Fields of Exile
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Nora Gold
Background to this excerpt: It’s 2002. Judith, who is 33 years old, lived in Israel for ten years and came back to Toronto last year to care for her dying father. On his deathbed three months ago, he asked her to promise that she wouldn't return to Israel immediately after he died, but that she'd stay in Toronto and get a one-year Master's degree, so she could “stand on her own two feet.” Judith agreed, even though she longed to return to Israel as soon as possible. Today was her first day of school (Orientation Day), and she is now in her father’s old car, driving home from Dunhill University.
Judith puts in her favourite tape, Israel at Forty. She listens to a line or two of “The Honey and the Bee Sting,” and then starts singing along, loudly, whole-heartedly, in Hebrew, in the privacy of her car. She knows every word of this song and of every song on this tape — she has sung them year after year with her friends at Yechiel and Miri’s annual Independence Day sing-song — and when it comes to the chorus of this one,
Please, good Lord,
Preserve all these.
The honey and the bee sting,
The bitter and the sweet,
she feels like she’s singing it together with them, no longer alone in her car in Canada, in exile (in galut).
But then the song ends, the car is silent while she flips the tape, and maybe because she is alone, and in galut, the words of this song now strike her as odd. She wonders who would want to preserve the bitter parts of life along with the sweet? Who would pray to God asking for that? And why, if you want a bit of honey in your tea, should you first have to suffer the pain of a bee sting? Is this what we in Israel have come to believe now? That we only deserve to be happy, or to live, if first we count out x number of pain tokens per year, like poker chips, to pay to God? That’s sick. It’s like domestic violence — like letting someone beat you so you can have his “love.”
She does understand, though, all those battered women who stay with their men. Because her love for Israel is something like that. Unconditional. The way many people love their family members. You know all their faults, but still you love them. There are things about Israel she can’t stand. At the top of the list, the occupation, and this government’s treatment of Palestinians. (Another definition of domestic violence: domestic policies that are violent.) But it doesn’t matter: Israel is her love. I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.
One of her boyfriends in Israel, Micah, once joked that Israel was the only real love in her life. Recalling this now, she knows it is basically true. She has loved various men, just as she currently loves Bobby. But nothing has ever come close to her passion for Israel. Israel was her first love, and it’s the love of her life. Only there has she ever felt fully alive or at home. She never felt at home in her parents’ house. It wasn’t a “bad” home, or anything like that. There was nothing particularly wrong with her family. Her parents loved her. But they were both busy running their little dry goods store, and for as long as she could remember she’d let herself into a silent, empty house after school. When her parents finally did come home at seven-thirty, they were tired after being on their feet for twelve hours, serving customers. There was a quick supper, and she did homework while her mother did housework and her father paid bills. Her parents always had more to do than there was time for. And her mother was short-tempered and given to moods.
But then Judith found Israel. The summer she was twelve she went to a Zionist summer camp, and after that she never felt that loneliness again. She was part of something larger than herself. Her life had meaning and purpose. But not in just a dutiful way. Rather in the way that life has meaning and purpose when you’re in love. She fell in love with Israel. With its soul, but also — a few years later, on her first visit — with its body. She loved this country’s red earth, its mountain-deserts, streams, forests, birds, fish, and flowers. She loved the star-studded night sky, with its sliver of moon lying horizontally on the bottom like a cradle, instead of standing vertically, like in Canada. She even loved the air in Israel and the water — including the salt-heavy water of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. In Canada she’d always found geography and history boring, scoring low on her high-school leaving exams in both these subjects. But in Israel she was fascinated by every mountain range, by every excavated tell or Biblical battlefield. Because it was hers. It was about her people, and it told the story of what had happened to them, and therefore to her.
One morning, on one of the many nature-and-archaeology trips she took with the Israeli Nature Protection Society, she awakened in her sleeping bag on the cold desert sand near Timna, the location of King Solomon’s mines, and also a modern reconstruction of the Israelites’ tabernacle during their forty-year desert journey. Everyone else in the group was still asleep, their sleeping bags dotting the desert floor like multicoloured rocks, and she watched the mountains gradually turn visible in the early morning light, until the whole valley was bathed in a strange grey-yellow haze. Nothing else seemed awake, or even alive, except her and an ibex, its horn arced backwards, staring at her. She followed it. After ten minutes, she abruptly stopped walking. The sun, a brilliant orange, illuminated the mountain before her, making it radiate in the sun, and the whole world was perfectly silent and still. Suspended, as if waiting for something. Feeling rather foolish, she said, “I promise.” She didn’t know exactly what she was promising, she couldn’t have articulated it if you’d asked her. But she had promised herself to this land.
