Unforgiven

The rift between a beleaguered prime minister and a grieving novelist mirrors the division confounding Israel. Can the two men overcome the differences that separate them? Can Israel overcome its paralysis to make the hard choice necessary for its survival as a Jewish democracy?
Olmert and Grossman
THE PRIME MINISTER AND THE NOVELIST: Ehud Olmert (left) and David Grossman

Grossman closed the press conference without mentioning his personal interest in the war: his 20-year-old son, Uri, was a tank commander then fighting in Lebanon. To do so would have been unseemly, and un-Israeli, he told me later. “The cause was to stop the war for the sake of the entire country.”

Grossman is 54, but he is trim and his face is unlined. He is reflective and self-contained, somewhat owlish, but not without humor. We met on a cold day in Jerusalem, at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, an artists’ colony situated across the Valley of Hinnom from Mount Zion.

Grossman told me that after the press conference, he went home to work on his latest novel, which he had begun in May of 2003, when Uri, the second of his three children, was about to be called up for army service. Grossman’s oldest boy, Yonatan, had already completed three years in the army.

“I thought about writing a novel about an Israeli soldier, a tank commander, who goes to a big military operation,” he said. “His mother has a kind of premonition that he’s going to be killed, and she will do everything she can in order to prevent that from happening. So she escapes. She will not be at home when the army comes to announce the death of her son. She understands that bad news takes two people, one to deliver and one to receive, and she will not be there to receive. She starts a walk across Israel, a 500-kilometer walk, and she tells the story of her son’s life, from the smallest details to the largest things, to someone who is very significant to her. She believes that this will protect her son.”

Grossman himself took a similar journey while writing the book, spending weeks crossing Israel on foot, and he visited with army officers whose duty it is to inform families of the deaths of their children.

At 2:40 a.m. on Sunday, August 13, three days after the press conference, Grossman’s doorbell rang. There were officers at the door. Uri had been killed in action in Lebanon, in the village of Hirbat Kasif, when a Hezbollah missile struck his tank. He was one of 24 soldiers to die on the first day of the ground offensive. Five hours later, David and his wife, Michal, woke up Uri’s sister, Ruti, who was then 13. As she cried, she asked, “But we will still go on living, right?”

Yehoshua, who is close to the family, told me that the Grossmans had taken to turning off their outside light at night, to make it more difficult for a messenger to find the house. But on that particular night, Michal had turned their outside light on. She later worried, she said, that in so doing she had “invited the terrible news.”

Among the mourners to visit the next day were Oz and Yehoshua. “Maybe he was trying to prevent Uri’s death by writing down his most terrible fears,” Yehoshua told me. “It’s a terrible tragedy that it didn’t work.”

Grossman recalled the visit of Oz and Yehoshua the day after Uri’s death.

“When Uri fell, the morning after, they came to the shivah”—the period of visitation and mourning that follows a Jewish burial—“and I told them I won’t be able to save this novel. I think it was Amos who said, ‘The novel will save you.’ The day after the shivah, I went back and started to work again.” I asked Grossman whether the novel has changed. “The writer changed, not the story. I knew how the story was going to end. I don’t want to say it.” There is more sadness in the book now, he said, “sadness for the fate of the young man, for the future of Israel, but I must say that the small number of people who have read it say they find it comforting.”

The novel is being published this spring. It could have a seismic effect on Israelis, who have, in their 60th year of independence, grown tired of losing their sons to war.

The death of Uri has made his father, a man obviously vulnerable to existential worry, preternaturally aware of the insecurity around him. The 60th anniversary of Israel’s birth—it gained independence on May 15, 1948—is meant to be a celebration, but Grossman sees darkness ahead. “Our army is big, we have this atom bomb, but the inner feeling is of absolute fragility, that all the time we are at the edge of the abyss.”

Israelis have violently contradictory feelings about their future. Their country is, by almost any measure, an astonishing success. It has a large, sophisticated, and growing economy (its gross domestic product last year was $150 billion); the finest universities and medical centers in the Middle East; and a main city, Tel Aviv, that is a center of art, fashion, cuisine, and high culture spread along a beautiful Mediterranean beach. Israel has shown itself, with notable exceptions, to be adept at self-defense, and capable (albeit imperfectly) of protecting civil liberties during wartime. It has become a worldwide center of Jewish learning and self-expression; its strength has straightened the spines of Jews around the world; and, most consequentially, it has absorbed and enfranchised millions of previously impoverished and dispossessed Jews. Zionism may actually be the most successful national liberation movement of the 20th century.

Yet 60 years of independence have not provided Israel with legitimacy in its own region. Two of its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, have signed peace treaties with Israel, but it is still a small Jewish island in a great sea of Islam, a religion that seems today more allergic than ever to the idea of Jewish independence. Iran poses the most ruthless threat to Israel’s existence—no other member of the United Nations has so insistently, and in such baroque terms, threatened the destruction of another member state.

The internal threats to Israel’s existence are severe as well. Israel’s greatest military victory, in 1967, led to a squalid and seemingly endless occupation, and to the birth of a mystical, antidemocratic, and revanchist strain of Zionism, made manifest in the settlements of the West Bank. These settlements have undermined Israel’s international legitimacy and demoralized moderate Palestinians. The settlers exist far outside the Israeli political consensus, and their presence will likely help incite a third intifada. Yet the country seems unable to confront the settlements.

Israel’s people are among the world’s most patriotic—in a recent survey, 94 percent of Jewish Israelis said they are willing to fight for their country (by contrast, 63 percent of Americans are willing to fight for theirs), but 44 percent of Israelis said they would be ready to leave their country if they could find a better standard of living abroad. There are already up to 40,000 Israelis in Silicon Valley (and more than a half million across the U.S.), and the emigration of Israel’s most talented citizens is a constant worry of Israeli leaders. “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world,” Ehud Barak, the defense minister and former prime minister, told me. “The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place—cutting-edge in science, education, culture, quality of life—that even American Jewish young people want to come here. If we cannot do this, even those who were born here will consciously decide to go to other places. This is a real problem.”

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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