Nora Gold’s book, Fields of Exile, is the first novel about anti-Israelism on campus. It was picked by The Forward as one of “The 5 Jewish Books To Read in 2014,” and has received enthusiastic praise from Phyllis Chesler, Thane Rosenbaum, Irwin Cotler, Steve Stern, Nava Semel, Naim Kattan, Alice Shalvi, and Ann Birstein.
Gold is also the author of the acclaimed Marrow and Other Stories, the creator and editor of the prestigious online literary journal Jewish Fiction.net, a blogger for “The Jewish Thinker” at Haaretz, the Writer-in-Residence and an Associate Scholar at CSWE/OISE/University of Toronto, the organizer of the Wonderful Women Writers Series, and a community activist.
Interviewer’s Note: Nora Gold’s debut novel Fields of Exile, published by Dundurn in April 2014, looks at the preponderance of anti-Semitism, in the form anti-Israelism, in academia. Dr. Gold’s novel artfully examines the necessary costs and risks of activism as her protagonist, Judith, balances being a Zionist, a woman, a student, and a lover in a world polarized by political opinion.
This interview was conducted via email during May 2014 and in person on June 9, 2014.
Editors’ Note: The information and views set out in the following interview are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Puritan editorial staff.
Tracy Kyncl: Your novel Fields of Exile outwardly critiques anti-Israelism in academia, and there are many professional similarities between you and your protagonist (working in Israel with developmentally challenged youth and returning to Canada to complete a master’s degree). Could you elaborate on the motivations behind writing this book?
Nora Gold: In the early stages of this book, if you’d asked me what it was about, I would have said I was writing a satire about academic life. It was only as this novel evolved that the hypocrisy and intellectual sloth I was describing became increasingly focused on the issue of anti-Israelism. Let me define straight off what I mean by anti-Israelism. Anti-Israelism is not just criticizing Israel. As I make clear in Fields of Exile, it is obviously entirely legitimate to criticize Israel’s government or policies, just as one would critique the government or policies of any other country. But anti-Israelism is something else. Anti-Israelism (otherwise known as “the new anti-Semitism”) is a form of anti-Semitism where hatred of Jews masquerades as legitimate criticism of Israel. One can see examples of this wherever criticisms of Israel are interlaced with classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes, such as, “All Jews are rich and powerful, they control the banks and the media, they’re plotting world dominion, etc.”
Anyway, as I said, I didn’t set out to write a novel about anti-Israelism in academia. But in retrospect, it probably wasn’t surprising that this is what I ended up doing. For over a decade before starting this novel, I—like many Jews—had been very disturbed by the increasing anti-Israelism in both academia and the world at large. I was concerned about the most overt manifestations of anti-Israelism, like the rallies that later morphed into Israel Apartheid Week, but also about the gradual normalization of Israel-bashing in classes, in faculty meetings, and at conferences.
I responded to this phenomenon, in the years before beginning this novel, by conducting academic research on anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism and by engaging in pro-Israel activism (one part of which ultimately resulted in a new Toronto-based organization, JSpaceCanada. At a certain point, though, because I was so distressed about anti-Israelism, I also began writing a novel about it. The pain I felt because of what was happening around me was like having a fishhook in my stomach. I tried moving this way and that, but whatever I did, it was still there. So at some stage, I figured that the only way to get it out of me was to write it out.
Tracy Kyncl: How do you perceive the academy’s attitude toward the Israel-Palestine conflict today?
Nora Gold: The academy is obviously not monolithic, so there are some parts of it where there is a neutral or positive attitude toward Israel, and other parts where the attitude is negative. Research indicates that this varies by discipline. Six years ago, I interviewed eighty Canadian Jewish professors from twenty-eight disciplines at four universities, and found that in Science, Medicine, Law, and Management, there was relatively little anti-Israelism; however, in the Social Sciences and Humanities, anti-Israelism was rampant. This divide still persists. It is common for professors and students in the Humanities and Social Sciences to view the Israel-Palestine conflict in a simplistic and anti-Israel way: as the evil Israeli bullies oppressing the pure innocent victimized Palestinians.
