Israel Pulse

Netanyahu critic wins prestigious literary award

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Article Summary
Winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, Israeli writer David Grossman has battled the occupation for decades.

At around 8 p.m. on June 15, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally deigned to release a message of congratulations in honor of author David Grossman for winning the prestigious Man Booker Prize a day earlier. Grossman is the first Israeli to win what is often considered the most prestigious literary award in the world after the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He received the prize for his novel "A Horse Walks into a Bar," the story of a 57-year-old standup comic from Jerusalem, the only child of Holocaust survivors and something of a loser. First published in 2014 and since translated into 22 languages, the book describes a local Israeli reality that is not political.

This Israeli literary achievement is even more impressive when considering that the six finalists included another canonical Israeli author, Amos Oz. He and Grossman have been the most eloquent and methodical spokespeople of Israel's political left for the past several decades — and especially the last few years vis-a-vis a right-wing government in power.

Nevertheless, it took Netanyahu almost a day to release a meager and measured congratulatory message in response to the esteemed author's rare achievement. This only underscored how little the prime minister is willing to compliment him: "I congratulate David Grossman for winning an important international prize, which reflects his ability as a writer as well as his literary works." Throughout that same day, the prime minister's Facebook and Twitter accounts were flooded with photos and flattering texts about his visit to Greece, pushing Grossman's achievement to the margins of the day's news. And it wasn't because of time constraints.

A closer look at the details shows that Netanyahu chose to limit his congratulatory message to his official Facebook and Twitter accounts as prime minister. He did not post anything on his popular personal accounts as "Benjamin Netanyahu." The contrast is stark. His Facebook page as prime minister has 137,000 followers, while his personal page as "Benjamin Netanyahu" has about 2 million followers. Contrary to Netanyahu, even the most populist leaders of the right, such as Minister of Culture Miri Regev and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, went over and above in their warm messages of congratulations to Grossman.

In the case of Netanyahu, personal differences overshadowed the kind of official response that might be expected of him. If he could have ignored the enormous achievement of one of Israel's most important authors altogether, he would have done so without having the slightest qualms about it.

Grossman is one of Netanyahu's sharpest and most scathing critics. With deep pain, he unsheathes his sharp quill at every opportunity to make himself heard as the voice of a battered Israeli left. He launches his critiques in lengthy and detailed interviews with the media, in speeches at demonstrations and in newspaper editorials; he does it boldly and fearlessly, but also with humility.

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the fact that Grossman has become not only an icon but also a familiar and much-admired personality beyond Israel's borders makes him the kind of rival who is difficult to beat into submission. Netanyahu cannot intimidate him by canceling his budgets or attacking his art, because Grossman is so far beyond that. It was Grossman himself who withdrew his candidacy for the Israel Prize for Literature in 2015 after Netanyahu led a campaign to change the makeup of the judges' panel, claiming that it was anti-Zionist and expressed the desire of an isolated (and left-wing, according to Netanyahu) clique. Grossman wasn't the only author to withdraw. Many other important and highly admired authors, such as Sami Michael, also withdrew their candidacies from this questionable honor.

At the awards ceremony at London's Victoria and Albert Museum on the evening of June 14, Grossman began his remarks with the Hebrew word "Shalom." As a gesture, it was intended to show how much he admires the Hebrew language and considers its revival to be a great miracle for the Jewish people.

In Israeli society, David Grossman is much more than just a great author. He is someone who succeeds in reflecting the political reality of the occupation and placing it at Israelis' doorstep in such a precise and painful manner that even the opposing camp can't help but appreciate him. For the past three decades, he has told Israelis about themselves, and he has done so with the utmost humility. His book "The Yellow Wind," published in May 1987, foretold the outbreak of the first intifada that erupted just a few months later. In this book, Grossman, then 33, took a road trip across Israel's backyard, the West Bank, 20 years after the 1967 occupation.

Grossman's powerful text became a classic, and it wasn't just because of his rich vocabulary or his turn of phrase. It was his ability to portray day-to-day life in the refugee camps — with their checkpoints and military courts, the frustration, rage and humiliation — contrasted with the blind indifference of Israelis, whether living within the Green Line or the West Bank.

In the years following his breakthrough, Grossman published many bestsellers and emerged as one of the great writers of our time. The personal tragedy that he experienced when his son Uri fell in the Second Lebanon War in in 2006 only heightened the political urgency of his message. As the father of a child (soldier) who died in Israel's wars, his words gained another layer of significance.

His speech — just a few months after the end of the Second Lebanon War — at the memorial gathering to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is still quoted today. It is another of his penetrating and poignant accounts of the failures of Israel's political leadership or, as he calls it, "the hollow leadership." Most of his attack was directed at then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In other words, he will not let anyone off the hook, even when his target is identified with the "center left."

Grossman has grown pessimistic over the past few years. He still feels passionately about where he lives and has raised his children and two grandchildren, but now he also sounds despondent. In a June 1 interview with journalist Sima Kadmon to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of "The Yellow Wind," he was asked what changed. His answer: "In 1987, there were about 100,000 settlers. Today there are 480,000, and they have managed to create what they wanted in the territories by making it difficult to draw a border there. … What they, the settlements, caused was that the question mark, which once hovered over them now hovers over all of Israel, its very existence, its very legitimacy, which is now being questioned by the world. And the democratic State of Israel, homeland of the Jewish people, will continue to exist as the kind of state that is so different from what I want it to be, that it will be hard for me to continue living in it."

It's unfortunate that Netanyahu can't take pride in someone who loves this country so much.

Found in: settlements, second lebanon war, anti-zionism, right-wing, david grossman, benjamin netanyahu, literature, nobel prize

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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