Friday, September 2, 2016

Reading Exodus by Leon Uris: Part 8

Continuing from Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6 and Part 7 let us continuing looking at the 1958 novel Exodus by Leon Uris. The Israeli War of Independence has ended with the successful partitioning of Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state. The nationalist dream of a Jewish state nurtured since the 1880s partly in response to deadly anti-Semitic pogroms in Tsarist Russia had began to be fulfilled. With approximately 750,000 Palestinians having been expelled from the land it was time to get more Jews to strengthen the newly established nation state.

Yemenite Jews Slurred as "Semiprimitive"

Page 555 starts with Book 5 of the novel. The first part of this section of the novel discusses Operation Magic Carpet in which the State of Israel aided many Yemenite Jews to go to Israel. An Alaskan airline plane is chartered to aid this mass migration.

The author describes these Yemenite Jews. They are portrayed as backward and stupid. It is mentioned that they still practiced polygamy. It is stated that the Yemenite Jews literally believed the Bible. (Which reveals that the author and his social milieu does not.)
As in Biblical days, they still practiced multiple marriage. They believed in the evil eye, in ill winds and a variety of demons, against which they wore protective amulets. Their belief in the Bible was absolutely literal. (p. 563.)
The author slurs these Yemenite Jews as "a semiprimitive people."
The immigration people faced the additional difficulty of having to deal with a semiprimitive people. The Yemenites could not comprehend things like water taps, toilets, or electric lights. This was a community who had suddenly caught up with almost three thousand years of progress in hours. Motor vehicles, medicine, western dress, and a thousand things were strange and awesome to them. It was a frightening experience. (p. 565.)
Their strict observance of the Sabbath is portrayed as hindering the evacuation operation. It is even stated that they lit a fire during the airplane flight and that they though a voice over the plane's intercom was the voice of God. 

In olden times it was popular to make stories of people from the advanced, industrialized nations to meet with peoples who had not experienced advanced technology and write about how they marveled at such things. But today such stories have fallen out of fashion because of the colonial undertones of such stories. The outsiders were portrayed as helpless and in "need" of people from advanced, industrialized nations to save them. The author's description of the Yemenite Jews seem to fit that description. (I am indebted to an article from Analog magazine for this insight.)

Anti-Mizrahi Racism

Even though the Yemenite Jews were fellow Jews the predominantly Ashkenazi Jews who were preeminent within the newly formed State of Israel looked down on these Yemenite Jews as backwards, superstitious and as "not one of us." Many of these Mizrahi Jews who moved to the State of Israel endured the pain of having their identity be viewed with contempt and scorn by the predominantly Ashkenazi leaders of the State of Israel.
The founders of the state, Jews of Ashkenazi origin raised on European ideas, viewed ‘Oriental Jews’ as backward and primitive from the moment they began arriving en masse on Israel’s shores. (Edo Konrad, The roots of anti-Mizrahi racism in Israel, +972 Magazine, December 2, 2015.)
For many Mizrahi Jews their journey into the State of Israel was profoundly difficult and marked with neglect by the Israeli authorities who had encouraged them to move there. The Israeli government was supposed to look after them but many Mizrahi Jews found themselves to be merely second class citizens beneath the Ashkenazi Jews of European western heritage. Many had to stay in ma'abarot, refugee absorption camps. Over eighty per cent of these immigrants in these ma'abarot were Mizrahi Jews.

