An entire generation of American Jews — and Americans generally — were riveted by the 1958 best-selling novel, “Exodus,” and by the blockbuster movie two years later. Mining the “Wild West” genre, Leon Uris’ “Exodus” sold more than seven million copies in the United States, and was the underground “bible” for Soviet Jews.
Who can forget freedom fighter Ari Ben Canaan and his fellow “hard and powerful” Sabras; Ari’s foil, nurse Kitty Fremont (the ultimate in the cool-shiksa genre), Holocaust survivors Dov Landau and Karen Clement, British general Bruce Sutherland (“Am I Jew or am I Christian?”)? These and a host of others have entered the low end of the literary canon as typologies in the narrative of the creation of Israel, of what David Ben-Gurion (himself a typology, indeed a caricature, of David Ben-Gurion!) called komemiyut, inadequately translated as “independence” but rather the concept signifying the uniqueness of Israel’s struggle for freedom and statehood.
But what was “Exodus” all about? More: what explains the impact of “Exodus” in America and in the Soviet Union, indeed the hold the novel and the movie had over successive generations of Jews? Was the novel historically suspect? To be sure. Mythologizing to the max? Certainly. But who cared? “Exodus” was the deal.
M. M. Silver, a historian at the Max Stern College in Israel, incisively unpacks the cross-cultural currents that made “Exodus” what it was, and in the process offers a clever reading of the social history of the 1950s in America. In “Our ‘Exodus’: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story” (Wayne State University Press), the eponymous “Americanization” is an interpretation of Zionism — and by extension the struggle for the creation of the state — as a replay of 1776.
Silver’s thesis is basic, and unsurprising: “Exodus” is a national liberation story, a Wild West saga, replete with good guys and bad guys, in large measure Uris’s own quintessentially American “liberation” story. At bottom “Exodus” is about Jewish empowerment in a Jewish world that was yet emerging from the ashes of its destruction in Europe, and in America from high levels of anti-Semitism and discrimination. “Exodus,” by validating Jewish peoplehood, validated Jews everywhere; more important, it popularized Jewish empowerment.
What is revelatory in Silver’s compelling book is that “Exodus,” written in the mid-1950s when Israel was not at the forefront of the agenda of America’s Jews, made moral and historical connections — flawed connections, to be sure — between a history of Jewish suffering and the creation of Israel, an Israel that would be peopled by the new, heroic, Jew. To take but one example, “Exodus” was one of the first to replay the Holocaust, inaccurate though Uris’s Holocaust narrative is. “’Exodus,’” claims M. M. Silver, “created its own genre.”
“Exodus” did not come out of nowhere; there were other novels — even some good ones — that came out of the experience of the birth of Israel. Ruth Gruber’s hopelessly schmaltzy but nonetheless compelling “Raquela” was a best seller; Fred Lawrence’s “Israel,” a family saga à la “Tai-Pan,” which made an effort (missing in “Exodus”) to be historically accurate; Zelda Popkin’s excellent “Quiet Street,” which uses the siege of Jerusalem as a vehicle for telling the story of the 1948 war. But it was “Exodus” that, with perfect pitch, played the music that resonated in the 1950s to America’s Jews’ own narrative.
That the novel “Exodus” (the film, in terms of content a mere side-show, is given far too much ink by Silver) was a collection of misrepresentations, half-truths and outright inaccuracies about the history of the Yishuv and the creation of the state is by now commonplace knowledge. Jews of the Yishuv are stereotyped heroes — nay, supermen — and Arabs are one-dimensional villains.
So what’s the problem? The problem with “Exodus” is that the novel is a rehashing — and not a very good rehashing — of the Ben-Gurion/Mapai history of the Palestine Yishuv and of the creation of the state, to the exclusion of all other versions.
What’s missing from the novel? For one thing, crucial in any telling is that the history of Zionism and the Yishuv was a reflection of European Jewish history: it was all about ideology. Mapai’s left-of-center socialism, Achdut Ha-Avoda’s territorial-maximalist socialism, Hashomer Hatzair/Mapam’s radical socialism, Mizrachi’s moderate Religious Zionism, Agudat Yisrael’s aggressive religious stance, the rightist Zionist-Revisionist/Herut (later Gahal, now morphed into the Likud) — one would not have a clue from “Exodus” or from Silver’s book that ideological dialectic played a major role in Zionism and in the creation of the state.
The implications of the ideological battles were significant. For example, the Palmach — the central heroic institution of the “Exodus” parade of heroes — emerged from ideological struggles between Ben Gurion’s Mapai party and those to the left of Ben Gurion, and in effect was a counter-move to the Haganah. And who were the “Maccabees,” those radicals who favored a more aggressive stance toward the British and the Arabs? Why, none other than the Irgun and the Stern group, Lehi. One would not know this from “Exodus.” And this important dimension is completely missing from “Our ‘Exodus.’”
Further, the reason for the Israeli victories in “Tashach,” the 1948 War of Independence: it’s gotta be more than the “Exodus” version: “The New Israeli Jew,” back to the wall, protecting a beleaguered new nation, overcomes with indomitable spirit the venal Arab who is out only for plunder and murder. This version, which does have some limited merit, leaves out the crucial dynamics of the lack of unified Arab war aims; the question of the closing of the weapons gap between Israel and the Arab states, especially after the first truce; the role played by the Yishuv’s superior agricultural technology and distribution system; and other factors.
One does not learn any of this from “Exodus.” This we know. But, crucial in a book about “Exodus,” one would not know these important dynamics — important to the “Americanization” story — from “Our ‘Exodus.’”
The legacy of “Exodus?” It’s mixed. “Exodus” did inform the consciousness of a generation of American Jews of Israel; and Exodus changed the lives, dramatically, of Soviet Jews. Did “Exodus” help in securing Israel’s friendship with the United States, as Silver suggests? No — the 1950s Eisenhower-Dulles years were a nightmare, nothing that “Exodus” could save, and the brief but crucial Kennedy administration was a 180-degree positive turn, not at all a consequence of “Exodus.” Did “Exodus” position Israel in American Jewish consciousness, as Silver asserts? No — that did not happen until the Six-Day War. But for millions of readers, “Exodus” was just what we needed at the time — the Americanization of Zionism and Israel. Leon Uris got it, and “Our ‘Exodus’” gets it as well.
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of four books on American Jewish communal affairs. Forthcoming is “The Future of American Judaism,” a volume in the Trinity/Columbia University Press series “The Future of American Religion.”