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
UNSETTLED: Israeli citizens protest the dismantling of settlements in 2005

There are other, more disturbing issues, ones that many Israelis don’t care to address. Uri Grossman’s death provoked in me all sorts of questions about Israel, its purpose, its mistakes and enemies: How can Israel survive the next 60 years in a part of the world that gives rise to groups like Hamas? How can Israel flourish if its army cannot defeat small bands of rocketeers? Does the concentration of so many Jews in a claustrophobically small space in the world’s most volatile region actually undermine the Jewish people’s ability to survive, an ability that was called into question little more than 60 years ago, when 33 percent of the world’s Jews were murdered? I do not think it is merely a symptom of Jewish hypochondria to ask such questions.

Some of the questions forming in my mind were too indecent to ask a grieving father like David Grossman. But I asked him whether he believed that Zionism has succeeded in its mission. I framed the question impersonally, though I had been struck by what to me was an inescapable truth: if Uri Grossman had been born to Jews in America, rather than to Jews in Israel, in 2006 he most likely would have been a student at Harvard or Michigan or Stanford, rather than a commander in the Armored Corps of the Israel Defense Forces. The underlying premise of the creation of the state of Israel—its main mission—was to provide a refuge for the Jewish people in their historic homeland. One of the many contradictions Israel faces in its seventh decade of independence is this: it is a country that is safe for Judaism, but not for Jews.

As a young Zionist in the late 1980s, I was drawn to the idea that Israel represented the most sublime and encompassing expression of Jewishness, so I moved there and joined its army. This decision was unfathomable to many of my new Israeli comrades. One of my commanders asked me, “Why would a person leave America to die in Israel?” Then he asked if we could switch places—he would move to New York and marry a doctor’s daughter, and I would die chasing Palestinians through the casbah of Nablus. I was dreaming Leon Uris dreams, but he was having visions out of Goodbye, Columbus.

I didn’t die, obviously, but his argument bothered me, and still does. The founders of Zionism believed that a state for the Jews would cure—or at least make irrelevant—the ancient European disease of Jew hatred. Remove the Jew from his insalubrious and constricted life in anti-Semitic Russia and give him a plow in Palestine, and he would become a “normal” person, deserving, among other things, the respect of Christians. The first Zionists had no sense that Muslims would object to the entry of thousands of Jewish socialists—women wearing pants included—into tribal, conservative Palestine. In his utopian novel, Altneuland—Old-New Land”—the founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, imagined an Israel much like Vienna, a society of opera-going, German-speaking Jews who had shed their “pale, weak, timid” natures. Herzl did not imagine a Palestine free of Arabs, though he imagined the Arabs overjoyed by the gifts of science and hygiene brought by the Jews. The principal Arab protagonist, Reschid Bey, says: “The Jews have enriched us. Why should we be angry with them? They dwell among us like brothers. Why should we not love them?”

From Atlantic Unbound:

"The Kingdom of the Spirit" (November 1961)
"It is impossible to understand the history of the Jewish people and their struggle for existence ... unless we bear in mind the unique idea which their history embodies." By David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was not unaware of Arab hostility to the goals of Zionism. In a 1934 meeting with the Arab leader Musa Alami, Ben-Gurion said that Zionism would “bring a blessing to the Arabs of Palestine, and they have no good cause to oppose us.” Alami responded, “I would prefer that the country remain impoverished and barren for another hundred years, until we ourselves are able to develop it on our own.” But Ben-Gurion believed that numbers would bring the cure. He said in 1933, “In the course of four to five years we must bring in a quarter of a million Jews and the Arab question will be solved.”

Arab opposition did not die; it hardened. This opposition has, of course, gotten the Palestinians nothing; theirs is perhaps the least successful national liberation movement of the 20th century. But failure has not diminished the desire of many Muslims to see the end of Israel, and the ultimate success of the Zionist idea depends not only on Israel’s ability to keep its citizens alive but on its ability to end talk of its impermanence.

“I think that this fear, this idea that Israel will not exist anymore—I cannot even utter specific, clear words because it’s really frightening—this idea or fear hovers above us all the time,” Grossman told me. “It is so present, even though we suppress it almost violently. Whenever it infiltrates the consciousness, it’s almost paralyzing. You can see if you look at the numbers—how few we are, how many they are, how hostile this region is, how we have never been accepted into this region.”

He continued: “If you see the tendencies of fanaticism, the way in which at every crossroads both sides almost always choose the more violent approach, if you see the fact that other religions, parts of the West, never really accept the idea of Israel … It means something deep about us (and even more about everyone else), about Judaism and the state that we are still in, after 60 years of sovereignty—we have not accomplished statehood, the realization that this is a legitimate state. And we have a lack of confidence in our own existence. We also don’t really believe in our own existence. We have the formal symptoms of a normal state, but we still do not believe we are a state. Throughout history we were regarded, and we regarded ourselves, as a larger-than-life story, since the time of the Bible. We’re a story that other nations read and borrow. But if you are a story, you can end.”