One of my first encounters with this was at a feminist conference where I’d just presented a paper on my research on Canadian Jewish women and their experiences of anti-Semitism and sexism. During the Q&A, a female professor asked a question that was sharply critical of Israel, and in response, I told the audience about the feminist peace movement in Israel, and how it is considerably more radical than the general Israeli peace movement. The professor who had asked the initial question replied, “You mean there are some good Jews—I mean Israelis?” This question encapsulates the way proponents of anti-Israelism conflate anti-Semitism with what might otherwise be legitimate criticism of Israel. This professor’s surprise that there might be a couple of good Jews in the world both reflects and expresses classic anti-Semitism, which portrays Jews as intrinsically evil.
In Fields of Exile, Judith, disappointed and confused by the anti-Israelism of some of her classmates and teachers, wonders at various times: Are they evil, or are they just stupid? I, too, wonder the same thing sometimes in relation to my anti-Israel colleagues. I’m amazed that, regardless of their almost total ignorance about Israel, they are willing, even eager, to jump on the anti-Israel bandwagon. I am also stunned by their simple-mindedness. Their version of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as a struggle between cartoon-like evil villain Israelis and pure innocent victimized Palestinians, is not only factually and historically inaccurate; it is the kind of simplistic thinking that is usually characteristic of children, rather than the intellectual leaders of a country. I can’t help wondering if these academics truly don’t understand that the reality behind this conflict is extremely complex, or if they already know this but, for reasons of self-interest, prefer the cartoon version.
Like Judith, I often hear the question echo: Are they evil? Or are they just stupid?
TK: Why did you choose to locate Judith’s struggles with prejudice in a small town?
NG: The most important factor in the location of Judith’s school wasn’t the size of the town in which it was located, but the fact that it was an hour outside of Toronto. I wanted Judith, once a week, to have to make a long drive to and from her school, so she’d have this designated “think time.” Driving is an interesting experience because when you’re driving, you really can’t do anything else other than talk on the phone (but Judith doesn’t have a cell phone) or listen (in Judith’s case, either to the radio, which she dislikes, or to her only tape, “Israel at 40,” which she quickly gets sick of). So she is forced into herself. While driving toward Dunhill, she dwells on her fears and anticipations regarding that particular school day, and on the return drive home, she reflects on what actually happened. This drive to and from Dunhill affords the reader insight into Judith’s latest thoughts, and it gave me a way to provide alternation, and balance, between Judith’s intensely external social/political life, and her intense internal one.
TK: Do you think that large and (supposedly) more multicultural schools are less politically polarizing, or do we as Torontonians take for granted how much misinformation and mob mentality are capable of thriving even in large cultural centres?
NG: I don’t think there is necessarily any difference in political/ideological culture between Canada’s large universities in urban centres and Canadian schools in smaller places. I believe that factors other than size influence a school’s ideological climate. In the research study I mentioned earlier, the eighty Jewish professors I interviewed came from four universities: two in Ontario and two in Quebec. I found that at the two older, more conservative universities (the University of Toronto and l’Université de Montréal), there was relatively little anti-Israelism, in contrast to the two younger, more left-wing ones (York University and l’Université du Québec à Montréal). Also, as I’ve said, I found important differences between disciplines. At all four universities, there was considerably more anti-Israelism in the Social Sciences and Humanities than in disciplines like Science, Medicine, Law, and Management. So these factors are the relevant determinants of a university’s political climate, rather than its size or whether it is located in an urban centre.
In addition, I don’t think I would characterize a university town one hour outside of Toronto as being either “rural” or a typical small town. I think it’s incorrect to assume that a small town or rural community would necessarily have a higher level of anti-Semitism than a large city. In another research project I conducted, the nation-wide study on Canadian Jewish women’s experiences of anti-Semitism and sexism, I compared women who lived in urban versus rural locations and found no differences at all between them with respect to the number or type of anti-Semitic experiences they had experienced.
