Israel and Lebanon: Public protest, private grief

Three days after Israeli novelist David Grossman urged his government to halt its military campaign, his son Uri, a staff sergeant, was killed by a Hizbollah missile. Donald Macintyre reports
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The Independent Online

The ring of the doorbell that tens of thousands of Israeli families had dreaded for more than a month woke David and Michal Grossman in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion at 2.40am last Sunday.

When the voice over the intercom announced itself as from the local military office Grossman would later say that he thought to himself as he went to open the door: "That's it. Life is over."

And that was before he was formally told that his 20-year-old son Uri had been killed the previous day when the tank he was commanding was fired on by a Hizbollah anti-tank missile in the Khirbat Al Kasif area of southern Lebanon.

Beside being one of Israel's best novelists, Grossman, 52, is also a liberal conscience in Israel, a public intellectual with a lot to say on the important issues of the Middle East, but also a fine sense of the boundaries between the public and the private space.

Just as he had taken part in a press conference on the military campaign in Lebanon four days earlier without even mentioning that he had a beloved son Uri - who died two weeks before his 21st birthday - at the front, so too he refrained at Uri's funeral at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl cemetery from discussing the wider questions raised by the conflict.

"I won't say anything at the moment about the war in which you were killed," he declared simply. "We, our family, have already lost this war."

Instead the eulogy he delivered last Monday in front of thousands of mourners was an expression of his own very private grief and that of his wife, and Uri's older brother, Yonathan, 24, and his sister Ruth, 14. "For three days now, almost every thought has contained the word "won't". He won't come, we won't talk, we won't laugh. The boy with the ironic glance and the wild sense of humour won't be there any more ... We won't watch The Simpsons and Seinfeld together, we won't listen to Johnny Cash with you. We won't feel your powerful embrace, we won't see you walking and talking to Jonathan with enthusiastic gesticulations, we won't see you hug your beloved Ruthi.

"We followed with amazement your struggle to get accepted to a tank commanders' course ... because you knew you would make a good commander and refused to be satisfied with contributing less than you were capable of. Now we hear from your friends and your soldiers of their companion and commander, who would get up before anyone else to get things organised and not go to bed until after everyone else was asleep.

"You were the lefty in your battalion and you were respected because you stuck to your opinion while insisting on performing every single one of your duties as a soldier. When you left for Lebanon ... we were afraid that you, like Elifelet in the song [an Israeli favourite, popular on the annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers] would run straight into the shooting, should there be a need to rescue an injured soldier, and that you would be the first to volunteer to fetch more of the ammunition which had long ago run out. And that there, in Lebanon, in the midst of the heavy fighting, you would act as you had acted all your life - volunteering to stay behind because this soldier needed to go on leave more urgently than you, or because that one had more problems at home." Children figure as much in Grossman's work as in his life; the long opening to See Under Love, perhaps his most challenging and ambitious novel, conjures the dark mystery, as seen through the eyes of a 1950s Israeli child of Holocaust survivors - as one of Grossman's own parents was - of what had unmentionably happened "over there". His "Itamar" children's books are highly popular. When his middle son was four he published Uri's Special Language, another children's book about a boy who uses only the ends of words. And his novel of six years ago Someone to Run With is an empathetic account of Jerusalem's drug addicts and runaways.

"I can't even express out loud how much, for me, you were someone to run with," he said at the funeral. Every time you came home on leave you said, "Dad, let's talk". And we'd walk together, usually to a restaurant, and sit and talk. You told me so much, Uri, and I was proud that you took me into your confidence.

"[Uri] was the very essence of the type of Israeliness I would like to see, the type which has almost been forgotten. He was a person with values. This word has become debased ... because in our mad, cruel and cynical world it is "uncool" to have values, to be a humanist or to be truly sensitive to another's distress, even if that other is your enemy on the field of battle."

Towards the end of his eulogy, Grossman returned to the terrible moment when he heard the news and said that five hours later, "when Michal and I went into Ruthie's room and woke her to tell her the terrible news, she said, after the first outburst of crying, 'But we will go on living, won't we? We'll live and travel like before, and I want to go on singing in the choir, and we'll go on laughing like always, and I want to learn to play the guitar.' And we hugged her and said we would go on living. We shall draw our strength from Uri, whose vigour will last us for many years to come."

The death of Uri Grossman was only one among those of 112 Israeli soldiers and 43 civilians, and more than 1,000 Lebanese in the last five weeks.

But its poignancy was all the greater for two reasons. The first was that his father, along with the two other most internationally celebrated Israeli novelists, Amos Oz and AB Yehoshua, had called for an end to the conflict and the pursuit of a diplomatic solution almost a week earlier.

