Commentary Magazine


The Yellow Wind, by David Grossman

Arabs As Jews

The Yellow Wind.
by David Grossman.
Translated by Haim Watzman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 216 pp. $17.95.

The Yellow Wind is David Grossman’s account, written for the Israeli weekly Koteret Rashit, of his “seven-week journey through the West Bank” in 1987. It was undertaken in order to 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.” Among the eighteen chapters, unequal in length and not logically parallel, are accounts of the Deheisha refugee camp, of a professorial study of the dreams of Arab and Jewish children, of the Jewish settlement at Ofra, of Bethlehem University, of a village to which refugees were allowed to return in 1972, of proceedings in the Nablus military court, of a village divided in 1949 by the newly drawn Israel-Jordan border, of travelers crossing the Allenby Bridge, of illegally employed Arab laborers in Holon (near Tel Aviv), and of settlers’ reactions (and Arab lack of reactions) to the burning of the Moses family from the settlement of Alfei Menashe. There are also interviews with Moni Ben-Ari, a nonreligious leader of the Jewish settlement movement, with Raj’a Shehade, an Arab lawyer and author, and with the father of an Arab who took part in the murder of two Jewish couples. One chapter is a fictional inside view of an Israeli intelligence officer in the civil administration; it serves as a reminder (just in case the rest of the book should fail to do so) that Grossman is not merely a journalist but a novelist of solid achievement and high reputation.

George Eliot once said that, since opinions are a poor cement between human souls, the novelist’s task should be the creation and diffusion of imaginative sympathy among those who differ from each other in everything except their shared suffering and their human status. Grossman too eschews opinions and aspires “to display wide-hearted humanism,” but he does so by means of an inversion that directs all sympathy to one party while turning the other into a metaphor. Grossman leaps across the divide between Jews and Arabs by making his Arabs into Jews.

In Deheisha, impressed by the insistence of Arab children that their homes are in Jaffa, Lod, and other Israeli towns that neither they nor their parents have ever seen, Grossman thinks of the lyrically expressed longings of the medieval Spanish-Hebrew poet Judah Halevi, for the sweetest land he had never seen. He listens to an Arab grandmother singing the praises of her original village, and “discovers that she reminds me of my grandmother, and her stories about Poland.” He sees a boy on the roof of a Deheisha house playing on a comb wrapped in paper as “fiddler on the roof.” He tells of an Israeli friend who has devoted himself to studying the material culture of the Arabs in the area because “they remind him entirely of his forefathers.” What may at first appear to be an act of imaginative identification soon becomes cloying and eventually, especially when Grossman’s fictional Israeli, Gidi, sees in an Arab notable “something which reminded him of his father,” reveals itself, after all, as ideology, in all its formulaic staleness, triteness, and falsehood.

Grossman maintains that the Palestinians “are making use of the ancient Jewish strategy of exile, and have removed themselves from history. They close their eyes against harsh reality, and . . . fabricate their Promised Land.” Like the Jews in exile, they are “not willing to compromise” or to “try to improve [their] lives.” Where, in this licentious equation between Palestinian Arabs and Diaspora Jews (by no means original with Grossman), is the Jews’ belief that they were exiled because of their own sins? Where, in this desperate attempt to decorate the Arabs with the tattered coattails of Jewish suffering, is the equivalent of the Jews’ enrichment of their life in exile by the elaborate pretense that they were already living in the Holy Land? Where, among the Arabs of Deheisha and Balata, is the equivalent of the Torah that sustained the Jews in exile—unless it be what Grossman refers to as “the oral law” of hatred now passed from Arab mouth to Arab ear in the absence of anti-Semitic textbooks confiscated by Israeli soldiers?

When Grossman—who was born in 1954—claims that Arab children who chant, “By throwing stones and burning tires we will free the motherland,” remind him of Jewish children “who sang patriotic songs when British soldiers passed by,” he does not merely mock memory and history, he comes perilously close to those Israelis (like the fifteen who signed up for passage on the PLO ship intended “to echo the voyage of the Exodus”) who can discover their Jewish identity only by pretending to be Arabs who are themselves pretending to be Jews. When Grossman walks down the Ben Yehuda mall in Jerusalem, he succumbs to the illusion that he sees behind every Jew “a sort of double peeking out . . . his double from Nablus.”

