Israeli Author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen Tackles Racism in New Novel

That Ayelet Gundar-Goshen and I meet personally in a therapy space is only logical. In all her novels, the writer takes her readers to places in the human psyche where it hurts. Reading her novels, you sort of lie down on her couch and ask yourself questions: How would I act if I ran over a fugitive? Is revenge legitimate? Or even: How well do I know my own children? What are they capable of?

Gundar-Goshen works as a psychotherapist in Tel Aviv and writes books in her spare time. The author, who is in her late 30s, has now published four novels — all with great success in several languages.

Her new novel Relocation (which has not yet been published in English) centres around Lilach, an Israeli who has lived in the US with her husband since their son was born. Adam is now a teenager, but the Schusters are still not real Americans.

As much as Lilach wants to rid herself of her Israeli identity, she cannot. This becomes all the more evident when an attack occurs at the Jewish synagogue in Palo Alto, California, where the family lives. A girl — approximately Adam’s age — is killed. After the antisemitic act, another Israeli from the neighbourhood starts a self-defense group, which becomes a source of identification for Adam, who until then had been shy and unathletic.

Adam suddenly sees himself first and foremost as an Israeli and a Jew who wants to defend himself against possible attacks. His mother barely recognises him.

Are my kids happy? And do they make others happy?

“Our children are the biggest mysteries in our lives,” said Gundar-Goshen. “We see them through the veils like this curtain in the clinic here that keeps us from seeing the ugly parts.”

“In today’s culture, it’s all about we want our children to be happy, it’s not about we want them to be a good person. We want them to feel good, not to be good and I think this is something that changed through the generations,” the novelist said.

These children are no longer being groomed to follow a specific ideology or worldview, she says.

“In the past, parents wanted their kids to be good communists or good Kibbutzniks or maybe good fascists or good Nazis. Today, it’s individualism and we want them to feel good.”

But individualism poses risks, says Gundar-Goshen. “We rarely ask ourselves: Could it be that my child is harming others? Is my child making other people happy or am I only concerned about him feeling good about himself?”

These are the fundamental questions that Lilach poses to herself in the weeks after one of Adam’s fellow pupils is found dead at a party — especially after discovering that this kid had bullied her son, and Adam hated him for it.

Lilach begins an investigation of her own in the face of police apathy. Jamal, the dead boy, was Black. And tales are spun that he had taken drugs. While Adam belongs to the wealthy families of Silicon Valley, Jamal only came to the school in the posh district of Palo Alto through a social program.

The novel is clearly an examination of the major themes of antisemitism and the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet Gundar-Goshen’s goes deeper than mere politically correct moralising. The Black boy is by no means simply “the poor good kid.” He blackmailed and stole from Adam.

The characters are complex. Reality is complicated and there are no simple truths.

A complex theme: Antisemitism

This is also true concerning antisemitism: When “The Jew killed him” is smeared in large letters at the kids’ school, Lilach herself ponders whether her son could have killed Jamal.

“What I hate the most about the current atmosphere is the idea that if you write a novel today, you are not supposed to say anything that sounds racist or antisemitic or anti-women,” Gundar-Goshen said. “It is making a complete mess about what is a discourse.”

“If people tell me this is what we shouldn’t talk about, as a psychotherapist, this is exactly where I want to go,” she added. “The idea that we can’t criticise Jews because it might be antisemitism — of course we can criticise Jews, and it won’t necessarily be antisemitic, or the idea that we can’t say anything about race because it’s too explosive. If we think that it is explosive, it’s exactly why we should talk about it.”

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen deliberately breaks taboos. That was also true of her previous novels.

As the “Me Too” movement was underway, Gundar-Goshen’s The Liar told the story of a young girl who reports to the police that she was raped by a famous singer — when all he had done was to verbally humiliate her.

The protagonist in Gundar-Goshen’s novel Waking Lions, a doctor in the Negev Desert, runs over an Eritrean refugee — and commits a hit-and-run. But the fugitive’s wife has witnessed the deed and begins to blackmail the doctor.

Critical, yet Israel remains home

Aside from her novels, Gundar-Goshen is outspoken. On several occasions in the past, she has sharply criticised the Israeli government’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The recent escalation between Israel and Gaza has worried her as a writer, and as a mother.

“The idea that I am raising children that wake up in the middle of the night because they hear missiles falling,” the novelist said. “But at the same time, I don’t only think about my own children but about the mothers in Gaza and about their children.”

“Everyone in Israel is so happy about things getting back to normal and going to restaurants and so on as if nothing happened and I think this idea of getting back to normal is crazy,” she said. “The idea in Tel Aviv that we feel that this is normal — this is crazy.”

Like her protagonist Lilach in Relocation, the author also lived in California, but only for one year. However, unlike Lilach — who is called “Lila” by her American friends because they can’t pronounce her name — Gundar-Goshen realised all the more while abroad how much she feels like an Israeli.

“It was almost ideal — not looking all the time for a potential threat, not fearing terror attacks or missiles from Gaza any minute,” the author reflects about her time in the US. “It was a completely different existence than in Tel Aviv.”

“But on the other hand, I was relieved when I came back because I am very rooted in Hebrew and in the Israeli culture, even if I criticise this culture and the politics,” she said. “This is my home.”

Featured image: Tal Shahar/DW