"I believe what Hamas says"

Israeli author David Grossman attends an awards ceremony at the French consulate headquarters in Jerusalem
Israel's need to recreate democracy: "If you repress another people, you inevitably start believing that not all humans are equal. That some people are more valuable than others," says Grossman (image: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP)

Israeli author David Grossman still holds fast to the two-state solution, even in the wake of the October 7 massacres. The Israelis are fated to do business with Hamas, he says

Interview by Julia Encke

David Grossman is one of the world's most influential writers alive today. He has just turned 70. "Frieden ist die einzige Option" (Peace is the Only Option) is the title of the book that has just been published by Hanser Verlag. It is a collection of speeches and newspaper articles by Grossman in recent years and months, several published after the Hamas massacre in Israel.

Mr. Grossman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just rejected U.S. President Joe Biden's claim that he views a two-state solution as realistic. Ensuring that the Gaza Strip does not pose a threat to Israel is contrary to Palestinian sovereignty, Netanyahu said. You were always a defender of the two-state solution. Do you still have hope that this can be realised?

David Grossman: I believe, even more than I did before, that the only possible solution is the two-state solution.


Grossman: Those who advocate the bi-national state should wake up and understand that these two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, cannot form a political entity. I believe what Hamas says. They mean what they say. They have openly declared that Israel should be wiped out. They began doing that on 7 October. That's why we need to take them seriously. If we want to have a future, we can't avoid reaching agreements with them. But of course, any agreement between us and them will be based on uncertainties. There'll be a lot of mistrust. It's hard to accept that we're fated to do business with Hamas. We were attacked by them so brutally and we know they'll take any opportunity to inflict damage on Israel.

But you still think agreements are possible?

Grossman: There's no other way than to try and establish some sort of dialogue between us and them. We hope they'll never see an opportunity like that of 7 October again, which means we'll be on our guard all the time. It's a dangerous state of mind. Our complete existence – a large part of it at least – is restricted, because we have to be constantly on alert and searching for signals or signs of something that could put us at risk. We're lost. We had hoped to live like Athens and now we realise we have been living in Sparta. Our challenge as a society will be to provide for ourselves, while at the same time keeping alive the desire to live a more fulfilling life.

A painful deal

What Hamas is demanding is not a humanitarian ceasefire, but a total withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, among them people who have murdered civilians. Many Israelis and most of the hostages' families are convinced that this painful deal must be made.

Grossman: There's unfortunately no other way at the moment and there's no reason for Hamas to soften its position, because it holds such an asset, namely the 136 hostages, including children, a one-year-old child Kfir Bibas and his brother Ariel Bibas, who's four years old. I recorded a lullaby for them yesterday in the hope that they'll get to hear it somehow.

A lullaby?

Grossman: Yes, there've been several instances in this 7 October conflict when the hostages have heard songs or voices directed at them. They have had access to radios – they've heard them.

That recalls your novel "To the End of the Land". When the badly injured Avram has lost his position and whispers into his radio during the Yom Kippur War: "Hello, Israel, homeland? Do you still exist?" before being taken into Egyptian captivity and tortured for days because he belongs to an intelligence unit. Just a few kilometres away, his best friend Ilan hears his voice.

We hope they'll maybe hear the melody of the lullaby. Perhaps it'll bring them some sort of comfort, I don't know how, but OK. Can we give up? What Israel has done in Gaza, that's terrible to me too. But I see it as a different form of horror. What we experienced on 7 October is unprecedented. For us, at least. I haven't seen the videos, but you don't have to see them to be overwhelmed by the anguish and despair at what people are capable of doing to one another.

Many people in Israel also feel betrayed by their own government.

Grossman: Who created this situation? It wasn't us. But this country has betrayed its citizens, it didn't protect them. Protecting citizens' lives is one of a state's most important duties. And Israel failed to do this.

Undemocratic symptoms

In your book "Peace is the Only Option", which has just been published in Germany, you describe the occupation as a "crime" and question whether Israel still deserves to be called a democracy.

Grossman: On the one hand we are a democracy. We have freedom of speech, freedom to pursue whatever profession we choose, freedom of assembly. I can write the worst things about our prime minister and they'll be published on the front page of the next newspaper edition. Democracy is very deeply rooted in Israeli tradition, but if you occupy another people, for such a long time – we're talking about more than 56 years, can you imagine? – then you can't really talk about democracy anymore.

Democracy arose from the noble concept that every human being is born equal. If you repress another people, you inevitably start believing that not all humans are equal. That some people are more valuable than others. These are all undemocratic symptoms. They are also a reason for me to fight for the end of the occupation, because I have the feeling that this depraved mindset, of being an occupier and a democrat at the same time, is eating us alive.

