With fists, with words, with kindness
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SATURDAY, OCTOBER 13, 2001
Saturday’s a great day to get your bomb shelter in order. As my wife and I do our best to clear out all the junk that’s piled up there since the last time we thought there’d be a war (it wasn’t that long ago, just a year back, when the Intifada broke out), my young daughter is busy making up the list of friends she wants to invite to her upcoming birthday party. A weighty question: Should she invite Tali, who didn’t invite my daughter to her birthday party? We discuss the problem, trying to muster all the gravity it deserves, just so that we can at least keep up an appearance of routine. But the terrorist attacks in the United States have robbed us of that illusion, of the possibility of depending on some sort of logical continuity. The thought is always hovering in the air: Who knows where we will be a month from now?
We already know that our lives will not be as they were before September 11. When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, a deep, long crack appeared in the old reality. The muffled roar of everything that might burst out can be heard through the crack: violence, cruelty, fanaticism, and madness. The wish that we might keep what we have, keep up a daily schedule, suddenly seems exposed and vulnerable. The effort to maintain some sort of routine — to keep family, home, friends together — now seems so touching, even heroic.
We decide to invite Tali.
I’m lucky that the suggestion to write this journal came as I was beginning to write a new story. If it weren’t for that, I’m afraid my diary would have been quite melancholy.
Several months have gone by since I finished my last book, and I felt that not writing was having a bad effect on me. When I’m not writing, I have a feeling that I don’t really understand anything; that everything that happens to me, all events and statements and encounters, exist only side by side, without any real contact between them. But the minute I begin writing a new story, everything suddenly becomes intertwined into a single cord; every event feeds into and imbues all other events with life. Every sight I see, every person I meet is a clue that’s been sent to me, waiting for me to decipher it.
I’m writing a story about a man and a woman. That is, it began as a short story about a man alone, but the woman he met, who was supposed to be just a chance passerby who listens to his story, suddenly interests me no less than he does. I wonder if it is correct, from a literary point of view, to get so involved with her. She changes the center of gravity I had planned for the story. She disrupts the delicate balance it requires. Last night I woke up thinking that I ought to take her out entirely and replace her with a different character, someone paler, who wouldn’t overshadow my protagonist. But in the morning, when I saw her in writing, I just couldn’t part with her. At least, not before I got to know her a little better. I wrote her all day.
It’s almost midnight. When I write a story, I try to go to sleep with one unfinished idea, an idea I haven’t gotten to the bottom of. The hope is that at night, in my dreams, it will ripen. It is so exhilarating and rejuvenating to have a story to help extricate me from the dispassion to which life in this disaster zone dooms me. It’s so good to feel alive again.
I keep reading hostile remarks about Israel in the European press, even accusations that Israel is responsible for the world’s current plight. It infuriates me to see how eagerly some people use Israel as a scapegoat. As if Israel were the one, simple, almost exclusive reason that justifies the terrorism and hatred now targeted against the West. It’s also astounding that Israel was not invited to participate in the antiterrorism coalition, while Syria and Iran — Syria and Iran! — were.
I feel that these and other events (the Durban conference and its treatment of Israel; anti-Israeli Islamic rhetoric and racism) are causing a profound realignment in Israelis’ perception of themselves. Most Israelis believed that they’d somehow broken free of the tragedy of Jewish fate. Now they feel that that tragedy is once again encompassing them. They’re suddenly aware of how far they still are from the Promised Land, how widespread stereotypical attitudes about “the Jew” still are, and how common anti-Semitism is, hiding all too often behind a screen of (supposedly legitimate) extremist anti-Israel sentiments.
I’m highly critical of Israel’s behavior, but in recent weeks I’ve felt that the international media’s hostility to it has not been fed solely by the actions of the Sharon government. A person feels such things deeply, under the skin. I feel them with a kind of shiver that runs back to my most primeval memories, to the times when the Jew was not perceived as a human being of flesh and blood but was rather always a symbol of the Other. A chilling metaphor. Last night I heard the host of a BBC program end his interview with an Arab spokesman with the following remark (I’m quoting from memory): “So you say that Israel is the cause of all the troubles that are poisoning the world today. Thank you, and I’d like to wish our audience good night.”
For two weeks there has been a decline of sorts in the level of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. The heart, so accustomed to disappointments, still refuses to be tempted into optimism, but the calm allows me to get absorbed in writing without pangs of conscience. The woman in my story is becoming more of a presence. I haven’t the slightest idea where she is leading me. There’s something bitter and unbounded about her that both frightens and attracts me. There’s always that great expectation at the beginning of every story — that the story will surprise me. More than that, I want it actually to betray me. To drag me by the hair, absolutely against my will, into the places that are most dangerous and most frightening for me. I want it to destabilize and dissolve all the comfortable defenses of my life. It must deconstruct me, my relations with my children, my wife, and my parents; with my country; with the society I live in; with my language.
