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David Grossman: “Literature is a wonderful tool to recover the human face that the conflict has confiscated from us”

David Grossman has been named the winner of the Israel Prize for Literature, the highest literary accolade conferred to the most influential personalities representing Israeli society. “A critical voice on the government and the military occupation, Grossman lost his 20-year-old son Uri  during the war with Lebanon in 2006. Two days before – it was August 10 2006 – he had signed, with other intellectuals, including Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, a public appeal to the government calling for a ceasefire

(Foto: AFP/SIR)

A few days ago David Grossman was announced as the winner of the prestigious Israel Prize for Literature, the highest literary accolade conferred by the State to the most influential personalities representing Israeli society. “Since the early 1980s, David Grossman has taken his place at the center of Israeli culture, and he is one of the most profound, moving and influential voices in our literature”, wrote the Prize Committee chaired by Israeli scholar Avner Holtzman. The most renowned novels by David Grossman, a staunch advocate of peace in his Country, include, “Someone to run with”, “Be my knife”, “To the end of the land”, “Falling out of time.” SIR interviewed him.

What does this prize mean for you, to be officially awarded in Jerusalem on the day marking the celebration of the 70th independence anniversary of the State of Israel?
It’s a very important prize in Israel. It makes me very happy and it’s also very significant for a person with my opinion, critical towards the government and towards the occupation for many years now,

Giving this prize to me means there is room for a voice like mine. And in the present climate in Israel where the occupation becomes increasingly legitimate it is an encouraging phenomenon.

In your books you address the issue of conflicts by denouncing that suspicion prevails among Israelis and Palestinians, thereby drawing them away from the idea of dialogue. This means that the war has entered so deeply in people’s lives that thinking of peace today is almost impossible. What do Palestinians and Israelis need to overcome this mutual mistrust?
It’s almost inevitable that two peoples who are fighting each other, where one has been occupying the other for so many years, will not be infected by animosity and suspicion and will be ruled by violence. The situation is such that both peoples – Israelis and Palestinians – are not only hostile to each other, they are terrified of each other.  Of course it’s hard to compare the military might of Israel to what the Palestinians have, but both peoples even if they are not equal in their size and military equipment, embitter each other’s lives in a sharp and hateful way. After so many years of hostility they are led by anxiety. The Jewish people has a very tragic history and also the Palestinians lived a trauma when they were defeated in the 1948 war, many of them escaped from the Land of Israel. Many were expelled. This remained as a trauma in their heritage and in the collective memory of that people.  In most cases people who are led by fears are unable to overcome them, they see danger everywhere, they see traps everywhere, they believe that their existence is always on the edge of the abyss. It’s very hard to remove this from the consciousness of such a society and instil hope, speak of peace, of new opportunities, of trusting the enemy.

From this perspective it appears that the political realm hasn’t made much progress in the resumption of dialogue…
If there were courageous and intelligent leaders on the Israeli and Palestinian side perhaps we might see the beginning of the process. Now there is no peace process at all, it’s an empty word. It’s a deep-frozen situation and there are constant acts of hostility.

If leaders on both sides were able to take calculated risks, to challenge the situation and promise their peoples some hope – not only fear and despair – then, if we are lucky and if the powers that support peace should be stronger than the destructive ones,  then, and then only, we might start witnessing a change

to the present situation, that hopefully could see the onset of peace. But it could take many years. It’s a very complicated situation.

Do you still believe in the internationally-sponsored two-Peoples – two-States solution?
I have always supported this position. It’s hard to imagine the practical implementation of any other solution, in realistic terms. There is much talk of a bi-national State, one State for Israelis and Palestinians together. It’s a very noble idea, and believe me,

my wish is that peoples in the world will live without borders  

and that the whole of humanity will unite. But if we look at these two peoples, at the amount of hatred each feels for the other side, it’s very hard to believe that after 120 years of violence and hatred they will be able to function in an effective way inside one same State. These two peoples are not even able to be good cousins, how can we expect them to become Siamese Twins? It’s impossible. Such a solution demands very politically-mature societies, and I’m afraid that societies like ours, like the Palestinian one, shaped in hatred for so many years, are unable to act in such a politically-mature way.

