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David Grossman: Israelis 'more prone to fanaticism and fundamentalism'


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David Grossman: Israelis 'more prone to fanaticism and fundamentalism'

World renowned author and peace activist David Grossman is very much attached to his homeland of Israel, but is also a harsh critic of its politics.

In his latest book, ‘A horse walks into a bar,’ he combines both humour and horror in what some see as a metaphor for the contradictions dividing the country.

Grossman spoke to euronews’ Isabelle Kumar in Jerusalem.

Who is David Grossman?

  • David Grossman is an award-winning Israeli author
  • Grossman writes both fiction and non-fiction
  • His books have been translated into more than 30 languages
  • He is a peace activist and an outspoken critic of the government
  • In 2006 one of his sons was killed during military service for the Israeli army

Isabelle Kumar, euronews: “If we look at your book ‘A horse walks into a bar’ the protagonist Dovalé is at once a very moral character, a humanist, yet on the other has quite a grotesque side, he shows an ugly side to the world. Does he embody your own contradictory feelings towards Israel?”

David Grossman: “Well first of all he is a literary character and he has many layers and inner contradictions. This is the thing that makes literary characters look alive. But maybe more than everything, Dovalé is a person who, because of something that happened to him when he was a child, when he was 14, his life took a different course from the course that was meant to go in.

“In a way you can say that he lives in parallel to the life he should have lived. Maybe also if you want, Israel has this destiny because in the last years we became a kind of mini empire, and I think from that moment on, we turned to a wrong parallel course of our life, of our being.”

euronews: “It seems like that there are so many messages in this book, but is there a particular message you wanted to get across?”

David Grossman: “The story that I tell is about a child Dovalé, who later became a stand-up comedian and the whole book takes place in a rundown night-club, but Dovalé who was a very sensitive, and fragile and very creative and passionate child, suddenly when he was 14 and he was sent for the first time in his life out of home to a kind of a semi-military type of camp, that we all went through when we were 14 and 15.

“He until then, he lived all his life, with a family that was very symbiotic, he, his mother and his father, and it was the first time that I said that he was torn away from them. And then one day when he was on the training field, a soldieress, a female soldier came and asked ‘who is Dovalé?’ and he says, ‘It’s me’, and she says, ‘Come with me, come, rush, rush, hurry, hurry,’ she says, ‘you have to be at four in Jerusalem at the funeral’, and he was shocked, ‘What funeral? Nobody talked with me about a funeral when I left home.’

“And very soon, his back pack is being packed by other soldiers, he is put in a military vehicle and he’s sent for four long hours, to the funeral in Jerusalem, but one question he has not asked and nobody told him. Who died? Is it mother or father? And these long four hours were so traumatic in his life they really made his destiny. And sometimes I think that the most cunning form of cruelty is indifference.”

euronews: “Dovalé also seems a very isolated figure, as he’s standing in front of his audience, they all, one by one, well most of them end up leaving, and he’s talking to an ever decreasing circle of people.

“And I know you resist maybe these kind of autobiographical references, but it also made me think of you, because some in your country, consider you a traitor for your beliefs. Do you ever feel that you’re more and more isolated in your own country?”

David Grossman: “I feel that my opinions are more and more isolated and I feel more and more people, they gave up their efforts to contain the very complicated reality here and they chose simplicity and you see how more and more Israelis are being tempted to this way of looking at the conflict of abandoning their attempt to achieve some political, rational solution and rather they are more and more prone to fanaticism and fundamentalism.

“You see it on both sides, it happens in Israel, it happens in Palestine, it makes the solution almost impossible.

euronews: “But we also see that dissident voices, voices who oppose the mainstream Israeli way of thinking are silenced. And I’m thinking here now of the Israeli government that have said that for example authors like yourself won’t receive government funding because you are not considered loyal to the Israeli state and I wondered what does that loyalty mean?”

David Grossman: “You should ask them what it means. I… first of all I don’t think I should even justify my loyalty, I was born here, this is my place, I take a very active part in the life in Israel, in the culture in Israel. I don’t think the question of loyalty should be aroused at all, it’s a fascist question, it’s one of the signs of the deterioration of the democracy and the democratic perception here in Israel.

“My loyalty is to my art, what I try to do in my books, in my writing, is to document as much as I can with as much accuracy as I can to document the nuances of life here in Israel because I think this life here is a fascinating life, sometimes it’s unbearable.”

euronews: “That brings me to one of your earlier novels, ‘To the End of the Land,’ and a mother there goes on a journey to outrun what’s called the notification here, the news that your child has died in the army.

