Looking at Ourselves
David Grossman/New York Review of Books, January 11, 2007
The great Israeli novelist and philosopher David Grossman, whose 20-year-old son Uri, a soldier in the Israeli military, was killed during Israel's latest war in Lebanon, delivered this speech at the Rabin memorial ceremony in Tel Aviv on November 4, 2006, in the presence of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; it was reprinted in the New York Review:
At the annual memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin, we pause to remember Yitzhak Rabin the man, and the leader. We also look at ourselves, at Israeli society, at its leadership, at the state of the national spirit, at the state of the peace process, and at our place, as individuals, within these great national developments.
This year, it is not easy to look at ourselves.
We had a war. Israel brandished its huge military biceps, but its reach proved all too short, and brittle. We realized that our military might alone cannot, when push comes to shove, defend us. In particular, we discovered that Israel faces a profound crisis, much more profound than we imagined, in almost every part of our collective lives.
I speak here, this evening, as one whose love for this land is tough and complicated, but nevertheless unequivocal. And as one for whom the covenant he has always had with this land has become, to my misfortune, a covenant of blood. I am a man entirely without religious faith, but nevertheless, for me, the establishment, and very existence, of the state of Israel is something of a miracle that happened to us as a people—a political, national, human miracle. I never forget that, even for a single moment. Even when many things in the reality of our lives enrage and depress me, even when the miracle disintegrates into tiny fragments of routine and wretchedness, of corruption and cynicism, even when the country looks like a bad parody of that miracle, I remember the miracle always.
That sentiment lies at the foundation of what I will say tonight.
"See, land, that we were most wasteful," the poet Shaul Tchernichowski wrote in 1938. He grieved that in the bosom of the earth, in the land of Israel, we have interred, time after time, young people in the prime of their lives. The death of young people is a horrible, outrageous waste. But no less horrible is the feeling that the state of Israel has, for many years now, criminally wasted not only the lives of its sons and daughters, but also the miracle that occurred here—the great and rare opportunity that history granted it, the opportunity to create an enlightened, properly functioning democratic state that would act in accordance with Jewish and universal values. A country that would be a national home and refuge, but not only a refuge. It would also be a place that gives new meaning to Jewish existence. A country in which an important, essential part of its Jewish identity, of its Jewish ethos, would be full equality and respect for its non-Jewish citizens.
Look what happened.
Look what happened to this young, bold country, so full of passion and soul. How in a process of accelerated senescence Israel aged through infancy, childhood, and youth, into a permanent state of irritability and flaccidity and missed opportunities. How did it happen? When did we lose even the hope that we might someday be able to live different, better lives? More than that—how is it that we continue today to stand aside and watch, mesmerized, as madness and vulgarity, violence and racism take control of our home?
And I ask you, how can it be that a people with our powers of creativity and regeneration, a nation that has known how to pick itself up out of the dust time and again, finds itself today—precisely when it has such great military power—in such a feeble, helpless state? A state in which it is again a victim, but now a victim of itself, of its fears and despair, of its own shortsightedness?
One of the harsh things that this last war sharpened for us was the feeling that in these times there is no king in Israel. That our leadership is hollow, both our political and military leadership. I am not speaking now of the obvious fiascos in the conduct of the war, or of the way the rear echelon of the army was left to its own devices. Nor am I speaking of our current corruption scandals, great and small. My intention is to make it clear that the people who today lead Israel are unable to connect Israelis with their identity, and certainly not with the healthy, sustaining, inspiring parts of Jewish identity. I mean those parts of identity and memory and values that can give us strength and hope, that can serve as antidotes to the attenuation of mutual responsibility and of our connection to the land, that can grant meaning to our exhausting, desperate struggle for survival.
Today, Israel's leadership fills the husk of its regime primarily with fears and intimidations, with the allure of power and the winks of the backroom deal, with haggling over all that is dear to us. In this sense, our leaders are not real leaders. They are certainly not the leaders that a people in such a complicated, disoriented state need. Sometimes, it seems that the public expression of their thinking, of their historical memory, of their vision, of what really is important to them fills only the tiny space between two newspaper headlines. Or between two police investigations.
