Bill Moyers talks with David Grossman, an Israeli novelist, essayist, playwright, and children’s book author who has written extensively on Israeli-Palestinian relations, and whose fictional works mine the depths of youth, adolescence and adulthood in modern Israeli society.
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BILL MOYERS: Hello, I’m Bill Moyers. For thousands of years now the stories of the Bible have invited a wide range of interpretation and analysis. There’s a reason for it, summed up by Israel’s David Grossman recently when over a hundred writers from around the world came to New York to talk about faith and reason:
DAVID GROSSMAN: Sometimes we can study one verse of the Bible for half a year and we do not consume it. You cannot consume it. It’s endless. It’s really an ocean.
BILL MOYERS: David Grossman was here to discuss his new book about the biblical giant, Samson.
BILL MOYERS: If Noah is one of the first stories in the Bible, Samson is one of the longest. The Book of Judges tells of Jehovah leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan, only to find it already inhabited by the Philistines, who worship idols and false gods. To drive them out, Jehovah raises up a giant of a man: Samson.
We know him from art as well as scripture. There’s Giambologna’s great study of Samson slaying the Philistine with the jawbone of an ass, Rubens’ portrayal of him resting in the lap of his lover Delilah, and Van Dyck’s moment of his capture after Delilah betrayed him to the Philistines, who tortured and blinded Samson. His last desperate act, pulling down the temple of the Philistines became a classic, now rather campy climax in Cecil B. Demille’s film starring Hedy Lamar, as Deliliah, and Victor Mature, as Samson.
It’s a big subject worthy of one of Israel’s premier writers, David Grossman. He’s produced over nine novels, several children’s books, and some noted works of journalism, including the acclaimed Yellow Wind. His latest novel, LION’S HONEY, casts Samson as a lonely and bewildered man, destined and doomed to do God’s will.
BILL MOYERS: David Grossman, what attracted you, living in Jerusalem today, to that ancient story of Samson and Delilah?
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, it’s a wonderful story. To start with, you don’t have to be an Israeli or a Jew to like it. Here you have such a gigantic character like Samson. It’s a story about his desires and passions. The women he loved. It’s a story about betrayal, about loneliness. For me, as an Israeli, and as a Jew, I find a lot of symptoms of our behavior today, as a society, as a state, coded in the character of the Biblical Samson.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think the story is in the Bible? I mean some editor had to take this and put it in this sacred text. Why?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. Well, maybe for the one who wrote the Bible, Samson was a kind of a model to imitate, to admire. You have to think about the Jews at the time of this story, when they were under the tyranny of the Philistines. Crushed by the cruelty of the Philistines. Very weak, vulnerable. Think of Jews throughout history. They did not have armies, weapons, ways to defend ourselves. Having to obey all the time. And we have someone like Samson who can break all the rules. Who can do whatever he wants. Who crossed borders without any hesitation. He creates his own reality. He is the master of his destiny. So he thinks. He’s so strong, he’s so masculine.
Jews looked at themselves as the worm of Jacob. And to have someone like him, of course, I will tell you that many of the combating, the most daring of our military units our army since 1948 were called after Samson. The Foxes of Samson was one of the most famous military units in the world in ’48. In the beginning of the last Intifada, a special very secretive and very daring unit that acted in the Occupied Territories against Palestinians were called the Samsonites. And there are many examples of the uses of Samson, the image of Samson. Suddenly to be able to be Samson, for a people like us, is very refreshing. It’s very tempting.
BILL MOYERS: Give me a thumb-nail sketch of Samson’s story.
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, Samson was born to parents that lived in the border area between then Israel and the Philistines, in a very tough period for Israel under the tyranny of the Philistines. His mother was a barren woman.
BILL MOYERS: Sterile.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes, sterile. We don’t even know her name. We only know that she was sterile. That probably she expected a child. One day when she was on the field without her husband, a man of God, an Angel appeared to her. He tells her, “You know, you are a barren woman, but you are going to bear a child, and this child will save the sons of Israel from the Philistines. And he will be a Nazarite to God.”
BILL MOYERS: A Nazarite to God means?
DAVID GROSSMAN Means he’s not supposed to touch anything that is dead; anything of filth. He cannot drink wine. He cannot cut his hair with a razor. Now the woman runs to her husband, and she tells him the wonderful news, and she quotes what the Angel told her. But she does not quote it correctly. She says, “He will be a Nazarite to God from womb till his dying day.” Now the Angel did not say, “Till his dying day.”