“Now I know that fiction and reality merged for you when you were writing this book and you received this notification, but what I wanted to know is what does it do to a society to live side by side with this dread that your children will be killed?”

David Grossman: “Maybe this is the thing that characterises the Israeli society now more than everything else and this is fear. It’s fear for our children who go the army, but it’s also fear to walk in the street and the government and the right wing are making a cynical usage of this fear. We have a prime minister who is an expert in stirring together the real dangers that Israel faces and we do face real dangers here in the Middle East, but he knows how to stir together the real dangers with the echoes of past traumas.

“Now I think that a society that is dominated by fears is a declining society, it does not have the energy and the vitality that it takes in order to flourish, to blossom and also to solve its existential problems. If you categorise things only in categories of fear, of despair, you will not get far away. In the end, you shall have to realise your greatest fears.”

euronews: “We asked our online audience to send us in questions for this interview and I would like to bring in some of those voices. George Miller asks ‘how do we turn off this spiral of hate and rage, and we could add fear, that we see growing?’”

David Grossman: “The society is formulated by these fears by now, both the Israeli and the Palestinian societies. And people feel really that they are doomed to live like that forever and the air of despair is so heavy that people just do not have the mental energy to start to envision how life of peace can look like.

“So we do need leaders and politicians and also intellectuals and writers to formulate the option of peace, to insist on revitalising the option of peace that today is not existing at all.”

euronews: “Do you think you will be able to see peace in your lifetime? Possibly even your childrens’ lifetime?”

David Grossman: “I very much hope so. My struggle for peace is not only for the Palestinians to have their home and homeland and dignity, and I don’t want that they will live their life under the shadow of the occupation, I don’t want to cast shadow on anyone because when I cast shadow on someone my life is being shadowed.

“Being an Israeli and a Jew, I yearn to see Israel flourishing in conditions of peace, to see what it will do to us for the first time in our history, in our ancient history and our modern history, to live life without fear.”

euronews: “We talk a lot about the two state solution, that seems to be dead…”

David Grossman: “No, no, no. Don’t kill it so fast, it’s not dead, it’s the only possible option…”

euronews: “One state solution. Do you think the Israelis would be able to envision that?”

David Grossman: “Do you believe that these two peoples, the Israeli and the Palestinians, who have been not only scarred by a century of violence, but really distorted.

“Do you really think that they are mature enough to collaborate in an efficient and a positive way in one political entity? This will not happen.”

euronews: “Well this brings me to a question then from Robin Wilson. ‘How can progressives win an argument for Israel as a civic state of Jews, Arabs and others, rather than a Jewish state?’”

David Grossman: “No, no, I don’t want to be, to have only a Jewish state. And I think it’s important always that there will be other communities and other minorities here in this place in Israel.

“People who will feel and be totally equal to the Jewish majority and people who together will interact, Jews and Arabs, Druze and Christians, and create a rich and a prosperous place here in Israel.”

euronews: “Well as we saw there’s no love lost between you and the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and you recently said that he’s leading with his eyes wide shut. What did you mean by that?”

David Grossman: “I cannot understand how such an intelligent person, a person with such historic knowledge as he does, he ignores reality, he ignores the fact that if Israel relies only on its power, at a certain point down the road, Israel – God forbid, and this is the only context I’ll use, God, here – Israel will be defeated, there will be a stronger power than us, a more cunning and more courageous, a more sophisticated power that will defeat Israel.”

euronews: “Well I would like to bring in one of our voices again from our social media audience, and this person asks a question that I think is on a lot of people’s minds.. Hernan Pena asks, ‘I consider BB Netanyahu a war criminal, do you?’”

David Grossman: “No, I would say he’s a criminal of peace because for so many years he avoids every chance for peace and he refuses constantly to generate an option of negotiation and of peace between us and the Palestinians and this is dangerous. In doing that, he puts Israel in danger because… you know, this belief that if only we hit the Palestinians with a bigger and bigger and bigger stick, then they will start to love us and to start to negotiate with us, is a very primitive conception.

“There is this deep refusal really in all the Israeli leadership for years, to see the situation from the point of mind, sorry, from the point of view of the Palestinians. So this is something that maybe as a writer I can contribute to the debate.

