Israeli's war-novel plot foretells personal tragedy

Israeli author and peace activist David Grossman.
Israeli author and peace activist David Grossman. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

JERUSALEM — When David Grossman's youngest son, Uri, was getting ready to join the Israeli army, the award-winning author decided that it was time to write a new book that he hoped might serve as a talisman for his boy as he went off to battle.

Together, father and son worked to tell the story of a mother's attempts to save her boy, an Israeli tank commander, who she knows is heading into a fatal firefight.

Uri passed along tales of his time serving as a tank commander in the West Bank. Grossman wove them into the unfolding novel.

Then reality overwhelmed their imaginations.

In the waning days of Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah Islamist militants, Uri and his three-man crew were sent to southern Lebanon. They never returned alive. The team became four of Israel's final battlefield fatalities when a Hezbollah rocket hit their tank.

Grossman was devastated.

Instead of the still-incomplete novel protecting his 20-year-old son as he'd intended, Grossman wondered aloud whether the book had been a bad omen. When author Amos Oz came to pay his respects, Grossman said he wasn't sure he could save the book.

But Oz told Grossman that completing the novel would save the author.

"I told him that writing this book would be his salvation and that he must go on," said Oz, one of Israel's best-known writers. "I know, in bad times, when everything goes wrong, writing is the writer's salvation."

This week, nearly two years after Uri's death, Grossman released "Until the End of the Land," an epic, intimate 600-page novel in Hebrew that no longer can be the literary shield for his son that the author had hoped.

"It did not protect Uri," Oz said.

It isn't clear that finishing the novel has provided any salvation for the 50-year-old writer, either.

To this day, the loss is evident in Grossman's face. He can't talk directly about Uri and is refraining from doing many interviews about his new novel.

When he was asked whether the book changed as a result of his son's death, Grossman said "only the writer changed."

"It changes one's life in every possible way," he said. "That's all I can tell you."

For more than 20 years, many in Israel's peace camp have viewed Grossman as a moral bellwether.

He first challenged Israel's conventional wisdom in 1987 by writing "The Yellow Wind," an unvarnished look at Israel's occupation of the Palestinians. Grossman saw the occupation as a morally corrosive cancer likely to destroy both Israel and the Palestinians.

Soon after the best-seller was published, the simmering frustration that Grossman documented in the West Bank and Gaza Strip exploded into the first Palestinian uprising.

From then on, many on the left viewed Grossman as Israel's conscience.

So when he, Oz and fellow author A.B. Yehoshua came out in support of Israel in the first days of the 2006 war with Hezbollah, it was seen as a significant endorsement.

"Even those who hope for an immediate end to violence and the opening of negotiations must acknowledge that Hezbollah cynically and deliberately created the crisis," Grossman wrote in the first days of the war. "Israel had no choice but to respond to the severe attack on its territory."

As the war pushed into its second month and Israelis began to question their government's strategy and battlefield tactics, the three Israeli intellectuals reversed course and called for peace talks.

Instead, even after the United Nations had brokered a cease-fire set to take effect in 48 hours, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered a massive last-minute offensive.

Joining in the controversial assault were Uri Grossman and his tank crew. Two weeks before his 21st birthday and two days after his father publicly spoke out against the war, Uri was killed in southern Lebanon.

David Grossman, his wife and their two other children mourned in private. At Uri's memorial, Grossman said his son had reminded him "not to surrender to the temptations of force and simplistic thinking, to the corruption of cynicism."

At a public rally three months later, Grossman lashed out at Israeli leaders for betraying Jewish dreams and leading the young nation to the brink of catastrophe.

"The death of young people is a horrible, outrageous waste," he said at the rally to commemorate the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "But no less horrible is the feeling that the state of Israel has, for many years now, criminally wasted not only the lives of its sons and daughters but also wasted the miracle that occurred here — the great and rare opportunity that history granted it, the opportunity to create an enlightened, properly functioning democratic state that would act in accordance with Jewish and universal values."

Like Grossman, Oz sees a country that has yet to live up to its original ideals. And, maybe, Oz said, that was always unrealistic.

"If you compare Israel to the magnitude of its dreams, it is a disappointment," Oz said. "But this is not about the nature of Israel; it's about the nature of dreams. Israel is a dream come true, and as such it is destined to taste sour — because it is fulfilled."