And I wonder why would a woman who expected a son for so many years, when she comes and delivers the wonderful news to her husband, add this horrible phrase? What made her say this horrible thing? And I believe that in the time when she ran from the field in which she met with the Angel, the magic man of God, until she met her husband, some knowledge, some understanding pierced her. And that is that the son she is having now in her womb is not only hers, but in a way, it was touched by another entity. By God. And, of course, she adores God. But it means that her son will never be only hers. But it is made of other materials.
BILL MOYERS: But in so many ways he was ordinary. That is when he grows up as a young man, he falls in love with a Philistine woman, right?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. But he doesn’t know that this love was planted inside him as a pretext by God. That God wanted to quarrel with the Philistines, that’s why he imposed on Samson this love to the Philistine woman. It means that his love, his lust, his desires are nationalized in a way, by God. Are confiscated by God. Are manipulated by God. What a tragedy. If you knew that your love life is not yours, but is part of a divine big plan. That they are manipulations. How would you feel?
BILL MOYERS: He’s just a pawn in God’s plan.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: He’s a violent man.
DAVID GROSSMAN He’s very violent. Violent and obtuse and cruel. I do not try to justify him. I just try to understand the mechanism of such a soul. And to show that despite the destruction that he has and that he performs, there are other elements. You know, it’s very easy to say he’s a bully. He’s a machine of murder. Kind of a superman. Or a golem. But I want to show that there are other nuances in his behavior. And that the most interesting thing is the clash between this monster and the superficial surface that we know about Samson.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that he falls in love with Delilah? He goes to Gaza and there he falls in love with this beautiful woman, Delilah. She’s Philistine, right?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yeah. Delilah, actually, is the third woman he falls in love with, and they’re all Philistines.
BILL MOYERS: It’s a story that keeps recurring. It’s an old story. And the theme is: big man, beautiful woman, bad deal. Right?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. Probably she was irresistible. That’s why she was chosen, I guess. And the Philistines come to her and they tell her, “Tempt him and find what is his secret. What is the essence of his strength?” And, probably, everyone involved in this little scheme felt that she is irresistible. That she will do to him what previous women failed to do. That she will make him full of desire to give himself away to her.
BILL MOYERS: Why did he tell her his secret?
DAVID GROSSMAN Because he loved her. In a strange way, she is the first woman that he really loved. When it came to other women in his life, the word love was never said explicitly. With her, it’s the first time that we read that Samson loved a woman. And love means, I think, I believe: “to give all the keys of your soul to a certain individual; to hope that this individual will love you not only because of what you are, but sometimes in spite of what you are.” Samson desperately needs one soul to reveal himself in front of her.
BILL MOYERS: He says, I believe, in the ancient Hebrew, he talks about telling her from his heart of hearts.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. All his heart. All his heart of hearts. He gave her the essence of his life. He gave her his secrets. Three times he was aware of her manipulations. Three times she asks him, “What is the essence, what is the secret of your strength?” And he tells her all kinds of stories. Each time he opens his eyes, and I am sure he saw the assassin sitting or standing there behind the curtain. I mean, it’s so obvious. It’s so obvious that she wanted to kill him.
And yet, he continues to tell her hints about his strengths, I believe, because he wanted to believe that next time he opens his eyes he will see only Delilah, without the assassin, without the foreign presence, without the hostility of the Philistines that is radiated into this room. He just wanted to be loved simply. Maybe not as a hero, just as a human being. Maybe he just wanted one single thing: to be like any other person.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say, that in the last desperate act of a violent life, when he’s pulling down the Temple, killing everyone in it, his enemies, the innocent, himself, Samson believes he’s doing God’s will?
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, probably he is right according to the storyteller of the Biblical story. And to the editor who puts this story in the Bible. And that legitimizes it, and gave it the authority of sanctity. He is doing what God wanted him to do. We know that almost everything in the life of Samson was meant by God. So it is told to us. It’s a horrible deed, of course.
But the main goal of Samson, the reason for which he existed and the reason for which he became part of the story is to fight the Philistines and to liberate the sons of Israel from the tyranny of the Philistines. And by breaking the whole building on their heads and killing them and himself, he actually believed that he did what God wanted him to do.
BILL MOYERS: Sounds an awful lot like the suicide bombers of 9-11 if you read their diaries. They felt they were doing God’s will as they dove those planes into those buildings.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes, and I mention in my book, that actually he was the first suicide killer. Samson. And I don’t know about any other previous examples for someone who uses his own body in order to destroy other people’s life. And, of course, there’s something common to all people who are doing something like that. They are acting in a hermetic system of faith.
BILL MOYERS: A hermetic system means?
