Israel – David Grossman: “Looking at Ourselves”


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

January 23rd, 2007
Amazing Israeli Speech ‹ Provoked turn?
Posted in Mideast & Oil by ed

This speech ‹ published by America¹s best periodical, The New York Review of 
Books ‹ was given in Tel Aviv last November at the annual memorial for Itzak 
Rabin, rest in peace, by an Israeli novelist whose son was killed during 
Israel¹s summer invasion of Lebanon. The embattled prime minister, Ehud Olmert, 
was there listening.

I¹ve been dubious about Israel¹s abrupt turnaround late last year ‹ when after 
absolutely pounding the Gaza strip for weeks with tanks they suddenly pulled out
and began to at least go through the motions of renewing the peace process.

I tended to think (and I guess still so tend) that the turn had something to do 
with the apparently pending attack on Iran ‹ that Saudi Arabia and other Sunnis 
within the U.S. camp have made an address of the Palestinian question a 
prerequisite for their consent to making war on Iran.

But maybe I¹m wrong, and maybe the turnaround is more than publicity, and 
perhaps even had something to do with the following having hit home. Stranger 
things happen weekly.

Looking at Ourselves
By David Grossman

At the annual memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin, we pause to remember Yitzhak 
Rabin the man, and the leader. We also look at ourselves, at Israeli society, at
its leadership, at the state of the national spirit, at the state of the peace 
process, and at our place, as individuals, within these great national 

This year, it is not easy to look at ourselves.

We had a war. Israel brandished its huge military biceps, but its reach proved 
all too short, and brittle. We realized that our military might alone cannot, 
when push comes to shove, defend us. In particular, we discovered that Israel 
faces a profound crisis, much more profound than we imagined, in almost every 
part of our collective lives.

I speak here, this evening, as one whose love for this land is tough and 
complicated, but nevertheless unequivocal. And as one for whom the covenant he 
has always had with this land has become, to my misfortune, a covenant of blood.

I am a man entirely without religious faith, but nevertheless, for me, the 
establishment, and very existence, of the state of Israel is something of a 
miracle that happened to us as a people‹a political, national, human miracle. I 
never forget that, even for a single moment. Even when many things in the 
reality of our lives enrage and depress me, even when the miracle disintegrates 
into tiny fragments of routine and wretchedness, of corruption and cynicism, 
even when the country looks like a bad parody of that miracle, I remember the 
miracle always.

That sentiment lies at the foundation of what I will say tonight.

³See, land, that we were most wasteful,² the poet Shaul Tchernichowski wrote in 
1938. He grieved that in the bosom of the earth, in the land of Israel, we have 
interred, time after time, young people in the prime of their lives.

The death of young people is a horrible, outrageous waste. But no less horrible 
is the feeling that the state of Israel has, for many years now, criminally 
wasted not only the lives of its sons and daughters, but also the miracle that 
occurred here‹the great and rare opportunity that history granted it, the 
opportunity to create an enlightened, properly functioning democratic state that
would act in accordance with Jewish and universal values. A country that would 
be a national home and refuge, but not only a refuge. It would also be a place 
that gives new meaning to Jewish existence. A country in which an important, 
essential part of its Jewish identity, of its Jewish ethos, would be full 
equality and respect for its non-Jewish citizens.

Look what happened.

Look what happened to this young, bold country, so full of passion and soul. How
in a process of accelerated senescence Israel aged through infancy, childhood, 
and youth, into a permanent state of irritability and flaccidity and missed 
opportunities. How did it happen? When did we lose even the hope that we might 
someday be able to live different, better lives? More than that‹how is it that 
we continue today to stand aside and watch, mesmerized, as madness and 
vulgarity, violence and racism take control of our home?

And I ask you, how can it be that a people with our powers of creativity and 
regeneration, a nation that has known how to pick itself up out of the dust time
and again, finds itself today‹precisely when it has such great military power‹in
such a feeble, helpless state? A state in which it is again a victim, but now a 
victim of itself, of its fears and despair, of its own shortsightedness?

One of the harsh things that this last war sharpened for us was the feeling that
in these times there is no king in Israel. That our leadership is hollow, both 
our political and military leadership. I am not speaking now of the obvious 
fiascos in the conduct of the war, or of the way the rear echelon of the army 
was left to its own devices. Nor am I speaking of our current corruption 
scandals, great and small.

My intention is to make it clear that the people who today lead Israel are 
unable to connect Israelis with their identity, and certainly not with the 
healthy, sustaining, inspiring parts of Jewish identity. I mean those parts of 
identity and memory and values that can give us strength and hope, that can 
serve as antidotes to the attenuation of mutual responsibility and of our 
connection to the land, that can grant meaning to our exhausting, desperate 
struggle for survival.

