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Israeli Immigration Thriller Becomes Global Sensation

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s suspenseful new ‘Waking Lions’ turns the fateful collision of an Israeli doctor and an African immigrant into an indictment of surging nationalism

Adam Kirsch
February 22, 2017
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The economic success of the state of Israel has come at a cost. For all its problems, Israel is an island of wealth and stability compared to its neighbors—which means that it has become a favorite destination for immigrants. Over the last 10 years, more than 50,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan have made the difficult journey through Egypt and over the border. This has given rise to a debate over illegal immigration that raises thorny issues about sovereignty, identity, and xenophobia. Many Israelis want the immigrants expelled, seeing them as economic competitors or security threats. Yet Israel, like the United States, is a nation of immigrants: Almost the entire Jewish population of the country arrived within the last century. Why should Jewish immigrants enjoy immediate citizenship in Israel, while African immigrants are detained or deported?

Of course, these problems are not unique to Israel. Exactly the same arguments over immigration, on a much larger scale, are dominating the politics of Europe and the United States. It is surely for this reason that Waking Lions, the new psychological thriller by Israeli novelist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, has broken out to become a worldwide phenomenon. Waking Lions (translated into English by Sondra Silverston) takes place in the southern Israeli town of Beersheva, but as a drama of immigration, it could almost as easily be set in San Diego or Brussels. What Gundar-Goshen wants to do in this book—aside from tell a good, suspenseful story—is to tear aside the curtain separating rich from poor, native-born from newly arrived, and force the former to acknowledge the latter.

This is not supposed to be a pleasant process. Eitan Green, the doctor at the center of Gundar-Goshen’s tale, is filled with rage when he learns about the rape of Semar, an illegal immigrant from Eritrea, by her Jewish boss: “He wasn’t supposed to see it. He wasn’t supposed to know about it. It was as if someone had left the cover off a street sewer and the shit had risen and flooded everything. The shit was always there; everyone knew that. But not in their faces, not in front of their eyes.” This is the eternal indictment of all prosperous people and societies: They go on with their happy lives, knowing that they are built a foundation of human suffering.

But Eitan Green’s guilt turns out to be more than abstract. At first, he considers himself a particularly moral person. A neurosurgeon, he lost his prestigious job at a Tel Aviv hospital when he tried to expose a bribery ring involving other doctors, including his beloved mentor. But this challenge to corruption turned out to be pointless: The hospital swept it under the rug, and Eitan was rewarded by being transferred to Beersheba, in the Negev—that is, the boondocks. Gundar-Goshen describes how the dust of this desert town is a constant reminder of his exile: “He wondered sometimes which of the two he hated more—the dust or the residents of Beersheba. Apparently the dust. The residents of Beersheba weren’t spread over his SUV in the morning. The dust was.”

This turns out to be a blunt irony; driving home late one night, Eitan takes his eyes off the road for a moment and runs a man over. He emerges from his car to find that the man is an African immigrant, and he is fatally injured. Then, against his own better judgment, Eitan gets back in the car and drives home. This act of cowardice or self-preservation is the first fatal tear in the fabric of his comfortable life, which begins to unravel almost immediately. Later that night, a woman appears at his doorstep holding his wallet, which he accidentally dropped at the scene of the accident. She is the wife of the dead man, she knows all about the hit-and-run, and she wants something in exchange for her silence.

So far, this is the familiar machinery of a thousand suspense novels and movies; having Eitan lose his wallet is a pretty clunky piece of plot machinery. But once Gundar-Goshen sets her story in motion, it quickly builds atmosphere and tension. For it turns out that Sirkit, the Eritrean woman who is blackmailing Eitan, doesn’t just want money. Instead, she drafts him to work at a makeshift clinic for African refugees, which she sets up in an abandoned garage near a local kibbutz. Sirkit seems to be motivated by compassion, but she has also devised a fitting punishment for Eitan. Having thrown away an African life without a thought, he must now devote himself to saving African lives.

But the effort of working all day at the hospital and all night at the garage soon begins to take a heavy toll on Eitan, and on his family. He is married to Liat, a policewoman, who (inevitably) gets assigned to solve the mystery of the hit-and-run. Together, they have created a safe, peaceful home for their two boys, in a country where insecurity is rampant. In that sense, they have achieved the Israeli dream. Yet even as Gundar-Goshen evokes their warm domestic routine, she suggests that it is precisely the bourgeois longing for a haven, an escape from the dangers of the world, that makes them culpable:

During wartime, it felt different. When sirens sounded, announcing that rockets were on their way, everyone got out of their cars and ran toward a shelter, and for a moment, it really did make a difference to you what the people around you were feeling, and when it was over, you said We’re fine, not I’m fine. But the rest of the time, it was only the house. White walls and walnut parquet.

Liat’s desire to withdraw behind her walls is essentially no different from Eitan’s split-second decision to run from the scene of the accident. Both are justified by elevating family to a higher value than justice. And Gundar-Goshen finds this same selfishness in Israeli society as a whole. As we learn about Sirkit and her community of refugees, we see how they are exploited for cheap labor—or worse—yet always kept out of sight. Her life in Eritrea and her journey to Israel were full of hardships that no one wants to hear about.

As the story unfolds, Eitan, who initially is unable even to tell one Eritrean face from another, becomes more and more cognizant of Sirkit’s individuality, until finally he seems to have fallen in love with her. Yet even then, she has secrets that he, and the reader, can’t guess until they are revealed. What was the true nature of her relationship with the man Eitan killed? What were they doing out so late on the night of the accident? And what is her motive for establishing the clinic and exploiting Eitan so ruthlessly?

By the end, Waking Lions reveals that Sirkit is at the center of a web of secrets, which draws in both Eitan and Liat, and exposes a rot at the core of Israeli society. That society, Gundar-Goshen suggests, is best reflected in Davidson, the owner of the restaurant where Sirkit works. Davidson turns out to be a far worse exploiter than he appears at first, yet Gundar-Goshen writes that he never consciously decided to hurt anyone: “The urge to do evil did not arise in him, and so he could neither overcome it nor abandon himself to it. He lived his life totally asleep. In a state of slumber that became a way of life. When he could take something, he took it. When he couldn’t, he tried to take it anyway. Not out of greed but out of habit.” It is the classic “banality of evil” argument, turned around to indict Israeli society—and our own.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.