Of course, she’s never told anyone about this. It would have sounded too corny — ridiculous even. Who wouldn’t laugh at a too-earnest pretty young woman swearing herself to a desert at dawn? No one, she thinks now as she drives. But from that point on, her life — as if with a will of its own — bent in a new direction. That glowing throbbing orange of a vow sat in the centre of her like a hot coal she had swallowed, burning and transforming her all the way down. Nothing mattered to her anymore except taking her place in Jewish history and on Jewish geography. Coincidentally, her cousin wrote her around then that history and geography were now being taught together in Canadian high schools under the heading Social Sciences, which felt exactly right to Judith. All she wanted to do at this point was to help realize the Zionist dream. To come home again after two thousand years of exile — of galut, which she noticed laughingly back then, rhymed with dissolute and pollute. To rebuild the land, and on it to reunite all the Jews scattered and in exile from every corner of the globe. As soon as she knew this was what she wanted, she found herself in a circle of young people like herself — Zionist dreamers, new immigrants from everywhere: the United States, England, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Russia, France, Switzerland, Italy, Finland, Holland, Algeria, Morocco, India, Ethiopia, even China. She learned scraps of a dozen new languages, heard music and tasted foods she’d never encountered in Canada. It’s ironic, she wrote then to her father, newly a widower. I was afraid living in a Jewish state would seem culturally narrow and parochial after Canada. But here I’m for the first time living a truly multicultural life.
Two months later
Judith’s teacher, Greg, says, “Okay, here we are halfway through ‘Introduction to Social Justice.’ Last class, we completed the first module of this course: Intersecting Oppressions and Social Justice (and Injustice) in Canada. So before moving on, let’s do a brief recap of what we’ve covered till now. First, we showed how race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ageism, and ableism all interact to oppress Canada’s most vulnerable and marginalized citizens, thus keeping this segment of the population — Canada’s underclass, in essence — in its place …”
Judith has heard all this before — every week, in fact — and doesn’t feel like hearing it again. She looks around the class. Some of the faces of her classmates, as they listen raptly to Greg, remind her of the baby animals in the early Disney films, like Bambi or Chip ’n’ Dale: wide-eyed, innocent, and adoring. Greg continues talking without saying anything new, and only half-listening, she doodles happily, filling two pages with drawings of humans, animals, and creatures that are part-animal and part-human. She draws a half-human-half-chipmunk. A half-human-half-deer. A half-human-half-chicken. Just as she’s completing a half-human-half-bird, she hears Greg winding up his review and dismissing them for a break. After they return, knowing Greg will introduce some new material now, she gives him her full attention.
“Okay,” says Greg. “So now I’d like to move beyond the borders of Canada and into the global context. Here the question becomes: How do the same oppressions and social injustices that we’ve been talking about manifest themselves outside of Canada? How do they play themselves out in the international arena? I have my own ideas, obviously. But first I’d like to hear what you think. Like when you feel concerned about oppression or social injustice around the world, what places come to mind?”
Uh-oh, thinks Judith. Uh-oh.
“Also, when you pick a country,” Greg continues, “ask yourselves why there is oppression there. What social structures and policies in these countries make it possible for these abuses and injustices to occur? When you reflect on oppression, think, of course, about racism, classism, sexism, all of the ‘isms.’ But I also want you to include political oppression, where citizens’ human or civil rights are violated on a regular basis. This may not involve, or be directed against, a country’s whole citizenry; maybe just against certain segments of it. Perhaps groups that are ethnically or religiously different from the majority, or from the government.”
Oh, shit. Don’t let them start on Israel.
A couple of hands wave in the air. Greg points to one on the right side of the room.
“I’d say China,” says Mike.
Judith is so relieved she wants to laugh. Greg asks Mike to elaborate. It turns out that Mike’s sister has lived in China for the past five years, so he knows what’s happening there. He talks volubly about the Chinese government’s stifling of political dissent, its control and censorship of the media, the multiple abuses of human and civil rights ever since Tiananmen Square, and how even today people are often arrested for no reason and held indefinitely without trial.
Greg nods gravely throughout. He thanks Mike, and points to another student.
“Palestine,” says Kerry.
Judith has been thinking, Don’t say Israel, Don’t say Israel, so it takes her a second to grasp that Kerry has just said Israel. Meanwhile Kerry — whose squishy face looks like someone simultaneously pressed down on her scalp and up on her chin — has begun explaining her choice without any prompting from Greg.
“Because Israel is the most oppressive country in the world today. Israel is just like South Africa used to be before the indigenous people took it back. The Jews stole the land of Palestine away from the Palestinian people, and under this illegal and immoral occupation, the Palestinians are treated like second-class citizens without any civil or human rights. This situation is perpetuated by the social, economic, and military policies of Zionist imperialism and colonialism, which are supported by the international Jewish lobby, which controls the media and the banks, and also by the American government, which itself is imperialist and colonialist. Together American and Zionist interests effectively oppress and subjugate the Palestinian people. Just like people of colour, who have been oppressed and exploited both in the United States and South Africa. So it’s no coincidence that, after the U.S., South Africa is Israel’s closest ally and trading partner.”
