The moral guardian, writing to create an emotional bridge

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DAVID GROSSMAN shrinks from the suggestion that he has become the 'conscience of Israel'. But, whether he likes it or not, he has been exalted by Israel's left as a guardian of liberal morality and, at the age of 39, he is vying for the title of most famous Israeli author.

Grossman is an acclaimed novelist, but his fame is due largely to his non-fiction. In 1987 he went to the West Bank for 40 days. He described the humiliation of ordinary Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in The Yellow Wind, published shortly before the intifada. More recently, in Sleeping on a Wire, he wrote about the lives of the 900,000 Palestinian Arabs who live as second-class citizens in Israel proper.

Neither theme was particularly new. But the fascination of Grossman's work lies in the fact that he is the first Jewish Israeli to confront these subjects head on.

Sitting in his home in Jerusalem, Grossman says he can see nothing in his own 'banal' upbringing to explain the path he took. His father emigrated from Poland to Palestine in 1933, working as a bus driver and raising his family along traditional lines. Grossman describes himself as 'very secular, an atheist and very, very Jewish'.

He recalls his exhilaration, as a 13-year-old, at the Six-Day War victory in 1967, 'the feeling that power saved us for the first time'. But there were other emotions, too, stemming from 'the meeting between us, the conquerors, and the occupied people'.

'I remember the unpleasant feeling when the first Arab women came to work in our homes. It was very strange.' Just a year later he chose to learn Arabic at school; he now speaks it fluently.

Grossman absorbs the inevitable accusations of 'betrayal' that he receives from fellow Jews, although he is clearly hurt by them. When he wrote The Yellow Wind, he felt he had a role to play in spreading understanding, by showing Israelis that Palestinians were ordinary human beings. He says: 'I tried to create an emotional bridge. It was already clear there was no place for a rational bridge.' Based on his experiences, he took strong political stands, arguing that not only would Israel be a more 'moral' place if the Palestinians were given a state, but that they had a right to self-determination. This was, and is, radical talk for even an Israeli liberal.

Seven years on, Grossman is more sanguine about any 'educational' value his work may have had. In March, Israel's trust of Palestinians hit a new low when the occupied territories were closed off. 'The closure is just a denial of the Palestinian problem,' he says, bleakly. 'I used to think you could shape reality through shaping consciousness. I now think we are like hypnotised people, afraid to take a step. Some of our fears are real. Some are echoes of previous fears. It takes a lot of strength to ignore these echoes.'

(Photograph omitted)