MOYERS: The realities of everyday life in Israel, and the images in the hearts of its people, are the subject of our next interview.
David Grossman lives in Jerusalem where he has seen violence become a daily companion in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
In novels and non-fiction, he writes his compassionate accounts of how people carry on in the midst of chaos.
YELLOW WIND, his most famous book, was praised for illuminating "the news and the reality that produces it."
Mr. Grossman was in New York this week to talk about his new novel, BE MY KNIFE, and I asked him to stop by to reflect on what's happening back home.
Thank you for joining us.
GROSSMAN: Thank you.
MOYERS: I read BE MY KNIFE this week. And I was taken by your language.
You take me into a different world, a world I have not been in before.
But as I read it, I was perplexed. Are words futile when bombs and guns and hatred are saying so much?
GROSSMAN: They must do, and there must be a way for us to shield ourselves and to continue our lives.
You see, I think that part of the tragedy that we experience there is that all our energy, imagination, inner life, all are being confiscated by the situation.
Everything is being turned towards the boundaries of our identity, towards the contact points between us and our partners, neighbors, or enemies.
And I'm afraid that we are going to wind up like that armored suit without the person inside, and I insist on giving this person inside what he deserves.
And this is the most precious things, you know, the things that make life life.
MOYERS: What happens in these circumstances to the habits of life, to love, to raising children, to just sitting outside and watching people pass by?
GROSSMAN: The main thing is that the soul shrinks in fear.
There is a strong need to minimize the surface of the soul that comes in contact with reality, because reality is so brutal.
And of course, there is a tendency to dichotomize everything, because of the extremity of the situation.
MOYERS: Black and white, good and evil.
GROSSMAN: Yeah, there are no nuances.
And even more so, there is a feeling that there is... Well, let's say that the future is very dubious.
We have, as Jewish people in Israel, we have an enormous past and a very strong and vital presence. But there is not a real inherent sense of having a future.
You know, when I read here on the papers that America is planning its wheat harvest for the year 2025, it sounds perfectly natural and normal.
But no sane Israeli will make plans for ten years ahead from now.
When I even say it, I feel that kind of pang in my heart as if I violated a taboo by allowing myself too much quantities of future.
So it's really there, you know. You feel like you're walking dead men.
MOYERS: Doesn't fantasy, then, and language the language that creates the fantasy in our heads doesn't language then become even more powerful?
GROSSMAN: Yes, it is, because in such a situation when you feel so paralyzed, so deprived of everything, the ability to create, the ability to see nuances in every situation; and even more than that, the ability to give your own private names to things that the government or the army or the situation tried to impose their names...
MOYERS: You'll give me an example.
GROSSMAN: Well, for example, for many years what Israel had in the West Bank and Gaza was not named occupation for us in Israel. It was not, a bon ton to use this term, "occupation."
And by starting to use this name in books, in interviews, wherever, it came more, I think, to the public knowledge what we are doing.
In the first intifada in '97, Israel was totally caught in surprise, because Israel, the official Israel, never told itself that it occupies and oppresses another people.
And, of course, the whole world knew it is an occupation, and the Palestinians felt it in the very cell of their body that they are occupied.
Only Israel did not know and was taken by such a surprise.
MOYERS: I've heard Palestinians talk as if they can drive Israel not just out of the occupied territories but out to the sea, that they can once again live as if there were no Jews.
MOYERS: I've heard Palestinians talk like that.
GROSSMAN: I hear it all the time, and I think it's good that we should listen to these voices and remember that Israel is living there among very tough neighbors.
Yes, we are not surrounded there by the Salvation Army, you know.
And even when we advocate peace, as I try to do, we remember the dangers that Israel faces all the time, and we continue to face even after peace is achieved with the Palestinians.
But my point of view is that we shall be much stronger if we shall start to tread the road of peace.
MOYERS: James Bennet suggested a moment ago that, however, that a rather hopeless situation because both sides are locked into a mythology of what they can do there.
And aren't people like you increasingly marginalized for believing that Palestinians and Jews can coexist?
GROSSMAN: Yes, we are marginalized now, and I can truly understand the people who find it impossible to listen to what we try to advocate peace, because it's so difficult to believe in ideas about future peace, to believe that there can be some mutuality between us and the Palestinians, mutual respect and trust, while reality is so concrete and so brutal and people are exploding around you.
But I think it is the task of leaders to see two steps or three steps ahead and to try to salvage us from our situation.
MOYERS: In the meantime, there is language and the language of hope.
There's a passage in your book that really brought me up sharply when I read it the other night.
Would you read this passage?
I've marked it there, from BE MY KNIFE.
It is the man telling the woman in the book, "I once thought of teaching my son a private language, isolating him from the speaking world on purpose, lying to him from the moment of his birth so he would believe only in the language I gave him.
And it would be a compassionate language.
What I mean is, I wanted to take him by the hand and name everything he saw with words that would save him from the inevitable heartaches so that he wouldn't be able to comprehend the existence of, for instance, war.
Or that people kill, or that this red here is blood.
It's a kind of used-up idea, I know, but I love to imagine him crossing through life with an innocent, trusting smile, the first truly enlightened child."
MOYERS: An "innocent, trusting child" in the midst of all of that violence.
Can fantasy and that is, fiction can fantasy shield a child in Israel today from the realities?
GROSSMAN: I'm afraid not.
But it serves as a good way to exist in our reality and it can melt the congealness that we all suffer from, and it can offer some other possibilities and nuances in this reality.
Otherwise we live our life there like victims, like victims.
MOYERS: Has your own psyche been affected by the suicide bombings?
I mean, do you see strangers differently now from how you did see them?
GROSSMAN: Yes, of course.
You suspect everyone that you do not know.
You do not go to most places now.
