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Our Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story, by M. M. Silver. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. 266 pp. $29.95.
Many historians of American Judaism make a point to mention the importance and impact of Leon Uris’ Exodus, and of the 1960 film adaptation starring Paul Newman, on the formation of American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Few, however, dwell overlong on how or why this text came to be so important in that capacity. With the publication of M. M. Silver’s Our Exodus, the need for such exposition might be a thing of the past.
In the introduction Silver writes that what little scholarly literature there is on Uris and Exodus is marked by a pedantic focus on details of historical accuracy—what Uris got right and what he got wrong. But is history what matters about the text? Silver answers with “a resounding ‘yes and no.’” As he explains: “No, errors and truths contained in Exodus’s telling of the history of the founding of the Jewish state are not crucially significant because Uris’s novel was not ultimately about the ‘real’ Israel. Yes, the way history is presented in Exodus is crucially significant because the representations reflect needs, expectations, and aspirations of Jewish identity and culture in the post-Holocaust world” (p. 8). Without Silver’s saying it in so many words, then, Our Exodus is a book more about collective memory than it is a book about history.
In line with this, Silver argues that Exodus is about Jewish empowerment more than it is a book “about” Israel. Or rather, the two are inseparable in Uris’ work. The success of the book owes to the linking of Jewish history with Jewish future, through recasting the past in light of present needs. For Uris, Israel was founded because it had to be, after the Holocaust. The action-oriented narrative reflects, among other things, Uris’ indictment of Holocaust victims’ passivity. Not Anne Frank, but the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising were the teachers of the wartime lesson. As a tool for promoting his “gun-barrel theory of Jewish redemption” (p. 92) Israel “figures ultimately as a means to a supreme end of empowerment” (p. 49).
In the first chapter, Silver places Exodus within a larger framework of texts about Israel. The book was similar to many narratives that had come before, while at the same time it was something wholly other. Zionist public relations work had, in the sixty years preceding the publication of Uris’ text, been marked by what can at best be classified as limited success. Many Zionist organizers had experience in the field of journalism, they knew how to talk and how to write—and they most certainly had a message. Still, it was as though their longing for a homeland could not be convincingly articulated in print. In pageants such as Peter Bergson’s A Flag is Born many of the same methods employed by Uris were put to great use, but neither this nor any other work, whether political, literary, or theological, could have the effect Exodus would. In the same manner, Exodus is contrasted with Mordechai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist reworking of Zionism and other related cultural phenomena of the time, all of which proved insufficient in ways that Exodus was not. Only Uris managed to blend the past with the present in a way that could conflate the two in a truly compelling manner.
Next, Silver discusses Exodus and Jewish history. The book is related to Uris’ own biography, his oeuvre, and to contemporary Jewish history. Matters of historical interests in the Exodus narrative do not lie in the correspondence between story elements and “actual events,” but rather in the convergence in theme and spirit between those events represented and the fictional narrative. For instance, while the real-world 1947 Exodus ship affair and the representation of a ship of the same name in the Uris version differ greatly in regards to historical accuracy, they nonetheless played the same role in political and public respects. Throughout the chapter, focused discussions on aspects of Exodus’ relation to historical events are interspersed with poignant anecdotes collected from Uris’ life and personal materials in order to show how the book is firmly rooted in its historical moment while facts are simplified or distorted to make history fit the author’s interpretation.
The Americanization of Israel’s founding story is the subject of the third chapter. Arguing that Uris’ own biography is important here, Silver points to the author’s marriage to an American Protestant woman and to the identity politics of the time. Intermarriage was also an important factor in the film version, which more explicitly attempts to marry Israel’s founding story with America, trying to make Israel anno 1948 “equal” America anno 1776. Blurring the Israeli specifics of the main characters, and presenting the story in the oh-so-American idiom of the Western, director Preminger painted a picture of the new Jewish state as something very much American.
In the last chapter, entitled “Exodus and After,” Silver discusses the impact of the narrative on the way Israel’s founding story came to be viewed. After having showed, with excerpts from Uris’ private correspondence with his readers, that Exodus was both popular and influential, Silver goes on to trace the reasons behind, and the effect of, the subsequent decline of this view in American consciousness. Four main reasons are given, being: 1) morally problematic and factually inaccurate aspects of the narrative, 2) Uris’ prejudicial writing about Arabs, 3) the popularization of the film version with its less distinctly Jewish focus, and 4) the rise of a competing narrative of a Palestinian “Other Exodus,” which cast doubt on the heroic and redemptive narrative in favor of more problematizing inquiries into Israel’s history. Uris’ past gradually lost its power to convince, and with the discourse moving ever deeper into the gray, it stopped being useful.
The division of the book into thematic chapters is very helpful. It allows Silver to present his argument clearly and concisely, which is done in a way that results in minimal chronological overlap. The chapters would, however, have benefitted from subheadings, to illustrate more clearly the slides and turns of Silver’s argument. Another point that needs to be made is that the subtitle of the book is somewhat misleading. While the Americanization of Israel’s founding story is a big part of the argument, the history and context of Uris’ book and the decline of the narrative’s power both take up much more of the page count and of Silver’s argumentative effort. Americanization not only contributed to these other aspects, it was in turn affected by them.
That being said, Our Exodus is an impressive book. In this comparatively small volume, Silver manages expertly to knit together the history of a book, a film, and that of their progenitor, along with American Jewish history and Israeli history, into one single, coherent, and very interesting narrative. Beginning the book with a quote from Yerushalmi’s classic Zakhor!, Silver traces the rise and fall of an influential, albeit short-lived, collective memory: from tracing Uris’ construction of a “usable past” to chronicling its decline once its usefulness had passed, Our Exodus is a compelling history of memory and forgetting.
Centre for Theology and Religious Studies