It’s interesting to note that the stereotypical small town with its conservative, right-wing, and narrow-minded attitudes is not the place where anti-Israelism is most prevalent. Small towns may be rife with racism, homophobia, and the older, more traditional kind of anti-Semitism, but in terms of the most up-to-date and in-fashion version—anti-Israelism—small towns are not its natural home. Part of what makes anti-Israelism (“the new anti-Semitism”) so confusing and challenging—especially for those of us Jews with progressive politics—is that anti-Israelism is far less prevalent among conservative right-wingers (such as the people in the small town stereotype), and most prevalent among left-wing (supposedly enlightened) people, including many intellectuals and academics. For this reason, urban centres—where the Left is concentrated—are the places most likely to serve as incubators for anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Israelism.
TK: In light of recent debates surrounding the lack of minority representation in Canadian publishing, do you think that writers could do more to stay politically informed and motivated when writing?
NG: Yes, definitely. I recently had a very surprising experience. An intelligent and quite well-known Canadian writer told me that until reading Fields of Exile, he hadn’t known about either anti-oppression or anti-Israelism. I could hardly believe it. To not know about anti-Israelism is one thing, but to not even know about anti-oppression seemed extreme.
From my point of view, I feel obligated, even though I am white, heterosexual, middle class, and able-bodied—or maybe because I am white, heterosexual, middle class, and able-bodied—to educate myself about racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and more. I see it as the responsibility of all Canadians—including writers—to do the same, and as part of this, to educate themselves about anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Israelism. It really isn’t difficult. One can make serious headway on this in just one day of reading. One place to start is my novel, Fields of Exile, which lays out all the main issues. Alternatively, there are hundreds of essays and articles on this topic.
In terms of writers being well-informed politically, I can always tell, when reading a book, whether or not the writer who wrote it has political/social awareness. It’s like that saying about love in a marriage: If it’s there you can’t hide it, and if it’s not there, you can’t fake it so it looks like it is. When a writer has social/political consciousness, it’s palpable in her or his work. And when it’s absent, this is just as palpable. I hope that in the next few years we will all see much more of the first kind of writing from our Canadian writers.
TK: Do you believe that writers have an obligation to engage with political discourse?
NG: Yes I do, if you mean “political discourse” in the broadest sense. I think that writers have an obligation to engage with the issues of their time and place, and to be aware of—and struggle against—the injustices and oppressions in their society. This obligation applies, of course, to all Canadians, but I think there is a particular onus on Canadian writers. We are privileged. Unlike writers in many other parts of the world, we are free to write whatever we want, safe from the risk of imprisonment or worse. As such, we have the potential, as public intellectuals, to help shape both Canadian society and the world around us. We must use, and not waste, this power.
TK: I often get the nagging feeling that our culture suffers from unwillingness or a lack of desire to engage. Do you think writers and readers have stopped believing in the power of literature to inspire real social change?
NG: I think many have. One of the responses to my novel, from the well-known American Jewish writer, Thane Rosenbaum, was very flattering but also surprising to me. He wrote that Fields of Exile restored his faith in the possibilities of the novel. I think this implies that he and many others have lost faith in the possibilities of the novel. They no longer believe that literature can accomplish anything in the real world. In fact, many writers actually believe that literature shouldn’t try to accomplish anything in the real world. They take the Oscar Wilde quotation, “All art is quite useless,” as a kind of credo. I don’t agree with that, of course.
TK: It seems like the definition of “engagement” has somehow been consumed by the idea of engaging somebody’s interest.
NG: Yes. You’re told to get a good opening for your story because that is what “engages” readers. Engagement as seduction, rather than participation or involvement. I think social engagement is very important. This isn’t surprising, since I’m both a writer and a social worker. I have one foot in each world. I enjoy many different kinds of writing, but I definitely respond deeply to fiction that has, at its core, some kind of social vision.
TK: You have an interesting point of view because you’re an academic and you’re also a writer. Do you think that post-secondary education has turned into something that’s more of a moneymaking cultural snare rather than something that really opens doors?
NG: I agree with you. The function and role of universities has definitely changed over the past couple of decades. When I was an undergrad, studying Liberal Arts was considered an important part not just of one’s intellectual development, but also of one’s personal development. I still look at it that way. So it concerns me greatly to hear people saying they can’t afford to study English literature, or any of the Humanities. Or even most of the Social Sciences now, because who can get a job anymore in Sociology or Anthropology? This is part of a real cultural crisis.
