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Death as a Way of Life
Israel Ten Years After Oslo
By David Grossman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
HC, 188 pgs. US$22/C$36.50
ISBN: 0-3741-0211-2

Hope is dead

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 26, 2003

Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After OsloIsrael's past ten years have followed a slow and gradually uncomfortable arc. It began with the astonishing announcement on September 13, 1993 that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had reached agreement on a framework, a set of principles known as the Oslo Accords, for future peace talks. After decades of strife it was hoped that the handshake Rabin and Arafat shared at the White House represented a new future for Israelis and Palestinians. It only took a few years for that cautious optimism to give way to the present murderous reality.

That arc is illustrated in David Grossman's Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo, a collection of his essays from 1993 to 2002. Grossman, a prominent novelist and left-wing member of the peace camp, begins that decade believing that the Oslo Accords will bring the Palestinians back into "the natural progress of history" and ends with his mournful declaration that "there is no hope." Those essays bookend a period of time that he writes is personified by the words noise -- those familiar sounds of war -- and silence -- that brief period between "the blow and the pain."

It is Grossman's contention throughout the essays that the war between Israel and Palestinians is primarily due to a lack of a particular kind of courage. It's not the courage that would see someone die for their cause, that type is in obvious abundance given the steady stream of suicide bombers and the soldiers arrayed to stop them. It's the type of courage that would see people to continue to work towards peace even as the bombs explode and the bullets fly. It's the type of courage that allows two enemies to see each other as human beings who have hopes and dreams. Courage that is personified by honest dialogue.

Grossman saves much of his disappointment for the Israelis, who he believes have failed to understand that the Palestinians will only continue to grow more frustrated and enraged as their dream of an independent state continues to slip away. He argues that the actions of successive Israeli prime ministers, though he is harder on Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon than the others, combined with the passivity of the Israeli people have created an increasingly militaristic and racist state that is corrupting the soul of her Jewish citizens.

"Six million Israelis have allowed their mind, their will, and their judgment to denigrate into infuriating criminal passivity. They have lost their ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Most of all, they have lost the healthy instinct that would rouse and shake them, that will remind them what their goals and needs are, their most profound ones as a people and as a society," he argues in a September 1998 essay.

For the most part, Palestinians play the role of victims in Grossman's world. They are a people removed from the pages of history, he writes in a 1993 essay, their aspirations, anger and distress "crystallized into a flying rock." Their options are those of an occupied people, restricted by the sheer military power of Israel and the moral cowardice of its leadership. To a certain extent his opinion changes after the first Intifada gives way to suicide bombers, acts so repellent that Grossman despairs the cycle of violence will only continue to pick up steam. He blames Arafat for his inflexibility and stubbornness, traits that have prevented the Palestinians from receiving much of what they asked for.

Grossman's skill as a novelist is clearly evidence in his non-fiction work. His sentences are like a delicate thread carefully weaved into a mosaic portraying some very difficult scenes. Whether he's describing a moment of fear when he sees a man putting a hand in his pocket that becomes to a tense relief when cigarettes and not a bomb is produced or the mixed emotions contained in a letter to a Palestinian friend, Grossman's words are uncomfortably powerful. To be sure he does slip occasionally, best exemplified by a remarkably heavy-handed essay that sees him repeatedly and sophomorically refer to Sharon as "Caesar", but his skill in exploring his thoughts is remarkable.

For those who carry the flag of Israel into debate over the issues faced in the Middle East Death as a Way of Life won't change very many minds. The failed peace talks, bombings, military actions and harsh words may prove Grossman right, that there is no hope for peace and the repeated calls by doves for further concessions to the Palestinians fits the old definition of insanity being doing the same thing repeatedly and hoping for a different outcome. What's not in question is the depth of Grossman's sadness that as far as Jews and Palestinians have traveled down the same road, they don't seem to have moved very far.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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