How can this deadlock be overcome?
The first act should be a separation that will give the Israeli State all the guarantees of security for our future and a sovereign State to the Palestinian people.  The war must not continue, for it would only eternalize suspicion and prejudice.

I would like there to be a normal border like the one that makes good neighbours, with many passageways enabling people to commute, trades to commute, ideas and culture to commute. This could be the beginning.

Later, step by step, we could develop joint projects, like a garage for cars run by Israelis and Palestinians, football games between Israel and Palestine, orchestras like the one of Mr. Daniel Barenboim, common universities for Israelis and Palestinians to study together the origins of the conflict, and many more initiatives and signs pertaining to everyday life, signs of normalcy that with the years could evolve into relations of good neighbourship.

You are tracing a prophetic vision of the future, a better future for the two Peoples…
If we are unable to imagine anything it means that we have been crushed by situation, that this situation took over us and we are not acting in a free, liberated way.

What do you think of the decision of President Trump to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thereby recognising de facto the Holy City as the capital of Israel?
First of all I wish to clarify one thing:

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, it has been so for 3000 years.  

Throughout their Diaspora, Jews have always prayed towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem has always been at the centre of the spirituality of the Jewish people. My grandfather in Poland prayed in the direction of Jerusalem three times a day.

But Jerusalem is also a part of the conflict.

It is one of the most important issues to be discussed and agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians. No declaration of the US President can change the situation. Mr. Trump can decide what he wants, he can decide tomorrow that all the settlements have to stay in their place or that the Palestinians have the right to return. This will not change the situation. The situation will be decided after many discussions and painful concessions by the two sides around the negotiating table.

The war in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, the crisis in Libya, have marginalised the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Do you think that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could stop the other conflicts in the region?

I don’t think so. However I agree with your analysis: these wars have marginalized our conflict. But it should be said that the conflict in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, and also in Lebanon are strongly related to the internal conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnites. It’s a huge historic conflict that broke out many centuries before the birth of the State of Israel, naturally before the Six Day War and before the occupation. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not solve the conflict of much greater proportions within Islam itself.

Do you think that Israel is an apartheid State?  

Israel is not an apartheid State.  

In the State of Israel Jews and Israeli Palestinian citizens enjoy the same rights, I can’t say that the implementation of these principles of equality is perfect, but Israel is a democracy, everyone is free to criticise the government. Many Israeli Arab citizens freely express, also with strong tones, their criticism or antagonism against the Israeli government; intermarriage between Israeli Arabs and Jews is not forbidden. But in the Occupied Territories the situation is different, there we are getting very close to a situation of apartheid. There is a clear separation of roles in the juridical system with a clear preference of the settlers to the detriment of the Palestinians. One of the major motives to end the occupation is to put an end to this abnormal, even criminal situation.

In your opinion, could some Israeli political measures that favour military occupation and the extension of settlements fuel anti-Semitism?
You want to know if the occupation encourages anti anti-Semitism? Believe me, I am very much against the occupation but I also know that

Anti-Semitism needs no reason to be active or

for anti-Semitism to act against Israel. We must always be very careful to draw a line between the legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a manifestation of hatred towards Israel no matter what Israel does and it ignores the complexity of the situation here. I think we should not collaborate with the temptation that some people and some religions have to spread anti-Semitism.

In the EU we are faced with a climate of growing intolerance, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Poland has approved a controversial bill that outlaws calling concentration camps “Polish” while Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki claimed that during the Shoah “there were Polish and Jewish perpetrators”…
I was shocked by the last declarations of the Polish Prime Minister who compared Polish and Jewish collaborators under Nazism. Of course there were Jews that collaborated with the Nazis but they did so because they were forced, they were blackmailed, their life was at stake, the life of their children was at stake, the survival of their families depended on this collaboration. How can you compare all this to so many Polish people who enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis, on their own initiative.