“We have to allow the Palestinian story to infiltrate into our consciousness. We have to understand what makes them so rageful, so hateful, that they run in the street and stab us so massively, for so many years now. Yes, only if we allow that, maybe we shall not be at war with them.”

euronews: “We see that Benjamin Netanyahu, I would like to bring this back to him, who has likened the militant group Islamic State to Hamas and vice-versa. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?”

David Grossman: “You know, the Hamas is not my favourite part of the Palestinian society because they are fanatic, fundamentalist and in their basic declaration, they openly wish for the eradication of Israel and building an Islamic state on the ruins of it. Yet, the Hamas because of its structure and because of the geo-political situation, has also some political interests, unlike the ISIS, Daesh.

“For example, you will find among the Hamas, people who say that they are for a ‘houdnah.’ A houdnah is an Arabic term for a long ceasefire that by the way they can break when it suits them. But I look for the far distance and I say OK, maybe if we have a houdnah with the Palestinians in Gaza, with the Hamas, for 10, 20, 25 years, maybe things will change also there.”

euronews: “Israel is becoming increasingly a pariah state abroad, you travel a great deal, do you ever feel ashamed of being an Israeli?”

David Grossman: “I feel ashamed of what my government is doing, not ashamed of being an Israeli. I still think that this country is an amazing place.

“You know we sometimes tend to just, you know, criticise Israel totally and to forget how this country came into being, three years after the holocaust, after the shoah, and the fact that it built itself really from ashes and it created here a great culture and agriculture and hi-tech and industry and many layers of life that are quite unique. And, as I said, I don’t want to live in any other place.”

euronews: “OK, well let me give you a specific example then, and just see what you think about that. The EU has started labelling settlement goods as coming from settlements. Now you’re against the settlements programmes, what do you think about that?”

David Grossman: “I think they have the right to do it and I’m actually glad because it means that they accept the idea of the two states, they accept the total legitimacy of Israel within the green line.

“They have the right to mention to their audience that these products came from a disputable place. This is a price in a way that Israel brought upon herself.”

euronews: “Now you’re very passionate about peace, we’ve ascertained that during this interview. And I received this question from Mahmoud Dido Kilosho, who says ‘what do you do for traumatised Palestinians?’”

David Grossman: “First of all I think that Palestinians should do for traumatised Palestinians, for traumatised Palestine.

“What I tried to do ever since I started to come to my senses and to look at reality here, was to write about the complexity of this conflict and I described the life of the Palestinians and the situation of the occupation in three books, one novel and two documentary books.”

euronews: “Is that a sense of release for you?”

David Grossman: “Release? No, I think that… You know, I take reality very seriously and the alternative is be either cynical or desperate of the situation and I don’t want to be both.

“And look at us now, the largest superpower in the region and still we are victims of our fears, of our nightmares, sometimes of our neighbours and our enemies. We are not taking our destiny in our own hands.”

euronews: “You must take great pleasure in writing and it must take you away from this reality. Can you tell me a little bit about the pleasure you get from writing fiction?”

David Grossman: “Yeah, it’s much more pleasurable than writing about our reality. I think that being a writer brings you into contact with the endless options of every human situation, in every human situation there is an enormous arsenal of options, of potential, of passions, of energies.

“Sometimes it’s so difficult when I finish my working day, after 6, 7 or 8 hours and I have to go back to reality, especially to this terrible reality, it is really so hard.”

euronews: “Finally, I would like to bring it back to your latest book, A Horse walks into a Bar, it’s scattered with jokes, there’s jokes all the way throughout the book and I was wondering, is there a particular joke that you would like to tell us?”

David Grossman: “There are many jokes in the book and I so much enjoyed writing it because of the flow of jokes and I am a person who rarely remembers a joke. And now at least I know at least 30 jokes to tell.

“But I tell you a joke that is not from this book, and it has to do with the name of the book, A Horse walks into a Bar… A horse walks into a bar and asks for a chaser of vodka, the barman looks at him stunned, pours him, the horse takes the glass, drinks, how much is it. The barman says 50 bucks (dollars).

“OK, the horse pays, goes to the door, barman runs after him, excuse me, Mr Horse, what for a second, it’s amazing, I never saw something like that, a talking horse. The horse look at him, tells him, ‘with your prices, you will never see again.’”

with the contribution of Damon Embling

Every story can be told in many ways: see the perspectives from Euronews journalists in our other language teams.

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