I must admit that the only thing I remember from the book "Exodus," apart from its dark purple cover, reprinted in the La'isha women's magazine, was the intimate encounter between Ari Ben Canaan and that American woman, whose name I no longer remember, in bed, in a hotel in Tiberias, where he lowered the shoulder strap of her nightgown and cupped her breast - I think it was her left breast, or maybe that's just my fantasy - in his hand. That was the most pornographic scene I found on the bookshelf in my father's house. And now Leon Uris has died, and who still remembers the national excitement about the book, not to mention the film?
No one disputes any more that "Exodus" was a lousy book, like many cheap books that made a lot of money. Nor is it disputed that the film by Otto Preminger, an important Hollywood director, was trivial (despite Paul Newman, Sal Mineo and Eva Marie Saint), but did "Exodus" - the book and the film - have a part in building our "imaginary"?
That is, a part in the collective "self-evident" with which we imagine ourselves as a collective with physical, physiognomic, moral and other characteristics? Indeed, our imagined world, like the world of hundreds of millions of people, is constructed through Hollywood and "Exodus"; the book was written as such for Hollywood. However, "our entrance" into Hollywood, through "Exodus," perhaps made us feel good, but it changed very little in "our attitude toward ourselves" with respect to the imaginary.
The Israeli war hero is always a bit boyish, a bit not a man. Alik from Moshe Shamir's novel "He Walked in the Fields," or the heroes of S. Yizhar's "Days of Ziklag," and first and foremost Amichai the medic. Even the characters of Amos Oz, the ones that have to do with military action, are always youths. Their idealistic heroism is always connected to their wounded youth and afterward, later in Oz's life, they are aging men, after their male peak. Thus, despite the similar ages of "our" heroes and "their" heroes, it seems as though for us they are always youths, whereas for them, they are men. Here is where it is possible to comprehend the excitement of "Exodus" in its Hebrew translation, in its becoming an international best-seller that was adapted for film and the distribution of the theme song from the film - as Zionist as Tourism Minister Benny Elon and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. This is no exaggeration. This connection has not lost hold of us, since the 1950s, at the beginning of the Hollywood melodrama, afterward in a hidden way, and now explicitly.
No Kafka, this Uris
Leon Uris himself would not have written the book had he not been endowed with a considerable amount of the "new" type of Zionism. When "Exodus" was first published, Uris was interviewed and said: "There is a whole school of Jewish American writers who spend their time damning their fathers, hating their mothers, wringing their hands and wondering why they were born." In the background, of course, are Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and others. "This isn't art or literature," wrote Uris. "It's psychiatry. These writers are professional apologists. Every year you find one of their works on the best-seller lists. Their work is obnoxious and makes me sick to my stomach."
"Exodus," of course, is the antithesis to what he calls "obnoxious" literature: "I wrote `Exodus' because I was sick of apologizing - or feeling it was necessary to apologize. The Jewish community of this country has contributed far more greatly than its numbers - in art, in medicine and especially literature."
How can I put this delicately? He was no Franz Kafka, this Leon Uris, and no Emmanual Levinas either. But here, too, did he "write us"? Don't we know that sentence - "I'm sick of apologizing?" Where is the "we" in what Uris has to say? "I set out to tell a story of Israel. I am definitely biased. I am definitely pro-Jewish."
And he continues: "An author goes through everything his readers do. It was a revelation to me, too, when I was researching `Exodus' in Europe and in Israel. And the revelation was this: that we Jews are not what we have been portrayed to be. In truth, we have been fighters." We have been fighters. Until then they spoke about "we were as dreamers," but Uris already knew the future.
These things were published at a time when we were very pleased with normalization, in 1961. Hebrew poetry had just escaped from its stylized past, and painting too had taken two or three steps forward (some of the major exhibitions this past year could exemplify this leap forward), in the direction opposite to what Leon Uris imagined. As for American literature, we were reading Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck here. The Jewish American writers, the "mother-haters," had yet to be translated into Hebrew (who could have known that they would be so important once we got into the 1960s?) and nevertheless, in the United States, Uris' remarks were questioned, still as an internal American cultural debate, still without involving Israel in the imagined world of the American Jews. But signs of the "special relationship" that was woven in secret (and reached its peak in 1967) were immediately evident in Hollywood. Hollywood has always discovered distant arenas in direct correlation with the administration's interest in those arenas. It is enough to look at the quantity of films about World War II in the Pacific Ocean, films that were made in the years between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, in order to grasp this.
