Etgar Keret

Making Sense of Warring Narratives

Some say that when the cannons roar, the muses fall silent. I have never agreed with this. When the cannons roar, the muses continue to speak in their tender, frail, muted and multifaceted voices -- but who the hell can hear them over the damn shells exploding all over the place?

Art, said Aristotle, is mimesis, the ability to imitate reality and its multitude of faces and contradictions. But at a time like this, when almost everyone you meet, be they Israeli, Palestinian, American or European, is digging their heels yet deeper into their extreme one-dimensional, almost romantic position on the conflict in the Middle East, who has patience for nuances and paradoxes? If you have something to say, say it loud and clear and make sure to carefully draw the line between black and white.

On second thought, don't say it -- shout. After all, the situation has become extreme, and only an extreme response can do it justice. At a time like this, it comes as no surprise that many Israelis have chosen to take a vacation from art, opting instead for spectator sports, where it's always clear who the winner is.

I take my regular route from home to the university, and every few steps, the world-view of yet another acquaintance blows up in my face, and I try to weigh all the data in that antiquated program we call the brain, but I find myself all the more confused. So who the hell is Arafat? A murderer, whose support for the terrorist infrastructure has been proved beyond all doubt, or a saint, embraced as if he were none other than Mother Teresa by the European peace activists who succeeded in sneaking into the presidential compound? And is the Israeli army a Nazi horde that carried out a massacre in Jenin, or is it the most moral army in the world, to whom only the angels of heaven can hold a moral candle?

The answers, as I see them, are simple but confusing. The Israel Defense Forces, as most of the evidence I have seen shows, did not carry out a massacre in Jenin, but did, on the other hand, systematically undermine its humanistic obligations when it prevented Palestinian wounded from receiving treatment or when it halted the transfer of supplies to hospitals. The IDF, in my view, is not the most moral army in the world, and in general, armies, whose purpose it is to kill its enemies, are never completely moral, even when defending. The IDF is an ordinary Western army, with an ordinary level of Western morality, which is not bad, compared to the standard shown by other fighting forces in the region.

In every war in the world fought so far in civilian population centers, innocents have always been killed, and some of these deaths, in all the wars, could have been prevented. That's how it is, war is hell, and when you have to fight in the narrow alleyways of the Casbah of Jenin, you may accidentally, or even, due to the circumstances, not accidentally, hurt unarmed civilians. So what do you do?

The solution is to judge the situation on an individual, not inflammatory, basis on both sides. The Israeli side must examine its failures, and so must the Palestinian and European sides, which have allowed themselves to be swept up by romantic, simplistic images without contending with the simple reality that until a diplomatic solution (which neither Sharon nor Arafat is in any hurry to produce) is arrived at, the terror will not end. And as long as it does not end, situations such as these will be repeated.

When I look at my friends in Israel and the world, I keep getting the feeling I'm on a ship being cut in half, each of its halves sailing in a different direction, with me caught up in the current. The two sides have long since distanced themselves from a point of view that even tries to see both sides. Right-wingers, dragging along with them many centrists and ex-Laborites, are singing the "whole world is against us" tune about a war of the Jewish people against an anti-Semitic world, a war for its very existence, a war that grants us moral immunity for any humanitarian injustices committed in its name. For them, the anti-Semitic acts erupting daily all over Europe only bolster their claims. On the other side, the members of the left are also being drawn into frightening extremist responses. Just this week I heard about a professor in the university where I teach who announced that it is the moral duty of every soldier in the "occupation army" to give the PLO information about the base in which they serve so that the PLO can attack the soldiers of that occupation army -- and that if they do not do so, she said, they would be committing a war crime.

As I reread my text, the radio announces yet another suicide bombing. Those who supported the defense "shield operation" explain that the terrorists came from the Gaza Strip, an area not invaded during the operation and therefore still having its terrorist infrastructure. They say if not for the operation, we would have had to deal with 100 more. Others claim this bombing was done to avenge the operation, and that after it will come 100 more. They're both right, although they give contradictory analysis of the facts, and they're both wrong.

Etgar Keret is the author of The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories. This piece was translated from Hebrew by Ruchie Avital.

Israel in 600 Words or Less

My mother says I'll never be able to understand what it's like for a nation to be without a country. Now, my mom, she really knows what she's talking about. After all, she went through the Holocaust, saw her home destroyed in Poland, lost her mom and dad and little brother and finally ended up here, in the land of Israel, her country, the land she swore she would never leave.

My Palestinian friend Ghassan says I'll never be able to understand what it's like for a nation to live under occupation. No, he didn't go through the Holocaust, and his whole family is alive, thank God, at least for the time being. But he's had it up to here with the Israeli soldiers at the border checkpoint. "Sometimes you make it through the roadblock in a second or two, but sometimes, when they're bored, they can make you feel like life isn't worth living. They force you to wait for hours in the sun for no reason, to humiliate you. Just last week, they confiscated two packs of Kent Longs from me, simply because they felt like it. An 18-year-old kid with a rifle in his hand and a face full of zits just came and took them."

Adina, the neighbor from downstairs, says that I'll never be able to understand what it's like to lose a loved one in a suicide bombing. "No death can be more meaningless than that," she says. "My brother died for two reasons -- because he was Israeli and because he felt like having an espresso in the middle of the night. If you can think of any dumber reasons for dying, let me know. And there isn't even anyone to get mad at. After all, the guy that killed him is already dead himself, blown to pieces."

My mother says that we have no other place to go, that no matter where we go, we'll always be strangers, hated, Jews. Ghassan says that my country, the state of Israel, is an alien and strange entity and that there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. There it is, in the middle of the Middle East, pretending to be in the heart of Europe, participating in the Eurovision song contest every year, making sure to send a soccer team to the European cup games, and it just doesn't get that it's located in the heart of the desert, surrounded by a Middle Eastern mentality that it refuses to acknowledge. Adina says we're living on borrowed time, that every time she sees the Palestinian children going wild with joy and handing out candy after every terror attack, she thinks about how these children are going to grow up. So I should stop all that nonsense about peace.

And if there is one thing that my mother, Ghassan and Adina have in common, it's that they are all certain, absolutely certain, that I simply can't understand what's going on in their heads.

But I'm actually pretty good at figuring out what's going on in other people's heads, sometimes, especially when times are bad. I even manage to make a living at it. All kinds of foreign publications call me and ask me to explain, if possible in 600 words or less, what people in Israel are thinking.

It's just a shame that I can't invent new thoughts for them, too -- ones that are a little less afraid, a little less hateful. Thoughts more positive, optimistic, compact, no more than 600 words.

Etgar Keret, one of Israel's most popular young writers, is author of "The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories." This article was translated from Hebrew by Ruchi Avital.