Israeli in S.F. says liberal Jews should be more vocal

Lefty American Jews, speak up; Israelis can't hear you.

That was one thing Israeli novelist and peace activist David Grossman had to say last week in talking about hamatzav, or "the situation," as Israelis have taken to calling the current intifada of the last five months.

In town for the opening of A Traveling Jewish Theatre's adaptation of his novel "See Under: Love," Grossman switched hats to discuss his activism through writing one morning, before going out for a mandatory shopping trip.

In a utopian world, Grossman said, he would like to see 1 million American Jews move to Israel, because the Jewish state could benefit from those who were raised in an atmosphere of multiculturalism and tolerance.

"It's an old-fashioned idea, and not politically correct," he said with a smile. "But Americans can contribute to the really important things, like how we treat each other, pluralism and egalitarianism. There are not many advocates for those things now. They could serve as a barricade against the fanaticism that prevails there now."

But short of that?

"We really only hear support of the right wing in Israel. American Jews tell me they want to support Israel and that means remaining objective. No one is objective," he said. "What we get then is silence, and silence means that they agree with Israeli policy."

As one of Israel's most celebrated writers, Grossman has long used his stature to argue the point that when Israel came to control the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 — and with it, the Western Wall, Rachel's Tomb and the Temple Mount — its Jewish character became compromised; it became less Jewish, not more.

While his novels have been translated into numerous languages and have garnered critical praise from around the world, he easily crosses the line between fiction and nonfiction and back again.

With "The Yellow Wind," which first came out in Israel in 1987, Grossman became one of the first Israelis to report in depth on what was happening in the West Bank and Gaza shortly before the first intifada began on Dec. 9 of that year.

And in 1994, he reported on the lives of the Arab minority living within Israel in "Sleeping on a Wire."

Yet even with his extensive network of Palestinian contacts, many of whom have turned into genuine friends, like most on the Israeli left, he was caught off guard by the eruption of violence last September.

"A Palestinian wouldn't have been surprised," he said. "Anyone who has been in the occupied territories in the past seven years and has seen the momentum of the Israelis' building of roads and expansion of settlements would not have been surprised."

Yet he himself has been in the territories in the past seven years. He has continually written about the frustration and despair he's seen there. But all the same, he had hope in Ehud Barak, he said.

"It's our nature," he said. "If there's a chance, we want to believe in it, even if it means denying reality."

In November, Grossman wrote an opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times, calling the settlements a major obstacle to peace.

He wrote that Oslo would have led the Palestinians to having "not a real state, but with only a few blots of land, ringed and bisected by the presence of the Israeli occupier — which, after the bloody battles, would have engendered a sense of humiliation in every Palestinian heart."

He stopped short of calling for the removal of all settlements, he explained, because the Palestinians had already expressed their willingness to allow some of them to be annexed to Israel in exchange for another piece of land.

Nonetheless, he called them "a horrendous mistake," made in an effort led by current prime minister-elect Ariel Sharon, to "obscure any peace in the future."

Grossman's son entered the Israel Defense Force three months ago, but he wouldn't say much more about it, other than "there is nothing special about him; thousands of Israeli sons are serving."

Yet with such strong views, how would he feel if his son were commanded to serve in the West Bank or Gaza?

While he sympathizes with conscientious objectors, he said, he doesn't believe in refusing outright, because it might allow the settlers to feel they can disobey the IDF, when, ultimately, they will be ordered to evacuate their homes.

His fiction aside, writing about Israel's situation has become a kind of activism for him.

"I don't think I understand Israeli politics better than anyone else," he said. "So many people are paralyzed by our reality. When I say things about a reality that seems unchangeable and give it my own words, I'm not a victim of it."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."