Between 1948 to 1954 Yemenite children and children from other Mizrahi Jews were kidnapped en masse and adopted by Ashkenazi Jews. Here is but one story of this shameful practice from the early days of Israel's independence.
Tel Aviv - For nearly 40 years, everything about Gil Grunbaum's life was a lie, including his name. 
He was not, as he had always assumed, the only son of wealthy Holocaust survivors who owned a baby garments factory near Tel Aviv. Grunbaum had been stolen from his mother by doctors at a hospital in northern Israel in 1956, moments after she gave birth. 
His biological parents - recent immigrants to Israel from Tunisia - were told their child had died during delivery. They were sent home without a death certificate and denied the chance to see their baby's body or a grave. 
Despite his darker looks, it never occurred to Grunbaum that the parents who raised him were not biologically related to him. Now aged 60, he says the discovery was "the most shocking moment imaginable. Everyone I loved - my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins - had been deceiving me for decades." (Jonathan Cook, The shocking story of Israel's disappeared babies, Al Jazeera, August 5, 2016.)
Ironically the novel asserted on page 563 that Yemenite Jewish children were abducted and forcibly converted to Islam in Yemen and yet the children of Mizrahi Jews would also be abducted in the newly independent State of Israel.The novel includes the following passage.
There was a continuous fight [by the Yemenite Jewish women] against the workers who tried to remove temporarily the infants who badly needed treatment for malnutrition. (p. 565.)
Or perhaps those Yemenite Jewish women somehow caught on that their children were vulnerable in this new society far from the lands of their nativity filled with people who spoke different languages from their own? Perhaps they heard rumors that all was not well.

Between 1948 and 1960 about 20,000 to 200,000 Jewish children, predominantly Mizrahi, were treated with ionizing radiation to treat ringworm. Today it is now known that ionizing radiation causes cancer and was frightfully harmful. These things caused the Mizrahim to resist this oppression by Ashkenazim Israelis.

Many Mizrahi Jews from Iraq also fled to the State of Israel. Today it is now known that this mass flight was partly engineered by Israeli personnel. 

The predominantly Ashkenazi leaders of the State of Israel looked down upon the Mizrahim and consequently neglecting them these haughty leaders were to get a surprise. The Israeli right sensed an untapped opportunity and the right reached out to these neglected and despised Mizrahim. It worked. The Mizrahim sided with the right and propelled the right wing Likud party to victory in 1978 under the leadership of Menachem Begin.

Even in recent times this disregard by Ashkenazi Israeli society for the interests of the Mizrahim in Israel is still evident today.
Those who have, historically, voted for Israel’s left-wing camp are often nicknamed “the white tribe.” On the other hand, the right wing enjoys a high percentage of Mizrahi voters. Why? In the run-up to the elections, it might be worth taking a look at this question.

First of all, the social categories “Mizrahim” and “Asheknazis” are nowhere to be found in the platforms of Israel’s leftist parties. While the platforms of Labor (the “Zionist Camp”), Meretz and Hadash include, among other things, social issues relevant to both central Israel and the periphery, these parties base themselves on a colorblind worldview that believes that “there is no such thing as Mizrahim and Ashkenazim anymore.” But that’s just it – there is such a thing. When it comes to many issues, Mizrahim were and still are a group that faces discrimination, when compared to Ashkenazim. And yet, left-wing parties choose to totally ignore this fact. (Tom Mehager, Why Mizrahim don't vote for the Left, +972 Magazine, January 24, 2015.)
It is terrible that Mizrahi Jews had been forced to endure such troubles from the Ashkenazi Israeli Jews. They do not deserve to be treated in such a way.

Building a Jewish State

At the start of chapter 2 (pp. 571-2) the author contains a paean to the prosperity, economic growth and excitement within Israeli Jewish society as the longed for Jewish state went through its first years of independence.

While the Palestinian refugees yearned to return to their homes in what was now the State of Israel the Yishuv within the newly independent state built it up.
South Africans and South Americans and Canadians poured money into industry. Factories were built until the manufacturing potential reached one of the highest levels in Africa or Asia. General scientific, medical, and agricultural research reached an advanced stage. (p. 571.)
While the State of Israel was prospering in this way the relatively few Palestinians who still remained within its borders were placed under military rule. It would not be until 1966, eight years after the release of this novel, that Israeli military rule was removed from their lives. This aspect of Israeli society is never mentioned in the novel.

The Palestinian refugees were left unable to participate in this economic boom because of the Israeli government's refusal to let them return.
The people forged ahead with a determination that captured the heart of the civilized world. Young Israel stood as a lighthouse for all mankind, proving what could be done with will power and love. ... And in the wake of this drive, the tough young sabra generation emerged a generation never to know humiliation for being born a Jew. Israel became an epic in the history of man. (p. 572.) 
Those who do not share the author's enthusiasm at the State of Israel's development are implied to be uncivilized.