Another part of this crisis, of course, is the crisis in the publishing industry. There are many worrying aspects to this, but what I’m really concerned about is the writers. I have friends who are really good writers but can’t find publishers, and whose books may never see the light of day.
People say things to them like, “Just wait a decade or two until the publishing industry sorts itself out.” But what are they supposed to do, and what is going to happen to all this work in the meantime? This is why I started the online literary journal, Jewish Fiction.net. To make a space for at least some of the great fiction that’s at risk of getting lost during this transition period. Someone should do something similar for the fine Canadian works that haven’t yet found publishers in this difficult climate. These books should be on the high school readings lists across Canada and available to all Canadians.
TK: What’s stopping the Toronto District School Board from making the reading lists just Canadian? Then the children’s tastes will be developed according to our national canon. Working in a bookstore, I see how hard it is for Canadian writers to compete with the New York Times Bestsellers. Maybe deep down it makes booksellers sad, but they have to be pragmatic. Do we want to be in a bookstore and sell books? We need to sell what is popular. Things are popular because they’re from big publishing houses with big marketing teams.
NG: I know this is how it is. There was a time when Canadian books got priority in this country, but that time is past. At present, you can go into bookstores in Canada and find only a small percentage of Canadian books. And if our own bookstores aren’t promoting our writing, who is going to?
More broadly speaking, of course, the crisis in the publishing industry leads to all sorts of other questions. Aside from whether the industry will survive, will people even be reading twenty-five years from now? To me, it doesn’t matter whether people read online or in print, but I wonder how much longer there will be people who love reading literature.
TK: We’ve talked about Canadian literature as an industry and I want to know what it was like for you, creatively, to write your first novel? What were your biggest joys? The biggest challenges? How was that experience for you?
NG: There were many moments of joy in writing Fields of Exile, but overall it was difficult to write. I suppose it is usually difficult to write a first novel, but in this case it was also painful because of the subject matter. In addition, what was happening in the novel in terms of anti-Israelism was often paralleled by what was happening in real life at that time. I don’t know if you’ve been following the discussions at the Modern Language Association in the USA about whether to boycott Israel. When I was writing Fields of Exile, things like this would happen all the time, and sometimes I’d get involved. But other times I’d just say: I can’t, I have to have a boundary between real life and my novel. So all this added to the stress of writing Fields of Exile.
TK: Your novel has many sensual elements, such as the Shabbat dinners, and you balance the serious subject matter with playfulness. Could you discuss the motif of playing with language and why you included that in your book? Do you play with words in a similar way to Judith?
NG: Partly the playfulness with language in Fields of Exile was a way of getting myself, and the reader, through the hard parts of this book. For the same reason, there’s a lot of humour in this novel. There are some very difficult experiences that Judith endures, like the ones with the poster, the exhibit, and the comments in her classes, so some good things have to happen as well to—as you say—provide some balance. These include sexual pleasure, joking with her friends, pleasant memories and fantasies, and of course, word play.
About word play, yes, I do do that myself. My mind just works that way. But word play—like most kinds of play—is not just fun; it is also very serious. It brings Judith to realizations and insights she might not have reached any other way. This reminds me of one of my stories in Marrow and Other Stories called “The Prayer,” in which the main character makes up a nonsense rhyme. She does weird letter reversals between the words, and the “nonsense” rhyme that results, to her surprise, ends up being about the recent death of her husband. I think the mind does that. The unconscious tells us truths.
That being said, it is important not to overdo it with word play. Sometimes it seems shticky, like a writer is just trying to be clever. But the word play in Fields of Exile all happened very organically, and also helped propel the plot, so I think it works okay.
In addition to loving words, I love numbers—something Judith and I have in common. So on top of word play, Judith engages in word-and-number play in this novel, like when she invented the word-number game based on gematriya.
