium, who hate each other deeply but don’t kill each other. Maybe then it will be time to open up, to loosen all borders. Personally, I would like to live in a world that is much more open and fluid. But what can I do? I was born into this reality. I cannot live in a dream, and I’m afraid that at this stage, massive friction between the two populations is disruptive. It’s not that I am against the Palestinian cause. I think it will be an exciting moment when these people–who have been humiliated for 100 years by the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Turks, by us–suddenly have the opportunity to put some energy toward life, not only toward surviving in a war zone.

How do you feel about the growing number of young Israelis who refuse to serve in the military?

I’ll tell you frankly, I don’t have a clear-cut answer. Sometimes I envy my friends on the left who say, “We must not take part in this.” But it is difficult for me to advocate refusal, because Israel is too fragile, I’m afraid. At the same time, I cannot agree with the state’s attitude toward refuseniks. The state treats them with such vengeance. It is so brutal toward them. I feel that if a country sticks its young people into such moral chaos, it has to be more tolerant until the occupation is over. Hopefully, our psyche will be released someday from this militant mentality.

Do you think the state is headed more toward the secularism of Tel Aviv, or the messianism of Jerusalem?

We are becoming more cosmopolitan, more open to the world, connected to MTV and cellular phones and the Internet. We belong to internationality. But at the same time, we become more and more Jerusalemite in the sense of being victims of our history, of bearing the burden of history, of messianism, of fanaticism. I wonder who will win. They both reflect something very deep in our psychology, so I don’t want one of them to win totally over the other. I want them to soften each other. In a way we are very lucky, because we do hold many contradictions, being in the heart of the East but being very Western, being an ultramodern country that is at the same time very traditional.

Yesterday I saw a man in the Old City selling cellular phones. I didn’t have a camera to take a picture of it, but I could have bought a camera, too.

I saw something just like that the other day. I was in my bank and there was an old Sephardic woman, maybe 70 years old, with a very traditional, colorful skirt. She pulled out her bank card and kissed it before she put it in the machine. Just to be sure, you know?

Let’s return to fiction.

Ah, good.

How do you use Hebrew to tell your stories?

Well, in See Under: Love and The Book of Intimate Grammar [1994], I tried to merge the Jewish way of thinking, which is expressed in the Yiddish, and the Israeli way of thinking, which is expressed in the modern Hebrew. Those rhythms are contradictory, because Hebrew is very sharp, abrupt, masculine in a way, and Yiddish is more feminine and ironic and subtle. In these books I tried to create this mechanism that would allow me to talk about Israel’s strong, sometimes violent reality in a Yiddish way, and to talk about Yiddish life, or Jewish life in the diaspora, from the Israeli point of view.

Many of your characters are storytellers of some sort, including, most recently, the protagonists of the two novellas that make up Her Body Knows. Is this more than just a narrative device for you?

The instinct of telling a story is such a primal urge. We have this need to reorganize our experience, our memory, to make order from the chaos. I remember how comforting it was for me as a child to tell or listen to stories. Every time I start a book, I think about it. There is always this moment when suddenly I start to fantasize, and the story becomes more concrete. Until then it’s very vague–you know, fragments. But then I have this spiritual feeling of being a child again, and being in this place, telling this story, suddenly makes all of this possible for me. And when I say “this” I mean all the complications of being a human being. I do not understand the world around me. I don’t understand why people act the way they do, why people act against themselves, why people are so subjugated to the things that destroy them, why people are so loyal to the things that subjugate them, why people are doomed to make themselves fail exactly at the point where they desperately need to be salvaged. It repeats itself time and again in the lives of individuals and in the lives of peoples–our people, as well. Telling a story creates for me the place where I really understand things, or I think I do.

It sounds like a sort of sanctuary.

Writing is my home. What a pity that I have to move to a new apartment every three or four years. You finish a story and you know everything about your protagonist. You dream about them, you know how they make love and how they cry, everything. And suddenly you have to close down, go to another apartment and start from the beginning.

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