David Grossman’s love letter to Israel, warts and all

Middle East
on 28 Comments

David Grossman is a very prominent and well-respected “liberal Zionist.” The Israeli writer recently wrote an essay for The Guardian in which he criticized Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership. Grossman’s latest novel, To the End of the Land, was published in 2008 to high praise, almost reverence. I purchased the book last month. A careful reading suggests that Grossman still probably has a lot of emotional work to do. To the End of the Land is nationalistic. It’s also racist against Arabs—in its own special, strange, and chaotic way, which still manages to be completely banal at the same time. Here, in this short review, I will discuss his book and provide a few of my criticisms.

The main character is a middle-aged Israeli woman named Ora. She is extremely upset. Her son, Ofer, has finally finished up his mandatory military service, but after being home for only a few days, he gets called back. Ora and Ofer had planned to go on a mother-son hiking trip. Now he can’t go, and Ora is devastated. Then, horribly, she learns that her son hasn’t really been called back— he has, in fact, volunteered. Apparently, the thought of the mother-son trip was so grim and oppressive, he decided to reenlist.

Grossman's To the End of the Land

Grossman’s To the End of the Land

Ora goes on the trip anyway. She’s newly single (her husband has recently left her). So, she brings along a lonely old boyfriend from her past, a dysfunctional male named Avram. The bulk of the book takes place on their trip. They’re walking along a path, through a nature reserve in Israel. As they hike, Ora tells Avram all about her family. Unfortunately, it feels like Ora’s spoken reminiscences, as well as her internal monologue about her two sons drag on endlessly, for hundreds of pages. Reading these passages was incredibly boring for me, and I felt like I had contempt for this nervous, intellectually limited woman. The book is 650 pages long, and I would recommend to Grossman that, going forward, he write short stories.

Grossman actually does a good job illustrating how distressed Ora is. Because there’s a military draft, the state can take her sons, and put them in danger. In this sense, I felt sorry for Ora. It certainly constitutes a form of violence against women, I think, for the government to seize teenage boys, and use them for war games.

While some parts of the book were interesting, I felt that Grossman’s treatment of the Palestinians was too simple. There’s an extended passage at the beginning of the story about Ora’s driver, a man named Sami. This made me think of the movie Driving Miss Daisy. (Ora’s family is middle-class, and they can afford to have a Palestinian driver who is on-call, 24 hours a day.) Grossman did a nice job describing Ora’s ambivalent feelings towards Sami. The character of Sami, however, is two-dimensional. Sami is sometimes charming, sometimes macho. At one point, he is taking care of a sick Palestinian boy (a relative) and when the little boy suddenly vomits, Sami punches him. Sami also speaks disparagingly of this mentally disabled boy.

Then, it gets worse: Although the boy is about seven years old, and has just vomited heavily, a Palestinian woman breastfeeds him. To the majority of mainstream readers, this would seem disgusting. I doubt that Grossman ever witnessed this particular (weird) sequence. So why put it in? He makes the Palestinians seem primitive.

Grossman also has too much reverence for the dream of Israel. During the nature walk in the story, there are lots of descriptions of beautiful plants… We learn that, years ago, Avram had been a prisoner of war, and was tortured in Egypt. Upon his release:

…he [Avram, in a semi-conscious state because of his torture wounds] was opening his eyes wide. A cold, strange spark shone out of them.
“Is there… Is there an Israel?”

I can’t relate to this. I also felt that Ora the mother, as described in one of the book’s many flashbacks, had brainwashed her son:

What do you tell a six-year-old boy, a pip-squeak Ofer, who one morning, while you’re taking him to school, holds you close on the bike and asks in a cautious voice, “Mommy, who’s against us?” And you try to find out exactly what he means, and he answers impatiently, “Who hates us in the world? Which countries are against us?”

Resignedly, she caves in and lists all the Arab countries that “hate” Israel. I felt this was unnecessary. She reinforces an overly simplified, very scary world view.

Ultimately, the book is a tragedy, because Ofer, the son, grows up and engages in explicitly criminal behavior while he’s in the army. Ora learns that Ofer has participated in an operation during which an older Arab man was locked inside a large refrigerator—a meat locker— for two days, and was almost killed as a result. Ofer, in an adolescent trance, didn’t take the initiative to release the man, or even to ask a supervisor, or another soldier, about the man. This part of the book was honest and sensitive. It could have been a self-contained short story.

