TORONTO — After living in Israel for several years, a Canadian woman returns home to pursue a post-graduate degree. In Israeli political terms, she has been a confirmed Lefty, active in peace organizations, committed to an equitable two-state resolution of the ancient Arab-Israeli conflict.
Back in North America, however, she finds herself immersed in a toxic academic milieu of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment. The safe, familiar ground of civilized debate is giving way to ugly polemic. Almost against her will, she begins to drift to the right, pitting her against both her enemies and her own convictions.
That scenario, playing out in similar ways on dozens of campuses in Canada, the United States and Europe, comprises the core narrative of “Fields of Exile,” Canadian author Nora Gold’s first novel (Dundurn Press). As the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign gathers momentum in the West, it’s hard to think of a more timely book.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Gold’s own story mirrors the journey of her 30-year-old protagonist, Judith. Like her, Gold made aliyah in her twenties, worked as a social worker in Israel, joined several peace-oriented dialogue groups, and returned to Toronto to complete a masters degree. And like Judith, what she encountered there has profoundly shaped her views on Israel and the prospects for peace.
“I never intended to go back to Canada,” she told me over coffee recently in Toronto. “But I eventually realized that what I really needed was a masters degree, and there was no way to get one in Israel, unless I travelled four nights a week by bus to Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. In Toronto, I could get an MSW degree in eight months.”
In Gold’s case, it was 1981 — not the Intifada period of the novel. But even then, she was appalled to discover that attitudes to Israel on campus had shifted dramatically, perhaps the result of the war in Lebanon. Vilifying Israel had become a kind of intra-mural sport, flirting dangerously with overt anti-Semitism.
Gold was at once shocked and puzzled. Anti-oppression motifs dominated the grammar of social work — brooking zero tolerance for speech or behaviour that was deemed anti-black, anti-gay, or anti-native Canadian.
“I took those ideas very seriously,” says Gold, “but my colleagues, almost all of whom were non-Jews, really did not get it about anti-Semitism. This was true nationally as well. I tried as an activist to revise the policies, to put anti-Semitism on the curriculum. The best I could do was get them to suggest it as a topic, not make it mandatory.”
Her novel was catalyzed, she says, “by my own pain and my impotent fury.”
“I was just getting angrier and angrier,” Gold recalls. “I didn’t feel betrayed, but I felt disappointed in my colleagues. How come I understood their issues and they didn’t understand mine? What was the barrier? Were they evil or merely stupid? I was perpelexed about the double standard. I felt like I had a fish hook in my stomach. It did not matter if I moved to the left or the right. It was just there and could not be ignored. I eventually decided I had to write it out of me.”
‘I tried as an activist to revise the policies, to put anti-Semitism on the curriculum’
In 2000, following publication of a short story collection, “Marrow and Other Stories,” Gold gave up a tenured professorship at McMaster University’s School of Social Work in Hamilton and turned to writing full-time. Her first instinct for the novel was to write a satire of academia.
“I saw things when I was teaching that I wanted to make fun of — the hypocrisy. But I’m not really a satirist or a mocker. I love my characters,” she says.
The daughter of the late Alan Gold, a former chief justice of Quebec’s Superior Court, Gold was first exposed to the Zionist vision in 1964 as a 12-year-old at Camp Kissufim, a Dror-affiliated Quebec socialist summer program.
“It absolutely blew my mind,” she says. “It was as though they were talking my language.”
Gold still vividly remembers how Kissufim staff recreated the situation in pre-1948 Israel, by dividing campers into two groups — Jews trying to get into Palestine and the British, trying to keep them out.
“I was a Jew, hiding in the forest trying not to get caught,” she recalls. “And, if you were caught, they played sounds of torture over the public address system. Talk about the influence on a life.”
After three trips to Israel in her teens and early 20s, she made aliyah at 22, in 1975 and immigrated to Israel. Based in Jerusalem, she held down six separate jobs, working principally as a social worker in Beit Shemesh, treating children with disabilities and their families.
‘I’m not really a satirist or a mocker. I love my characters’
“I was there when [Menachem] Begin was elected and I was horrified,” she recalls. “But he turned out to be a principled and honest man. And he took responsibility for his mistakes, which few politicians do.”
