Pursuing Justice in Israeli Novels

By Robin Jacobson.

On his office wall, a lawyer friend has a striking contemporary art print of the classic biblical text, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” But is it always clear what justice is? Some Israeli novelists seem skeptical. For a deep dive into the wells of moral ambiguity, try Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Judas by Amos Oz, and Two She-Bears by Meir Shalev (all newly translated into English and in our library). Here is a preview.

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

In the opening scene of this gripping novel, Dr. Eitan Green, exhausted from a night shift at a Beersheva hospital, releases stress by racing his SUV down a desert road. To his horror, he hits a man – an African immigrant – who is so gravely injured that Eitan concludes he is beyond medical help. In the next instant, Eitan considers the havoc this reckless accident could wreak on his career and family and decides to “save himself,” since he can’t save the victim. He drives away.

But Eitan doesn’t escape responsibility. Sirkit, the widow of the dead man, tracks Eitan down through the wallet he inadvertently dropped by her husband’s body. Sirkit offers a deal. She will remain silent about the hit-and-run if Eitan provides nighttime medical care to illegal African immigrants. Trapped, Eitan agrees and begins a double life, lying to his wife, children, and employer about his evening activities. Sirkit has her own guilty secrets, as do many of the characters. There are no heroes in this unusual and provocative book.

Judas by Amos Oz

Set in Jerusalem in the winter of 1959-60, this novel presents uncommon ideas through the interactions of three Israeli characters of different generations who share a house, drink tea, and talk. Shmuel Ash is a graduate school dropout, newly hired by Atalia Abravenel, a 45-year-old widow, as a live-in companion for her intellectual father-in-law, Gershon Wald.

The house holds a painful history. Wald and Atalia’s late father, Shealtiel Abravanel, were ardent Zionists. But in the late 1940s, the men clashed. Wald supported statehood; Abravanel opposed it, believing Jews and Arabs would live more peacefully in a non-nationalistic entity. For his idealistic views, Abravanel was expelled from his positions of Zionist leadership and branded a traitor. Then Wald’s son (who was married to Atalia) died in Israel’s War of Independence, which made the abstract disagreement tragically real.

To Shmuel, whose unfinished master’s thesis was on “Jewish Views of Jesus,” Abravanel resembles Judas, the supposed betrayer of Jesus vilified in Christianity. Shmuel contends that Judas was actually loyal to Jesus, just as Abravanel, another supposed betrayer, was loyal to Zionist ideals. There are echoes of the novelist’s life story here; some Israelis have called Oz a traitor for opposing government policies.

Two She-Bears by Meir Shalev

This is a tale of love, honor, and revenge over several generations of a family living on a moshava, an Israeli agricultural settlement. Ze’ev, the patriarch, came to the moshava, according to family lore, with “a rifle, a cow, a tree, and a woman.” He married the woman and killed her lover with the rifle. That was the first of two terrible, seemingly unforgivable murders Ze’ev committed. Yet there is good in Ze’ev; he lovingly raises his grandchildren after their mother abandons them. In the next generation, when Ze’ev’s great-grandson dies of snakebite on a father-son camping trip, Ze’ev is the only one who understands how to help the guilt-ridden father, Eitan. Twelve years later, Ze’ev is killed, and Eitan embarks on a journey of revenge, bringing the story full circle.