Not true! thinks Judith, her heart pounding. She knows that nothing she just heard is true, but she can’t speak and she can’t formulate anything clearer than No! Not true! because she’s in shock. She was aware, of course, that there were people who believed this stuff, but she’s never before heard it said out loud in her presence. She feels like someone has kicked her in the stomach. Through a haze, she sees that Kerry has finished speaking and is proud of herself, and a number of other students are giving her a thumbs-up, including Tyler. Judith doesn’t know Kerry very well — she just lent her a pen once when Kerry’s pen started leaking — but she’s never struck Judith as particularly bright. Yet her little speech came out in perfect, pre-fab sentences, like something handed to her to memorize, a sort of catechism. As she stares at Kerry’s ugly, squishy face, Judith seems to have stopped breathing. The whole world seems to have stopped breathing. All she’s doing now is waiting. Waiting for Greg to speak. To say what needs to be said. The way he did a few weeks ago in class when Miguel admitted he is uncomfortable around gay people, and Greg responded by “putting Miguel’s feelings into social perspective.” He reminded them all how in this society we are taught to hate people who are gay, lesbian, bi, and trans, or at least to feel uncomfortable with them and experience them as “Other.” So Miguel’s reaction to GLBTs was not merely a personal, individual one, but a socially constructed response, which we must view critically, and challenge in ourselves and others whenever we encounter it.
Judith waits, sure that Greg will do the same thing again now. He will put Kerry’s comments into social perspective. He will challenge her “facts” and assumptions, including the idea of a “Jewish lobby.” He’ll talk about the limitations of the anti-oppression paradigm, and how black/white analogies from the United States or South Africa are not accurate regarding the Middle East. She is sure Greg won’t let this pass. She looks at him expectantly, waiting for him to say what she is unable to, having become frozen and mute.
But Greg doesn’t say a word. He just nods at Kerry as he nodded at Mike, and asks the class if there are any other places they’d like to mention. There’s silence. This can’t be happening, she thinks. He’s got to say something. The silence continues, so Greg calls on two students who previously had their hands up, but they both shake their heads: they, like Kerry, wanted to say Israel. Then, just as Greg looks like he’s about to start lecturing again, Genya raises her hand and says that she sees Afghanistan as an oppressive country because of its treatment — or, should she say, mistreatment — of women. “Even women with college degrees are no longer allowed to drive cars and can’t leave home unless accompanied by a male relative. Not to mention,” says Genya, “being covered from head to toe as if your body were a thing of filth that needed to be hidden.”
Unexpectedly Greg smiles, and his eyes gleam. “Now, this is very interesting,” he says. “What do you all think about what Genya just said?”
Judith is confused. She doesn’t understand why Greg is smiling. And she is still waiting for him to say something in response to Kerry. As if through a fog, she hears someone agreeing with Genya and then Greg saying, “Ah. But let’s think a little more about this.”
Now Greg explains that the challenge in respectfully relating to other cultures is precisely that they often hold values that conflict with ours, even values we hold very dear, like women’s rights. “So we have to work very hard,” he says, “not to be ethnocentric. After all, if other cultures’ values didn’t conflict with ours, then it wouldn’t be challenging to work cross-culturally, or ‘across difference.’ This is exactly the nature of the challenge. So if this is their culture in Afghanistan, who are we to tell them that they are wrong in how they regard and treat their women? Where do we come off saying that they don’t meet the standards of our Western culture on this issue? Furthermore, we have to be very careful not to be influenced, or even manipulated, by all the post-9/11 hysteria in the United States, that in many obvious and subtle ways is fostering Islamophobia around the world. Which, of course, is just another form of racism and oppression.”
Judith is having trouble breathing now. She can’t have understood this correctly. That Afghanistan is deserving of indulgence, tolerance, and cross-cultural respect for its diversity, even though it has virtually enslaved all of its women, but Israel is not. Israel is an evil empire, and Afghanistan is okay. I must have misunderstood, she thinks, as the room swims around her. This is Greg. This is Greg’s class, “Introduction to Social Justice.” A safe place to learn together — he told them on the first day of class — where all individuals and collectivities are respected, and no one gets trivialized or marginalized.
Greg is still talking but she can’t hear him anymore. She is feeling herself disappear. She feels herself getting smaller and smaller, her insides leaking out of her like the ink from a broken pen, until there is nothing left in her. She is not real now, she’s just a shell. But no, there is one thing left inside her: a wind. A wind blowing around and around, forming itself into a tornado. Like the tornado in Munch’s painting. A tornado that is a scream. And in the middle of her scream, there is only one word.