A young girl returns from her spiritual homeland to be with her dying father in the land of her birth, only to find herself in a place where the country she loves has been demonized and hated. In Nora Gold‘s novel Fields of Exile, Judith Gallanter comes back to Toronto from Israel in 2002 after a decade away and takes up her Masters degree in Social Work, to find that perceptions of Israel have shifted while she was gone. A left-wing peace activist in Israel, on an Ontario university campus she feels like a chimera, a combination creature no-one can believe is real. She cannot reconcile her life in Israel and its complexities with the picture put forward by the anti-Zionist activists on campus, and she feels their hatred of her homeland as if it were a palpable thing.
Writers gift their character with all the great lines they wish they had used in real life. Those witty replies and devastating rejoinders you always think of the next morning or two days later? - writers put them into the conversations when they replay them in their novels, so that the characters seem cleverer and more articulate than their authors. Judith isn‘t like that. Strong-willed and outspoken amongst her friends and intimates she is shy amongst others, assertive in bed and tongue-tied in debates. She is terrible at picking her battles; she hesitates when she should speak up and she speaks out at the worst moments. She is a reluctant partisan. Yet these are the qualities and contradictions that make her character real.
Judith‘s voice is by turns didactic and lyrical, her view of the world intertwined with imagery from all the books she has read. Anyone who has hung around a university campus past their first degree will recognise the way she talks and feel right at home with her.
For a book that is billed as a novel of ideas, however, there is little meaningful debate amongst the characters. The intellectual struggle takes place in Judith‘s own mind, not between herself and others, and there is no strong sincere voice opposed to her beliefs. Her antagonists are either malicious and hateful, ignorant, or else cowardly and sycophantic, afraid of losing tenure and position if they raise their voice.
This is not a book about Israel and Palestine or the struggles and problems there. It is a book about Canadian university campuses, about the thorny issue of when and whether anti-Zionism crossess the line to become rascism and bigotry, about the importance that one woman‘s spiritual connection to Israel has in her life and her emotional and intellectual reaction to the hatred that she sees directed against it.
Ultimately there is a sense that Judith can never be fully at home in either Israel or Canada. Canada holds nothing more for her and she wants to make her life in Israel, but she speaks Hebrew with an Anglo-Canadian accent and her most important romance there was with a married Israeli man, as if to suggest that she can love the country but it will never fully belong to her.
Some of the strangest and most unbelievable moments of the novel were taken from reality. A person to whom Judith describes her involvement in the Israeli peace movement responds by saying “you mean there are good Jews... I mean good Israelis?” According to an interview with Gold, this was a quote from life. The Faculty of Social Work where Judith gets her degree, at a fictional university whose distance from Toronto makes it seem a lot like McMaster, holds a major event called Anti-Oppression Day, something that for those outside the field seems at first blush as meaningful and relevant as holding an Anti-Evil Day; yet anti-oppression is a significant concept in modern social work training.
Reading about the ideological struggles in the book leaves me with an extra level of sadness, because of the knowledge that once the people on campus graduate and move into the working world none of it will matter. From studying anti-oppression, many will go on to get jobs as instruments of social control, working with places like child protection agencies and welfare offices that police their clients rather than empower them. The fights over right and wrong in which they engage will have little meaning in their lives a few years later. But that is my cynical view of social work, one that should not interfere with the enjoyment of a novel with a passionate intelligent woman at its heart, a reluctant and conflicted heroine who finds herself backed into standing up for what she loves.
Fields of Exile is published by Dundurn.