Look at those who lead us. Not at all of them, of course, but all too many of them. Look at the way they act—terrified, suspicious, sweaty, legalistic, deceptive. It's ridiculous to even hope that the Law will come forth from them, that they can produce a vision, or even an original, truly creative, bold, momentous idea. When was the last time that the Prime Minister suggested or made a move that could open a single new horizon for Israelis? A better future? When did he take a social, cultural, or ethical initiative, rather than just react frantically to the actions of others?
Mr. Prime Minister, I do not say these things out of anger or vengeance. I have waited long enough; I am not speaking on the impulse of a moment. You cannot dismiss my words tonight by saying "a man should not be held to what he says when he is mourning." Of course I am mourning. But more than I am in pain, I hurt. This country, and what you and your colleagues are doing to it, pains me. In all sincerity, it is important to me that you succeed. Because our future depends on your ability to rise up and act. Yitzhak Rabin turned to the path of peace with the Palestinians not because he was fond of them or their leaders. Then also, if you remember, the common wisdom was that we had no partner among the Palestinians, and that there was nothing for us to talk about with them. Rabin decided to act because he detected, with great astuteness, that Israeli society could not long continue in a state of unresolved conflict. He understood, before many people understood, that life in a constant climate of violence, of occupation, of terror and fear and hopelessness, comes at a price that Israel cannot afford to pay.
All this is true today as well, and much more sharply. In a bit we'll talk about the partner that we do or don't have, but first let's look at ourselves. For more than a hundred years we have lived in a conflict. We, the citizens of that conflict, were born into a war, we were educated within it, and in a sense we were educated for it. Perhaps for that reason we sometimes think that this madness that we've been living in for a century now is the only true thing, that it is the life we are destined for, and that we have no way, even no right, to aspire to a different kind of life. We will live and die by the sword, and the sword shall devour forever.
Maybe that explains the apathy with which we accept the total cessation of the peace process, a moratorium that has lasted for years now, and has cost ever more casualties. That can also explain how most of us have failed to respond to the brutal kick democracy received when Avigdor Lieberman was appointed a senior cabinet minister. It's the appointment of a compulsive pyromaniac to head the country's firefighters.
And these are some of the reasons that, in an amazingly short time, Israel has degenerated into heartlessness, real cruelty toward the weak, the poor, and the suffering. Israel displays indifference to the hungry, the elderly, the sick, and the handicapped, equanimity in the face of, for example, trafficking in women, or the exploitation of foreign workers in conditions of slave labor, and in the face of profound, institutionalized racism toward its Arab minority. When all this happens as if it were perfectly natural, without outrage and without protest, I begin to fear that even if peace comes tomorrow, even if we eventually return to some sort of normality, it may be too late to heal us completely.
The calamity that my family and I suffered when my son Uri fell in the war last summer does not give me any special privileges in our national debate. But it seems to me that facing death and loss brings with it a kind of sobriety and clarity, at least when it comes to distinguishing the wheat from the chaff, between what can and cannot be achieved. Between reality and fantasy.
Every thinking person in Israel— and, I will add, in Palestine as well— knows today precisely the outline of a possible solution to the conflict between the two peoples. All thinking people, in Israel and in Palestine, know deep in their hearts the difference between, on the one hand, their dreams and wishes, and on the other, what they can get at the end of the negotiations. Those who don't know that, whether Jews or Arabs, are already not part of the dialogue. Such people are trapped in their hermetic fanaticism, so they are not partners. Let's look for a minute at our potential partners. The Palestinians have placed Hamas in their leadership, and Hamas refuses to negotiate with us, refuses even to recognize us. What can we do in such a situation? What more can we do? Tighten the noose even more? Continue to kill hundreds of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the great majority of them innocent civilians, like us?
Appeal to the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert. Appeal to them over Hamas's head. Appeal to the moderates among them, to those who, like you and me, oppose Hamas and its ideology. Appeal to the Palestinian people. Speak to their deepest wound, acknowledge their unending suffering. You won't lose anything, and Israel's position in any future negotiation will not be compromised. But hearts will open a bit to each other, and that opening has great power. Simple human compassion has the power of a force of nature, precisely in a situation of stagnation and hostility.
