The People on the Street, by Linda Grant

A situation far beyond a joke
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This book is about not the politics of the Middle East, Linda Grant tells us, but the question that has plagued her all her life: what is a Jew? To answer it in this "writer's view of Israel", she didn't talk to politicians or activists, but to ordinary people; and in everyone - Jew and Arab, soldier and settler - she tried to see behind the slogans to the whole, messy human being.

It's a huge task. No one can stay away from politics for more than a few minutes in Israel, and Grant does well to do so for the first half of the book. After that, The People on the Street is about the politics of the Middle East after all. But it is funny and humane, and as open and empathetic as she intended, which is an extraordinary achievement. Not even Grant, though, can go on being funny.

At first we are in territory familiar from Grant's previous book, about her mother's descent into oblivion: Jewish jokes in the face of tragedy. We meet her father again - big and blustery, his simplistic Zionism the reason she became anti: "'Israel doesn't have the right to exist!' I shouted. If he had said, 'I agree,' I would have bought an Israeli flag and a pair of shorts, moved to a kibbutz and married a tractor driver."

We laugh at her classic Jewish-joke family, whose only warrior was Uncle Herschel, shot jumping out of his tank in 1943, "probably to light a cigarette". We laugh as she pursues Jewishness through Yiddish (and now Hebrew) words. Chutzpah, we all know, means cheek, and Grant traces it back to Moses arguing with God when He threatened to renege on the Promised Land ("the world's first recorded real estate deal").

Davka is the most important: it means (roughly) spite, in spite of, contrary, and Grant gives us a whole hilarious chapter of its uses. My favourites are a Jewish-mother one, "I davka liked your old haircut much better"; and a beautifully terse and stubborn Israeli one: "I davka love him" - he's not worthy of love, but I love him anyway. We laugh, finally, when Grant encapsulates Jewishness in three main types of character: the shtarker, the mensch and the nebbish. The nebbish is the classic Jewish neurotic, like Woody Allen, for whom "the Jewish telegram joke could have been invented: Start worrying. Details follow". The mensch is the ideal human being who tries to live a humane and moral life: like Primo Levi, Grant says (though, she adds acutely, before he became a mensch he was a nebbish).

Last but not least is the shtarker, the thug, the rare Jew of brawn instead of brain, who sees off the enemy: someone Jews can't be proud of but whom they need, and admire, because he smashes the image of the Jew as the nebbish who trudges obediently to his death. Ariel Sharon was, of course, the Israelis' shtarker. Israel, I want to add, is our own shtarker, the shtarker of Diaspora Jews - the strong smashing arm for which most of us feel shame, some of us admiration, and almost all the need.

With the shtarker, we leave Jewish jokes for Israel and politics, and the book changes. It gets a great deal darker. Grant talked to her friends, to the father of a murdered boy, to soldiers, settlers and peaceniks. Some all of the time, and all some of the time, are "sick of history" and just want to live their lives. The older Zionists are disappointed in Israel and despairing of the future. Many, even among soldiers, are uncomfortable with the occupation; but in the end their families are in danger, suicide bombers are incomprehensible, and all have more sympathy for their own dead than the others'.

So far, so human. Only a few settlers are intransigent, deluded; only one soldier - a girl - reminds Grant of Nazis with Jews: untroubled by any thoughts of others' humanity, their minds "destructed", in the words of her Auschwitz guide. Perhaps she doesn't quite see their humanity, and perhaps she shouldn't. Even Primo Levi said that there should be no forgiveness unless there is repentance; and the Holocaust writer Aharon Appelfeld, whose universal acceptance is Grant's model, is too great to emulate. Her last pages, in which she writes of her own universal love, overreach themselves for me, and sit oddly with her earlier self-mockery. Failure would have been more natural; and she'd still have been a mensch for trying.

She is better with that "lesser form of language, 'facts'", which she stoutly defends against another novelist when he compares Gaza to Auschwitz. She is good on the Wall, with its biblical madness; on the "mental scratch" that all soldiers bring home from war, and the effect of that constant war on society - fear and anger, rape and violence. She is good on those political questions she doesn't want to address: on the impossibility of Israel ever accepting a single state in which they would once again be a minority, or, therefore, a full Palestinian right of return.

Her political ending, unlike her literary one, is pessimistic. Even though Israelis' only hope of survival is compromise, they may davka not do it. I fear she may be right. There's an Israeli joke about this. A scorpion offers a frog a lift across the River Jordan. The frog says, "Do you think I'm stupid? You'll sting me." But the scorpion says that he's not stupid either; with a dead frog on his back, he himself will drown. So the frog agrees. They set off; and half-way across, the scorpion stings him. As they sink together, the frog demands why on earth he did it. "It's the Middle East," the scorpion replies.

Carole Angier's biography 'Primo Levi: the double bond' is published by Penguin