You calculate every step.
All life changed for us there.
It's really to live in horror.
I know from my Palestinian friends that they experience the same thing.
It is so tragic to see how both sides reflect or mirror each other's fears and hatred.
And sometimes I think it's so easy for us to come together.
We are that close from points of view of the concessions that have to be made.
Everything is so clear to both sides now.
Everybody knows exactly what are the borders of the concessions of himself and of the other side.
And the only question is, would the two leaders be courageous enough to redeem themselves or to uproot themselves even from their own biography as the late Yitzhak Rabin did towards the end of his life?
MOYERS: Everyone talks about while sooner or later there has to be a settlement in which there's an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.
But is... do you think Sharon and Arafat know that?
And if they are, are they just fighting a war they know is taking lives unnecessarily because they're going to have to do something the same way, any way, one day?
GROSSMAN: I'm afraid you're right.
I'm afraid that these two gentlemen are totally incapable now of, as I said, to uproot themselves from their own personal history, from the myths that they consist of for their respective peoples.
Therefore, we need someone from the outside.
You know, there is a proverb in the Hebrew, "The prisoner cannot set himself free from prison."
And we need someone from the outside to bring us out of this prison, because we are prisoners of our history, of our trauma, of our psychology.
MOYERS: Is that why you write fiction when the real world is blowing up all around you?
GROSSMAN: I'm writing fiction because this is the only way I have to understand myself and to understand other people.
There is a line in this story, Miriam, the woman, writes the man.
She tells him that she wants to believe that once, you know, generations before the two of them were born. There was a possibility for him, for the man, to choose to be born her, not him say if there was a kind of imaginary crossroad. And she says, "I want you to be you. What's the point if you will not be you? But I also want you to hesitate a moment before choosing to be only you, and that all your life you will carry in the back of your mind this remorse for not choosing to be me."
And I think when one writes, one can get to this point of slight remorse.
You know, it's very rare in the process of writing, but for a moment you understand what does it mean to be another human being.
And it's such a sweet reward that I cannot find it any other place.
MOYERS: I'm so glad that there are romantics around.
Still... you are a romantic. I mean, you see the possibilities in the human experience beyond the realities that crowd in every day.
GROSSMAN: Yes, I'm not naive. You know, I'm not naive. I see all the difficulties. I see all the threats. I see all the corruption that the situation creates in our soul, in the soul of our adversaries. I see it. It is there. You cannot escape it.
But at the same time, I believe that there is a lot to do yourself.
I mean, one... and the people have a lot of room to maneuver in the most arbitrary situations that we are not doomed to be a victim of every situation.
And you know, for me, the whole idea of having the state of Israel, one that we shall never be victims again, we shall never... we, the Jews, we shall never be depending on the goodwill or the bad will of others.
And it is so tragic for me that now when we are such a superpower, again we are victims of our fears, when we can enable a more generous and more courageous solution.
MOYERS: You served in the army.
GROSSMAN: Yes, of course.
MOYERS: Your son served in the army.
GROSSMAN: Serves now, yeah.
MOYERS: Is in the army now?
MOYERS: What do you think of those reservists who signed that petition and refused to serve because they felt they were serving in an unjust effort?
MOYERS: What do you think about that?
GROSSMAN: Well, this is a very complicated dilemma for every Israeli, because it touches the question of the democracy in Israel and the borders of this democracy.
And I'm... quite often I'm being asked by soldiers, by others, "should we serve, should we take part in that?"
And this is one question that I think everyone must make his or her choice about, because it's such a deep dilemma.
It's a horrible moral situation and it's such a situation everyone must unfortunately be there and try to be as moral and as just as he or she can be.
MOYERS: Don't you think the Palestinians at this very moment are saying that to each other and their young people, "you must fight now"?
"We've got to be engaged.
You've got to go and do your duty, too."
GROSSMAN: I think that this is the tragedy, that we are sending we and the Palestinians are sending our children to be killed.
But you know, excusing ourselves now from the battlefield, it's not... this is not the way to solve the problem.
MOYERS: But how do you disentangle two men like Sharon and Arafat who are wrapped in their biographies, as you've said, and victims of their own history, and perpetrators of that history repeating itself?
GROSSMAN: Again, I think it's the role of the United States, for example, to put a heavy pressure on both sides and to force them into resumption of negotiation; you know, that through all our history in the Middle East there was no one political agreement between Israel and Arab countries that has been achieved without the strong help and pressure of the United States.
So if Mr. Bush advocates so devotedly the two ideas the ideas of fighting terrorism and the idea of helping democracy all over the world I think by intervening in our conflict he will help both targets.
MOYERS: Last question: the cover of BE MY KNIFE.
MOYERS: The woman does she have a future?
Is she real, and does she have a future?
GROSSMAN: She is real.
Actually when my Italian publisher, Montadori, they looked for a picture on the cover that would remind, resemble Miriam, they looked for a face of the '40s or '50s, and they found in an old family archive a picture of this anonymous young woman.
Now, when the book was published in Italy, they hang big posters in the book stores.
And the woman at the age of 84 entered the room and she said, "here I am."
And her name is Molly Falk, and you know, I'll tell you something.
I always thought had she been American forgive me she probably would have sued the publisher.
Being Italian she says, "now all the world will know how beautiful I was."
And she is.
MOYERS: So you imagined Miriam, they found a picture to go on the cover, and an 84-year- old woman comes in and said, "that's me."
GROSSMAN: "That's me."
MOYERS: There is a future.
GROSSMAN: There is a future.
I hope we shall not have to wait until 84, but...
MOYERS: Thank you, David Grossman.
And thank you for BE MY KNIFE, a fascinating novel and a great active imagination.
Thank you very much, David Grossman.
GROSSMAN: Thank you, Bill.