Fields of Exile
By Nora Gold
University campuses are often the frontlines of the movement to delegitimize the State of Israel and, while no government – including Israel’s – should ever be above criticism, we’ve seen many attacks on Israel, often falsely couched in the language of peace and human rights, that are nothing but thinly veiled examples of what has emerged as a new form of anti-Semitism.
In Fields of Exile, novelist Nora Gold – a former professor of social work at McMaster University and now an associate scholar at the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto – examines the effect of the anti-Israel movement on a liberal, Jewish grad student temporarily back in Canada after a decade in Israel.
Judith Gallanter grew up in Toronto’s Jewish community and made aliyah to Israel in her early-20s. In Israel, she worked short-term contracts as a social worker and was a committed leftist active in peace, civil rights and Jewish-Arab dialogue groups promoting the two-state solution.
As the story begins, it is 2000, around the time the Second Intifada flared up, and Judith has returned to Canada to care for her dying father. She also rekindles her romance with Bobby, a Jewish former boyfriend who is now a Toronto lawyer.
As her father dies, she promises him that she’ll stay for a school year and earn her master’s degree in social work. She applies to Dunhill University, a (fictional) school just outside Toronto and is accepted into its MSW program. Despite Bobby’s hopes that they’ll get married and live in Toronto, Judith considers Israel her home and plans to return as soon as she earns her degree. In Canada, she considers herself to be living in exile.
Things look promising as Judith settles into her program at Dunhill. She seems to make friends easily with both fellow students and her professors – and becomes particularly close with Suzy, one of her younger professors. Suzy chairs the school’s anti-oppression committee and invites Judith to be her co-chair.
Judith does well in the fall semester, acing her courses and becoming a star student in the MSW program. The relationship with Suzy continues to deepen over their regular dinners in advance of the weekly anti-oppression committee meetings. However, things begin to unravel when the subject of Israel comes up in her classes and she is subjected to the kind of anti-Israel – and sometimes anti-Semitic – rhetoric that has become common on university campuses.
Things really start to fall apart for Judith when several members of the anti-oppression committee propose that an anti-Israel activist known for anti-Semitic rhetoric and for supporting Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians be the featured speaker at Dunhill’s annual Anti-Oppression Day.
Expecting Suzy to back up her efforts to defeat the motion to bring in the speaker, she is devastated when the professor she thought was her friend sells her out and cruelly turns against her.
While Judith had been a peace and pro-Palestinian-state activist in Israel, to the anti-Zionists at Dunhill, she was just another Jewish colonialist.
Although the anti-Israel movement in 2000 had yet to develop its BDS and Israeli apartheid tactics, campus events such as Dunhill’s Anti-Oppression Day can certainly be seen as earlier manifestations or prototypes for them. In Fields of Exile – apparently the first novel to deal with contemporary anti-Zionism on campus – Gold skilfully captures the conflicts and, indeed, the bigotry, which many Jewish and other pro-Israel students face in today’s university climate. At the same time, she develops protagonist Judith as a complex character, caught between life and love where she grew up and the country she now feels is home.