J.J. Goldberg

An Israeli Novelist's Cry for Peace. A Rabbi's Reply

By J.J. Goldberg

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Rabbi Yuval Sherlow

Novelist David Grossman spoke Saturday night at a peace rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, sponsored by the Peace Now movement and the Meretz and Hadash parties, among others. It was attended by an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people, which the left considered an impressive show of force and the right mocked as a failure. Grossman’s speech, an eloquent cri de coeur of Israel’s increasingly isolated antiwar left, was reprinted in Hebrew on Sunday on Ynet.co.il, the Hebrew-language website of Yediot Ahronot. (Thanks to Gary Brenner for urging me to translate it.)

Also appearing Sunday on Ynet was a reply to Grossman by Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, dean of the Hesder yeshiva of Petah Tikvah. Sherlow is one of the most liberal voices in Israeli Orthodoxy. He’s spoken out bravely within his community in favor of tolerance of gays, greater recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism — including Reform conversion — and open, sympathetic dialogue between right and left. In this “Letter to David Grossman” he warmly chides the novelist for preaching to the converted (no, not that kind) and failing to find a language that can bridge the gap dividing left and right. Remarkably, he concedes many of Grossman’s sharpest critiques, but insists that Grossman fails to acknowledge “the other sides of the coin” — the still-vital humanity within the Israeli public, the implacability often facing Israel from its enemies — and so alienates a large audience that Sherlow wishes the novelist could reach.

They’re both well worth reading for their insight into the current mood in Israel. The translations are mine, and as usual are as literal as I can make them. Let me know if you spot mistakes.

David Grossman: ‘We Are Collaborators of Despair’

You are many. We are many, many more than we thought, than we believed.

I stood here in this square two days ago, at the demonstration in support of the residents of the south. I stood here at the demonstration in support of the residents of the south the day before yesterday. I wanted to be with them, to listen to them as they told of their hard lives. There were many speakers here, and most of them spoke fitting, heartfelt words, and they all said basically the same thing: It can’t go on like this.

I listened to them, and to others who bitterly said things like “Let the IDF win” and “Let the IDF mow them down” and “The time has come to eliminate Hamas,” and I thought, these are sophisticated, experienced people, the sort who know that in the current circumstances this wish of theirs won’t come true, and everything that’s happened in this war testifies to that. But nobody is showing them another way or offering hope for a better future, and there’s nothing left for them but to shout over and over in ever-growing despair, like so many of us: Let the IDF win.

There are no images of victory in this war, not for either side. There are no images of victory, only visions of destruction and death and indescribable suffering. Every image from this miserable battlefield is in the end an image of a profound defeat of two peoples who have hardly learned to speak to one another, even after a century of conflict, in any language but violence. In the current circumstances, under the existing limits — the limits of force, of morality, of international pressure — there is no military solution to the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

There is no military solution that will bring an end to the suffering of the residents of the south, to the terrible fear they live with, and there’s no military solution to the inhuman anguish of the Palestinians in Gaza. In plain words: until there is a resolution to the feelings of suffocation of the people of Gaza, we in Israel will not be able to breathe freely. We won’t breathe through both our lungs.

Therefore, in the negotiations that will begin again tomorrow in Cairo, and after Israel insists, as it must, on the security demands necessary for the people of Sderot and Nahal Oz to live secure, peaceful lives, and after Israel demands that Hamas commit itself to ending its violent attacks, and its preparations for future attacks, after all this Israel will have to offer proposals to the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip that are greater and more significant than the sum of their parts. Not another limited, local, narrow cease-fire agreement but a framework for a change in relations between the sides — a big, far-sighted, generous plan that contains proposals for a genuine improvement in the lives of the resident of Gaza, for reviving their hopes for a better future and granting them a feeling of self-respect and human dignity.

Of course it’s possible to bargain over every little paragraph in an agreement, over ten trucks fewer or more passing through the fence, over another kilometer or two of permitted fishing zones for Gaza’s fishermen. But what must change this time, after this war, is the spirit of things. To my mind this is one of the main reasons we’ve come and gathered here this evening. To remind those who negotiate in our name with the Palestinians in Cairo that even if the people of Gaza are enemies today, they will always be our neighbors, and that is the spirit of things. We will always live beside one another, and this fact has meaning, because my neighbor’s downfall is not necessarily my victory, and my neighbor’s welfare is in the end my welfare.

But above all we have gathered here this evening to voice a demand that the central provision in the agreement they are trying to draft in Cairo will say the following: that after the cease-fire is stabilized, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as represented by the Palestinian unity government, will open direct talks whose goal is to bring peace between the two peoples.

That’s how it has to be, without hesitation, without stammering, without grieving, perhaps without clear, sharp declarations of intention by the two sides. Because if after a war like this, after its terrors, after its results, Israel does not initiate such a step, there will be only one explanation: that Israel prefers the certainty of repeated wars over the risks involved in the compromises that bring peace. And we will know that Israel’s current leader is not prepared, does not dare to go down the path of peace because he is afraid to pay the price, especially the price of withdrawing from the West Bank and evacuating the settlements.

