BILL MOYERS: 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.
I read BE MY KNIFE this week, and I was taken with your language. You take me into a different world; a world I had not been before. But as I read it I was perplexed. Are words futile when bombs and guns and hatred are saying so much?
DAVID 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 suits 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: Black and white, yes, there are no nuances.
And even more so, there is a feeling that there is...[SIGHS] 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 in 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 10 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: What...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: Example…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 occupied 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: So what do you do to change the name? If you don't want to call it occupation, what do you call it?
GROSSMAN: Well, there were...there was the whole machinery of fabricating names to the situation, there was the whole false narrative that in a way used words not to describe reality but rather to camouflage it, to protect us the Israelis from the harshness of the situation of what we are doing.
And again, I want to make it very clear: we are not alone in this tango, yes, this situation has two partners and each side does or contributes his mistakes to this tragedy. But I am talking from an Israeli point of view and I have very strong interest that we should call things by their right names and because it's useful for us it will help us to uproot ourselves from this situation.
MOYERS: Are not Palestinians doing the same thing? I mean, 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 talking about...
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, it's not...we are not surrounded there by the Salvation Army, you know.
And even when we allocate this, as I try to do, we remember the danger 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.
And if shall start to finish this everlasting conflict between us and the Palestinians, that our army will not serve as a police of demonstration but rather as an army that had to face very severe problems from Iran and from Iraq.
MOYERS: James Bennet suggested a moment ago that however, 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 allocate, because it's so difficult to believe in ideas about future peace, to believe that there can be some neutrality 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. This situation is like kind of a hermetic bubble now, and inside this hermetic bubble there is a certain distorted logic that prevails according to which every side, each side, can justify and explain what it does to the other side.
In the bubble it has...I mean, it's very logical. But the question is, how to get out of this bubble, because we are being suffocated in this bubble.
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.
GROSSMAN: Yes. 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 at least 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 hatreds. 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 constructions 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: But is that possible when...I mean, you talk about the borders, the fact is everyone talks about 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 conceive 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. [REPEATS IN HEBREW]. 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: There is another passage in BE MY KNIFE about seeing the other. Would you read that? I think it's on page 9, Luz is the subject.
GROSSMAN: The Luz, yes.
MOYERS: Just, if you would read that for us.
GROSSMAN: "I once read that our sages of blessed memory had the idea that we have one tiny bone in the end of the body, it was the end of the spine. They call it the Luz. You can't kill it, it doesn't crumble after death and can't be destroyed by fire.
It is from this that we will be recreated at the resurrection. I used to play a little game with myself. I would try to guess the Luz of the people I knew, design the final thing that would be left of them that indestructible thing from which they will be reborn.
And of course I search for my own Luz as well, but nothing within me met all the necessary conditions, so I stopped asking and looking. I gave my Luz up for lost until I saw you in the playground.
All of a sudden, that forgotten thought arose from the dead and along with it this sweet and crazy notion came to me that maybe my Luz isn't in me after all but in someone else."
MOYERS: That's a very powerful statement about empathy, about seeing the world through the eyes...the soul of someone else. And I would just imagine that suicide bombers change the way you look at other people, destroy that empathy.
GROSSMAN: No. If they'd done that probably they would have won. I think that this phenomena is horrible.
MOYERS: What leads someone to blow himself up in a cafe on a Saturday night surrounded by teenagers?
GROSSMAN: Probably a lot of incitement, a lot of indoctrination and despair.
But I am afraid that a society that encourages such phenomena, a society that idealized those people and do not condemn them from the beginning, this society is going to pay a heavy price for this phenomena.
You know, after peace is achieved, the Palestinians will have to live with the consequences of having suicide bombers in that large of scale, because once this horrible [unhuman] possibility is formulated in the national psyche of any society and we are talking about the Palestinians it's going to be extremely dangerous.
And I think that the moderate Palestinians know it. They know they might be the target of these suicide bombers after they have their state.
But to your first question, no, I did not lose my belief in people. You know, there are good people, there are bad people, among us, among the others. And what I tried, and I think what I was telling about in this book and in this special paragraph about the Luz being in somebody...someone else, is to write about the possibility to really expose yourself to the complexity of another human being.
We are so shielded and so descended from the radiation and the chaos of another human being. And I think that through writing one is able to peel layer after layer of this cataract that covers our soul and to be able to really feel the other.
It's not easy. It takes sometimes, you know, three, four years to write a novel in order to reach to that certain point where you are totally naked in front of the other in any way, in any sense of nakedness.
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 and 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 Yair, for the man, to choose to be born her not him, as if there was kind of imaginary crossroads.
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 has it been to be another human being. And it's such a sweet reward that I cannot find it any other place.
MOYERS: Well, 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 very...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 super power again we are victims of our fear, when we can enable a more courageous solution.
MOYERS: You served in the army.
GROSSMAN: Yes, of course.
MOYERS: Your son served in the army.
GROSSMAN: Served, now, yes.
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.
I know for myself that had I been asked now to go to the territories, I wouldn't have gone. But what I tell you now applies to let's say a month or couple of months before we are talking, because right now, there is a war going on.
And right now I think everybody has to serve, because it is in a way disconnected from other questions. It's a war, it's...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.
The way is that the leader, our leader will come to their leader and tell him, come on, let's stop murder our young ones, let's start to talk, let's start to negotiate again.
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 forties or fifties 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 bookstores. 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 felt that 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. Yes. I hope we shall not have to wait until 84, but…
MOYERS: In terms of imagining the future, I mean, Palestinian children use books that have maps in them which show Palestine without Israel. They're exposed to families and leaders who honor suicide bombers.
And there are Jewish kids who are taught that the West Bank in Gaza are part of the biblical land of Israel and that to give them up would be a sin. With children learning these things now, how can you imagine a better future?
GROSSMAN: First...the first thing that we should do when we have this peace treaty between us and the Palestinians is to change the study programs, is to change the textbooks, is to teach both peoples from childhood to live in life of...to live life of mutuality, of respecting the other. It is very difficult.
It will be like teaching them a totally new language, because you see, we were born to these wars, to this violence. It is engraved in our genes. We forgot totally this language. We have only the emotional dictionary of hatred. And this must be changed, and therefore I do not believe that we shall see a real internalized change in the nearest future. It will take many generations to start to purify us on this poison of 100 years of killing each other.
MOYERS: You're going home soon, in the next 24 hours. Have you talked to your family?
GROSSMAN: All the time.
MOYERS: Is...are they safe?
GROSSMAN: Yes, they are safe.
GROSSMAN: But nobody is really safe there, of course. They are safe for the time being.
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.