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Yesterday’s Hero

Fifty years after the publication of Exodus, is it time to let Ari Ben Canaan go?

August 08, 2008

Earlier this year, as Israel celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, the country’s journalists, pundits, and bloggers amused themselves by nominating individuals for the title of the quintessential sabra. Ariel Sharon, ur-warrior, was in the running, of course, as were Yitzhak Rabin, prince of peace and the nation’s first Israeli-born Prime Minister, and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. No fewer than five leading cultural critics named a fictional character as Israel’s most representative son: Ari Ben Canaan, the protagonist of Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, immortalized on screen by a young, virile, and shirtless Paul Newman. The adoration of Ben Canaan culminated in a fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Exodus, held in June at Jerusalem’s prestigious Cinematheque.

That a fictional person—even one based on a real man, Yossi Harel, commander of the actual Exodus, the ship that carried 4,500 survivors of Nazi death camps toward Palestine in 1947—should exercise such a strong grasp on the collective imagination of a country never short on real heroes may seem strange. Ari, however, is just too good to resist: handsome and daring, defying the British and defeating the Arabs, romancing a beautiful American blonde even as he helps guide a ship full of illegal immigrants to shore and a country full of war-weary Jews into existence. A few years before inventing Ben Canaan, Uris, then making a living as a Hollywood screenwriter, wrote Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, depicting Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday with a mixture of myth and melodrama. Take away the Stetson, and it’s not hard to see Ari as a rugged Western hero transplanted to the Middle East.

But was Israel ready for such a character? Could a nation still busy being born sustain the tremendous impact of a larger-than-life, ready-made hero? And could that hero age gracefully alongside the country he’s come to personify? As Ari turns fifty, these questions are hard to avoid.

For the uninitiated, the story of Exodus is one best told with numbers. After reportedly reading three hundred books about Jewish and Israeli history and traveling more than twelve thousand miles within Israel and the Middle East, Uris (who was born in Baltimore in 1924) wrote a 626-page novel about the birth of Israel, from the struggles to overcome the British mandate’s restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine to the battles that followed the creation of the Jewish state. It was published by Doubleday in 1958, and spent nineteen weeks at the top of The New York Times’s best-seller list. The paperback quickly sold well over twenty million copies. In the annals of American publishing, this puts Uris just ahead of Margaret Mitchell: Exodus unseated Gone with the Wind as the fastest-selling American novel of all time, and held the record until the publication of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls in 1966.

By 1960, when Otto Preminger adapted the novel into a three-and-a-half-hour film and cast Newman as Ben Canaan, the book’s status as one of Zionism’s most sacred texts was secure, with some scholars arguing that Uris had written nothing less than Israel’s founding myth. George Washington University professor Melani McAlister, the author of Epic Encounters, a 2001 history of America’s cultural perceptions of the Middle East, claimed that when Exodus was published “most Americans still knew little about Zionism or Israel,” making Uris’s story “a foreshadowing of what Israel was to come to mean to Americans.”

But with all the attention paid to Exodus in America, little has been written about the impact Exodus has had on the society whose birth it sought to depict.

Israel has not, until recently, kept official book sales records. But growing up in Israel in the 1980s and ’90s, I was always aware of the book’s ubiquity. It was in my high school’s library, where works by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were frowned upon for representing the wrong kind of Jew—the neurotic and vulnerable American. It was in my local scouts’ den, where as teenagers we would often spend rainy afternoons spellbound by Ari’s heroics. And it was on the shelves in the houses of all my friends, a staple of Israeli domesticity.

But it was television that solidified its standing. In Israel’s first five decades, with a single, state-run television station serving as the tribal campfire, the small screen was hailed as the most sacred of Israel’s cultural altars. Any program shown on Friday evenings was watched with a sense of duty, and any program shown on a national holiday was exalted.

Such was the status of Exodus. For years, the film’s oversaturated colors and expansive frames appeared on television sets across Israel each Passover. By regularly screening Exodus on the eve of Judaism’s celebration of freedom, the stewards of Israeli television sent a clear message to viewers: Ari is not just about Israel’s history; he’s about Jewish history. He’s a hero, and should be revered accordingly.

And revere him we did. Ari’s name—not Moshe Dayan’s, or Sharon’s, or Rabin’s—became an idiom for everything we Israelis admired about ourselves. His concluding plea for peace between Arabs and Jews, we imagined, was our very own; in fact, when Yitzhak Rabin addressed the U.S. Congress in 1994 with a similar speech, commentators in Israel dubbed it an “Ari Ben Canaan moment.” They were not being ironic. We saw Ari’s face in each of the men and women of the Israel Defense Forces, which, we boasted, was the most ethical army in the world.

Around that time we began seeing another kind of Israeli soldier. The kind that allowed the slaughter of civilians at Sabra and Shatila. The kind that fired rubber bullets—and sometimes, live ammunition—at Palestinian protestors during the first and second Intifadas.