Thomas Macaulay, that lover of paradox, insisted that if Boswell had not been such a toady and sycophant, he could not have written so great a book as The Life of Johnson. To Dr. Johnson, famously contemptuous of Scotsmen for just those qualities, Boswell pleaded that he could not help being a Scotsman. To which Johnson replied: “That, sir, is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help.” In the course of this eloquent and comparatively honest book, I found myself thinking often of that famous exchange. Grossman is a model of self-effacement as he listens submissively to Arabs who tell him that “the Jordanians took only our national identity from us, and you took everything,” or expound on “Israeli rudeness, cynicism, idiocy, and arrogance,” or regale him with the tale of the yellow wind that comes hot from hell to seek out “those who have performed cruel and unjust deeds”—by which they mean his Israeli countrymen—and “exterminate them, one by one” (emphasis added). Raj’a Shehade tells Grossman that although the Arab world is one of oppression, he is confident that the emergent Palestinian nation can be entirely free of the faults of Israel because he has seen that such great nations as England, America, and France are proud and nationalistic without oppressing their minorities. To such arrant nonsense, the author, a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, cannot find the means to reply.

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Susceptibility to balderdash disappears, however, and self-effacement turns to strident self-assertion when Grossman finds himself among the Jews. Among the Arabs, even when he sees children receiving “education in blind hatred,” he tries “to be neutral. To understand. Not to judge.” He entered Deheisha as if returning to the land of his ancestors. But he comes to the Jewish settlement of Ofra fully armed with suspicion, hostility, and partisanship, a “wary stranger” among people who remind him neither of his grandmother nor of anything human, especially when they are “in the season of their messianic heat.” (Later in the book, Grossman makes much ado about an Israeli child’s reference to an Arab cleaning woman bent over a pail as “a little bit a person, a little bit a dog.”) In Ofra, Grossman does not want “to let down his guard” or be “seduced” by the Sabbath “warmth” and “festivity” of these wily Jews.

Whereas most of Grossman’s remarks to Arabs in conversations recounted in the book are the perfunctory gestures of a straight man to whom his interlocutors pay no serious attention, he angrily complains that the Jewish settlers do not listen to or “display a real interest” in him. He asks them to “imagine themselves in their Arab neighbors’ places,” and is very much the angry schoolmaster when they decline to dance to his tune or accept his pretense that such an act of sympathetic imagination is devoid of political meaning. Neither are the settlers, despite their experience in creating a “well oiled publicity machine” (a rich joke, this), nimble enough to make the appropriate reply: “All right, we will imagine ourselves as Arabs if you will imagine yourself as a Jew.” But Grossman has no intention of suspending his own rhythms of existence long enough to penetrate the inner life of these alien people: “What have I to do with them?” Although in the publicity for this book Grossman has been likened to the great modern Hebrew novelist S.Y. Agnon, one would do better to compare this chapter with its analogue called “Judea” in Philip Roth’s The Counterlife to see the real meaning of imaginative sympathy in a novelist.

Grossman’s resentment of the Jewish settlers is at least as much “cultural” as it is political. In Deheisha he had been much taken with the elderly Arab woman who told him: “We are people of culture! . . . You can’t understand this culture. It’s not a culture of television!” But in Ofra he complains that the settlers have “little use for culture,” speak bad Hebrew, indulge in “old Diaspora type” humor, and own no books, “with the exception of religious texts.” And these, far from mitigating the barbarity of their owners, aggravate it. The final image of the Jews in this long chapter is of “potential terrorists now rocking over their books.”

The succeeding chapter also treats of culture and books, including religious ones. Grossman has come to Bethlehem University, one of several universities in the territories that have been punningly described as branches of PLO State. Here Grossman, though he acknowledges the school to be “a stronghold of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” sees no terrorists rocking over books, but rather idyllic scenes that remind him of “the pictures of Plato’s school in Athens.” Bubbling with affection, eager to ascribe only the highest motives, Grossman is now willing to forgive even readers of religious books. He has not so much as a snort or a sneer for the Bethlehem English professor who ascribes Arabs’ supreme sensitivity to lyric rhythm in English poetry to the “rhythm of the Koran flow[ing] through their blood.” The author’s ability to spot racism at a distance of twenty miles when he is among Jews disappears when timeless racial categories are invoked in Bethlehem.