It was during what she expected to be a brief sojourn in Canda that Gold met her future husband, David Weiss, younger brother of the well-known American rabbi, Avi Weiss.
“We’re not Orthodox,” says Gold. “But we are traditional and egalitarian. Judaism is very important to us.”
They now divide their time between Toronto and Jerusalem.
In Toronto, Gold continued her activism on behalf of Middle Eastern peace. She has participated in various Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups, co-founded the Canadian wing of the New Israel Fund, as well as Canadian Friends of Givat Haviva, a charity that promotes co-existence in Israel through art, education and community development.
She recently joined the advisory council of Heart-To-Heart, a summer program that annually brings Arab and Israeli youths to a camp in Ontario. And she helped launch JSpace Canada, which she regards it as an important movement for “progressive people who don’t quite fit anywhere else.”
The organization unequivocally supports a democratic homeland for the Jewish people and endorses a two-state solution. It opposes settlements, but also rejects initiatives that challenge Israel’s right to exist or impose boycotts, divestments, or sanctions.
‘Too many Jews have never spent 15 minutes in conversation with an Arab’
“I know that the two Intifadas severely eroded support for projects of this kind,” says Gold, now Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario’s Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). “But I don’t pooh-pooh them. Too many Jews have never spent 15 minutes in conversation with an Arab. I’m impatient with that kind of reluctance to engage.”
In Israel itself, she blames the current Israeli government for erecting roadblocks to dialogue, often making it physically difficult for Palestinians to attend inter-faith gatherings. But she understands why the left’s position in Irsael has been eroded.
“The average Israeli is frightened, as am I, by what happened in Gaza. That was a real blow. You give back land and look what happens?”
Ironically, the course of events has also led her to respect “people I used to see as my political adversaries,” including former prime minister Begin, and former prime minister Ariel Sharon, “who had the courage to say, ‘I was wrong, let’s try to fix it before I die.’ He didn’t fix it, but he tried.”
More recently, Gold says, she has been focused less on whether any particular Israeli policy is good or bad, but on the “phenomenon of anti-Israelism, which is a form of anti-Semitism.”
When the University of Toronto opened its Centre for Women’s Studies (separate from OISE’s) some 15 years ago, Gold presented a paper at the inaugural congress. Part of her address dealt with the robust feminist peace movement in Israel. During the question period that followed, one professor asked her, “are you telling me there are some good Jews — I mean Israelis?”
Gold says she responded coolly in the moment, “but then I went home and got under the covers for three days and didn’t talk to anyone. I was in physical shock.”
Although she still describes her core political position as slightly left of center, that kind of naked anti-Semitism dressed as anti-Zionism has pushed her steadily, she concedes, to the right.
“Anybody who is pro-BDS has crossed the line for me,” she says.
In January, Gold began contributing to a monthly blog in Haaretz, using the platform to denounce boycotts, partial or whole, of Israel. Some of her pieces have drawn hate mail from pro-BDS activists.
Seeking a robust response to the boycott campaign, she has called for Jewish communities the world over to enlist support from left-wing — but pro-Israel –thinkers, forming an intellectual line of defense.
“Only the left can talk to the left,” she maintains.
‘Only the left can talk to the left’
For all that, Gold insists, she remains optimistic about the long term.
“I’m reluctant to accept the view that the conflict is fundamental, that they will never accept us, no matter what we do. I don’t delude myself into thinking peace will be easy. It’s easier to hate than to refuse to hate. It takes brave men like Sadat and Begin, and people like that are a minority in both cultures, Jewish and Arab. But the true dialogues and surviving cultural exchanges are more significant today, not less. We need more of them.”
She hopes her new novel will catalyze more discussion of the issues. “I wrote it so that people will think.”
A few months ago, at a party, a Christian woman told Gold that she hated anti-Semitism, but also hated the settlements. “When it comes to Israel,” the woman told her, “I don’t open my mouth and none of my friends do either, because I am bound to offend someone.”
“This was a well-meaning woman,” Gold concedes, “but she’s wrong. People have to open their mouths. My book, I hope, can provide some tools for knowing where legitimate criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins.”
In the meantime, “people should not be allowed to trash Israel and make anti-Semitic comments just because it’s politically correct and get away with it. It’s unacceptable.”