At the outset all three, though strongly in the peace camp in relation to occupied Palestinian territories, had supported the military operation against Hizbollah. It might have been different, David Grossman's friend Yehoshua explained this week, had Hizbollah's goals been limited to the release of prisoners, an end to Israel's presence in Shaba Farms on the Golan heights, or to whatever solution to the Palestinian conflict the Palestinians themselves would accept. "But this is a military organisation - I don't call it a terrorist group - acting within a sovereign state which has no control over it, and [it is] dedicated to the destruction of Israel. It's as if there was a military organisation in Mexico, with its own headquarters there, funded by I don't know whom, with no quarrel with the Mexican government, with the goal of returning the United States to the Indians."

In a newspaper article early in the conflict, David Grossman similarly contrasted Hizbollah - "committed to destroying Israel" - with the Palestinians, most of whom he said, had "reconciled themselves, however unhappily, to Israel's existence and with the need to divide the land they share with us."

Characteristically, Grossman argued that serious negotiations with the Palestinians, "even before the end of the current round of fighting with Hizbollah" would help Israel on both fronts. He suggested that if it missed the chance Israel might find itself "in a few short years yearning for today's Hamas (a group that we can still come to an agreement with, as [Palestinian Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh calls for over and over)."

Yehoshua, who also had a son - a reservist - serving in the north though not in the battle in southern Lebanon, and lives in Haifa, the city with the highest death toll from Katyusha rocket attacks, maintained a close contact with his friend which was at once personal and political. He was one of the family's first visitors after Uri Grossman died. "David is very dear to me. I was always asking him how is it with Uri? And then I called on the Sunday and asked David's wife how was Uri and she told me he had been killed."

A week earlier, David Grossman and Yehoshua along with Amos Oz saw cause for optimism. They felt a key Israeli objective had been achieved when the Lebanese government recognised, with its seven-point plan for its army to deploy in the south, that it had to take responsibility for what was happening in its own country and wanted the Israeli government to show restraint - not least to the outside world - by pursuing a political solution and an immediate ceasefire.

Then the following Wednesday, Ehud Olmert's Cabinet voted instead foran expansion of ground operations, as urged by the army. It was at this point that the three writers - who command a level of political respect few, if any, contemporary British novelists could - called a press conference stepping up their demands for an end to the war.

Grossman rejected criticisms that the left had been "confused" by the war and told reporters: "We had a right to go to war, but then things got complicated, and not in a way that worked in our favour." He added: "We are not necessarily the persecuted Jew. We sometimes are the persecuted Jew, but this is a Jew with a few hundred planes, some thousands of tanks.

"I don't wish to ignore the element of basic, fundamental Jewish tragedy that exists in this war: The feeling that after 60 years we have still not been accepted into the Middle East, nor have we been absorbed by other nations in the world, and that this place is not yet a home, it's more like a shelter. But still, I believe there is more than one course of action available."

By Friday evening of last week, of course, the ceasefire was agreed. Except, tragically for Uri Grossman - and 33 other soldiers over the next two days, not to mention the casualties from Israeli bombardment in Lebanon - Ehud Olmert had a few hours earlier decided to step up the ground operation. Whether or not the decision was taken to force the pace of UN deliberations in New York it ensured that the fighting continued until 8am last Monday.

Yehoshua argued this week that if the purpose was to reinforce an image of Israeli's military strength it failed to do so - and compared it in part with the end of the Yom Kippur war and the abortive drive into Suez - at the cost of 80 Israeli casualties - after Egypt and Syria had accepted the ceasefire resolution. Even more strongly in yesterday's Haaretz, the columnist Nehemia Strasler put it even more strongly in a savage piece headlined: "Three Terrible Days" and calling for the Chief of Staff, Ehud Olmert and his Defence Minister Amir Peretz, "to go" because of "the last three days of fighting which were so unnecessary and painful".

Yehoshua, while grieving deeply for his friend's loss, is wary of treating his son's death as the "symbol" he acknowledges it has become to some. "All deaths are terrible and I mourn the Lebanese as well," he says.

None of this sentiment remotely surfaced, of course, in the utterly restrained and dignified statement issued by the Grossman family when Uri's older brother had been found in Colombia and the news could be made public. It said simply that "Uri studied at the Experimental School in Jerusalem ... and realised his ambition of becoming a tank commande. He was due to be demobilised in November, and [planned] to tour the world and then to study theatre. Friday night, he spoke by phone from Lebanon with his parents and sister. He was happy that a ceasefire resolution had been passed. He promised that he would eat the next Shabbat dinner at home. He had a fantastic sense of humour and a talent for play. He had a great soul, filled with life and emotion."