Unfortunately, I can’t recommend To the End of the Land. I think Grossman intended his novel to be a love letter to Israel, warts and all. For me, it was too tedious to wade through the long descriptions of the nature area, and the endless, mundane flashbacks about Ora’s family. And, as stated earlier, the descriptions of the Palestinians are a little bit animalistic. I think that many readers of this site would be angered by this book.

About Claire Paddock

Claire Paddock lives in New York City.

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28 Responses

  1. Interested Bystander
    November 29, 2015, 3:30 pm

    For different, more generous take on the novel, you can read my review HERE.

    • Citizen
      November 29, 2015, 5:46 pm

      @ Interested Bystander
      I read your review of the book. It makes the book sound like dull music in la-la land. I do get that you think Jewish American boys do a good, inspiring thing when they join the IDF, not the US military.

      • Interested Bystander
        November 30, 2015, 12:37 am

        Citizen: Thanks for reading the review. I think nothing like what you suggest. Take another look with that in mind.

      • light2014
        November 30, 2015, 8:39 pm

        The reviewer tells of another war to preserve the souls of children that are compelled, by the dangerous situation they are in ,to act in ways they never dreamed of . What a human dilemma -kill or be killed. And after you kill you feel you have lost part of yourself anyway.
        The reviewer did not imply that serving Israel is better than serving the USA. He is telling us that no matter who you serve, no matter how just your war, you lose something of yourself when you kill or hurt another.

    • Sibiriak
      November 30, 2015, 12:34 pm

      “Listen,” Ora says and holds his hand. “To what?” “To the path. I’m telling you, paths in Israel have a sound I haven’t heard anywhere else.” …. “It’s a good thing they all have the right sounds in Hebrew. How would you possibly describe these sounds in English or Italian? Maybe they can only be accurately pronounced in Hebrew.” “Do you mean these paths speak Hebrew? Are you saying language springeth out of the earth?” And he runs with the idea that words had sprouted up from this dirt, crawled out of cracks in the arid, furrowed earth, burst from the wrath of hamsin winds with briars and brambles and thorns , leaped up like locusts and grasshoppers.

      Ora listens to his flow of speech. Deep inside, a fossilized minnow stirs its tail and a wavelet tickles at her waist. “I wonder what it’s like in Arabic,” she says. “After all, it’s their landscape too, and they have rhonchial consonants too, that sound like your throat is choking on the dryness.”

      ————————————

      After all, it’s their landscape too…

      Such a generous heart Ora has. Too bad “they” don’t have much access to that landscape any more.

      • can of worms
        November 30, 2015, 1:34 pm

        Apartheid literature is “a literature in bondage. It is a less than fully human literature” – because apartheid creates “deformed and stunted relations between human beings” and “a deformed and stunted inner life” –jmc/1987

  2. diasp0ra
    November 29, 2015, 4:07 pm

    I haven’t read the book, but that section about punching a vomiting child, and then having his mother breastfeeding him at 7 years old?

    What on earth was going through his mind to write that? What was his rationale? What made him think “yes, this is something a Palestinian would do”? What a weird weird little paragraph. What purpose did it serve other than to show Palestinians as fundamentally different to the reader?

    I hope that in a few decades, there is a huge critical reexamining of all novels mentioning Israel and seeing how this popular culture helped legitimize imperialism. Similar to how Edward Sai’d approached the topic in his book “Culture and Imperialism”. I think that would be a book worth reading.

    • pabelmont
      November 30, 2015, 11:46 am

      These (punching and breastfeeding) are made-ups, having no provenance but a sick imagination, having no purpose but to create animus against Palestinians. (Altho, breastfeeding might seem and might have been intended to convey care-taking attention for a damaged 7-yo). Didn’t American theater-movies-etc. have lots of demeaning stuff about Negroes back in the day? Isn’t that a master-race thing to do? Doesn’t telling demeaning stories simultaneously project two ideas: [1] the “inferior” race is inferior and [2] I (a member of the “master” race) can without fear of reprisal talk this way about the “inferior” race. (I am comfortable in my racism, which is culturally proper here.)

