by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, March 12, 2018 — In an exclusive Los Angeles engagement at UCLA, Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen spoke at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies about her latest novel, “Waking Lions,” which was selected by The New York Times for its “100 Notable Books for 2017” list. The February 22nd event was cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, department of Near Eastern languages and cultures, department of comparative literature and the nonprofit organization, Writers Bloc Presents.
In the novel, a respected Israeli doctor hits an Eritrean refugee with his car and then abandons the man’s body on the side of the road. The refugee’s wife shows up at his door the next day to blackmail him.
Among other topics, the author discussed the need to depict her characters are they really are, including their misogynistic and racist tendencies, because such characters are a reality in Israel. She also noted the complexity of the refugee issue in the country, given its history, and the irony of Israel’s reversal from being a nation of refugees to being a nation that refuses refugees.
Human flaws are the subject of fiction
“Psychology and writing drive from the same essential desire to understand human motivation,” said Gundar-Goshen, who works as a clinical psychologist in Tel Aviv and teaches psychology at Tel Aviv University and the Holon Institute of Technology.
“You can't judge your patient, much like you can't judge your protagonists. You simply seek to understand them,” she said. “After writing the doctor, Eitan, I felt that I better understood how modern Israel conceives of itself: as the ‘good guys’ in history.
“My novel wouldn’t be an accurate commentary on mainstream Israeli society, which this character in particular is meant to represent, if I wrote this man without sin,” remarked Gundar-Goshen.
“When you write a novel, you have to depict people as they are, not as they should be.…[O]ne of Eitan’s sins is that he doesn’t think of himself as a racist," she continued. "None of us think of ourselves as racist. But I wanted to reveal the inner racist that each one of us has inside… you have to write about it.
It's dangerous, argued the author, to treat literature like soap that cleans people from dark thoughts and inner sexism, inner racism and bigotry.
In one of the many twists in the novel, the Eritrean hit-and-run victim is revealed as a violent man who beat his wife, Sirkit. His death allows her to escape from her marriage and find unknown power and agency.
‘Waking Lions’ in all walks of life
“I named the book ‘Waking Lions’ because I like the idea of a hidden predator as a metaphor for Israel,” commented Gundar-Goshen. “I think that Israelis never think of ourselves as lions, we think of ourselves as victims — as victims of history and politics, which for many years was the truth. But we never think of ourselves as the predator,” she said, “even with the privilege Israel holds today.”
“Much like Israeli society at large, Eitan doesn't think of himself as privileged because he’s a white man and he doesn’t like this rhetoric,” observed the author. “But when the car accident occurs, he's suddenly faced with his undeniable power and privilege.
“The truth is that not only can he kill someone, he's totally capable of getting away with it,” she continued. “Similarly, Sirkit, the hit-and-run victim’s wife and an Eritrean refugee, moves from a desperate position with little influence in society to holding extreme power over a privileged doctor through blackmail.
The novel explores the question, said Gundar-Goshen, "When you suddenly gain power, what will you do with it?... I’m fascinated by these two cases of a lion being awakened.”
From refugees to gatekeepers
The author addressed the current situation of African refugees in Israel, pointing out the particular moral dimensions of the issue for Israel. “Israelis know what it means to escape war, to knock on the doors of every possible country asking to be let in,” said Gundar-Goshen. “We know what happens when countries don't open their gates and send people back where they came from.
“As an Israeli and the granddaughter of refugees, I think it's history's irony that now we are the gatekeepers of a promised land,” she continued. “Now Israel is facing people walking the same journey that our ancestors walked. None of this is metaphorical — people are physically walking the same road that the biblical Israelites walked in their exodus from Egypt to Israel,” she pointed out.
“Right now we have 38,000 people who fled Eritrea and Sudan living in Israel. They want to be recognized as refugees, but Israel doesn't acknowledge them,” said Gundar-Goshen.
Eritrean asylum seekers stage a demonstration in Levinsky park, Tel Aviv, Israel.
(Photo: Rudychaimg via Wikimedia Commons, 2014. CC-BY-SA 4.0.)
“The state has closed all but one of the bureaus where potential refugees can submit requests to change their legal status and that office is only open two hours a day,” she explained. “Israel uses bureaucracy to prevent potential refugees from physically handing in the necessary paperwork. Of those who do apply, less than one percent are granted legal refugee status. There must be some sort of more realistic or compassionate compromise,” she said.
She then took her country to task. “Israel is not just about waving a flag. It's about being part of a Jewish nation which you can to be proud of. Accepting less than one percent of refugees seeking asylum is not something to be proud of,” Gundar-Goshen insisted.
“Maybe after spending so many years in conflict and picturing ourselves as the weaker, wronged party, Israelis now choose blindness,” she conjectured. “We refuse to see the situation as dynamic, as more complex than right and wrong. We keep painting ourselves as the victims, but maybe we're missing something. Maybe we're missing what we're doing to other people,” she remarked.
The power of literature
“In Israel, the [political] right paints refugees and Palestinians as the ultimate evil, while the left portrays them as helpless victims with no agency,” commented Gundar-Goshen. “Neither of these narratives is adequate when describing real, multifaceted people,” she said. “We need more depictions of the unseen members of Israeli society in Israeli fiction.”
In fact, she noted, a recent governmental decision affirmed the power of literature. “The Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett banned a novel about a love affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from school curriculums,” explained the author.
“I was concerned… about what this meant for the future of my country,” she continued. “More harm is done by moral indifference than by actual intention — banning books like this one fosters the most damaging, ignorant indifference of all,” she remarked.
Nevertheless, Gundar-Goshen found hope in the comments of an Israeli editor on the decision. “She said, 'I think the ban is really optimistic. This means Naftali Bennett genuinely thinks that a book can change the world,’” recounted the author.
“I agree with this,” she affirmed. “I’m proud to be Israeli because there's a diversity of voices in my country, voices which have the power to sway public opinion. So Bennett can continue to try and ban books, but all it means is that literature can and will change the world,” she concluded.