The Yellow Wind, by David Grossman. Translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 202 pp. $17.95. The yellow wind, rin asfar, an old Palestinian tells David Grossman, comes out of the gate of hell once every few generations. It is a hot, fierce firestorm, consuming everything in its path. When it comes again, the land will be strewn with ashes and bodies.
A disheartening prophecy, it is also a tragic metaphor for what some feel is the inevitable outcome of the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River.
Grossman, a Jerusalem-born Israeli novelist and Army reservist, came of age during the heady days after the Six-Day War when he celebrated his bar mitzvah and his country's victory over the Arabs. Now, 20 years later, he offers a penetrating, poignant, and highly personal report on life and animosity on the West Bank, a society of 400,000 captives, the legacy of Israel's response to the united attack on it in June 1967.
Grossman spent three months on the other side of the river, observing and interviewing ordinary people (no politicians, no leaders). In his small book he provides much evidence suggesting there is, indeed, an ill wind blowing there, a wind fanned not so much by external forces as by the suspicions and hatreds of two peoples who are, ironically, strikingly similar - not least in their pride of place and in the ways they use the rhetoric of marginality and exile to bolster it. (Even their respective model ``freedom fighters,'' the Irgun and the Palestine Liberation Organization, use almost identical symbols: the former's a fist grasping a rifle against a map of the land of Israel; the latter's two fists holding rifles against the very same map.)
Grossman's compelling and controversial book, completed before the recent outburst of demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank and already serialized in The New Yorker, may be read at three levels: as a superb piece of cultural journalism; as a political statement of an Israeli critic of his government's Palestinian policies; and as a study in self-examination of one who, in his own words, is ``a partial, relative, imperfect man who prefers to make correctible mistakes rather than attain supernatural achievements.'' The revealing statement appears as an aside in a commentary on the beliefs and practices of those known as Gush Emunim, the most extreme of the Israeli settlers, who speak fervently of ``Greater Israel'' and are wont to see the Jordan not as a border but a stream flowing through the middle of their Promised Land. Yet, it is echoed in remarks about other hard-liners, meaning almost everyone, Arab and Jewish, Grossman encountered.
Most pathetic are the descriptions of Palestinians who live in three worlds, two in their minds (yesterday's and tomorrow's); and of the young Israeli citizen-soldiers sent over to police them who are torn between the duty to serve in ``the territories'' (or, in the words of some, in ``Judea and Samaria'') and the desire to avoid the odious tasks required of occupiers raised in a nation where they are constantly reminded of the forces that deprived their own forebears of land, tradition, and honor.
Most interesting is the account of the village of Barta'a, whose people - all Palestinians - were divided in 1948 and reunited in 1967. Even today the Arab population reflects the effects of the earlier partition. The ``Israelized'' residents are more modern, more worldly wise, more consumer oriented; the others are poorer, more tradition-bound. Yet both continue to feel alienated, unwelcome guests in their own homeland.
For many of the Palestinians who spoke to Grossman, the tragedy can be summed up in the mispronounced word ``bolitics.'' Again and again, they have been the untargeted victims of conquering armies - internal exiles looked down upon and treated as inferior by the outsiders who control their world.
A kindergarten teacher in the Deheisha Refugee Camp tells how her grandmother has survived the Turks, the British, the Jordanians, and the Israelis - four occupiers, trusting no one and hating everyone, especially, today, the Jews. Her generalization is corroborated by an Israeli psychologist whose study of 328 Arab and Jewish children's dreams of confrontation reveal that ``the others'' are invariably stereotyped in value-laden terms with negative connotations (``terrorists,'' ``oppressors,'' etc.); they are enemies, plain and simplified, reduced to clich'es and caricatures.
While there are occasional shafts of light in the darkened, often shadowy landscape, the overall impression left by Grossman's stunning account is one of profound pessimism. One only hopes his book, already being widely discussed in Israel, will encourage his compatriots to think the unthinkable, and do the unprecedented, not only for the sake of the Palestinians but also for their own sake and that of their collective posterities.
Peter I. Rose, a sociologist and writer, is a member of the Committee on Jewish Studies at Smith College.