Friends, this moment of decision might come tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, or perhaps in a month, but it could be that we will suddenly discover that it is very near and it will be a sort of acid test that will tell us in the clearest fashion whether or not Israel is trying with all its might to reach peace or whether it chooses another war. Eighty-two thousand reserve soldiers took part in this war. Some of them may even be with us this evening as civilians. Again and again we have heard them say to the cameras and microphones, we’ll meet again in another year, two years tops.

These statements of theirs are nothing less than heartbreaking. It is clear to these young people, with a sort of horrifying certainty, that sooner or later they will be drawn back into this inferno. It is terrible, terrible to hear young people with their whole lives before them, people who were brave enough to enter booby-trapped houses and terror tunnels, to hear how they are ready to accept as a sort of decree from heaven that their lives are only theirs on loan until the next payment due date.

It is no less terrible to see how so many Israelis make do in intentional, considered passivity with a government that for years has done almost nothing genuine to solve the conflict. How is it, tell me, how is it that we, the children and citizens of a state that in every other area of its life is enterprising, creative and daring, pathbreaking, how is that we agree, in this most fateful area of our existence, to be collaborators in despair and failure?

Dear friends, the time has come to wake up. This war has exposed perhaps more sharply than ever the dangerous processes befalling Israel because of despair, because of fear, because of the feeling that there is no way out. The time has come for us to wake up and understand that while we slept, things were happening here. Chauvinism, fanaticism and racism have erupted shamelessly, all at once. They have swiftly succeeded in imposing a dictatorship of fear on broad sectors of our public domain.

Not one word of condemnation has come from the mouth of the prime minister nor from any senior minister. It will be very difficult to rein in these forces of darkness. They are already here. I suspect, too, that all those leaders have drawn a certain strange satisfaction from seeing the left take it on the chin, and they don’t understand that this foul wave will be very difficult to control, because it will turn against them when it decides that they have suddenly become too moderate.

These fascistic forces are joined by other forces that both nourish them and draw nourishment from them. Huge social gaps, bitterness over poverty and years of discrimination, corruption and greed in high places.

Friends, all these things, all these things create an atmosphere of disintegration of the bonds that should maintain a healthy society. All these things are tunnels burrowing under Israel’s fragile democracy. These are precisely the phenomena and processes that are likely very soon, much sooner than we think, to turn Israel from a progressive state with its face toward the future into an extremist, militant, xenophobic, ingrown pariah cult.

I want to say something here to those who have spent the last month or so boasting about our nation’s inner strength. Our nation’s inner strength means, among other things, understanding that Arab citizens of Israel are at present in severe, intolerable distress. They see their people killed and wounded by the thousands, sometimes their own family members. Sometimes the person shooting at their family members is the son of their employer or of a person who works alongside them. And anyone who exults that we Jewish Israelis are the most humane nation, the most sensitive to the troubles of other humans, should please explain to me how it is that we insist on preventing Arab citizens of Israel, doctors and nurses who care for us in our hospitals, social workers and garage mechanics and students and cooks and artists and construction workers, those with whom we live and with whom we will live, how we refuse to permit them at least the right to cry out.

Is our nation’s resolve so weakened that it has no room for these human expressions of anger and grief? Friends, you who have come in your numbers to this square and the even greater numbers at home, of every point of view, every party, every religious orientation, you whose lives are bound up and intertwined with the life of the state of Israel, you in whose eyes, I hope — as in mine — this is the most meaningful place to live and raise children.

And you, perhaps, who belong to today’s ruling political majority, but who feel that a great mistake is taking shape here on a historic scale — all of you who see how we are, by our own hands, by our inaction, we are losing our home, losing it to the fanaticism and internecine hatred that leave us paralyzed in a fifty-year deadlock that prevents us from saving ourselves — I am speaking to you. The alarm sounded in our ears by this last war tells us to forge new partnerships that break the deadlock and raise us up past the narrow self interests of our quarreling camps.

I believe, and with this I will conclude, that there is still a critical mass of people here, people of the broad Israeli mainstream, people from the right and the left, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, people from every community and class, people who are disgusted with violence and extremism, people with the wisdom of life and of compromise, people from Tel Aviv and Ofra and Ashkelon and Jerusalem and Sakhnin and Be’er Sheva, people who are still capable of uniting, intelligently and without illusions, around three or four points of agreement. For example, that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people and that it is a democratic state, all of whose citizens have absolutely equal rights, and that it will make every effort to resolve the conflict with its neighbors. Three or four points that are the heart of the matter, a sort of test by which every Israeli citizen can define for himself where he stands and to which camp he belongs.

If this evening produces such a call and it lands on attentive ears, and if it gathers strength and mobilizes people, then perhaps, perhaps, even the leaders of this country will begin to reposition themselves along these new lines. This is the choice before us after this last war. This is the choice, this is our hope. Thank you and good evening.


Yuval Sherlow, Letter to David: This is How You Missed the Israeli Public

To David Grossman, greetings,

Who did you want to speak to last night? If you wanted to speak to the few thousand people who think like you and thus to fix in place the framework that you are addressing, you succeeded. That’s how your words sounded, in fact — fixed in place, unequivocal, without reconsideration, without doubts. A typical rally speech. A speech that demands of others what it won’t consider from itself: rethinking its path.