TK: I was really struck by the fact that Judith is constantly faced with a choice put before her, between Israel and work, Israel and Bobby, her one love for Israel and her other romantic love. For many years, our society has been saturated with the idea that a woman has to chose between her career and her “one true love” and I really like that even though she was faced with the choice, she still didn’t want to accept it. In the end, it’s like, “Why won’t you go with me? You love me, so let’s go.” Were you consciously trying to dismantle the dangerous construction of women’s choices as represented to us in the media?
NG: I don’t think I did this, or very much else in this novel, consciously. But I do think my feminism is so bred in the bone that inevitably this came out in my construction of Judith. It’s really terrible that—so many years into the feminist movement—many young women still feel they have to choose between love and career. I’m proud of Judith that she doesn’t choose to give up all her dreams in life just to keep her man. At the same time, I wanted to show how hard it is for her to give up Bobby. It’s a painful decision for her. What she feels is, “I really love this person, and maybe nothing better will come along, and am I making the right choice?”
Men, on the other hand, almost never have to make this choice. It’s frustrating for me to look at young women now, and see how in various ways things are so much better for them than they were for my generation; yet in so many other ways, nothing has changed at all. Even here in Canada where we are very privileged compared to women in other parts of the world. In so many places life is a horrific world for women. I guess we just have to keep on fighting.
Speaking of fighting, I got some disturbing feedback about Fields of Exile from someone at my book launch. This woman told me she loved my book but had one major concern: that the overall message is: “Don’t fight back because you’re going to get hurt.” I was horrified.
TK: That wasn’t my take.
NG: Really? Well, I’m very relieved to hear that. I certainly wasn’t saying with this novel: “Keep your mouth shut, keep your head down.” I really believe you have to fight for what you believe in. Of course, you have to be aware, if you’re going to fight for something, that there are risks. People shouldn’t be naïve about that.
TK: The point I took from it was that if you fight back, bad things might happen to you, but it’s worth it because without struggle nothing would ever change. It’s obvious, but fighting back isn’t something that is easy. People make a lot of comments about slacktivism/clicktivism—if you just post something on Facebook, are you really doing anything? I had an interesting experience with the book because at the beginning of the novel, I thought Judith was a little intense, a little radical, a little stubborn, and maybe that’s because I didn’t identify with her Zionism and I didn’t have that same kind of emotional connection to Israel as she did. But then by the end of the book, I realized: why would I think she’s radical? She’s doing something very simple: she’s standing up for what she believes. One can either have an impact or just always be talking about it. While I was weary of Judith’s zeal at first, that quality became increasingly admirable as I continued reading.
NG: That’s an interesting comment because actually Judith doesn’t act on her principles for the first 95 percent of this book, and this is something she feels guilty about. Bobby keeps telling her to keep her head down and just graduate, and even though she disagrees with him, it still takes her a long time to act. And even when she does, she doesn’t see it as coming from a place of courage; she thinks she just lost control of herself.
TK: I identified with Judith because I have a huge support system, I have parents, but if they died I’d have lots of student debt and nothing else. Do I follow my love? Do I go to business school just because everyone tells me that it’s the only degree worth it? No! But there has to be a middle ground, and it’s so hard to find. For example, I didn’t think the numerology motif was a shtick because sometimes you’re faced with a hard decision, and you’re trying to figure out the right thing to do. Sometimes things are just arbitrary. You look out the window and you say, “If a bird flies by right now, then …”
NG: You go into magical thinking. Actually, there’s research that shows that in the most challenging situations, when you’ve got all the data you need but still can’t make a decision, the best decision-making strategy is to rely on what used to be called intuition. A choice can come down to: “This person makes me feel alive, and this other person makes me feel dead,” and although you can’t rationally articulate it in exactly these terms, our intuition contains important knowledge and data that isn’t accessible to our rational minds. In other words, sometimes we know much more than we’re consciously aware of.
TK: You told me that the anti-Israelism in the novel developed after you initially wanted to write a satire of the academy. Was Judith your protagonist from the get-go? Or did she come into being as you were exploring those themes?