DAVID GROSSMAN It’s hermetic, because it’s very difficult to justify it in terms of other systems. And according to their system, they have full justification to do what they are doing. For us, people like me, I assume like yourself, who are out of this system, it looks horrible. Looks so cruel. But they can justify it according to their own terms. This is, I think, one of the most interesting questions. What was the need of us, of the Jews, to have such a hero? Such a questionable, such a dubious hero for us. When you think about the Jews throughout history, you do not necessarily think about someone like Samson. In a way he seems to us not very Jewish. On the other hand, I can tell you there are many Jewish qualities to him that I think are very important even to us today.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, this loneliness. The thing that I said before that there is no one like him. And I think, you know, every people, every culture is very special and unique. But I think there is something very very unique about us the Jewish people. About our faith. About our history. About the tragedies that we went through. But more so, about the way we are regarded by other peoples, cultures and religions.
You know for years Jews have been either idealized or more often demonized by other peoples and religions. And both idealization and demonization are the different forms, the different faces of demonization. We were always regarded as a metaphor for something else, as a parable. There was always a lesson to be learned from our destiny and faith.
And I find this approach so destructive. And when a people is cornered in such a place, when other people project on him so much stereotype and prejudices. Prejudices and faith, and superstition and myths and legends. You know in a way you find yourself trapped in this state of mind of the people. Maybe some of us even like this attention. You know there is a lot of attraction in being a larger-than-life story. It makes you feel very unique. It can justify some of the horrible things you went through. But it is not healthy as a people.
BILL MOYERS: Could this be why Samson was drawn to the Philistines? There are moments in reading your book when I think he just wants to go on the other side of the field, and sit in their stands, and watch the game from their side. And then go out and have a drink with the boys. And forget this chosen-ness and this Samson stuff.
DAVID GROSSMAN It’s wonderful that you say it, because sometimes I felt that, yes, he was not in his right place, in our people. Yes. And he needed, you know, to rub his soul and flesh against other cultures. And culture that probably is more sensual than the culture he came from with all the restrictions that Jews suffered from by their own selves. By the rules and the laws of the Torah. And I can understand a person like Samson enjoying terrifically being among the Philistines. Having fun with them, making love with them, fighting with them physically. Maybe this was something that he did not find in his own place, among the Israelites.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a moment in your book when you wrote, “He was weary.” Was he weary of being chosen; was he weary of playing out this fate that had been determined for him in the womb by God?
DAVID GROSSMAN I believe he was. I believe it was too much for him to take. The divine grand plan was much bigger for him to shoulder. Even he, with his gigantic shoulders. He walks in this life without really understanding what is expected of him. And there is a moment, after Delilah cuts his hair, and before she calls the Philistines to start torture him. And he lies on her knees and many painters drew and painted this wonderful, suddenly silent scene in the hustle and bustle of all his life. And all the noise that accompanied him. All the violence. All of the thunderstorm of the life of Samson, there is suddenly a very peaceful moment. He lies on her knees or in her lap. He’s exhausted. But there is an air of rest. An air of someone who, for the first time in his life, achieved some tranquility. And well, maybe for him being there on her lap in the heart of the ultimate betrayal on him, because in a moment she is going to give him away.
BILL MOYERS: Every woman in his life betrays him.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Did he have a compulsive need to be betrayed? Is that why he went to their beds?
DAVID GROSSMAN I believe so. When you see which women he will choose, it will always be women that inevitably will betray him. They are doomed to betray him, and he wants them. But don’t we see people like that around us? Don’t we see people who are repeatedly making the wrong choices? Who, at the very points in which they need to be salvaged, they will do the wrong step? It applies to individuals, it applies to societies, to countries.
BILL MOYERS: It seems to me that Samson is the archetype. He keeps compulsively repeating destructive behavior.
DAVID GROSSMAN He is, yes. But is it a rarity? Don’t you see around you people who are doing this again and again, as if they have no choice? Don’t you see people acting this way? But when I look at my country, for example, or when I look at the Palestinians, at any crossroad, when we were given the chance, the miraculous chance sometimes by history, to take the right turn, the turn towards peace, towards reconciliation, towards stopping killing and destruction, we chose always the way to violence and to escalate hatred between us. You know there are so many similarities to Samson and the way Israel behaves. And one of them is the way we treat power.
BILL MOYERS: Power?
DAVID GROSSMAN Power, yeah. You know, you know three years after the Holocaust, after the Shoah, we created the state. We created an army that became immediately a regional superpower, maybe an international superpower. We are in a way like a mutation of power. From being the victims of the Shoah. From being these people who for 2000 years lived in exile, who had no power, no weapons, no army, nothing like that. We became a superpower. It’s a mutation of power. And I am not sure that we really know how to deal with this enormous power.
