In preparation for Israel’s 65th birthday, I recently reread Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus” — and found it disturbing and unsettling in many ways.
I first read the book in 1970, around the time of my first visit to Israel, and fell in love both with the book and the country. I was swept away by the romance of the story, entranced by the characters, and I identified strongly with the Jews struggling to establish their homeland against tremendous odds.
“Exodus,” published in 1958, was of course a hugely influential book. A massive best seller (No. 1 of the New York Times list for 19 straight weeks) that also became a mawkish movie two years later starring Paul Newman in the role of the hero, Ari Ben Canaan, it played a major role in the way American Jews and people around the world viewed Israel as well as Arabs.
“As a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel,” Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said.
“Exodus” is credited with setting the tone for international press coverage of the Six-Day War and helping to inspire a Jewish revival among Soviet Jews, prompting them to oppose the communist regime and demand the right to immigrate to Israel. It made Jews around the world proud. It provides the background music to the enduring love affair between American Jews, in particular, and Israel.
For those who may not remember, “Exodus” begins in British-occupied Cyprus. Thousands of Jewish survivors of the Nazis striving to immigrate to Israel have been herded into squalid refugee camps surrounded by barbed wire. The intrepid hero, Ari Ben Canaan, arrives to orchestrate a daring scheme that will shame the British, break the blockade and allow the refugees to proceed to the Promised Land, where they can then take part in the armed struggle for independence.
From the initial scene-setting in Cyprus, Uris takes readers through a series of extended flashbacks that cover the history of Zionism, the settling of the land of Israel and the development of the Palmach, the Haganah and the Irgun. Other flashbacks describe various aspects of the Holocaust, including the rescue of Danish Jewry, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the workings of Nazi extermination camps. Uris at one point describes the Holocaust as “a dance of death with six million dancers!” — one of many unfortunate turns of phrase in the book.
Finally, the story races through the United Nations partition vote in 1947, the withdrawal of the British and the 1948 War of Independence.
When I first read the book at age 16, I responded to it mainly with my heart — whereas now I read it mostly with my head. Then, I fell in love with Uris’ Israel, which was populated by healthy, strong, lusty young men and women, the latter invariably described as “high-breasted,” which was thrilling in itself at that point in my development. They spent their days wearing blue shirts and short pants, working the land and fighting off Arab marauders, and their nights dancing the hora and making love while murmuring verses from the Song of Songs.
“There was an aggressiveness and pride about them … and they were always filled with the songs and dances and ideals of the redemption of the homeland … These were the ancient Hebrews! These were the faces of Dan and Reuben and Judah and Ehphraim. These were Samsons and Deborahs and Joabs and Sauls,” Uris breathlessly tells us.
Uris’ Israel is very much the Israel of Labor Zionism and the kibbutz and moshav (agricultural co-op) movements. He buys into the concept of the “new Jew” — the independent fighter so unlike the weak Jews of the Diaspora who had been left defenseless against the Nazis. Ari Ben Canaan himself is a “strapping six-footer with black hair and ice blue eyes who could be mistaken for a movie leading man. He doesn’t act like any Jew I’ve ever met. You don’t particularly think of them as fighters,” one British character says.
The most disturbing facet of the book is Uris’ depiction of Arabs. In fact, the word “Arab” rarely appears without the adjective “dirty” or “stinking” appended. A few examples:
• “The air was foul with the mixed aroma of thick coffee, tobacco, hashish smoke and the vile odors of the rest of the village.”
• “Nazareth stank. The streets were littered with dung and blind beggars … filthy children were underfoot. Flies were everywhere.”
• “How pathetic the dirty little Arab children were beside the robust youngsters of Gan Dafna. How futile their lives seemed in contrast to the spirit of the Youth Aliya village. There seemed to be no laughter or songs or games or purpose among the Arab children.”
• “They seemed the dregs of humanity. The women were encased in black robes and layers of dirt. The children wore dirty rags.”
• “The Arab section of Safed held the usual broken-down hovels that are found in every Arab city and town in the world.”
• “At least the Arabs are friendly,” Ari said. “They are Christians.” “They are Christians who need a bath,” Kitty replied.
These are just a few of many, many examples that become cumulatively oppressive. There is one “good” Arab in the book, Kammal, the mukhtar of Abu Yesha, a village neighboring the Gan Dafna Zionist village named after Ari’s martyred first love. Kammal recognizes that the Jews have “performed miracles on the land and … are the only salvation for the Arab people. The Jews are the only ones in a thousand years who have brought light to this part of the world.”
But Kammal’s son is weak and allows himself to be drawn into an attack on the Jewish village in 1948. The result is the righteous and deserved expulsion of his people into exile — which pretty much sums up Uris’ view of how the Palestinian refugee problem was created.
Uris also shamelessly invented events, which are presented as if they were historical. Given the choice between the facts and the legend, he always went for the legend — which he made up in the first place. The main example of this is his retelling of the story of the refugee ship Exodus, which gives the book its title.
In Uris’ version, the boat is loaded with children who go on a hunger strike and then threaten to commit suicide, one an hour, until the British relent — which they do, allowing the ship to triumphantly sail to Haifa. In reality, the Exodus was boarded by the British, who tried to deport the immigrants to France. When France refused to take them, the British had to return them to Germany, where they were forcibly disembarked. That story is dramatic enough in its own right and prompted an international press outcry that severely discredited the British and their blockade policy. But it did not fit Uris’ dramatic purpose.
Many reviewers have commented on Uris’ clunky prose and his stereotypical characters. He certainly has a talent for evoking a place — as in this description of a small port in Cyprus: “Kyrenia was picturesque and remote and quaint to the point where it could not have been more picturesque or remote or quaint.”
The central love affair, between Ari and the American non-Jewish nurse Kitty Fremont, is curiously flat. Kitty wants Ari to show his emotions and acknowledge his vulnerabilities. She wants him to need her. Finally, with one more tragic death, he does — but only for a short time. Soon enough, he says, he will strap on his armor and return to the battle. Kitty says that’s good enough for her.
It occurred to me that their relationship mirrored the way many Israelis see the United States as a whole. They want Americans to love them and help them out and be there for them in emergencies or moments of rare weakness — but they don’t want to be dependent or vulnerable.
Despite its many faults, “Exodus” still packs an emotional wallop. A few times, I felt myself responding, just as I had when I first read it as a 16-year-old. The sheer narrative thrust and energy leading to the climactic moments where Israel is reborn as a state moved me. We need to remember that story and not take the creation of Israel for granted, and for that purpose, “Exodus” still has a role to play.
But in 2013, Uris’ narrative is insufficient. Now the challenge is to win the peace rather than to prevail in war. We need to find a way of living side-by-side with the descendants of those “stinking Arabs” who fled the land in 1948. We are entitled to our founding myths and our national narrative — but Uris does not serve us well in pointing a path to the future.
Alan Elsner, a journalist and author, is vice president of communications for J Street.