NG: I began to write this novel from the perspective of a professor, but then I changed the protagonist to a student, and at that point Judith was born. As for writing a satire, I learned pretty quickly that I’m not a satirist. I don’t have a satirist’s stance toward my characters. Anyway, as soon as Judith came along, I fell in love with her, and my idea of a satire flew out the window.
One thing that changed about Judith was that I made her stronger. Initially she was a more vulnerable, fragile type of person, and eventually this became a problem. I grew concerned that readers might think that Judith was too sensitive or overreacting to the events around her, and I didn’t want readers, on account of this, to be able to discount her experiences of anti-Semitism, or to think that maybe anti-Semitism isn’t all that serious. So I strengthened Judith. I still kept her a sensitive, introspective person, but I made her somewhat more robust emotionally.
This touches on what makes the experience of anti-Semitism different from that of racism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression: often when a Jew labels an anti-Semitic incident for what it is, s/he is told that s/he is being “too sensitive” or “overreacting.” I found this over and over in my research. Someone’s at a party and someone else tells an anti-Semitic joke or makes an anti-Semitic comment, and when the first person says, “Wait a second!” the response is, “You’re too sensitive. Don’t you have a sense of humour?” There’s a kind of gaslighting going on, like in that old 1940s movie. It’s a way of playing with people’s minds.
TK: “Too sensitive” presupposes there is a level of Jewish jokes or comments that are acceptable.
TK: What I liked about your characters is that you don’t go easy on them. Bobby has got his career down and is doing well, and it’s not easy. It’s hard for him to balance his work and his private life. Then you have Judith’s friend who is bulimic and it’s another moment where you realize that it’s not just sixteen-year-olds who have eating disorders. Adult women have these problems and I like that nobody seemed two-dimensional; there were so many thirty-year-olds and they were all different. They all had such different concerns. It’s a refreshing way of writing about schools, but not necessarily from the fresh-out-of-high-school point of view. I like that the novel portrays what it’s like to be an adult in school, and I don’t think a lot of people write or think about that.
NG: Thanks. Yes, being an adult student is unique. It is, in so many ways, a very infantilizing context, and there’s such a power imbalance between professors and students. Often adult students really regress. I think Judith’s idealization of Suzy is part of that whole dynamic. Reinforced, as well, by the fact that Suzy is the same physical type as her mother.
TK: At the very beginning of the novel, during her first classes, Judith loves the attention and respect from Suzy, and obviously that starts to unravel. She sees that Suzy doesn’t have the perfect life and that she made some unexpected choices.
NG: Yes. There is a lot in this book about the difference between appearances and reality. Judith gradually begins to see Suzy more clearly. But it’s important that, despite what happens, Judith doesn’t give up on the world.
TK: That’s a good way to lead in to our last question. You are always juggling writing, editing, and activism, and it’s really impressive. I’m very excited about the Wonderful Women Writer Series. I went to the first event and really enjoyed myself. For people who haven’t heard about it before, or for those who are interested in a safe space for female writers, could you tell us about how it got started and what your plans are for it?
NG: I’ve been associated with the Centre for Women Studies in Education since January 2000, when I left my full-time academic position. I’m an Associate Scholar there, which I enjoy. But nowadays I’m a full time writer rather than an academic. So when I was recently approached and asked if I would be the Centre’s first writer-in-residence, I was very interested. There are various models for writers-in-residence, and I proposed as my primary contribution the promotion of other writers through a feminist reading series. There was great enthusiasm for this idea, so I started the Wonderful Women Writers series. We’ve now had our first three events and they were all very successful.
This centre is really very special. I can’t think of too many places where I could have made such a smooth and happy transition from academic life to a literary life. I’m very grateful.
Tracy Kyncl is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s MA program in English Literature, where she also received her BA (summa cum laude). Her poetry has been published in the 2012 and 2014 Hart House Review and she served as the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief during the 2013 academic year. During her BA, she received the Ted Chamberlin and Lorna Goodison Prize in Poetry, the Walter O’Grady Undergraduate Scholarship in Eighteenth-Century Literature, and was the first ever recipient of the Moriyama Gold Medal. Currently she is the Head of Public Relations and a Staff Writer for The Puritan. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The Puritan and on The Town Crier.