Today, Israel¹s leadership fills the husk of its regime primarily with fears and
intimidations, with the allure of power and the winks of the backroom deal, with
haggling over all that is dear to us. In this sense, our leaders are not real 
leaders. They are certainly not the leaders that a people in such a complicated,
disoriented state need. Sometimes, it seems that the public expression of their 
thinking, of their historical memory, of their vision, of what really is 
important to them fills only the tiny space between two newspaper headlines. Or 
between two police investigations.

Look at those who lead us. Not at all of them, of course, but all too many of 
them. Look at the way they act‹terrified, suspicious, sweaty, legalistic, 
deceptive. It¹s ridiculous to even hope that the Law will come forth from them, 
that they can produce a vision, or even an original, truly creative, bold, 
momentous idea. When was the last time that the Prime Minister suggested or made
a move that could open a single new horizon for Israelis? A better future? When 
did he take a social, cultural, or ethical initiative, rather than just react 
frantically to the actions of others?

Mr. Prime Minister, I do not say these things out of anger or vengeance. I have 
waited long enough; I am not speaking on the impulse of a moment. You cannot 
dismiss my words tonight by saying ³a man should not be held to what he says 
when he is mourning.² Of course I am mourning. But more than I am in pain, I 
hurt. This country, and what you and your colleagues are doing to it, pains me. 
In all sincerity, it is important to me that you succeed. Because our future 
depends on your ability to rise up and act.

Yitzhak Rabin turned to the path of peace with the Palestinians not because he 
was fond of them or their leaders. Then also, if you remember, the common wisdom
was that we had no partner among the Palestinians, and that there was nothing 
for us to talk about with them. Rabin decided to act because he detected, with 
great astuteness, that Israeli society could not long continue in a state of 
unresolved conflict. He understood, before many people understood, that life in 
a constant climate of violence, of occupation, of terror and fear and 
hopelessness, comes at a price that Israel cannot afford to pay.

All this is true today as well, and much more sharply. In a bit we¹ll talk about
the partner that we do or don¹t have, but first let¹s look at ourselves. For 
more than a hundred years we have lived in a conflict. We, the citizens of that 
conflict, were born into a war, we were educated within it, and in a sense we 
were educated for it.

Perhaps for that reason we sometimes think that this madness that we¹ve been 
living in for a century now is the only true thing, that it is the life we are 
destined for, and that we have no way, even no right, to aspire to a different 
kind of life. We will live and die by the sword, and the sword shall devour 

Maybe that explains the apathy with which we accept the total cessation of the 
peace process, a moratorium that has lasted for years now, and has cost ever 
more casualties. That can also explain how most of us have failed to respond to 
the brutal kick democracy received when Avigdor Lieberman was appointed a senior
cabinet minister. It¹s the appointment of a compulsive pyromaniac to head the 
country¹s firefighters.

And these are some of the reasons that, in an amazingly short time, Israel has 
degenerated into heartlessness, real cruelty toward the weak, the poor, and the 
suffering. Israel displays indifference to the hungry, the elderly, the sick, 
and the handicapped, equanimity in the face of, for example, trafficking in 
women, or the exploitation of foreign workers in conditions of slave labor, and 
in the face of profound, institutionalized racism toward its Arab minority.

When all this happens as if it were perfectly natural, without outrage and 
without protest, I begin to fear that even if peace comes tomorrow, even if we 
eventually return to some sort of normality, it may be too late to heal us 

The calamity that my family and I suffered when my son Uri fell in the war last 
summer does not give me any special privileges in our national debate. But it 
seems to me that facing death and loss brings with it a kind of sobriety and 
clarity, at least when it comes to distinguishing the wheat from the chaff, 
between what can and cannot be achieved. Between reality and fantasy.

Every thinking person in Israel‹ and, I will add, in Palestine as well‹ knows 
today precisely the outline of a possible solution to the conflict between the 
two peoples. All thinking people, in Israel and in Palestine, know deep in their
hearts the difference between, on the one hand, their dreams and wishes, and on 
the other, what they can get at the end of the negotiations.

Those who don¹t know that, whether Jews or Arabs, are already not part of the 
dialogue. Such people are trapped in their hermetic fanaticism, so they are not 
partners. Let¹s look for a minute at our potential partners. The Palestinians 
have placed Hamas in their leadership, and Hamas refuses to negotiate with us, 
refuses even to recognize us. What can we do in such a situation? What more can 
we do? Tighten the noose even more? Continue to kill hundreds of Palestinians in
the Gaza Strip, the great majority of them innocent civilians, like us?