The Yellow Wind is by no means lacking in harsh criticisms of Arabs; but these are almost always made by other Arabs. A schoolteacher is “against Arafat, because Arafat wants peace.” A mukhtar from the Israeli side of the divided village of Barta’a recalls the self-abasement required of Palestinian Arabs by Jordanian soldiers. A resident of the Jordanian side of the same village excoriates Israeli Arabs for lack of honor, taking everything from their country and giving nothing in return: “While you do reserve duty forty-five days a year,” he tells Grossman, “they go to the beach.” One Arab moderate, a businessman educated at Hebrew University, seconds the view of another Arab that if the Israelis were to leave the territories there would be a “second Beirut.” This man speculates compellingly on the likely consequences of Israeli withdrawal: “There will be a great slaughter. . . . First they will kill whoever had any connection with Israel, and those who did business with Israel. . . . And after they kill half of the population here, they will begin killing each other in a struggle for power.”

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Grossman himself remains aloof from such vulgar imaginings of the years to follow the realization of “peace now,” though it seems clear that a “second Beirut” in the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv would be a catastrophe for Israel infinitely greater than the original Lebanese version, a very hot yellow wind indeed. Despite the obvious political implications of what he writes about the Israelis and those Arabs who make themselves “a partner in my crime,” Grossman does not wish to appear to assign his own, explicitly political meaning to the people and events he describes. Therefore he talks with no politicians, Jewish or Arab, and claims that “it is not a question of who is right,” but strictly of “facts and numbers.” As it happens, many of the “facts” that he does not get from personal observation come from sources that are profoundly entangled in politics. (On three separate occasions he reports that he “checked the facts with Dr. Meron Benvenisti,” confidently withdrawing from the latter’s “data bank” some of the most debased currency in Israel.) Yet there is also much evidence that Grossman really is as innocent of politics as he claims to be.

It is characteristic of The Yellow Wind to remove facts from their history in such a way as to suggest the author is either massively ignorant of politics or fiendishly mischievous. After describing the terrible conditions of the Deheisha camp he casually remarks that “It doesn’t matter at all who is really guilty of the refugee camps. . . .” For Grossman to have explained how and why the Arab nations are responsible for the existence of the camps might have been boring work for a novelist, and might have made the book less palatable to the New Yorker, which published excerpts from it after the riots began in December; but it would have been appropriate for someone who professes to believe that “to become human” is to pass “from speech to moral action.” Grossman is guilty of similar irresponsibility when he declares that “the hard kernel of the entire conflict” is “two nations which still don’t recognize each other’s legitimacy.” But the UN plan of 1947 envisaged a Jewish state and an Arab state in western Palestine; the Jews recognized the Arab state, but the Arabs did not recognize the Jewish state—or, for that matter, the Arab state (any more than they had done in 1937, when the Peel Plan would have given the Arabs all of Palestine except for the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Haifa). Whatever the reasons for which the Arabs started the war on November 30, 1947, Israel’s refusal to recognize Palestinian Arab sovereignty was not one of them. Granted, it is a tedious business to keep repeating these things, almost as pedestrian a task, especially for a novelist, as locating the Jordan River in the same place every time you draw a map.

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The Yellow Wind concludes with two chapters ostensibly about the murders of Jews, members of a family named Moses whose car was fire-bombed near the settlement of Alfei Menashe and two couples killed by a gang of Arab terrorists. These terrible stories afford Grossman an opportunity to display his wideranging “humanism” and generous inability to curb his benevolence. But the benevolence is directed toward the father of the captured terrorist because his house has been destroyed, and the anger reserved for Gush Emunim activists accused of exploiting the sorrow of the Moses family and friends. And what of the families of the victims? Grossman says that he cannot begin to measure their sorrow. Yet he also cannot resist the itch to speculate darkly about these people whom he has not bothered to meet: “I do not know if the families of the victims find any comfort in fostering hatred of the murderer, his family, his nation. How can we judge them if that is how they feel?” How generous, to forgive these people for sins they have yet to commit! There is such a thing as a heart too full for weeping, a silence more eloquent than speech; but David Grossman cannot, in The Yellow Wind, demonstrate these qualities of the sympathetic imagination when he is dealing with Jews.

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