In both books, Grossman writes with a keen awareness of how being an Israeli Jew challenges—and, more often than not, undermines—his capacity to remain coolly detached. At one point in The Yellow Wind, on a visit to a Palestinian kindergarten, a two-year-old boy points a plastic stick at him, simulating gunfire. “Who do you want to shoot?” the teachers ask. “Jews,” the boy replies. “I stand and listen and try to be neutral,” Grossman writes. “To understand. Not to judge. And also not to be like an American or French correspondent, completely severed from the whole complex of events [but] I also stand here as a reserve soldier in the Israeli Army.”
In Sleeping on a Wire, he describes getting to know Azmi Bishara, then chairman of Bir Ziet University’s philosophy department, who fumes at the degrading treatment suffered by the state’s non-Jewish citizens. When they first meet, Grossman confesses to finding something “forbiddingly Arab” in Bishara’s appearance—“his face is dark, his mustache thick.” The stereotype slowly fades, but, even so, when Bishara tells him he wants the Arabs in Israel to emulate the Jewish left, storming through the streets of Tel Aviv to demand equality, Grossman feels something in him recoil.
He speaks and suddenly I am the one facing the test. How real and sincere is my desire for “coexistence” with the Palestinians in Israel? Do I stand wholeheartedly behind the words “make room for them among us”? Do I actually understand the meaning of Jewish-Arab coexistence? And what does it demand of me, as a Jew in Israel? How much room am I really willing to make for “them” in the Jewish state? Have I ever imagined, down to the smallest living detail, a truly democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian way of life in Israel?
Neutral Grossman is not. A subtle tension swirls beneath the surface of his interactions with people like Bishara: the tension between two interlocutors staring across a fraught, potentially explosive divide.
And yet the nature of Grossman’s engagement, the fact that he comes to such encounters with no pretense of being able to play the role of a disinterested observer, enhances rather than diminishes his reporting. It repeatedly prompts Grossman to probe the limits of his own tolerance and let conversations flow in directions that put his own sympathies to the test. Large stretches of Sleeping on a Wire consist of interviews during which Grossman interjects at most a question or two, as in a section featuring Nazir Yunes, an Arab-Israeli doctor who tells him how, one day, he took his children to a pool in Gan Shomron, a Jewish settlement, and was turned away after the kids were overheard speaking Arabic. It mattered not that Yunes’s children are Israeli citizens and that he is the settlement’s doctor. Or that, as mentioned earlier in the conversation, he once took an organized tour to Eastern Europe, visiting the sites of former extermination camps in the company of the children of Holocaust survivors to better understand their history. The scene is wrenching, and it is easy to picture Grossman cringing as it unfolds, overcome by the urge to stop Yunes in mid-sentence to tell him not all Jews would have treated his children that way. But he doesn’t, having determined that, in order for someone like himself to begin to comprehend what Israel’s Arab citizens feel, “I had to stop trying to anticipate, and only listen.”
The best reporters are indeed great listeners, and, ironically, perhaps because he feels more at liberty to dismiss the views of people in his own tribal faction, Grossman sometimes seems like a better, more patient listener in the company of Arabs than Jews. In The Yellow Wind, visiting the Jewish settlement of Ofra, hearing its inhabitants declaim about how God gave this land to their people and exhibiting no sympathy for the Palestinians, Grossman’s tolerance snaps. The concrete descriptions that make his prose sparkle give way to sweeping generalizations—“who are these people atop a mountain of injustice, impenetrability and ignorance”—and, eventually, to sheer exasperation. “I do not comprehend people who set history in motion,” he grouses.