It was way, way back somewhere in my teens when I read Exodus for the first time. When I asked to borrow it from the school library on the recommendation of a friend, I remember the librarian asking me if I should be reading such a thick book just as the exams were approaching. Then she said in a resigned manner, “Knowing you you’ll make short work of it.” And she was right for I devoured it, so to say. As a teenager Exodus by Leon Uris was an eyeopener but then as the young are wont to be idealistic and fired about one issue till the next one comes along, so was I. I forgot the book.
Last year, I read Mossad by Israeli journalists, Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal, and therein awoke an itch to read Exodus again. I was looking for a copy of the book on kindle with little luck and bookstores around me surprisingly did not have one. So, when a friend said she had an ageing copy left to her by her Grandma, I jumped at the chance and requisitioned it. After these many years I remembered the story vaguely, but knew that it had made an impact. In my teens I had read Exodus in 2 days, in my 40s it took me longer. If you are a lifelong student of English Literature and a voracious reader like me you would have read numerous books on the Holocaust seen from various perspectives. You would have researched various references to the Bible, especially the Old Testament, you would have some inkling of the rich history of the Jews. But, you would not necessarily have read how the modern State of Israel came into being, Leon Uris in Exodus gives this triumphant carving of an oasis by the Jews, within a text of 600 pages.
The fictional story begins in Cyprus where Jews fleeing from Europe are held in prison-like camps by the British and the reader is introduced to Ari Ben Canaan. A dashing mountain of a man, he is a member of Mossad Aliyah Bet. A man principled and committed to the land he is born to protect, he plans the escape of 300 children aboard the ship named Exodus, leaving the British shame faced in front of the entire world. He is aided by his Palmach team on the ground, a Cypriot sympathiser, an American journalist – Mark Parker and a reluctant American nurse – Kitty Fremont, in his audacious plan. For the plan to succeed there are two more characters essential: Karen Hansen Clement and Dov Landau. Two orphans of the holocaust, one saved by the Danes with all the faith of her people and the other condemned by the Poles filled with all the hate inflicted upon his. From there the story progresses to Palestine, controlled by the British, here more characters are introduced such as Barak Be Canaan and Avika, Ari’s father and uncle respectively. We meet Sarah who against all odds and torture by the British does not crack and Ruth who is representative of all the woman who rebelled at stereotypical roles and worked alongside the men in ditches and mud and emerged better at Dairy farming, these are Ari’s mother and Aunt. Johana, Ari’s sister, and Dafna, Ari’s love, both soldiers and members of the Haganah, the Jewish defence force redefine valour. Through the fictional back stories of the characters Uris reveals the historical truth of reclaiming of farmland from marshes and swamps by the sheer grit of the Jewish pioneers (Third Aliyah) and forming the various kibbutz (agricultural collective communities) and how each generation contributed to fighting for the dream of a homeland.
When I read the book as a teen I was fascinated by the story yet being from the generation that scoured libraries for information, I did not have enough resources to research much. Now I Googled almost every detail as I read, and came across fascinating information, which makes Exodus a compelling read.
I was further enthralled to discover the manner in which Hebrew became the spoken language of a nation. The state languages of Israel are Hebrew and Modern Arabic. Hebrew is the holy language of Judaism, the Jews across the world spoke Yiddish along with the language of the country they inhabited. There is no precedent to this revival of a language without any native speakers becoming a spoken language by several million as is with Hebrew. But then, the whole story of the revival of the State of Israel is a remarkable one rooted deep in Judaism.
Judaism is almost 3,000 years old, the first of the Abrahamic religions its texts, values and traditions influenced later Abrahamic religions including Christianity, Islam and the Baha’I Faith. The history of mankind is littered with story after story of man’s brutal greed, the Children of Israel too had to defend their lands from the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, Crusaders and an endless list of muraders who wanted to gobble them up, resulting in creating the largest diaspora in the middle ages. The Jews scattered to save themselves and their faith from the yoke of tyranny, but did the world provide them with a safe heaven? Sadly not. What followed was racial prejudice, ghettos, pogroms, The Jewish Pale of Settlement and the Holocaust. From East to West for two thousand years the Jews wandered looking for dignity and freedom. They struggled, they strived, they adapted and were loyal to the nations they adopted. Very few accorded them the dignity and freedom they searched for whereas most gifted them with persecution and legal restrictions. “The Jewish Question” is a very interesting term that I came across in Exodus and was appalled to understand the implications of it. Under the covers of this innocent sounding term is millennia of Anti-Semitism. But what is both terrifying and wonderous at once, is the faith of Judaism. That refused to die. Despite the foot of prejudice attempting to choke out the very breath from their windpipes, the Jews dug deeper hugging their faith close to their emancipated bodies. To fathom how after 2000 years of savage abuse, abysmal degradation and searing inhumanity, the Jewish people still kept their faith. Their belief that they were the chosen ones and the Messiah would one day lead them to their land of milk and honey, is nothing short of wonderous.
So, how did they keep their faith? In the folds of the book you will discern many reasons for this, but none resonated with me as much as this one about the pursuit of wisdom, Uris writes: Community life pivoted around the Holy Laws, the synagogue, and the rabbi, who was at once teacher, spiritual leader, judge and administrator of the community. The rabbis of the Pale were all great scholars. Their wisdom was far-reaching and rarely questioned… Indeed the community moved as one for the existence of all…The poor donated to the poorer. The poorer – to the poorer yet. Charity was the eleventh, the unwritten commandment. Leading scholars and religious leaders had to be cared for. Nothing was allowed to interfere with the pursuit of wisdom.
There were two aspects that disturbed me in the book. The first was the way the Arabs were portrayed by Uris. He describes them with a bias that is unsettling. In Uris’ words: 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. This could be attributed in some part to the policy of the British. On November 2, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent his letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent Zionist and a friend of Chaim Weizmann, stating that: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The Balfour Declaration of 1917, gave Britain the administration of Palestine, with the understanding that it would work on behalf of both its Jewish and Arab inhabitants. As an Indian, I was not surprised and this became the second disturbing aspect in the book – how the British played Jews against Arabs. It is summed up neatly by Uris’ fictional character General Sir Clarence Trevor-Brown: The only kingdom that runs on righteousness is the kingdom of heaven. The kingdoms of the earth run on oil. The Arabs have oil. It is evident from the telling of the story that Uris holds a baised opinion about Arabs and the British.
I am told by a dear friend that The Haj by Leon Uris gives the Arab side of the story. I am now searching for it. Readers who own any Leon Uris books do hold on to your yellowing pages, these books are not easy to procure.
To just Leon Uris was an American Jew who as a war correspondent covered the Arab–Israeli fighting in 1956. His experiences and discoveries led to writing the Exodus which was first published in 1958 by Doubleday. Exodus went on to become an international publishing phenomenon, the biggest bestseller in the United States since Gone with the Wind (1936). It remained number 1, on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks after its release. It initiated a new sympathy for the newly established State of Israel and fed the American minds with a twisted view of the Arab people. Celebrated by many it has also been denigrated equally, “As a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel,” said Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.
The reason I liked the book immensely is stated in Uris’s dedication message : all those good folk who spend their chapters hating themselves, the world, and all their aunt’s and uncles…all those steeped in self-pity…all those golden riders of the psychoanalysis coach…I have shown the other side of the coin, and written about my people who, against a lethargic world and with little less than courage, conquered unconquerable odds.