David Grossman: 'Scared people vote for warriors'

No other writer is as committed to fixing the world as David Grossman (Jerusalem, 1954). On Tuesday, he will receive the Erasmus Prize from King Willem-Alexander for his efforts. According to the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, which finances the prize with the associated sum of 150,000 euros, he receives it for his efforts to “understand people from the inside and see the other with love across the boundaries of war and history”.

He thinks that love is a bit exaggerated, especially when it comes to the love between Palestinians and Jews, he says in his Amsterdam hotel. “I am too sober for that. Moreover, I have been living in the midst of the drama of the Middle East for too long to believe in love between Palestinians and Jews. I do believe that together we should be able to lead a life of peace, security and human dignity. But I don’t see us walking hand in hand into the sunset together.”

What can still happen?

“We need to create a common space in the region, with a university where we can study the origins of the conflict together and where we can play football against each other. Only when our relationship normalizes can you lessen the hatred and animosity that have defined us for the past century.

“But even if peace were to come today, in some ways it is too late. We are so scarred by corruption, hatred and fear that much has become irreversible.”

Yet you are still actively working for peace. Do you remain optimistic?

“In any case, I will not stop my efforts for peace. If I stopped doing that, I’d be defeated. Israeli television is now broadcasting a series about the British Mandate in Palestine, in which you can see how the British deliberately played the Jews and Palestinians against each other in order to have more power themselves. It also appears that there was indeed a time when Palestinians and Jews could have lived together in peace and friendship. But when there is war, fear prevails. And that makes it possible for people to be easily manipulated. Prime Minister Netanyahu is a genius at that.”

Your novel ‘Behold: Love’ (1986) is about coping with loss and pain after the Shoah…

“… but also about healing the wounds of trauma. I am often told by readers that I am trying to forgive injustice, but I am not. I’m trying to heal. If someone thinks differently about things after reading my books, then I have passed. With a story you can tell the known reality in new words. And with that you can free your readers from a stuck narrative. Whether it is about husband and wife, about parents and children or about Palestinians and Jews.

“We are too caught up in the official versions of reality. We cling too much to the familiar, rigid narrative. In literature and political essays you can look at the conflict from a different angle. The current conflict should not be seen as a text written by Jews and Palestinians together. Only when you break away from that, there is a chance of restoring relations.”

Do you also see the willingness to do this on the Palestinian side?

“When I meet Palestinians, which rarely happens because they do not want a normalization of the current situation, I notice that the gap between us is smaller than you might think. But there is also enough room to give the manipulators free reign.”

And that is because of the Palestinian leaders?

“Yes, they are chosen because frightened people vote for warriors. And warriors tend to take their people to war.”

In your novels and especially in ‘Behold: love’, the legacy of the Shoah is omnipresent. Doesn’t that legacy greatly influence Israeli politics?

“The Shoah is always there, sometimes in deeper layers of our lives, sometimes it shoots to the surface. You can’t heal such a big trauma that quickly. Of course we should not forget the Shoah, but it should not be used as a means of manipulating the world, as Netanyahu does. It will certainly be another generation or two before we can deal with it in a different, fairer way.”

There is always humor in your books, no matter how tragic the story. Is humor essential to you?

“Yes, of course. Humor shows you a degree of flexibility. It also proves that you are not stuck in a certain situation, but that you can see things from a different point of view. And when you laugh, you breathe, even when you tell the most horrible jokes about Jews and Nazis, as I have the main character do in my novel A horse enters a pub.”

Now that your friends Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua are dead, you as a leftist peace activist are quite alone. Are there successors?

“Barely. It is true that we have the young writers Nir Baram and Eskol Nevo, but that is all. Most writers and artists have no desire to mix their art with politics. Also because in Israel you are doomed as a left-wing activist and can be boycotted.”

Did that happen to you too?

“People may be against my views, but they love my books.”

David Grossman performs on Friday afternoon in the OBA in Amsterdam and on Sunday in the program Buitenhof.

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