While expressing such joy how could they "spoil" it by letting the Palestinians return to their homes? With the Jewish citizens of Israel being so ecstatic to build up the Jewish state yearned for since the rise of the nationalist movement for a Jewish state in the 1880s it is little wonder why the Israeli government refused to let the Palestinian refugees returned. The prosperity these Israelis enjoyed was made at the expense of the approximately 750,000 Palestinians who had been expelled to create this state.

The Palestinians were against this unjust and oppressive situation. The Palestinian refugees participated in politics to rally the people to implement their return to their homes. By the time of this novel's publication in 1958 Palestinian institutions had not yet been rebuilt following the mass expulsion by the forces of the Yishuv. It was then possible to marginalize the issue of the Palestinian refugees.

However after 1967 it became readily apparent that the Arab nations were unable to implement the return of the Palestinian refugees. So the Palestinians organized themselves together and prepared to fight the State of Israel themselves instead of hoping that the Arab nations would return them home. The Israeli victory of 1967 led directly to the rise of Fatah and its leader, Yasser Arafat.

The Regional Situation

The issue of the Palestinian refugees who yearned to return to their homes is minimized.
The refugee situation was distorted so as to be made insolvable. (p. 582.)
In other words the Israeli government did not want the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

Nasser was vilified as being like Hitler.
Nasser, the one-time army captain who sat in the pocket at Faluja under siege, inflamed the Arab world like a would-be Hitler. (p. 582.)
It is stated that the Jordanian government did not allow Jews to worship at the Wailing Wall.
The Legion of Jordan blatantly ignored the truce agreement whereby Jews were to have free access to Old Jerusalem for worship at their holiest shrine, the Wall of Solomon's Temple. (p. 582.)
Today some extremists insist that a Third Temple is to be built heedless of the severe problems such a move would have for the Palestinians and the surrounding nations. But back when this novel was published it was stated that the holiest shrine in Judaism was not the site of the Temple but instead the Wailing Wall. Traditional Judaism had long ago banned Jews from treading upon the site of the Temple lest they should stand in the Holy of Holies in an ritualistically unclean state. Third Temple Extremism is a recent innovation that casts away this traditional Jewish prohibition.

On the Border with Gaza

Meanwhile in the novel Barak tries to convince Ari to reach out to Kitty and try to be a couple again; Barak dies of old age; Dov becomes a soldier who is deeply in love with Karen; Kitty remains in Israel and sees the little kids she cared for grow up and have lives of their own; and Karen moves to Nahal Midbar a town near the border with Gaza.

Kitty and later Dov visits Karen at the kibbutz near the border with Gaza. It is portrayed as a rather austere existence. Kitty and Dov encouraged Karen to pursue other opportunities, possibly overseas, but Karen yearns to help this kibbutz.

The Palestinians of Gaza are demonized as murderers and terrorists.
Then came the most vicious move. The Arabs, mainly the Egyptians in the Gaza Strip, organized fedayeen gangs for the purpose of murdering Israelis. These gangs crossed the border nightly to kill, to burn fields, to cut water-pipe lines, to destroy. Tormented Palestine refugees were used in these gangs, goaded by hate-spewing leaders. (p. 582.)
Notably that agency of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip is denied and instead their activities against the State of Israel are portrayed as though it was the work of the Egyptian government. It is insisted that these fedayeen were organized to murder Israelis. But in fact many of these infiltrations were made by Palestinians who simply yearned to return to their homes. Why wouldn't those who had so recently been expelled from their lands during the Israeli War of Independence wish to return to their homes?It is incorrect to say that those Palestinians who went back into the land controlled by the State of Israel were only murderers. The situation was more complicated than is presented here.

