Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A Million Years Ago

Like most enjoyable travel books, Linda Grant's The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel at first seems to be a book about one's own experience. Grant does a great job portraying the appeal of Israel and the contradictions embedded in its reality -- as definitely brought home by the photo on the cover, attributed to one of her Israeli friends/informants.

Some first impressions of Israel in her book:
  • The way that Israelis react to the catastrophe of a suicide bombing or other such event.
  • The surprise -- if you're Jewish-- of finding Jews in every walk of life, and of finding so many types of people.
  • The way that an Israeli landlord deals with a plumbing emergency (including the existence of a Jewish plumber, see point 2).
  • Some funny things about Israeli use of language to express their existential situation and the precariousness of their situation.

Indeed, these were some of our first impressions when we lived in Israel in the spring of 1998, our first-ever visit there. Our experience with the plumber who couldn't fix the back-up of bathtub water from the drain on the floor of our apartment flashed through my mind. The late-night phone calls beginning, as Grant points out, "Where are you?" -- really wanting to know that you are not in the place that's just blown up. The expectation that we, too, would call around after hearing any bad news... I was being lulled by delight in a sense of the familiar, through someone else's eyes.

As the book went on, though, it dealt more and more with the political and literary side of Israel, and I found it more surprising and deeply interesting. Grant's stay in Israel lasted four months, beginning in October of 2004, with a return visit -- to interview Gaza settlers about to be displaced -- within the next year.

Here's what really shocks me: I have been following Israeli events and politics ever since our first visit, and the times and events Grant describes seem to me to be a million years ago. Israeli history, in my view has collapsed hundreds of years into just a few, and the last few years are no exception. From beginnings in the 1950s as agricultural producer of oranges and vegetables, through an industrial revolution that lasted only maybe a decade, Israel emerged as a high-tech powerhouse. Grant's descriptions of the 2003-2004 era make me think the same compression of time occurs there politically. Her portrayal of the removal of the Gaza settlers and her individual interviews with them are vivid. Yet the return of land to the Palestinians now seems so much more remote than a few years ago. Its consequences at the time she wrote were so unknowable: as the future always is. But now we do know, and this makes the events she describes seem beyond remote.

Rather than peace, the ceding of this territory brought a horrific war with Lebanon. Rather than see the Israelis as willing to negotiate, their enemies saw the choice of giving up land as weakness. Ironically, in the context of this war, one of the very interesting literary contacts Grant described is with the writer David Grossman. From Grant's (sometime) paper, the Guardian: "As the Lebanon war raged, David Grossman, the celebrated Israeli writer, publicly urged his government to accept a ceasefire. Just days later, his soldier son was killed by one of Hizbollah's final anti-tank missiles." Grant, writing two years earlier:

"David Grossman told me, 'There is not enough reassurance in the galaxy for Israelis.' ... And so we may have to face the nightmare that the war between the two peoples cannot be concluded; there is no deal that can ever be signed that will not give way, almost at once, to the resumption of the struggle. No US administration, however even-handed, can resolve or even impose a deal over land that can neither be shared nor divided. As long as the Israelis want a Jewish country, and as long as the Palestinians want the right of return, there can be no agreement. And there is no sign whatsoever of any movement of any significance in Israel against the idea of a Jewish country." (p. 198)

Grant makes readers grasp the impasse over how to divide a contested and very small area between two sets of demands from two peoples. Today, the quest for justice and fairness that seems so unreachable seems unchanged. Her many anecdotes about the Israelis and Palestinians she met brought the conflict to life. The future is as unknowable as ever, no matter how much one tries to grasp the present.

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