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.
There is far more forbearance on display in Grossman’s interactions with another group of fundamentalists, members of the Islamic movement featured in a chapter of Sleeping on a Wire. It’s not that Grossman is any less wary of their brand of zealotry. (“The Islamic Movement smiles broadly at me, but with a twitch in its cheek,” he slyly observes of its unfailingly polite adherents.) But he lets the Muslims he encounters speak, and in doing so conveys not only their religious fervor but also their dedication and high seriousness. At one point, watching the young men at a Muslim work camp lug heavy bricks in the sweltering heat, without a murmur of complaint, in the course of turning a narrow dirt path into a tree-lined sidewalk, Grossman’s mind drifts to another circle of implacable idealists famous for their élan and self-discipline: the early pioneers of the Zionist movement. “It was hard not to be impressed,” he writes, “ and to feel a surprising pang of remorse, a longing for ourselves as we once were.” The comparison is provocative, if slightly forced. Indeed, one could argue that in this instance Grossman has fallen into the same trap that Goldberg stumbled into with Rafiq: instead of trying to view Muslims through their eyes, he sees them through his own, as a mirror image of Jewish idealists whom they ultimately don’t resemble all that much.
All of which underscores why making identity the measure of a writer’s work is both understandable and dangerous. It is understandable because writers and reporters are not, in fact, immune to the sway of their personal attachments: particularly when exploring subjects close to their hearts, who they are matters. But it is dangerous because the way such attachments end up shaping a story is by no means certain. Jeffrey Goldberg’s fealty to Israel may well explain why Prisoners ultimately tells us more about the appeal of modern Jewish nationalism than about the hopes and longings of the Palestinians. And David Grossman’s love for the same land is surely part of the reason he goes to such lengths to amplify the voices of Arabs and Palestinians, to force his Jewish readers to stand in the shoes of people with whom they must learn to empathize and coexist.