Monday, December 5th | 11 Kislev 5783

May 11, 2014 1:13 pm

Looking at Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism From a Literary Perspective

avatar by Nora Gold


Israeli Apartheid Week in May 2010 on the University of California, Irvine campus. Photo: AMCHA Initiative.

Imagine a smart young woman named Judith who, after living for ten years in Israel, comes home to Toronto to study for a year.

At university she makes friends and excels academically, but soon runs into trouble over Israel. In Israel, she was a member of the peace camp, and is anything but a simple-minded defender of the Jewish State. She is stunned, however, by the anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism at her school, and especially shocked that this phenomenon is most prevalent on the left, where she feels she belongs.

When the Anti-Oppression Committee she serves on selects for its keynote speaker a “human rights activist” who supports the use of terrorist attacks not only against Israeli military targets, but also against Israeli civilians and Jews around the world, Judith feels she must protest. But can she find the courage to do so?

Judith is the main character in my book, Fields of Exile, which was published last week. Before the book has even come out, I’ve already been asked countless times why I chose to write a novel on this topic – a question I was never asked about my first book, Marrow and Other Stories because it turns out that Fields of Exile is the first fictional narrative to tackle the issue of anti-Israelism on campus.

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I spent years writing a novel on this topic because 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.”Ž

Connected as I was to both the academe and the world of activism (I helped found JSpaceCanada), there was no way to escape this fish hook in my stomach. I tried moving this way and that, but whatever I did, it was still there. At a certain point, I guess I figured that the only way to get it out of me was to write it out.

The other question I keep getting asked is why I’m the first person to write a novel on this topic. I have no idea. I can’t comment on why, or how, other authors choose their subjects, but I can say that this novel was very difficult to write. It posed a unique challenge I didn’t face with either Marrow and Other Stories or the novel I’ve completed since finishing Fields of ExileThe Dead Man, now under consideration with publishers.”Ž

Thane Rosenbaum and Phyllis Chesler have both called Fields of Exile “a novel of ideas.” With this type of novel, the challenge is to not let the intellectual content overpower the story itself – the plot, characters, narrative, etc.”Ž

I feel fortunate that Fields of Exile has a strong academic underpinning. When I started writing it, I’d already conducted a national study of Canadian Jewish women’s experiences of anti-Semitism and sexism, and research on Jewish girls, anti-Semitism, and sexism in Toronto (both projects funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada). I’d also read more than forty books on anti-Semitism and hundreds of articles on this topic. So all this background stood me in good stead when dealing with the complex question at the intellectual core of Fields of Exile – where does legitimate criticism of Israel end and anti-Semitism begin?”Ž

Still, all this theoretical knowledge is precisely where the greatest challenge lay in writing this novel. I had to find ways to balance the intellectual content with all the other components that make a novel live and breathe: plot, character, and emotional and narrative flow. It took seven years till I felt I’d achieved this balance.

Of course, since Fields of Exile is a real novel (and not a diatribe masquerading as a novel), it’s about far more than just anti-Israelism on campus. It’s a love story. It’s a tale about family, friendship, betrayal, and the search for the courage to stand up for what one believes.”Ž

Above all, it’s the story of one particular person living in a particular place and time: Judith, a character whom Naim Kattan considers “luminously alive.”

Over the past four years, I’ve been privileged to edit the online literary journal, Jewish, which publishes first-rate fiction from around the world, either written in, or translated into, English. During this time, I’ve read hundreds of submissions, and one salient feature of the best of this Jewish fiction is that – like the best fiction in general – it doesn’t try to teach or provide answers; it only asks questions.

One question to conclude with is, what can a book accomplish?

To some, this is a heretical question. Oscar Wilde famously said, “All art is quite useless,” and many writers believe that for their art to be real art, it must be useless in terms of its effect on “the real world.” I disagree.”Ž

Personally speaking, I believe that books contain magic. A novel can get people to feel and think in completely new ways because, when we read, we let the characters living in books enter our inner lives. We enter their reality and see life through their eyes.

So who knows? Maybe Fields of Exile will be a slightly useful – as opposed to totally useless – piece of art. Maybe one or even two anti-Israelniks will read this novel, be able to relate to Judith, and stop for a moment to reflect on their knee-jerk hateful attitudes toward Israel. Perhaps the magic of books will make this happen. And after all, who should believe in this special magic more than us, the People of the Book?”Ž

Dr. Nora Gold, the author of Fields of Exile, is a fiction writer, an activist, and the editor of the online literary journal, Jewish She is also the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education at OISE/University of Toronto, and she is a citizen of both Canada and Israel.

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