Of course, America is sui generis in its acceptance of Jews, having brought them to the absolute center of its national life. This means that their story will come to an end not because of the actions of Iran, or of the Palestinians, but because they choose to end it, by assimilating completely.

I acknowledged to Grossman that, at a time of maximum distress, the late 1930s, America refused to admit thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi terror (if Israel had been created in 1939, not 1948, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews could have been saved). But the Diaspora, and the American diaspora experience in particular, no longer represents a danger to physical Jewish existence. Grossman steered the conversation away from issues of mere physical security. Israel still gives a Jew the best chance of feeling at home in the world, he said.

“Maybe if you live in other places, you are integrated, you feel assimilated. I wouldn’t like to live in any other place. With all the difficulty and criticism I have, it is still for me, as a Jewish person, the highest spiritual challenge and endeavor to see this country become a better place.”

Uri Grossman’s death became a national trauma amid the larger national trauma of the Lebanon misadventure. Grossman remained silent about the war, and about politics, from his son’s death, in August, until that November, when he addressed 100,000 Israelis at a memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995 by an extremist supporter of the settlements. Olmert was on the stage as well; Grossman refused to shake hands with the prime minister, but he directed his words at him.

“The death of young people is a horrible, shattering waste,” he said. “But no less dreadful is the sense that for many years, the state of Israel has been squandering not only the lives of its children but also the miracle it experienced—the great and rare opportunity bestowed upon it by history, the opportunity to create an enlightened, decent, democratic state that would conduct itself according to Jewish and universal values. A state that would be a national home and a refuge, but not only a refuge; rather, a place that would also give new meaning to Jewish existence.”

He went on to criticize the country’s leaders, saying that they could not “help a nation adrift in such a complicated state of affairs.”

“Mr. Prime Minister, I am not saying these things out of anger or vengefulness. I have waited long enough so that I would not be responding from a fleeting impulse. You cannot dismiss my words tonight by saying that a man should not be judged at his time of grief. Of course I am in grief. But more than anger, what I feel is pain. This country pains me, and what you and your friends are doing to it. Believe me, your success is important to me, because the future of us all depends on your ability to get up and do something.”

Grossman then pleaded with Olmert to speak directly to the Palestinian people. He has argued that the flaw of the Oslo peace process of the 1990s was that the negotiators never spoke about the shape of a final agreement—including the shape of the future state of Palestine.

“Go to them over the head of Hamas,” Grossman said to Olmert. “Go to the moderates among them, the ones who, like me and you, oppose Hamas and its ways. Go to the Palestinian people. Speak to their deep grief and wounds, recognize their continued suffering. Your status will not be diminished, nor will that of Israel in any future negotiations. But people’s hearts will begin to open a little to one another, and this opening has huge power.”

Grossman told me that the self-created trap for Olmert is that he knows what needs to be done—leave the West Bank—but is powerless to do it. “I could give his speeches regarding peace,” Grossman said. “But when will he evacuate an outpost?” he asked, referring to newly built satellite enclaves outside existing settlements. “When will he speak to the hopes and fears of the Palestinians? When will he do something to save us?”

"David Grossman thinks that you haven’t done enough to remove outposts and leave the West Bank,” I told Olmert when I visited him a few weeks ago. The prime minister leaned back in his chair. His face took on a dark cast. “Listen,” he said with evident irritation. “This is why I am prime minister and he is a writer.”

Olmert sighed. “I’ll tell you, I don’t like to argue with David since he lost his son,” he said. “I think there is an emotional part in the way he expresses himself about me, which has nothing to do with my views or my actions.”

Olmert is a man of medium height and build, with a high forehead and large features, who thrusts his jaw out when he speaks. He saw me in his office at the government compound in Jerusalem. The compound is an armed fortress, and the prime minister’s office is separated from the outside world by several layers of unforgiving security. Since the murder of Rabin, and especially since Israel began targeting Hamas leaders for assassination, the prime minister of Israel has become one of the world’s most comprehensively guarded men.

The office itself is unadorned and windowless, narrow—a submarine. On the wall next to Olmert’s desk hang portraits of various prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin. Two of his recent predecessors, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, are missing. Where are they? I asked.

“I could answer,” Olmert said waspishly, “but I prefer not to.”