In 2021 you gave a speech at a demonstration on Habima Square in Tel Aviv. In that speech, you said that the true battle isn't taking place between Arabs and Jews, but on both sides between those "who strive to coexist in peace and a fair partnership and those who sustain themselves mentally and ideologically from hatred and violence". Is that still the case?

Grossman: Thank God most Palestinians aren't Hamas. And I believe there are even Palestinians who are ashamed of what Hamas has done in their name. I'm not naive. I know that many Palestinians were really pleased about the attack and expressed that openly. But there are also other Palestinians who see the brutality of these events as a sign of something very bad that's happening to Palestinian society.

The Netanyahu era is regarded as over, but how will it end?

Grossman: Netanyahu is a very wily and manipulative politician who won't give up so easily. He's dependent on the country's extreme messianic forces. That's why Israeli politics is becoming more and more aggressive.

Immediately after the Hamas attack on 7 October, Israel's government tried to persuade the U.S. government to also support a pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah. Fortunately, it didn't come to that. But do you still think the conflict is in danger of escalating?

Grossman: That's a very good question. I'm not sure if I have an answer, but as you said, luckily we were spared the terrible option of a conflict with several enemies, because so far it hasn't been expanded to include Hezbollah and possibly Iran and the West Bank. As you say, fortunately and probably owing to cabinet members like Gadi Eisenkot and Benny Gantz, the two more moderate and responsible adults in the room. After all, if we were to start carrying out strikes like that, a multi-front war would be an unavoidable consequence. And we're not prepared for such a war, particularly after the exhaustion caused by the war in the Gaza Strip.

Criticise, but don't delegimitise

What role can and should Europe and Germany play?

Grossman: Against the backdrop of the total delegitimisation of Israel in some European countries and at American universities, the German ambassador Stefan Seibert's support was very decisive and direct, just as it should be.

He's very well-known in Germany, he used to be a TV presenter and government spokesman for Angela Merkel. Have you met him?

Grossman: Yes, I know him and I'm very impressed by him.

There are two opposing camps in Germany's public debate. Some accuse others of not honouring the nation's historical responsibility to Israel, while others say this historical responsibility should not blind us to the suffering of the Palestinian people. What's your advice to the Germans?

Grossman: You know, sometimes I hear people here saying that what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians is the same as what the Germans did to us in World War Two. I think that's wrong, but I believe that something much more complex is true and that it does have something to do with what was done to us. That's why we're not in a position to make genuine peace. The sense of deep mistrust and vulnerability must be healed before we're able to make peace with the Palestinians.

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Israel can be criticised and should sometimes even be criticised. But it shouldn't be delegitimised. It shouldn't be a target for those who call for the destruction of Israel. We hear it again and again, mass demonstrations, thousands or hundreds of thousands of people demanding the death of Israel, its annihilation. No other nation on Earth has such voices against it. Not even the terrible, cruel North Korea, not Iraq in the Saddam Hussein era, not Russia, which is raping Ukraine. No one says let's get rid of Russia, let's get rid of Iraq. These cries are only levelled at Israel.

And this is where Germany's responsibility comes in?

Grossman: Germany's moral responsibility to Israel is to emphasise its legitimacy and remind people to heed the nuances of the situation. There are so many nuances. Those who tell you they can solve the problem immediately don't know what they're talking about. It'll be years, perhaps even decades, before we can start to recover. From the long occupation and the terrible massacres. And again, I'm not comparing the two. I think they're both totally different realities.

Recreate a mature, democratic state

When you gave a eulogy for the terror victims in November, at the end you spoke about the possibility of a new beginning, the possibility of “building a new state for the second time”. What did you mean by that?

Grossman: I said that for us, the Israelis, Israel still can't be a home. It's more like a fortress. The tragedy is that we no longer even know whether it's a fortress. As we've seen, we're very delicate, very weak, vulnerable.

How can it become a home?

Grossman: We need to recreate Israel as a mature, democratic state. Firstly, I believe that we need shrewd and courageous leaders on both sides, the Israeli side and the Palestinian side. Only when both are in a position to talk to each other can we restore this society and understand what price we pay if we're not a completely democratic country. That's a huge challenge. And even now, as I'm talking to you, I'm wondering: how can we do that? I'm not sure I have an answer.

Are you managing to write at the moment, or is it impossible?

Grossman: It's impossible but unavoidable. Only when I write, do I breathe with both lungs. When I don't write, I'm completely at the mercy of the atrocities. Right at the start I rebel against it, and I say to myself how can you write a story about this or that, as the world implodes and then, after a while, I sense that it's revitalising me. I sometimes compare it with someone who takes an anchor and throws it into the future – and then begins to pull themselves with all their strength towards the anchor and into the future.

Julia Encke

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/Qantara.de 2024

Translated from the German by Nina Coon