And I think someone who experiences our situation is almost doomed, always, to choose the more aggressive way, the more vigorous way, as the first choice. And you can trace such a behavior in the history of Israel throughout the years. Now part of it is not our responsibility. Our neighbors and enemies were very productive and effective in creating this problem as well. But I am interested also in our side. What is in us that prevents us, even when we can, to come to a kind of more political definition of ourselves within borders. If you have no borders, it is like you live in a house that the walls are all the time moving. A house with mobile walls. You do not really know where you end and where the others start.
BILL MOYERS: Is this why you were attracted to the story of Samson? Trying to figure out who you are? What Israel is? What you do with power in a hostile world?
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. I mean being an Israeli is a full time job. But, I wouldn’t trade it for any other existence. I was born a Jew. I was born in Israel. I think it’s a fascinating place to live. I lament the fact that we are deprived of exploring all the possibilities of living in such a state, such a combination of so many people who poured into Israel from 17 countries, and bringing in all their psychologies, mentalities, senses of humor, knowledge, manners, habits. All these could create such a wonderful place, an interesting place to live. And, at the same time, we don’t get to explore it, because we just survive from one catastrophe to another.
You know I always think about this paradox of us as a people. Throughout our history we survived to lead our life. And now we live to survive only. This is not enough. We can have so much more. We are so strong as a state. We are so Samson-ite, yes? Allegedly we have 200 atom bombs, and yet we are so afraid.
By the way, like Samson, whenever he confronts a real danger, he collapsed. He cries to God like a child. Why? Because like us, we do not really believe that this power is ours. We did not really settle our relationship with this power. Because of that we are doomed to use it excessively. Because of it, we do not really create a code of behavior regarding our enormous power. Maybe if time comes, if we enjoy some years of stability and peace, if we start to trust our enemies and neighbors, if they will be trustworthy. It’s also a question. Maybe then, also, our attitudes towards this power will change.
BILL MOYERS: Aren’t the Orthodox, aren’t the literalists, those who read the story of Samson as literally the word of God, aren’t they driving the conversation in Israel? Are they just like the Christian Right and the fundamentalists here are driving our political discussions?
DAVID GROSSMAN Well, again, you touch upon a very basic problem for us as a state today: that there is too much connection between religion and state. For the last 60 years almost, Israel prioritized the political goals of religion rather than the political goals of the state. For example, many things from what has happened to us since the Six Days War, the ’67 War, that drove upon the occupation of the occupied territories is highly dominated by religious aspirations. And the religious institutions are so much involved now in politics in Israel today. It’s so much dominant in our politics. And it’s dangerous, because, also, on the other side, on the Palestinian side, we see the same phenomenon. They are now ruled, by not only religious people, which I can respect, but they are ruled by fundamentalists, by fanatics.
When you see, for example, the mother of a Palestinian suicide bomber and she rejoices in the death of her son, and she wishes, in front of television camera, that all her other children will follow him and become martyr like he is, like he was. Well, then I stop understanding. I cannot really understand such values. If they are values at all. When I hear that this suicide bomber, like many others, wrapped up with paper and rugs his sexual organs to protect them, so he will be able to use them with the 72 virgins when he reaches Heaven, well, I really cannot understand such a mixture of reason and faith. I think that, for the benefit of all of us, we should pay faith a lot of respect. We should be very afraid when faith mutates itself to fanaticism.
BILL MOYERS: Was the mother of that Palestinian suicide bomber, any different in her imagination, than the mother of Samson whose child was born to die for his country.
DAVID GROSSMAN In a way not. In a way you are right. Again, this is the nature of our area. You know for so many years Israeli women, when they bore a child, when they bore a son, one of the first things that they used to say after the birth, “Here I gave birth to another soldier to our army.” And it was said with pride, you know. And I thought, “It’s horrible.” If you destined your child, from womb almost, to the army, which means to be killed in the end. This is the danger that awaits individuals and people who are undertaking such a total mission, or who are formulating themselves in such absolute terms. They know the will of God. They were chosen. I think that total belief, total behaviors, hermetic, absolute terms in which one defines oneself, are dangerous. They are lethal.
BILL MOYERS: Absolute truths destroy absolutely.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes. Exactly. We sense it now in the Middle East. In the violence and in the fundamentalist approach of so many groups there, which make the achieving of peace almost impossible.
BILL MOYERS: At the end of Samson’s story and the end of your book, there’s the apocalypse. Samson dies. The Philistines die.
DAVID GROSSMAN Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Who wins?
DAVID GROSSMAN No one wins. But that’s the nature of such conflicts, that’s the nature of violence. No one wins. This is something that Israelis and many among the Palestinians started to understand now. It’s a no-win situation. And the only thing that can be productive is this very painful compromise.
BILL MOYERS: David Grossman, thank you very much.
DAVID GROSSMAN Thank you. Thank you.
This transcript was entered on June 26, 2015.