According to Israeli novelist David Grossman, everyone has his own “calling card” story. “It’s a story about our childhood and our adolescence and our life now, and how life was tough on us,” he explained on Sunday at a Times of Israel Presents event in Jerusalem.
But over time, polished through repeated performances, even a story that once earned sympathy and love from its audiences begins to define and perhaps trap its teller. In that allegory, the narrator becomes a victim of his own narrative.
As Israel prepares to celebrate 69 years of independence — and mark 50 years since the Six Day War and specifically the capture of the West Bank — Grossman suggested a reexamination of the country’s current narrative, with eyes wide open.
The evening was ostensibly devoted to the novelist’s craft, but the craftsman’s inextricable political anguish shone through at every turn. In an onstage English interview with writer Benjamin Balint, the native Israeli Grossman spoke fluently, using jokes, personal anecdotes and insights into his novels — his “A Horse Walks into a Bar” was recently published in English — as means to sculpt a condemnation of the Israeli status quo.
“We do not have to collaborate with the dictate of this story,” said Grossman. “We can stand anew vis-a-vis this story and maybe really read it differently, and tell it differently.” Countries can become paralyzed by their foundational myths, he argued, and educate generations of children on lessons gleaned from them.
“But maybe they are doing this deep injustice to generations that again will be trapped by these stories,” said Grossman.
Decrying the “tragic” trajectory of contemporary Israel, Grossman suggested it is time for a rewrite of the national narrative. But today’s Israeli democracy, he said, is imperiled by a government with “a very extreme fundamentalist nationalist and fascist” agenda.
“They kidnap our present and they will kidnap our future and they make sure that no peace will be possible,” he warned.
In an era in which Zionism is a “dirty word” in Europe and some parts of the United States, said Grossman, he strives to reinforce the abiding reasons for the foundation of the Jewish state.
“I insist on reminding myself and others that the story of the homecoming of the Jewish people to his homeland from all over the world and the reality that was created here against all odds is one of the greatest stories among the other greatest stories of mankind. No lesser than that. What happened later was a distortion,” he said.
‘They kidnap our present and they will kidnap our future and they make sure that no peace will be possible’
Israel, Grossman continued, was created so the Jews may never again be victims. “And look at us now: The strongest military power in the whole region… and yet we regard ourselves as so weak and so dependent on what others will do. Such victims we are still — of our fears, of our history, of the mistakes of our enemy and our future partner.”
In the decades since the Six Day War, the greatness of the story of Israel has been derailed, he said.
“You can see how at a certain moment all our fate as a country shifted to another path, to another track on our train. And we found ourselves in a situation that is so profoundly different from almost all of our history. From a people that is weak and dependent on the good will — and more often on the bad will — of others, a people that had no army, no weapon, no way to defend itself, suddenly we found ourselves as an empire,” Grossman said.
“There was a temptation in the ability to subjugate another people to our will, to our wishes, to dictate their time, their routine, their education. To be able to invade their intimacy whenever we wanted. There was even something erotic about it in the beginning. And it isn’t only that we got used to this situation — we fell in love with the situation,” he said.
Israel’s narrative changed starkly, he said, when “we started to fabricate ideologies that would justify why we must be in this situation, why it’s better for us with all the faults and the problems, why it’s better for us than any other option. And we came to our situation now, which is a tragic situation. I regard it really as a tragedy. We behave in a suicidal way now.”
‘You can see how at a certain moment all our fate as a country shifted to another path, to another track on our train’
He accused the right-wing government of stoking its citizens’ innate fears. Grossman described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “magician” who “knows how to stir together the real dangers Israel faces… with the echoes of past trauma. And we, as a traumatized community — and we are a traumatized community — are totally helpless in the face of such manipulation,” he said.
According to Grossman, however, there is a palpable resistance in the country’s thriving arts and cultural scene.
“There is an eruption of artistic powers in Israel,” he said, not only in literature, but all media. Even if they aren’t a direct path to peace, the arts are, at least for Grossman, a source of optimism.
“One of the great rewards of writing is it allows you to have a second chance,” said Grossman. “You’re not doomed to experience again and again the same story.”
Also this week: Overcoming Hatred: Meet former Jew-hater Megan Phelps-Roper
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