In a lecture that Philip Roth delivered at B'nai B'rith in Chicago, he said: "I find that I am suddenly living in a country in which the Jew has come to be - or is allowed for now to think he is - a cultural hero. Only recently I heard on the radio a disc jockey introducing the
theme song from the new movie `Exodus.' The words were to be sung by Pat Boone. The disc jockey made it clear that his was `the only authorized version.'"
Authorized by what? For whom? Why? No further word from the deejay. Only a silence crackling with piety, and then Mr. Boone, singing out of something less than a whirlwind: "This land is mine, / God gave this land to me!"
Roth continues: "I don't know whether I am moving up or down the cultural ladder, or simply sideways, when I recall that there has been the song `Exodus,' preceded by the movie `Exodus,' preceded by the novel `Exodus.' However you slice it, there does not seem to be
any doubt that the image of the Jew as patriot, warrior and battle-scarred belligerent is rather satisfying to a large segment of the American public."
Forty years have gone by. Then, in the debate with Uris, Roth needed a Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, and a novel by him, in order to combat Uris' lust for heroism that "refuses to apologize." Thirty years later, in Roth's "Operation Shylock," in which for the first time he put Israel in the center of the (Jewish-American) action, Roth needed a Holocaust survivor in order to build a "new Jew," on the one hand - or, on the other hand, in order to rebuff radical criticism of Israel and of its new Jew. Roth positions Aharon Appelfeld as the spokesman of Israeli Zionism (a Zionism that is, of course, a Holocaust survivor). And when at night, near Ramallah, his hero falls into the hands of overwrought soldiers during the first intifada, the only guy who knows English - i.e., is cultured - and who saves him, is the officer, who wants to study film at New York University and has just finishing a book (of Roth's), and is also moral and above all the son of European Holocaust survivors.
In other words, "Israeliness" does not find any representation for itself within the world of Israeli representations, except as the opposite of the American Jew, for better or for worse. What Uris did not understand, and did not want to understand, is what Roth anguished over quite a bit: How can a Jew be represented as a Jew, with regard to Israel, not necessarily with respect to politics, but also when it has to do with American-Jewish life? Is this the reason the Israeli reader - or the Israeli "taste-setter" - prefers Paul Auster, or Raymond Carver, and not the translated Roth (who is around all the time and sells not badly)? Is it possible that it is this tangle of American Jewish life, in which there is no escape from Israel, that leads to this complicated attitude within the endlessly symbolized world of American ethnicity?
What can they do with the wars of the Jews, there, in Israel? How can the tangle of questions about representation be resolved concerning "our" Jews - that is, Hollywood's - who are always district attorneys, professors and former communists in the nostalgia pictures, and never mafiosi, certainly not in the years of the formation of the mafioso, despite Meir Lansky & Co.?
And, indeed, what they do is what Uris did. There is another Jew, the Israeli, and he resembles Paul Newman - that is, the white American. He is Israeli according to the narrative, and he is really American, one of "ours," much more American than Jewish. The American Jews can stick with the characters of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and his clan, even Kramer, and George Constanza, an Italian by name, but completely Jewish as he is represented.
Perhaps it is worth complicating the discussion of Uris even more by mentioning another aspect of the discussions back then of "Exodus." Time Magazine reported to its readers, way back when, during the "Exodus" fever, that "Captain Yehiel Aranowicz - one-time master of the
blockade-running Israeli refugee ship `Exodus' - reported some reservations about the best-selling (4,000,000 copies to date) novel inspired by his 1947 heroics. `Israelis,' he said, `were pretty disappointed in the book, to put it lightly. The types that are described in it never existed in Israel. The novel is neither history nor literature.'"
And what was Uris' response to the ship's captain's comments? "You may quote me as saying, `Captain who?' and that's all I have to say. I'm not going to pick on a lightweight. Just look at my sales figures."
HAARETZ, Friday, August 15, 2003