      • light2014
        November 30, 2015, 8:06 pm

        Breast feeding up to age seven .
        A Time to Wean, (Breastfeeding Abstracts, August 1994). Here is part of her answer to the question of the “natural” age of weaning in humans:

        According to the research of Smith (1991), many primates wean their offspring when they are erupting their first permanent molars. First permanent molar eruption occurs around 5.5 to 6.0 years in modern humans. It is interesting to note that achievement of adult immune competence in humans also occurs at approximately six years of age, suggesting that throughout our recent evolutionary past, the active immunities provided by breast milk were normally available to the child until about this age (Frederickson).

        Our evolutionary past has produced an organism that relies on breastfeeding to provide the context for physical, cognitive and emotional development. The non-human primate data suggest that human children are designed to receive all of the benefits of breast milk and breastfeeding for an absolute minimum of two and a half years, and an apparent upper limit of around seven years. Natural selection has favored those infants with a strong, genetically coded blueprint that programs them to expect nursing to continue for a number of years after birth and results in the urge to suckle remaining strong for this entire period.

        In her book, Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, Dettwyler theorizes that the six-year nursing practice for humans began to be modified, first by the use of fire for cooking (one-half to one million years ago) and then even more significantly by the domestication and processing of grains via pounding and grinding, both of which provided alternatives to uncooked vegetation and raw animal foods. It is interesting to note that the hunter/gatherer lifestyle represents more than 99.9 percent of human existence on earth and that agricultural societies have existed for only about the last 10,000 years.

  3. Krauss
    November 29, 2015, 6:56 pm

    The myopia of the “liberal” Zionists. Why would anyone want to subject themselves to this kind of claptrap, even for a review?

    • Interested Bystander
      November 30, 2015, 12:48 am

      Krauss: the process of writing a novel, especially a good one like “To the End of the Land” is the antithesis of “myopia.” What would you call dismissing a novel you have not read as “claptrap” out of hand?

  4. hophmi
    November 30, 2015, 8:37 am

    People here would never read a book that challenged them in any way.

    • eljay
      November 30, 2015, 11:52 am

      || hophmi: People here would never read a book that challenged them in any way. ||

      Yup, it’s a terrible thing when people who advocate the universal and consistent application of justice, accountability and equality refuse to read a book that challenges them to become hateful and immoral supremacists.

    • diasp0ra
      November 30, 2015, 1:20 pm

      Funny you say that, hophmi, and have you read the dozens of books that meticulously refute the myths upon which Israel has been founded?

      It would be pretty impressive cognitive dissonance to read those books and still think you have a moral high-ground to talk from, as you so often do.

      • hophmi
        November 30, 2015, 1:35 pm

        Sorry, diasp0ra, but my presence here suggests that I’m the person willing to be challenged, not you.

        Reviews like these are amusing to read; they say more about the reviewer than they do about the book. Short summary: Grossman didn’t adopt an everything-about-Israel-is-horrible viewpoint like mine, so his book is offensive.

      • Donald
        November 30, 2015, 3:26 pm

        “Short summary: Grossman didn’t adopt an everything-about-Israel-is-horrible viewpoint like mine, so his book is offensive.”

        Sometimes reviews of reviews tell you about the reviewer of the review. In this case, you somehow missed the objection to the way Palestinians were portrayed.

        For myself, I think novels are an unreliable way of conveying information about a controversial political topic, no matter who writes them and no matter what the intended message. We have enough trouble with spin from nonfiction writers–fiction writers have artistic license to tell a story however it strikes them. Grossman might be a fine writer–from all I’ve heard he is–but why would I want to read him to learn about the Palestinians? He might be telling me something about the Israelis, but I can’t even be sure of that. Novelists have a vision they wish to convey and it doesn’t necessarily correlate that closely with reality.

        Now I read novels with political and/or historical content anyway from time to time, but I don’t do it with the expectation in most cases that I am learning anything I couldn’t learn better from an historian or a nonfiction writer. Novels aren’t written to replace history, journalism, human rights reports, or sociological studies, even if they contain material that might be accurate.