Olmert is said to be capable of projecting kindness, and he has a talent for sycophancy (his speech welcoming President Bush to Israel earlier this year was particularly overripe). But he can be a haranguing, preemptively defensive man. I recently watched Olmert address a small group of American Jewish leaders, including some who, unlike the majority of American Jews, are dubious about Olmert’s embrace of moderation, and his willingness to negotiate the future of Jerusalem. “I know everyone is very sensitive and very curious about Jerusalem,” he said. “Sometimes when I hear people talking to me about Jerusalem, I say, ‘Hey, excuse me, what exactly did you build in Jerusalem, that you are preaching to me? Who built more in Jerusalem and did more to protect the unity of the city of Jerusalem than any of those who are wasting lots of energies and spending a lot of money in order to try and overswarm my position?’” (Olmert later told me that unnamed American Jews are “investing a lot of money trying to overthrow the government in Israel.”)

In the course of our conversation, I told Olmert I thought it wasn’t entirely fair to discount Grossman’s criticisms as being motivated by grief. The two men have been acquaintances for many years, and it is true that Grossman has refused to speak to Olmert since Uri’s death. But Grossman today is critical of Olmert’s approach to matters concerning the West Bank, and he has said that he would speak to Olmert, and even stand with him, if he believed that the prime minister was truly serious about taking the necessary steps toward reconciliation with the Palestinians.

The prime minister was doubtful. “He doesn’t really separate the personal from the political,” Olmert said. “I have a lot of respect for David, but I think he’s wrong. First of all, he’s wrong; second, I don’t like to argue with him.” Of the three writers who aligned against him over Lebanon, he said, “Amos Oz is the most realistic.”

When I told Oz that Olmert wouldn’t address Grossman’s critique, he said: “I don’t think David Grossman is blinded by grief. Grief can be an eye-opener. He’s a perfectly legitimate critic of the Olmert government.” Oz also rejected Olmert’s effort to draft him to his team. “I support the peace process that began at Annapolis,” he said. “I don’t necessarily support Olmert on what he’s doing in Gaza,” referring to recent Israeli military incursions.

Olmert is more unpopular in Israel than George W. Bush is in the United States. His business dealings have repeatedly drawn the attention of the country’s police and attorney general, and his reputation is that of an inauthentic, calculating man whose skills lie mainly in the area of self-advancement. The commission of inquiry appointed to investigate Israeli mistakes in Lebanon was caustic in its criticism of his leadership, finding that Olmert acted hastily and with arrogance in the rush to war. The report was even more critical of army and defense ministry leaders. It characterized the Lebanon invasion as heedless and jerry-rigged. The commission’s findings were a reminder that, as the former Prime Minister Ehud Barak once told me, Jews excel at many things but not necessarily at self-rule. “The last two experiments of Jews running a political state were not great successes,” he said, referring to the Israel of King Solomon’s time, which ultimately ended in the exile to Babylon, and to the Jewish commonwealth of the Second Temple period, which was conquered by the Romans, who scattered the Jews.

The purpose of my visit to Olmert’s office was not to plumb his resentment-filled relationship with David Grossman but to discuss the meaning of Israel’s existence. When I brought up the subject of existential threats, he recoiled. “When the leader of a nation of 75 million people with ballistic missiles, with modern weapons, with a declared desire to possess a nuclear capacity, threatens Israel with annihilation, can I ignore it? Can I say I didn’t hear it? Of course I can’t.”

Olmert was more comfortable speaking about the Zionist idea and praising Herzl’s prophetic powers: few men understood at the start of the last century, as Herzl did, that Europe would soon turn against its Jews so absolutely. And he spoke of the achievements of Jewish independence—the ingathering of Jews, most especially—all of which were unassailably remarkable.

Then I asked him to discuss the flaws in the execution of the Zionist program. He responded indignantly: “I don’t care about it. Of course, I mean, I care about the flaws, I’m the prime minister. I have to improve things, I have to amend things. But when I celebrate the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel, what I have in mind are the enormous achievements.” He went on to discuss the largely successful absorption of 1 million Russian immigrants. “Of course there are flaws,” he said. “Who cares?”

With Uri Grossman in mind, I asked Olmert about a flaw of personal concern to me: Why is Israel less physically safe for Jews than America?

He answered: “I’ll tell you something that you have to realize, and this is the most important thing and this is the most significant thing. First of all, no people are safe anywhere, okay? Let me tell you, Jews are not safer in Israel than they are in other parts of the world, but there is only one place that Jews can fight for their lives as Jews, and that is here. They can fight as Americans, they can fight as Australians—but as individuals.” He banged on his desk. “Jews were persecuted, Jews were attacked, Jews were suppressed, Jews were killed. But they could never defend themselves as Jews.”

So the success of the American Jewish community doesn’t lessen the necessity for the state of Israel? “Never, never, no way,” he said. “By the way, Jews in Germany—and I don’t draw any comparison at all—Jews in other parts of the world were very successful all their lives, and that didn’t provide them with safety.”

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In