It’s no wonder that it is so hard to get into a new story. My soul is on guard. Like every living thing, it seeks to continue in its movement, in its routine. Why should it take part in this process of self-destruction? What’s wrong with the way it is? Maybe that’s why it takes me a long time to write a novel — as if in the first months I have to remove layer after layer of cataract from my recalcitrant soul.
“The only one smiling is the one who hasn’t heard the latest news.” So wrote Bertolt Brecht. At 7:30 in the morning the radio reports the assassination of Israeli minister of tourism Rehavam Ze’evi. Ze’evi was an extremist who advocated transferring the Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I never agreed with his opinions, but such an act of terrorism is horrible and unjustified. That is also my opinion when Israel murders a Palestinian political figure.
Every country has the right to defend itself when a terrorist bearing a “ticking bomb” is on his way to attack. Rehavam Ze’evi, despite his views, was not a terrorist.
The heart fills with apprehension. Who knows how the situation will deteriorate now? Over the last two days there has been relative calm, and we’d grown almost bold enough to resume breathing with both lungs. Now, all at once, it’s as if the trap has closed in on us once again. I am reminded of how easily we can be overcome by the unbearable lightness of death. (As I write, I have the feeling that I am documenting the last days before a great catastrophe.)
Still, last night I had a small, private moment of comfort. As on every Tuesday, I studied with my hevruta: two friends, a man and a woman, with whom I study the Talmud, the Bible, and also Kafka and Agnon. The hevruta is an ancient Jewish institution. It’s a way of sharpening the intellect through debate and disputation. During our years of study together, we have developed a kind of private language of associations and memories. I’ve already had ten years of vibrant, exciting, and stormy dialogue with these friends. I’m the nonreligious one of the three, but when we study, I become intimately connected to the millennia-long chain of Jewish thinkers and creators. I reach down into the foundations of the Hebrew language and Jewish thought. I suddenly understand the code hidden in the deep structure of Israel’s social and political behavior today. In the midst of confusion and the loss that surrounds me, I unexpectedly feel I belong.
Things fall apart. Israeli forces are entering the Palestinian city of Ramallah. A day of combat. Six Palestinians are killed, a ten-year-old girl among them. Another of the victims was a senior official of Fatah, the majority Palestinian faction, who had been responsible for the murder of several Israelis. An Israeli citizen was killed by Palestinian gunfire coming from the village of another, previously killed, Fatah operative. The fragile cease-fire is no more, and who knows how long it will take to rehabilitate it. I call one of the people with whom I can share my gloom at such a moment: Ahmed Harb, a Palestinian writer from Ramallah and a friend. He tells me about the shooting he hears. He also tells of the optimism that prevailed among the Palestinians until the day before yesterday, before Ze’evi’s murder. “Look how the extremists on both sides are working hand in hand,” he says. “And look how successful they are.” Only two days ago Israel lifted its siege of Ramallah for the first time in weeks. After Ze’evi’s assassination the roadblocks returned. I ask my friend if there’s something I can do to help him, and he laughs. “We just want to move. To be in motion. To be able to leave the city and come back . . .”
Between the news bulletins, amid the ambulance sirens and the helicopters that relentlessly circle above, I try to isolate myself. I battle to write my story. Not as a way of turning my back on reality — reality is here, in any case, like acid that eats away any protective coating — but rather out of a sense that, in the current situation, the very act of writing becomes an act of protest; an act of self-definition within a situation that literally threatens to obliterate me. When I write, or imagine, or create even one new phrase, it is as if I have succeeded in overcoming, for a brief time, the arbitrariness and tyranny of circumstance. For a moment, I am not a victim.
The week is coming to an end. Its events were so consuming that I did not have time to write about many important things dear to me: about my son, who is writing a surrealist play for his high-school drama club; about the soccer game we watched together on television; about my daughter, who is conducting a scientific study of her parakeet; about my elder son, who is serving in the army and about whom I am anxious each and every moment. Also about our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this week, celebrated with much concern: will we succeed in preserving this vulnerable family structure in the years to come?
So many cherished things and private moments are lost to fear and violence. So much creative power, so much imagination and thought are directed today at destruction and death — or at guarding against destruction and death. Sometimes there is a sense that most of our energy is invested in defending the boundaries of our existence. And too little energy is left for living life itself.
“Seven Days: A Diary” is reprinted from Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years after Oslo, by David Grossman. Translation copyright © 2003 by Haim Watzman. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. (www.fsgbooks.com)