But if you were thinking of speaking to the broader public, or at least to those who are willing to listen to your words and reexamine their own opinions — you didn’t succeed. You missed an opportunity.

What was it in your words that created the great barrier to their reception? First, one could point to the broad expanse that wasn’t present. You spoke about difficulties and despair. They appeared many times in your remarks, and from your point of view, rightly so. But you didn’t speak at all about the solidarity and great spirit of this nation that have appeared in the difficult days we’re going through. You didn’t speak about the deep sense of partnership that has appeared within the divided and quarreling people of Israel.

You spoke, apparently correctly, about the fact that there is no military solution to the terrible conflict between these two peoples — at least none that is visible on the horizon. But you weren’t willing to examine other options. You repeated the familiar mantras about sitting down and talking peace, while completely ignoring the experience we’ve acquired in the last few years.

You spoke of a perfect symmetry of pain and suffering between us and Gaza, but you weren’t willing to raise the more complex challenge of the ethics of war, of justice, of the fact that one side of the conflict includes a group that has written our destruction on its banner.

You spoke quite justly of the fact that “my neighbor’s downfall is not necessarily my victory, and my neighbor’s welfare is in the end my welfare,” but you took no note of the fact that this sentence is spoken only on one side of the border, not on both sides. Indeed, no one would willingly live under siege, but you didn’t speak about the use Hamas makes of the resources it has acquired in the last few years — where the money goes, and toward what goals.

But the most important thing you missed is something I’m not sure you can see: something that was missing in the words you directed inward, toward your own people. I noted at the outset your decision not to acknowledge the spirit, the strength, the devotion and solidarity. I don’t think for a moment that you didn’t feel them. But you chose not to take note of them as part of the overall equation.

Note how many words you devoted to despair, hatred, division and the inroads of fascism, and how much you ignored the fact that there are other phenomena at work, trends that are building a new house that can yet arise from the dichotomy within which you live. In so doing, you closed my ears — and the ears of many others, I’m sure — from hearing your words. I can listen only to someone who sees a rich picture, not one-dimensional, not fanatical, not extreme.

Not only that, but you continue to live in your dichotomous world. You continue to speak in a language of “only one answer,” which is to say, anyone who thinks like you is a lover of peace, and anyone who doesn’t “prefers the certainty of repeated wars.” Those who believe that following your path is in fact the surest guarantee of repeated wars, and on ever-worsening terms, count for nothing in your book.

This dichotomy turns into fatalism: “People who were brave enough to enter booby-trapped houses and terror tunnels, to hear how they are ready to accept as a sort of decree from heaven that their lives are only theirs on loan until the next payment due date.” Your ears are closed to the other possibilities: These precious boys are lovers of life and lovers of peace. They don’t accept anything as decreed from heaven. They just think differently from you.

And the dichotomy continues in your telling of the left “taking it on the chin.” The world is somehow divided in two: One side of the equation is “chauvinism, fanaticism and racism” erupting “shamelessly, all at once,” swiftly managing “to impose a dictatorship of fear on broad sectors of our public domain.” The other side is you.

One side is accused (quite justifiably, if your facts are correct) that “not one word of condemnation has come from the mouth of the prime minister nor from any senior minister.” The other side, of course, is clean of hand and pure of heart, and we have heard its voice raised in protest against the spokesmen of the right and its legal representatives.

I don’t want to get into self-pity and questions of who started it and whether or not it’s symmetrical. I only want to point out the ugly world of black and white within which street-rally rhetoric traps you.

It was your final passage that could — and should — have taken you to a different place. You said, and rightly so: “I believe that there is still a critical mass of people here, people of the broad Israeli mainstream, people from the right and the left, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs … people from Tel Aviv and Ofra and Ashkelon and Jerusalem and Sakhnin and Be’er Sheva, people who are still capable of uniting, intelligently and without illusions, around three or four points of agreement. For example, that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people and that it is a democratic state, all of whose citizens have absolutely equal rights, and that it will make every effort to resolve the conflict with its neighbors. … a sort of test by which every Israeli citizen can define for himself where he stands and to which camp he belongs.”

But your words once again were incomplete. If only you had added the other sides of the coin — the readiness to stand forcefully and with determination on our Zionist stance and our relationship with the Land of Israel; the true situation of the enemies that surround us, “intelligently and without illusions”; as well as the national mobilization on behalf of the peripheries, in the fullest sense — then you would have broken through the boundaries of the narrow public to which you spoke.

Then, too, you would have found allies and partners in the struggle for freedom of expression and honest public discourse, for sensitivity toward the complex and difficult situation of the Arab community in the state of Israel; in the struggle to redeem those who have been harmed by official corruption and public rigidity as they search for ways to stop the terrible bloodshed plaguing our region, and to restore the word “peace” to its proper status — instead of the political manipulations for which it is exploited today.

But you chose to go down a different path, and found yourself forced to utter these words of self-delusion: “You are many. We are many, many more than we thought, than we believed.” What a pity.


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