When I heard a few months ago that Canadian author Nora Gold had written a novel about anti-Israel activism on campus, I was totally amazed because I thought it was a most unusual and courageous choice to try to deal with this rather sordid subject in a work of literature. And there clearly is a problem, as some of the reviews that have been published in the meantime indicate: it simply doesn’t sound too enticing to see headlines like “Novel lowers reader into the cauldron of anti-Semitism on campus” or “Fields of anti-Semitism.”
But while Nora Gold’s “Fields of Exile” can hardly be described as a fun read, it certainly deserved to be listed by The Forward as one of “The 5 Jewish Books To Read in 2014.″ One of the reasons that make it a worthwhile pick is the fact that just two months before the book was published, the annual “Israel Apartheid Week”-charade was held – as the organizers boasted – “for the tenth consecutive year … all over the world.” Even if this claim is somewhat exaggerated, it is still true that over the past decade, anti-Israel activism has become part of campus life for all too many students in the US, Canada and Europe. We may read articles and blog posts about the tireless campaigns of those who think the tiny Jewish state is the world’s biggest problem, but Gold focuses on something that is rarely in the spotlight: the emotional impact of this activism on a student who cannot abide the hate-filled propaganda that depicts the Jewish state as a unique evil that needs to be eradicated.
When I read the novel I felt it was almost eerie that Gold actually anticipated some deplorable and dangerous developments that became evident only recently when several incidents revealed the growing radicalization of anti-Israel activists, which was described with considerable satisfaction in a long Mondoweiss post that contains implicit threats of violence and reads like a declaration of war. Perhaps Gold was able to anticipate this alarming radicalization so accurately because she both researched and lived her subject for years. Before starting to work on the novel, Gold conducted two studies of antisemitism and sexism experienced by Jewish women and girls in Canada; but she also confessed that due to her own experiences, she felt compelled to write this novel:
“I was so distressed about the anti-Israelism around me that I really couldn’t write about anything else. It was like having a fish hook in my stomach. I was pained not only by the most obvious manifestations of anti-Israelism, like Israel Apartheid Week – during which, year after year, I witnessed the emotional and psychological damage wreaked on Jewish students and professors – but also the increasing normalization of Israel-bashing in classes, in faculty meetings, and at conferences. I was appalled that in certain disciplines it was almost de rigueur to trash Israel.”
In “Fields of Exile,” it is the novel’s protagonist Judith who is distressed and appalled when she discovers how easily hatred for Israel is mobilized at a (fictitious) college near Toronto where she enrolled because she had promised her dying father to return to Israel only after finishing her degree in social work. Judith is an intriguing character: while she is a committed leftist shaped by the “Peace Now”-idealism that was shared by many left-of-center Israelis in the 1990s, she also has a deep emotional, even mystic, attachment to the Land of Israel that is usually associated with the political right – though, to be sure, for Judith this attachment is not expressed in biblical terms, but as erotic fantasies mingled with her memories of a passionate affair. For Judith, Israel is her lover and her beloved; it is what makes her whole.
Judith the leftist has no problem to admit that Israel is far from perfect; but the Judith who feels that her identity as a Jew is inextricably linked to Israel is driven to distraction when she sees the Jewish state vilified and maligned as uniquely evil.
Perhaps this means that “Fields of Exile” is really a “Jewish book” in the sense that it is a book written by a Jewish author for a Jewish audience. Nora Gold has expressed the hope that the “magic” of reading a novel, which lets us see life through the eyes of the novel’s characters, will perhaps enable “one or even two anti-Israelniks … to relate to Judith, and stop for a moment to reflect on their knee-jerk hateful attitudes toward Israel.”
I have to admit that I don’t share Gold’s hope. But I think her novel could accomplish something different if its readers relate to Judith and stop for a moment to reflect on the question how many Judiths are out there. It is always taken for granted that Palestinians, irrespective of where they were born and where they live, have a deep emotional attachment to what they call “historic Palestine,” and no leftist would dare to dismiss this as an ultimately irrational construction. By creating Judith, Gold draws attention to the fact that many Jews have a no less deep and no less emotional attachment to the Land of Israel and to the re-established Jewish state. However, rejecting this Jewish attachment as irrational is considered truly “progressive,” and therefore it is nowadays possible to hold an event at an American university that includes not only a call for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state, but also the suggestion that a “Juden raus” policy should be adopted for those Israeli Jews who might be unwilling to live under Arab rule. The conviction that this kind of “anti-Zionism” is really a 21st century manifestation of antisemitism was recently expressed by Hen Mazzig when he reflected on his work with the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs for the past one-and-a-half years. Unfortunately, there are still too many people who don’t understand that Mazzig is right. Gold’s novel might help more people to realize that the obsessive activists who want to see the world’s only Jewish state replaced by yet another Arab-Muslim state are not just anti-Zionists.
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If you want to meet Nora Gold in Israel, you can do so on July 2 at Sipur Pashut in Tel Aviv and on July 13 at Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem.
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