Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel
by David Grossman, translated by Haim Watzman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 326 pp., $22.00
On a hot night in July 1991, the novelist David Grossman witnessed a debate at a summer camp in the Galilee. The participants were young Jewish Israelis and young Arab Israelis—i.e., Israeli citizens, not to be confused with Arabs in the Occupied Territories. The subjects under discussion that night were the Jewish state’s unfair treatment of its Arab citizens and the claims of Jewish Israelis that many Arab citizens are indifferent to Israel’s security needs and don’t appreciate the moral predicament of the Israelis in administering the Occupied Territories and in dealing with the intifada.
The discussion was heated and lasted inconclusively long into the night, as Arabs and Jews accused each other of discrimination, or heartlessness, or naiveté. As Grossman followed the familiar arguments, worn thin from repetition, it occurred to him that unlike twenty years earlier, when he had been a teen-ager at much the same sort of interethnic summer camp, he could no longer tell by sight who was Jewish and who Arab. Features, clothes, even body language were alike, although the Hebrew accents remained different. What had not changed, tragically, was the degree of contentiousness, the self-righteousness, and the deep need of each side—rarely requited—to make the other understand and even confirm its own feelings. The awkward intimacy had not changed either, the illusion of being close and yet far away. Implicit throughout the debate were two questions: “How can someone so close to me be so wrong about me?” and “How can someone so distant know me so well?” In the Arab-Israeli conflict you never forgive those you have hurt most; and “understanding” the other side has often made the conflict even more intractable.
Grossman is the author of two highly praised novels, See Under: LOVE, and The Book of Intimate Grammar, as well as The Smile of the Lamb, a novel set in the occupied West Bank, and The Yellow Wind, a remarkable inquiry into the daily life of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. He is perhaps the first major Israeli writer who dared cross the line, as a novelist and as a reporter, into Israel’s heart of darkness.
Other Israeli novelists concerned about treatment of the Arabs sign petitions or speak at Peace Now rallies. But in what they write, the situation of the Palestinians under Israeli military rule has by and large been ignored or suppressed, much as sex and sweat were in Victorian novels. Grossman speaks and reads Arabic, one of the few young Jewish Israeli writers who can do so (“Language,” he writes, “brings out certain nuances of consciousness. It has a temperament and libido of its own…. When things were said to me in Arabic, by Arabs, they always had a more definite, unambiguous, and sharper quality”). He visited the centers of Palestinian nationalism in the West Bank as a reporter and he described the unspeakable wretchedness of the refugee camps, where nothing changes and only the hopelessness and despair grow …