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Sarah Schmidt on Our Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story by M.M. Silver

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 23:1-2 (Spring 2011)    

M. M. Silver, an American Israeli who heads the General Studies Department at the Max Stern College of Emek Yezreel, has written an extensively researched and heavily documented study on how Leon Uris’s own biography shaped both his desire to write the novel Exodus and his approach to presenting Israel’s founding story. By showing how the representation of historical events in Exodus reflected Uris’s need to define for himself a stronger identity as a Jew, one that would also bolster the morale of American Jews in post-Holocaust America, Silver frames his central argument: though  in Exodus Uris simplified some facts and distorted others, he provided a vast amount of information about Jewish history and popularized the Zionist narrative, providing examples of Jewish heroism that erased more conventional, “lachrymose” accounts of Jewish history.[1] ThusExodus played a vital role in the recovery of Jewish self-confidence after the devastation of the Holocaust and inspired American Jews to display openly their ethnic pride in a Jewish state.

Leon Uris grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in Baltimore. His closest relationship was with his father, William, who had fled from Russia to Palestine during the Third Aliyah, working there for several months on a Labor Battalion road crew and later as a watchman in Petah Tikvah. William, however, was critical of the pragmatic adaptations of socialism then current in the Yishuv and was unable to adapt to the primitive conditions of pioneer life.  Disappointed, he left for the United States in 1921. As a child Leon looked down on him as a shtetl Jew, unfit for success in the modern world.  This image left a lasting impression on him both in his life and especially in his fiction, with its overwhelming preference for action. According to Silver, action is what Uris wanted in all his novels’ characters precisely because it was so lacking in his father’s life story.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor provided Uris with an opportunity to see some action of his own. In 1942 he enlisted in the Marine Corps, and his first novel, Battle Cry, is a vivid account of his service in the Far East. His interest in Palestine was still minimal, despite the fact that his father’s four siblings lived there. After the war, however, one of his uncles sent Uris a manuscript describing his service in the British army with the Palestine Brigade. His uncle had been captured by the Nazis, escaped, was recaptured, and finally freed himself in time to participate in the Allied landing in Italy. This story provided Uris with a close-up picture of personal courage in the face of Nazism; and after reading it he became obsessed with what had happened to the European Jews during the war, especially with the heroism of Palestinian Jews who had tried to help them.

By the mid-1950s Uris felt a deep need to write about empowered, courageous Jews like his uncle. Thanks to arduous research and a proven knack for writing a narrative focused on action-driven historical materials, Uris succeeded in telling a story in Exodus that caused millions of readers to discard images of Jews as defenseless victims of the Holocaust and instead to see themselves as masters of their own fate. But Uris also had other motives. As he wrote to a friend, “I am not writing this book for the Jews or the Zionists. I am writing this book for the American people in hopes I can present what Israel needs badly-understanding. I am writing this book to bring a major film company into Israel…that will present this story to a billion people around the world….”

Exodus was published in 1958, just as American Jewish leaders began to be aware of the endpoint of Judeo-Christian tolerance, namely, intermarriage. Uris, however, did not share their concern. Intermarried himself, he was determined that “his first and major goal” would be the depiction of a “heroine who is a mid-Western Christian girl”-and, in fact, a key narrative of Exodus is the love affair between a Jewish Israeli and an American Christian. This pairing helped him depict an image of the idealized Judeo-Christian union Uris hoped for in the post-Holocaust world, a melting-pot perspective of “America as it ought to be”-and helped the book become a bestseller.

In his introduction, Silver defines himself as a Zionist, “inclined to regard as madness any attempt to dispute the tangible benefits” of Israel’s victory in its War of Independence. Yet he admits that “a factually reasoned case…can be presented by pointing out that a large percentage of the war’s Palestinian refugees…have adamantly refused to settle in any political construct other than pre-1948 Palestine.” Whereas, until the Six Day War,Exodus set the narrative frame for a sympathetic understanding of Israel, Silver concludes his book by pointing out that the Zeitgeist now is such that Israel’s heroic founding narrative is no longer taken for granted. Pro-Palestinian writers focus on the “Other Exodus,” the Arab version of the 1948 war, which they claim was misrepresented or ignored by Uris. 

From their perspective, then, Uris’s “prejudicial writing” is incompatible with today’s liberal-minded readers. Exodus should not have been written as a story of Jewish triumph, but as a competition “between two morally equivalent national narratives.” And, as Silver notes, not only Arabs but also Israeli post-Zionists are asking new, sometimes challenging questions about Israel’s founding story.

Yet Silver’s thesis is that Uris wrote Exodus not as a “national biography” but as a way of exploring his own life circumstances and the identity needs of his audience, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In 1958 Uris understood the heroes in 1948 in the context of recent historical events: people who acted courageously, without concern for the future. Uris was not writing a post-Zionist tract; he was writing in the hope that, after the devastation of the Holocaust, Jews and non-Jews would see the need for a new kind of Jew, one who took the initiative rather than reacted. As he put it in a letter to his father in 1956, “I believe it will be like a breath of fresh air for the American people to meet [a] fighting Jew who won’t take shit from nobody.”

Uris based Exodus on historical events during the 1940s, and Silver’s work sheds light on the relationship between Uris’s life and the history he chose to write. But it is neither appropriate nor fair to critique the novel in light of the ongoing conflict between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. The best judges may be this author’s North American Hebrew University students, who bring Exodus with them for “airplane reading.” It seems that they, like Uris, are looking for a way to connect to Israel’s heroic founding narrative, one that also helps them strengthen their own Diaspora identity. Even taking into account “the other narrative,” Exodus apparently still has an important role to play.


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[1] Editor’s note: the late Salo Baron used the term lachrymose to describe a certain approach to Jewish history.

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DR. SARAH SCHMIDT teaches courses related to modern Jewish history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with an emphasis both on Israeli and American Jewish history.