The State of Israel prepared herself for any and all eventualities.
Military training in Israel was compulsory for girls as well as for boys. They learned at early ages to handle arms. ... Israel became the most efficiently organized and largest--in proportion to population--standing militia in the world. (p. 582.)
It was such preparations that made the Israeli military victories of 1956, 1967 and 1973 possible. They were not miracle victories but instead were the result of careful planning and diligent preparation.
At last Israel had no choice but reprisal. The army of Israel swore to kill ten for one. Unfortunately, reprisal seemed to be the only language that the Arabs understood, the only thing that might stop them. (p. 582.)
It is troubling that there seems to be little concern if such a policy would kill civilians. Instead of letting the Palestinian refugees return those in power in the State of Israel decided to pursue a policy of reprisals despite the bloodshed such an attitude was bound to unleash.

These are not the words of a nation state deeply worried about being on the verge of conquest by the surrounding nations. These words reveal that the State of Israel was supremely confident of their military prowess compared with the surrounding nations. If one can boast of being prepared to kill ten for one then that person is not worried about losing everything in some later war.

Karen grows up and had moved to Nahal Midbar, a kibbutz near the border with Gaza mainly composed of tent dwellings. The author describes its desolate setting with these words.
Those few buildings stood in the center of a wind-swept, bleak and desolate, sun-baked corner that seemed to be on the end of the earth. It was, indeed, on the brink of nowhere. On the horizon could be seen the sinister outline of Gaza. Emplacements of barbed wire and trenches faced the enemy. (p. 583.)
And who was this "enemy" who had "barbed wire and trenches" facing them? Many of them were the people who had lived in the area that Nahal Midbar had been built on but had been forcibly expelled from the homes by military force during the Israeli War of Independence of 1947-9. Naturally these Palestinian refugees yearned to return to their homes. But the Israeli government would not allow them to return and placed "barbed wire and trenches" against people who wanted to return to their homes.

Furthermore this border did not respect the proposed partition that the United Nations approved on November 29, 1947. Under the terms of that proposed partition the land next to what became the Gaza Strip was supposed to belong to a Palestinian state.

Seeing that the Israeli authorities would not allow them to return it was, alas. practically inevitable that some among them would take the law into their own hands.

What is left unmentioned in the novel is that most fatalities were of Palestinians. Israelis were encouraged by the government of the time to shoot those who covertly went back to the land they had been cast out of.

Dreaming of a Mass Migration from Russia

As the Ben Canaan family prepares to celebrate Passover the characters talk. At one point Kitty mentions an anecdote to suggest that one day there would be a mass migration of Jews from the Soviet Union into the State of Israel. Here Kitty is talking to Sutherland.
[Kitty:] "Well, you know that they have tried to integrate the Jews by swallowing them up in theories and in evolution. They have tried to make them lose their identity by letting the old ones die out and indoctrinating the young ones from birth. Of course you know that anti-Semitism still rages in Russia." 
[Sutherland:] "I've heard." 
[Kitty:] "It was on the last high holy days that this fantastic thing happened. It proved that the Soviets have failed miserably. The ambassador from Israel went to the only synagogue they permit in Moscow. After thirty years of silence, thirty thousand Jews appeared on the streets just to see and touch the ambassador! Yes, there will be a great aliyah from Russia someday." (p. 590.)
Aliyah refers to the migration of Jews to the State of Israel and before its establishment in 1948 to the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine. It carries religious connotations as it comes from a phrase used in Psalms.

Over the years activists arose within the Soviet Union of Jews wishing to migrate to the State of Israel. Following the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union many were able to depart to the State of Israel. However some grew disillusioned with life there and have since returned to Russia or migrated elsewhere. Peace did not come.

Tragic Passover Ending

As the protagonists of this novel prepare to celebrate Passover they learn the terrible news that Karen had been killed by a Palestinian infiltrator from Gaza. Later Kitty wonders where Ari and she finds him in the stable crying over Karen's murder.