        Incidentally, the fact that you are here doesn’t mean you want to be challenged. It’s common for people to visit blogs expressing views they hate so that they can type blistering comments (if allowed).

      • diasp0ra
        November 30, 2015, 6:42 pm

        @Hophmi

        “Sorry, diasp0ra, but my presence here suggests that I’m the person willing to be challenged, not you.”

        Not so sure about that Hophster, all I see of you is apologism for breaking international law and modern day colonialism.

        Btw, you have no idea how much the Zionist narrative infests the mainstream media, I’m drowned with it on a daily basis and it challenges me plenty, thank you very much.

      • tree
        November 30, 2015, 10:57 pm

        Diasp0ra,

        It would be pretty impressive cognitive dissonance to read those books and still think you have a moral high-ground to talk from, as you so often do. – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/11/grossmans-letter-israel#comment-157837

        Hophmi’s been around for a long time here, but no he’s never challenged himself to read anything that disagrees with him. You might want to check out this old discussion from 2011, under an article about Rabbi Elmer Berger which devolved into a discussion of Shlomo Sands’ Invention of the Jewish People.

        Hophmi of course hadn’t read the book but he was gung-ho to cherry-pick whatever he could to try to refute it, without a lot of luck because we kept reading his links, which didn’t exactly say what he purported them to have said. Quelle surprise!

        http://mondoweiss.net/2011/06/the-rise-and-fall-and-vindication-of-jewish-anti-zionism

        And then there is the discussion of Max’s response to Alterman’s hit job on Goliath, where Hophmi defended Alterman’s criticism despite Alterman’s own acknowledgement that Max’s book was “technically accurate” with his usual racist crap about Palestinians and “context”, while never explaining what context excused Jewish Israeli racism (and of course, only Jewish Israeli racism).

        http://mondoweiss.net/2013/12/altermans-blumenthal-handbook

        I don’t think he read Goliath either. He doesn’t come here to challenge himself. He comes as the self-appointed savior-cum-spokesperson for all Jews–or at least the ones that really count. Phil and others here aren’t included in that number, but that doesn’t stop him from occasionally speaking for them as well, and for “anti-semites” everywhere, not to mention speaking for Palestinians, cuz, you know, the Mufti. Since Hophmi already knows what everybody thinks and feels, he doesn’t have to challenge himself at all. Its a hell of a cocoon he’s woven himself. Never has to deal with issues of morality at all.

      • Mooser
        December 1, 2015, 6:51 pm

        “Sorry, diasp0ra, but my presence here suggests that I’m the person willing to be challenged, not you.”

        For Gawd’s sake “Hophmi”, you’ve got a comment archive here.
        Anybody can see exactly how much anything has “challenged” you since you got here, in date order.

        “There was no Palestine to wipe off in 1948. Sorry. That’s the way it is. Once the Palestinians negotiate a state, they will have a state. If Israel wipes that out, you can say that Israel wiped out Palestine.” – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/profile/hophmi/1?keyword=Palestine#sthash.VSwdddqY.dpuf-

        Lovely.

        “Palestinian violence is an outgrowth of a hate movement in Palestinian society. It is the hate of a non-Muslim entity in the Middle East, and it is present in other Arab states.” – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/profile/hophmi/1?keyword=hate#sthash.WtUhgLUp.dpuf

        See how “Hophmi” has “challenged” himself since 2010!

        Yes, “Hophmi” is “willing to be challenged”. Very, very challenged.

      • hophmi
        December 3, 2015, 10:38 am

        “Yes, “Hophmi” is “willing to be challenged”. Very, very challenged.”

        I note Mooser’s use of ableist slurs. I wasn’t aware that Mondoweiss was now a home for ableist bigotry. I’d ask, again, that the moderators do their jobs.

      • eljay
        December 3, 2015, 2:15 pm

        || hophmi: I note Mooser’s use of ableist slurs. I wasn’t aware that Mondoweiss was now a home for ableist bigotry. … ||

        How could you not be aware?

        hophmi July 13, 2010, 1:21 pm … Visit any one of them, and then say something retarded like saying you have no idea how many people died …

      • Mooser
        December 3, 2015, 6:05 pm

        “So Mooser, you’re a dishonest guy, and maybe you should get a life.”