We are witnessing an atmosphere in the world that wants to eliminate the memory of the Shoah because it’s painful, because it places the burden of guilt on some Countries.

(Foto: AFP/SIR)

Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of corruption. Could this lead to political changes in the Country?
We have to wait for the outcomes of the juridical process. The police made a recommendation to indict him and almost every day there are new accusations and new stories. In Israel, like in other Countries, a person is presumed innocent until proved guilty. The Prime Minister has an enormous influence on Israeli society, he is an expert in manipulating public opinion in Israel: he knows how to address the primal anxieties that afflict society and individuals, he is like a magician in the way in which he manages to mix the real dangers that Israel faces with the echoes of past traumas. And we Israelis who live in a strongly traumatized society are totally helpless before these manipulations. Just look at what Mr Netanyahu has done up to now with all his talent: we are still deadlocked in a situation of war and hopelessness that has been ongoing for years.

Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for 12 years now, more than the legendary, mythological David Ben Gurion, first Israeli Prime Minister, in office for 11 years. But if we compare the achievements of the two leaders we will see that Netanyahu did nothing but deep-freeze the situation and did nothing to improve it.

Some representatives of the right-wing often tell me there is no solution to this conflict. I answer that indeed, the situation is extremely complex. But if we do nothing now then we won’t be able to solve it even in the future. What we do today will determine whether the conflict will be solved in 10, maybe 20 years. Everything that Netanyahu does shows he has no intention to make peace with our neighbours. All he does is to drag on the situation and does nothing to change it. There is now a rare window of opportunity because many Arab countries – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even the Emirates – are terrified of the growth of Shiite power in our region, in Iran, in Lebanon. They need Israel as an ally. They realize that Israel can be a strong, reliable ally. Now these countries are willing to make concessions and even to pressure the Palestinians to sit at the negotiations table. But until now there has been no progress, neither on the Israeli nor on the Palestinian side.

In your opinion what could be the role of Christians inside Israeli society, and in the Middle East as a whole?

I think that the Christian presence here can have a very important role acting as mediator between Muslims and Jews.  

We desperately need this mediation. Christianity was born here. The Christian minorities in Israel, Palestine and Arab Countries indicate the great importance and significance of these communities in the area. I hope that Christian communities in Italy and in other Countries  will be active in the spiritual, and educational dimensions of the conflict, for example by promoting encounters of dialogue and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis and Palestinians don’t know each other at all: they just demonize and stereotype each other. But if there were meetings between philosophers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, in a neutral place, without barriers, I think it would be a great help for all of us.

You are the author of many books for youths and children. Despite the conflict, are the young generations  still the future of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples?
You cannot grow up in such a reality without being influenced by it. Young people are heavily influenced by this situation both in Israel and in Palestine; they grow up in at atmosphere of violence and fear. Many of them don’t want to continue living in the situation of conflict, and if they have the possibility they leave. It’s very painful to see that our youths, Israelis as well as Palestinians, are being shaped by this situation.

Can culture and literature further a peaceful solution to the conflict?
There is something special in literature: first of all it aims at the individual.  In a situation of war you don’t see the individual on the other side, he is always a faceless mask. In war the enemy is always de-humanized.

Literature insists on the uniqueness of every human person, it shows us the infinite facets of the individual, the infinite options in every given situation, at every crossroads, not only the road of despair, gravity, apathy…

There is something very creative, innovative, in the initiative of writing that goes against the gravity of despair, of grief and of fatalism. Literature enhances nuances: when you are at war you think with clichés, with fixed ideas. But when you write you enter the complexity of every human relation, you explore the delicacy of every situation, of every reality in human relations.

Literature is a wonderful tool to regain the human face that the conflict has confiscated from us.

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