Ari cries for a moment and is caught in the act by Kitty. But even then it is made clear that Ari will soon become the flawless Ari. Instead of learning anything from enduring weaknesses and vulnerabilities like any normal human being the flawless quickly retreats into his impenetrable shell of perfect harshness.
"Don't leave me," Ari cried. 
Ah, how she had wanted to hear those words! ... she thought ... even as you show your tears and humility for the first time in your life, you are ashamed of them. You need me now but tomorrow ... tomorrow you will be Ari Ben Canaan again. You will be all the strong, defiant Ari Ben Canaans who inure themselves to tragedy. ... 
[Later as Kitty and Ari return to the house.] He stopped and released her and straightened himself up, standing tall and strong again. 
Already, so soon, he was Ari Ben Canaan again. ...
[Later Ari said to Kitty:] "I am not like other men ... it may be years ... it may be forever before I can again say that my need for you comes first, before all other things ... before the needs of this country. Will you be able to understand that?" 
[Kitty:] "I will understand, always." (pp. 598-9.)
In other words Ari learned absolutely nothing from experiencing human frailty and vulnerability for the first time in his life. He very quickly retreated into his aloof shell of invulnerability.

Ari certainly is not like other characters in this novel. He is an author insert character. His name in Hebrew bears the same meaning as the name of the author: lion.

Somehow we are supposed to believe that hiding one's emotions are a sign of strength. I cannot help but wonder if the author yearned for this state of aloofness from pain and projected this desire onto the character named after himself, namely Ari Ben Canaan. Ari, like the author's name, means lion.

Is being so emotionally withdrawn really such a good thing? The author has Kitty complain about Ari's emotional withdrawal and refusing to express his weaknesses and weariness to her or to other people in general. Today we now know that being so emotionally withdrawn can by most unhelpful.

The author allows Ari to have a small "flaw" by crying over Karen's death in a stable alone. But even after being caught by Kitty he insists on maintain his façade of aloofness from troubles.

Even with her Ari refuses to think that hiding his vulnerability might be problematic. Kitty's desire for intimacy with Ari was ignored by Ari earlier in the novel. And even here this intimacy is not freely given by Ari but was merely spotted by Kitty by accident.

The novel ends with a Passover celebration with Sutherland, a British officer who had come to sympathize with the cause of the Yishuv, reconnecting with his obscured Jewish heritage and leading the Passover seder. He had been raised Anglican and rose up in the ranks of the British army but he learned that his mother was Jewish in her early life but had kept this a secret from him.

Revenge for Karen?

At this point the novel comes to an end. Somewhat disappointingly the events of 1956 are not discussed.

Now of course Karen was a fictional character but her tragic end was based on the fact that at times Israelis living near the border with Gaza were killed by Palestinians returning to the land they had so recently been expelled from.

War erupted in 1956. Britain and France were furious that President Nasser had the audacity to nationalize the Suez Canal thus reducing the profits of British and French investors. The governments decided to go to war to keep their profits flowing in from the Suez Canal. They recruited the Israeli government to help out. And so they went to war.

The Israeli military seized the Sinai Peninsula in only eleven days. They also seized the Gaza Strip. While there Israeli military personnel committed a massacre of about 275 Palestinians in Khan Yunus on November 3, 1956. Just nine days later Israeli military personnel massacred 111 Palestinians in Rafah on November 11, 1956. Even within the borders of the State of Israel it so happened that Palestinians were not safe. Israeli military personnel massacred at least 48 Palestinians in Kafr Qasim on October 29, 1956.

Is it not possible that at least some of these Israeli personnel were looking for revenge for slain Israeli Jews like the fictional Karen? The author of this novel did say that, "The army of Israel swore to kill ten for one" on page 582 of this novel. Was the author alluding to those massacres?

But for all that the Israeli government withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip in March 1957 due to political disapproval from President Eisenhower. The American government had no part in the war against Egypt and disapproved of it. But the pain of being foiled by President Eisenhower is simply ignored in this novel by ending the narrative before the 1956 war thus saving the flawless Ari from dealing with that issue. Ari is Hebrew for lion and has the same meaning as the author's first name.


This novel chooses to support one side and oppose the other side. It is a triumphalist novel reflecting the decisive military victory of the State of Israel in the Israeli War of Independence of 1947-9. Consequently problematic information that spoils the story tends to be ignored or minimized. For instance in the novel the Exodus ship broke the British blockade but in real life ship was seized by British authorities and sent to France and then West Germany. Trying to understand the side ignored and vilified in this novel is necessary in order to bring about peace.

Palestinians and Israeli Jews deserve to live in peace and safety. Peace is possible.

May peace soon come to the Holy Land.

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