        Get life? “Hophmi”, in America, the idea outcome of court proceedings is JUSTICE!!! So, with that idea in mind no doubt, the beak, I mean His Honor sentenced me to be shot at sunrise!!.
        Just think: If my alarm had gone off that morning, I would be dead!

  5. hophmi
    December 1, 2015, 12:08 pm

    “Hophmi’s been around for a long time here, but no he’s never challenged himself to read anything that disagrees with him.”

    Of course, you’re projecting. I’m the dissident here, not you. You’re just another Mondoweisser who repeats the same stuff everyone else but me and a couple others do. So your statement has zero credibility.

    ” You might want to check out this old discussion from 2011, under an article about Rabbi Elmer Berger which devolved into a discussion of Shlomo Sands’ Invention of the Jewish People.”

    The book you all love because it repeats discredited nonsense about Khazars and because it’s by a guy who has opted out of the Jewish people? Why would I waste time reading a book on genetics by an author who has no expertise in the field? I know why you would waste time with it – because you waste time with anything as long as it supports your predetermined opinion, regardless of the credibility or provenance.

    “And then there is the discussion of Max’s response to Alterman’s hit job on Goliath, where Hophmi defended Alterman’s criticism despite Alterman’s own acknowledgement that Max’s book was “technically accurate” with his usual racist crap about Palestinians and “context”, while never explaining what context excused Jewish Israeli racism (and of course, only Jewish Israeli racism).”

    Actually, I’ve read many things that Blumenthal has written, and I’ve written about racism in Israeli society on Facebook repeatedly. Of course, since Blumenthal has said that Israelis should “indigenize” or leave, I reject his genocidalist views.

    What’s your record of calling out antisemitism in the BDS community? Anti-Jewish racism among Palestinians?

    • a blah chick
      December 1, 2015, 12:29 pm

      “What’s your record of calling out antisemitism in the BDS community? Anti-Jewish racism among Palestinians?”

      I guess you were in a coma when we had that big thread about Alison Weir. As for Anti Jewish racism your definition seems to be anything that is critical of Jewish or Israeli behavior. If this isn’t true please provide a clearer one so I’ll know just how far into venality I have fallen.

      • Mooser
        December 1, 2015, 12:59 pm

        “Is that what you support? More cheap oil? Because I can’t see what else the Arabs have to offer, and I don’t think they’re offering even that.” – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/profile/hophmi/1?keyword=Arabs#sthash.4Gecwxav.dpuf

        “Back then, they were Arabs, not Palestinians, and there was no willingness on their part to negotiate a two state solution or anything else.” – See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/profile/hophmi/1?keyword=Arabs#sthash.4Gecwxav.dpuf

        Hophmi, 2010

      • hophmi
        December 3, 2015, 10:36 am

        I love that Mooser has enough time in his retirement to search through the Mondoweiss archives so that he can list quotes that have nothing to do with the topic.

        So apparently, Mooser did a search through my comments for the word “Arabs,” because for Mooser, use of the word “Arabs” is the equivalent of racism. And of course, he takes my statements out of context, because Mooser is not an honest guy.

        Statement 1 is from a discussion on whether the United States should have allied itself with the Arab League instead of Israel during Gulf War I. I made the argument that the Arabs had little to offer the United States in an alliance except cheap oil.

        Statement 2 is from a discussion about the 1948 war, and whether the invasion of Israel by Arab states contributed to the exodus/expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from pre-state Israel. The entire context: “Yes, the expulsion of the Palestinians, to the extent that it was an expulsion, had something to do with those armies. Back then, they were Arabs, not Palestinians, and there was no willingness on their part to negotiate a two state solution or anything else.”

        So Mooser, you’re a dishonest guy, and maybe you should get a life.

    • Bumblebye
      December 1, 2015, 6:20 pm

      @hophmi

      claiming a record of calling out racism on your fb page is not verifiable if you fail to direct us to said page – and you squawk mightily at the thought of being outed! As it happens, it doesn’t seem to be that “repeatedly” unless your meaning of the word is just every so often.

      • hophmi
        December 3, 2015, 10:39 am

        So Bumblebee, what’s your record of calling out antisemitism in the BDS community? Anti-Jewish racism among Palestinians?

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