The novelist and psychologist on the incident that inspired her new book, the impact of cultural boycotts and why she can’t leave her homeland
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is an Israeli novelist, screenwriter and psychologist. Her debut novel, One Night, Markovitch, won the Sapir prize for debut fiction – Israel’s Man Booker – and her second, Waking Lions, is already a German bestseller. She has also worked for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
The catalyst for the drama in Waking Lions is a rich, Jewish doctor running over an Eritrean refugee and deciding to flee the scene. Where did that idea come from?
When I was backpacking in India, I met an Israeli guy who’d run over a local Indian and didn’t stop. When he told me this I thought there’s no way he wouldn’t have stopped if he’d hit me – an Israeli woman, the same age as him. But when somebody looks different and you’re certain nobody has seen – I wanted the reader to ask if they’re sure they wouldn’t do the same.
There’s a biblical sensibility to Waking Lions; it reads like a modern morality tale about guilt, penance and displaced people.
Absolutely. The refugees who are walking from Eritrea to Israel these days are walking the exact same road that the people of Israel walked when they left Sinai for the promised land. But now we, the Jewish people, are the gatekeepers. This is something that haunted me as I sat down to write the novel.
There’s a sense in the novel that the Eritrean refugees are almost invisible to the privileged Israelis.
Exactly. These refugees are completely unseen. The people who take your bags in the supermarket, the people who clean your table in the restaurant: they’re next to us but we don’t bother to look at them. And this is really the story of Jewish history: of being unseen.
One of the novel’s themes is that there are no cultural differences in human suffering. Do you think that empathy is missing from contemporary debates around immigration?
I think it’s hard to have empathy with people who don’t look like you. And I think we [Israelis] tend to forget that we are a nation of refugees. I think we see them as an economical threat, but we don’t really see them as people escaping for their lives.
What changes would you like to see in Israeli government policy towards refugees?
Right now, Israel gives the definition of a refugee to less than 1% of people knocking at our door from Eritrea. And what they usually say is that we can’t have all of Africa coming here. But there are a lot of numbers between 1% and 100%. It has to be more than 1%.
You’ve said previously that for people to have kept praying for the establishment of Israel, they needed “a big hope or a big insanity”. Which do you think it was?
You can’t long for something for 2,000 years and then suddenly have it and not go a little bit crazy. I still have hope but I think it’s insane to raise my kids here.
Continue reading the article here (Original posted in The Guardian)