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Interview'I was shocked that so few knew we have Eritrean refugees in Israel'

Novel ‘Waking Lions,’ a moral critique of the land that ‘eats its inhabitants’

Author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s bible-based book chews over the double-standard of racism in modern-day Israel

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, author of 'Waking Lions.' (Courtesy)
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, author of 'Waking Lions.' (Courtesy)

On the first page of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s award winning novel, “Waking Lions,” the principal protagonist, Dr. Eitan Green, is faced with a moral dilemma. Speeding along an empty moonlight road in the Negev desert just outside of Beersheba, Green accidentally hits a man with his SUV, killing him instantly.

Green is then faced with two options. Should he call for help, confess to the Israeli authorities that he has committed the crime. Or, should he just drive off and pretend it didn’t happen? Panic stricken, he chooses the latter option.

The man green has killed just so happens to be an Eritrean refugee.

“The Eritrean issue is an unseen story in Israel at the moment,” Gundar-Goshen tells The Times of Israel.

“I was shocked when I was doing publicity for this novel to discover that so few people knew that we have Eritrean refugees in Israel,” the 35-year-old Israeli author says.

“Waking Lions” is Gundar-Goshen’s second novel to date. It was recently announced as joint winner of the prestigious 2017 Jewish Quarterly Wingate literary prize.

The book has also been translated into five languages, and is presently being made into a TV series in the United States.

The novel plays around with fluid notions of morality: those choices most humans have to make in their lives between good and evil. However, as the narrative progresses, there is a slight suggestion that for some individuals, class, race, gender, and privilege can make that choice easier — or, if the odds of life are stacked in your favor, perhaps eliminate it completely.

'Waking Lions' by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. (Courtesy)
‘Waking Lions’ by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. (Courtesy)

As Gundar-Goshen explains, “What enables Eitan to escape responsibility for his actions is the fact the he is a white man, an Israeli, and a doctor. So ‘Waking Lions’ really is a book about morality. But I think our biggest fear regarding the concept of morality is the possibility that maybe we don’t have any morals at all.”

Just as Green thinks he has been freed from having to deal with any kind of moral implications for his actions, he is confronted by an Eritrean woman, Sirkit, at his home a few days later.

Sirkit explains that she is the wife of the deceased man Green has run over, and proceeds to blackmail him.

Surprisingly, though, not for money.

And so as penance for his crime, Green begins working in a makeshift hospital on the outskirts of Beersheba — without pay — for the Eritrean refugees, safe in the knowledge that if he refuses to comply with Sirkit’s demands, she will turn him into the police.

Green begins to spend endless hours — mostly at night — at his new secret place of work, operating on Eritrean refugees with all kinds of conditions. In doing so, he begins to develop a deep hatred for them, and it is soon revealed that he is a closet racist.

An African asylum seeker sits in a makeshift outdoor camp near Israel's Nitzana border crossing with Egypt on June 28, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)
An African asylum seeker sits in a makeshift outdoor camp near Israel’s Nitzana border crossing with Egypt on June 28, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)

Gundar-Goshen writes in great detail about Green’s physical repulsion at the bodies of the Eritrean refugees, fearing that he will contract some sort of infectious disease if he continues to treat them.

“Who knew what these people had brought with them from their hell holes,” he asks himself.

“The interesting thing about Eitan is that he doesn’t consider himself to be a racist,” says Gundar-Goshen. “He votes left wing. He’s a doctor. He’s a liberal. And he doesn’t even feel his own racism. But that essentially is his hubris.”

‘He votes left wing. He’s a doctor. He’s a liberal. And he doesn’t even feel his own racism. But that essentially is his hubris’

Gundar-Goshen, who defines herself as a “proud Israeli,” claims this subtle form of racism is what she calls “a bigger trend developing in Israeli society today.”

“In Israel we fail to recognize our own racism towards minorities living here,” says Gundar-Goshen. “And if we want to change that, the first thing we have to do is accept the fact that racism is here in Israel, that Jews can be racist towards other people.”

The more Gundar-Goshen speaks about her book and how it relates thematically to present day events in Israel, the more apparent it becomes how critical she is of the country where she was brought up and continues to live.