And so Ari himself was trotted out to protest what many Israelis, especially on the left, considered a decline in the nation’s morality. I remember one afternoon, a decade or so ago, at Tzavta, a dank basement-turned-performance-space considered the Mecca of Tel Aviv’s intelligentsia. A well-known intellectual was holding court. His topic, as usual, was the immorality of Israel’s soldiers, and the destruction of Israeli society as a result of their behavior. As he spoke, an image quivered behind him on a makeshift screen: Newman, smirking, bathed by moonlight, a large Star of David dangling on his chest. Ari, he kept repeating, wouldn’t have recognized the Israeli soldiers of today.

Many Israeli historians disagree. Ari, they claim, is not so much a paragon of purity as a symbol of senseless sacrifice, an atavistic vessel designed to drain history of its contexts and complexities and recast it instead as a single-minded story of Jewish exceptionalism.

Evidence for this is everywhere in Exodus, both book and film. In a scene in the movie, Ari loses his temper at a Cypriot businessman who is involved in the efforts to smuggle Jews into British-controlled Palestine. A fellow member of the Jewish resistance asks Ari to apologize to the man, and Ari, of course, refuses. “All over the world, they work for us and tell us how terrible it was that six million Jews went into the ovens,” Ari says. “But when the showdown comes, we always stand alone. . . . We have no friends, except ourselves. Remember that!”

In reality, the Exodus had all the friends it needed. After its 4,500 passengers were refused entry to Palestine by British authorities, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann persuaded his friend, former French Prime Minister Leon Blum, to shelter the refugees in France for as long as was necessary. But David Ben Gurion, the de facto leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, refused to endorse the deal: At the time, the UN’s Special Committee on Palestine was holding discussions on the future of the contested land, and Ben Gurion realized that few things would attract more international sympathy for the Jewish cause than a boatload of Holocaust survivors caught in a watery limbo. Ben Gurion torpedoed Weizmann’s efforts, thereby stranding the men, women, and children aboard the Exodus for more than seven months.

Most Israelis, however, never got to hear the true story. The one Uris wrote—haunted Holocaust survivors hunted by the British authorities as an apathetic world looks on, with no one to defend them but Ben Canaan—was simply too good to disrupt with facts.

Inconvenient, too, was the actual behavior of Harel, the ship’s real commander and a man every bit as sensitive and mild-mannered as Ari was brash and bold. When the British attacked the Exodus upon its arrival in the port of Haifa, Harel ordered his men to offer no resistance. He was severely criticized at the time by Jewish leaders, but there is little doubt that his decision to surrender saved thousands of lives.

Ari, of course, would never tolerate such level-headedness; his was the worldview of the martyr. In the novel, David Ben Ami, Ari’s brother-in-law, delivers a speech that captures this worldview precisely: “At Masada,” he says, “we held out against the Romans for four years and when they entered the fort they found us all dead. . . . We have not had much opportunity to fight as a nation for two thousand years. When we had that opportunity at the Warsaw ghetto we did honor to our tradition. I say if we leave this boat and willingly return to barbed-wire prisons then we will have broken faith with God.” At Ari’s command, the children aboard the Exodus begin a hunger strike, collapsing one after another on the ship’s deck, arranged in ghastly, lifeless piles. When this fails to move the British authorities, Ari threatens mass suicides.

Needless to say, any talk of suicide as politics strikes an uneasy chord with contemporary Israelis. And yet martyrdom remains an irresistible political elixir. Above the blackboard in my elementary school classroom hung a bright blue sign on which a teacher had written in green letters the alleged last words of Yosef Trumpeldor, a legendary Zionist hero who died in 1920 while defending a northern Jewish settlement from Arab combatants. “Never mind,” he reportedly said. “It is good to die for our country.” My classmates and I, like generations of Israeli children before and since, spent our days staring at this slogan. It’s only natural that many of us came to take its message of self-sacrifice at face value.

Such thinking still plagues Israel. In her 2005 book Death and the Nation, a stunning and irreverent study of Israel’s obsession with martyrdom, the historian Idith Zertal argues that this fixation has come to define the way Israelis understand themselves and their country. “Ancient graves,” she writes, “produce fresh graves.” As Israelis seek to move away from the deeply rooted complexes of a small nation surrounded by sworn enemies, we look in the mirror and, too often, still see Ben Canaan. Too many of us are still proudly convinced that the Jewish people should never trust anyone, that Israel’s only hope lies in its strength, and that certain death is a noble thing. And this dissonance may just be driving Israelis insane.

The late Baruch Kimmerling, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, mused about this idea in a 2005 article in The Nation, devoted to, among other things, the Exodus myth and its omnipresence in Israel’s collective consciousness. “The obsessive commemoration of the Holocaust and of Jewish victimhood,” he wrote, “has blinded much of the Jewish community to Israel’s real position in the world and to the humanity of the Palestinian people. . . . To be sure, there are periods in the history of a nation when ultimate sacrifices are necessary, and a cult of death unavoidable. The question in Israel today is whether this heroic period has come to an end or whether the prevailing ideology of the 1948 war will last another hundred years.” To adopt the former worldview, he states, is “to grant priority to the lives of Israel’s citizens, Jewish and Arab. To adopt the latter is to remain a community of victims, joined in a mythical communion of Jewish sacrifice in an eternally hostile gentile world.”

By continuing to revere Ari, we Israelis concern ourselves less with reality as it unfolds around us and more as it unfolded for Uris half a century ago.

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