Escape Artist

The Book of Intimate Grammar

by David Grossman, translated by Betsy Rosenberg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 343 pp., $22.00

Israel is an ideological state,” Yitzhak Shamir declared when he was Israel’s right-wing prime minister. Even in the Labor Party the ideology is more and more removed from its old vision of Jews united by the dream of socialism, but of course the official consensus in Israel remains that Jews belong together in a state of their own just because they are Jews. That desire for togetherness, now based more on terrible memories and common fears than on Zionism as a political philosophy, is the residual ideology of Israel. For some it can be hard to live with. A leading Hebrew University political scientist confided to me that he had taken to keeping a personal journal just to keep from feeling sucked in by the pressures of common opinion in a state already so regulated by images from history and so organized against enemies. “Holocaust” is now such a figure of speech that it is used by settlers to protest the slightest impediment to Jewish expansion in the occupied territories.

In The Yellow Wind (1987), which first appeared in the left liberal magazine Koteret Rashit, now defunct, the young Arabic-speaking reporter David Grossman (born 1954) astonished and shocked his readers by describing his observations for seven weeks of the tribulations, brutalities, and humiliations routinely experienced by Arabs under occupation in the West Bank. Masses of these Arabs cross the “green line” every day to labor in Israel and they must have enough Hebrew to communicate with Israelis. The Israeli military and civil administrators in the West Bank are intensely involved with the Arabs there and have many stories to bring back to family and friends. Yet the Arabs of the West Bank have been so fundamentally unregarded (in both senses of the word) and mistrusted that Grossman felt like an explorer in terra incognita; he approached the Arabs in hesitation and humility, seeking only to listen.

The title of his book comes from a local Arab myth that tells of “a hot and terrible east wind from the gate of Hell which comes once in a few generations, sets the world afire, finds those it seeks, those who have performed cruel and unjust deeds, and exterminates them, one by one.” Near the end of The Yellow Wind he says

Seven years ago, I felt I had to write something about the occupation. I could not understand how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched. What happened to us? How were they able to pass their values on to me during those years? For two years I sat and worked out those thoughts and dilemmas of mine. I wrote a novel, The Smile of The Lamb, and the more I wrote, the more I understood that the occupation is a continuing and stubborn test for both sides trapped in it. It is the sphinx lying at the entrance to each …

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