Appeal to the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert. Appeal to them over Hamas¹s head. Appeal
to the moderates among them, to those who, like you and me, oppose Hamas and its
ideology. Appeal to the Palestinian people. Speak to their deepest wound, 
acknowledge their unending suffering. You won¹t lose anything, and Israel¹s 
position in any future negotiation will not be compromised. But hearts will open
a bit to each other, and that opening has great power. Simple human compassion 
has the power of a force of nature, precisely in a situation of stagnation and 

Look at them, just once, not through a rifle¹s sights and not through a 
roadblock. You will see a people no less tortured than we are. A conquered, 
persecuted, hopeless people. Of course the Palestinians are also guilty of the 
dead end we¹ve reached. Of course they bear part of the blame for the failure of
the peace process.

But look at them for a moment in a different way. Not just at their extremists. 
Not just at those who have an alliance of mutual interest with our own 
extremists. Look at the great majority of this wretched nation, whose fate is 
bound up with ours, like it or not.

Go to the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert. Don¹t look for reasons not to talk to them. 
You¹ve given up on unilateral disengagement. And that¹s good. But don¹t leave a 
vacuum. It will fill up immediately with violence and destruction. Talk to them.
Make them an offer that their moderates can accept (there are far more of them 
than the media shows us). Make them an offer, so that they will have to decide 
whether to accept it or instead remain hostages to fanatical Islam. Go to them 
with the boldest, most serious plan that Israel is able to put forward. A plan 
that all Israelis and Palestinians with eyes in their heads will know is the 
limit of refusal and concession, ours and theirs.

If you hesitate, we¹ll soon be longing for the days when Palestinian terrorism 
was an amateur affair. We will pound ourselves on our heads and shout, why did 
we not use all our flexibility, all our Israeli creativity, to extricate our 
enemy from the trap in which he ensnared himself?

Just as there is unavoidable war, there is also unavoidable peace. Because we no
longer have any choice. We have no choice, and they have no choice. And we need 
to set out toward this unavoidable peace with the same determination and 
creativity with which we set out to an unavoidable war. Anyone who thinks there 
is an alternative, that time is on our side, does not grasp the profound, 
dangerous process that is now well underway.

Perhaps, Mr. Prime Minister, I need to remind you that if any Arab leader sends 
out signals of peace, even the slightest, most hesitant ones, you must respond. 
You must immediately test his sincerity and seriousness. You have no moral right
not to respond. You must do so for the sake of those who will be expected to 
sacrifice their lives if another war breaks out.

So if President Assad says that Syria wants peace, even if you don¹t believe 
him‹and we¹re all suspicious‹you must propose a meeting that very same day. 
Don¹t wait a single day longer. After all, when you set out on the last war you 
didn¹t wait for even an hour. You charged in with all our might. With every 
weapon we have. With all our power to destroy. Why, when there is some sort of 
flicker of peace, do you immediately reject it, dismiss it? What do you have to 
lose? Are you suspicious of the Syrian president? Go offer him terms that will 
reveal his trickery. Offer him a peace process lasting several years, only at 
the end of which, if he meets all the conditions, lives up to all the 
restrictions, will he get the Golan Heights. Force him into a process of ongoing
dialogue. Act so that his people will be made aware of the possibility, help the
moderates, who must exist there as well. Try to shape reality, not to be its 
collaborator. That¹s why you were elected. Precisely for that reason.

Of course not everything depends on what we do. There are great and strong 
forces acting in this region and in the world, and some of them, like Iran, like
radical Islam, wish us ill.

Nevertheless, so much does depend on what we do, and what we will be. The 
differences between right and left are not that great today. The decisive 
majority of Israel¹s citizens now understand‹of course, some of them without 
enthusiasm‹what the shape of a peaceful solution will look like. Most of us 
understand that the land will be divided, that there will be a Palestinian 

Why, then, do we continue to sap ourselves with the internal bickering that has 
gone on now for almost forty years? Why does our political leadership continue 
to reflect the positions of the extremists and not of the majority? After all, 
we¹ll be much better off if we reach this national consensus on our own, before 
circumstances‹external pressures, or a new Palestinian uprising, or another war‹
force us to do so. If we do it, we will save ourselves years of erosion and 
error, years in which we will shout again and again, ³See, land, that we were 
most wasteful.²

From where I stand at this moment, I request, call out to all those listening ‹ 
to young people who came back from the war, who know that they are the ones who 
will have to pay the price of the next war; to Jewish and Arab citizens; to the 
people of the right and the people of the left: stop for a moment. Look over the
edge of the abyss, and consider how close we are to losing what we have created 
here. Ask yourselves if the time has not arrived for us to come to our senses, 
to break out of our paralysis, to demand for ourselves, finally, the lives that 
we deserve to live.

‹Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman

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