As someone who has spent much of her time volunteering in the legal department of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the author says she feels “history’s irony” when writing about this subject.

Israeli soldiers stand guard on Tuesday as Eritrean asylum-seekers sit on the ground behind a border fence, after they attempted to cross illegally from Egypt into Israel. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli soldiers stand guard as Eritrean asylum-seekers sit on the ground behind a border fence, after they attempted to cross illegally from Egypt into Israel. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)

Especially, she says, because Israel came into existence not so long ago at a time when so many stateless Jewish refugees were facing similar hardships back in Europe.

‘We are a nation of refugees. And yet, when other people try to come to our country, we treat them the way we do’

“I come from a family of refugees,” she explains. “My family left Europe just before the Holocaust. So the ethos of being a refugee and having to escape is something that is very strong in my own family, but also in the Israeli culture too. We are a nation of refugees. And yet, when we have other people trying to escape wars and come to our country, we treat them the way we do.”

“Nobody, of course, wants the whole of Africa to immigrate to Israel,” Gundar-Goshen says. “But right now, we are not giving refugee status to even one percent of the people who wish to seek asylum. That is absurd given Israel’s own history.”

Gundar-Goshen says the present Israeli government has a lot to answer for in this respect. And she vehemently opposes the present rightward shift in the Israeli body politic.

“I disagree completely with our right wing government’s policies,” she says. “It’s definitely leading Israel to become more isolated in the international community. But my biggest fear is not the international community, but Israel’s moral standards as a country and as a society.”

Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)
File: Illustrative photo of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers in Tel Aviv (Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)

Gundar-Goshen says she fundamentally believes in the idea of a Jewish state.

“I feel the need to have a state of our own, the State of Israel,” she says. “But we cannot just try to forget that we aren’t the only people living here. We have Palestinians living in the occupied areas. And we have Arab-Israelis living here in Israel too.”

‘We cannot just try to forget that we aren’t the only people living here’

“And I think just trying to ignore them makes the problem worse,” she adds. “What our government is doing right now doesn’t make me, or my children, feel very safe.”

Conscious that the conversation has suddenly become overtly political, Gundar-Goshen stresses that she does not think any novel — least of all one written by her — should be a political statement.

“A novel should stand alone. And literature is not a petition or a demonstration,” the author makes clear.

But on the other hand, Gundar-Goshen says if you are given the opportunity to put your voice out there and you try to force the reader to look where they usually avoid looking, that in itself is a political act.

African migrants during a protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. Migrants staged two other mass protests in Tel Aviv where they demanded the right to work and better treatment from the Israeli government. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
African migrants during a protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. Migrants staged two other mass protests in Tel Aviv where they demanded the right to work and better treatment from the Israeli government. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“But not in a shallow way,” she stresses. “In the deep humanistic way. You are trying to get the reader to feel how it is to be inside the skin of someone else. That is the way you evolve empathy.”

Framed in the language of the archetypal parable, “Waking Lions” also follows in the tradition of so much western literature, using the Bible almost as a fundamental text to think and talk about morality. It approaches it thematically, in its obsession between good and evil, but also in the way the prose is structured. The notion of metaphorical symbolism is never far from the reader’s reach or imagination.

The novelist stresses how important she believes the Bible is as a foundational text for most stories we retell over and over again as a species — about good and evil, honor and virtue, and pride and humiliation.

“I feel the biblical myth is not just in the DNA of Israeli literature, but in every literature,” Gundar-Goshen says. “These are the fundamental stories that bind literature together.”

Illustrative: Eritrean asylum seekers march down Tel Aviv's boardwalk toward the US Embassy. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: Eritrean asylum seekers march down Tel Aviv’s boardwalk toward the US Embassy. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It’s no coincidence, either, the author explains, that “Waking Lions” begins in the desert, a place that symbolically has a great deal of meaning for Jews.

“The Ten Commandments are the moral principles of the Jewish people,” says Gundar-Goshen, “and they are given in the Sinai desert. But if you ask yourself about those ten commandments — one of which is ‘Thou should not kill’ — how many people really follow them all of the time? Do they just follow them when someone else is watching?

“Because when Eitan hits the refugee in his SUV, at the start of this story, he believes that nobody is watching”

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