Look at them, just once, not through a rifle's sights and not through a roadblock. You will see a people no less tortured than we are. A conquered, persecuted, hopeless people. Of course the Palestinians are also guilty of the dead end we've reached. Of course they bear part of the blame for the failure of the peace process. But look at them for a moment in a different way. Not just at their extremists. Not just at those who have an alliance of mutual interest with our own extremists. Look at the great majority of this wretched nation, whose fate is bound up with ours, like it or not.
Go to the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert. Don't look for reasons not to talk to them. You've given up on unilateral disengagement. And that's good. But don't leave a vacuum. It will fill up immediately with violence and destruction. Talk to them. Make them an offer that their moderates can accept (there are far more of them than the media shows us). Make them an offer, so that they will have to decide whether to accept it or instead remain hostages to fanatical Islam. Go to them with the boldest, most serious plan that Israel is able to put forward. A plan that all Israelis and Palestinians with eyes in their heads will know is the limit of refusal and concession, ours and theirs. If you hesitate, we'll soon be longing for the days when Palestinian terrorism was an amateur affair. We will pound ourselves on our heads and shout, why did we not use all our flexibility, all our Israeli creativity, to extricate our enemy from the trap in which he ensnared himself?
Just as there is unavoidable war, there is also unavoidable peace. Because we no longer have any choice. We have no choice, and they have no choice. And we need to set out toward this unavoidable peace with the same determination and creativity with which we set out to an unavoidable war. Anyone who thinks there is an alternative, that time is on our side, does not grasp the profound, dangerous process that is now well underway.
Perhaps, Mr. Prime Minister, I need to remind you that if any Arab leader sends out signals of peace, even the slightest, most hesitant ones, you must respond. You must immediately test his sincerity and seriousness. You have no moral right not to respond. You must do so for the sake of those who will be expected to sacrifice their lives if another war breaks out. So if President Assad says that Syria wants peace, even if you don't believe him—and we're all suspicious—you must propose a meeting that very same day. Don't wait a single day longer. After all, when you set out on the last war you didn't wait for even an hour. You charged in with all our might. With every weapon we have. With all our power to destroy. Why, when there is some sort of flicker of peace, do you immediately reject it, dismiss it? What do you have to lose? Are you suspicious of the Syrian president? Go offer him terms that will reveal his trickery. Offer him a peace process lasting several years, only at the end of which, if he meets all the conditions, lives up to all the restrictions, will he get the Golan Heights. Force him into a process of ongoing dialogue. Act so that his people will be made aware of the possibility, help the moderates, who must exist there as well. Try to shape reality, not to be its collaborator. That's why you were elected. Precisely for that reason.
Of course not everything depends on what we do. There are great and strong forces acting in this region and in the world, and some of them, like Iran, like radical Islam, wish us ill. Nevertheless, so much does depend on what we do, and what we will be. The differences between right and left are not that great today. The decisive majority of Israel's citizens now understand—of course, some of them without enthusiasm—what the shape of a peaceful solution will look like. Most of us understand that the land will be divided, that there will be a Palestinian state. Why, then, do we continue to sap ourselves with the internal bickering that has gone on now for almost forty years? Why does our political leadership continue to reflect the positions of the extremists and not of the majority? After all, we'll be much better off if we reach this national consensus on our own, before circumstances—external pressures, or a new Palestinian uprising, or another war— force us to do so. If we do it, we will save ourselves years of erosion and error, years in which we will shout again and again, "See, land, that we were most wasteful."
From where I stand at this moment, I request, call out to all those listening —to young people who came back from the war, who know that they are the ones who will have to pay the price of the next war; to Jewish and Arab citizens; to the people of the right and the people of the left: stop for a moment. Look over the edge of the abyss, and consider how close we are to losing what we have created here. Ask yourselves if the time has not arrived for us to come to our senses, to break out of our paralysis, to demand for ourselves, finally, the lives that we deserve to live.
—Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman