The Intervention

Palestine, Zionism, and Empire Gaiden: Exodus (1960) and American Jewry w/ Left of the Projector & Labor Jawn

January 09, 2024 Episode 82
The Intervention
Palestine, Zionism, and Empire Gaiden: Exodus (1960) and American Jewry w/ Left of the Projector & Labor Jawn
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

We're back with Evan of Left of the Projector for the third (maybe second?) entry in the History in Film series. This time it's 1960's Zionist epic, Exodus. Based on the novel of the same name by Leon Uris, this film aimed to convince American Jewry to consider the State of Israel (at this point, only twelve years old) as a nation deserving their investment, sympathy, and loyalty.

Somehow, we've dragged along Sam and Gabe from Labor Jawn to slog our way through this three and half hour long piece of Zionist least we got a shirtless Paul Newman out of it.

Primary Sources:
In Vigilant Brotherhood by The American Jewish Committee - (see pg 64-70 for "The Blaustein-Ben-Gurion Agreement")
"Is Zionism a Liberating Democratic Movement?" by Henryk Erlich
"This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle" Tweet by Benjamin Netanyahu
"שטיל, די נאַכט איז אױסגעשטערנט [Quiet, the Night is Full of Stars]" performed by Isabel Frey

Answer Coalition
The Anti-Imperialist Archive
Jewish Voices for Peace
Middle East Children's Alliance
The Palestine Children's Relief Fund
Palestinian Youth Movement

Labor Jawn:
Patreon: @laborjawn
Instagram: @laborjawn
Tiktok: @laborjawn

Left of the Projector (Evan):
Patreon: @LeftoftheProjectorPod
Twitter: @LOTP_Pod
Instagram: @leftoftheprojectorpod
Letterboxd: @lotppod

The Intervention Podcast:
Twitter: @intervenepod
Instagram: @intervention_pod

Levi Levi:
Twitter: @levi0levi
Instagram: @levi0levi0levi

Big thanks to Plasmid for the music for the show: Instagram - @plasmidband. Listen / follow on Spotify


Welcome back to the Intervention Podcast. In previous entries in our Palestine, Zionism, and Empire series we’ve detailed American Zionist interest (or lack thereof) in Mandate Palestine. But we have, by and large, sidelined a focus on American Jewry after the State of Israel emerged. What better way to rectify this than by discussing Leon Uris’s Zionist epic, Exodus first released as a novel in 1958. The book, a runaway hit, became a film in 1960 directed by Otto Preminger, written for the screen by Dalton Trumbo, and starring Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan, Eva Marie Saint as Kitty Fremont, Jill Haworth as Karen Hansen Clement, and (nominated for Best Supporting Actor) Sal Mineo as Dov Landau.

My co-host will be Evan (he/him) from Left of the Projector (this will be the second or third entry into our collaborative “History in Film” series.) We’re joined by special guests Gabe Christy (he/him) and Sam (he/him) from the Labor Jawn Podcast.

At the top, Gabe and Sam, take a moment to introduce yourselves and what you do over there on Labor Jawn.

You’ll notice, this is the first Intervention episode without either Nick or Steve. Unlike everyone here, they were unwilling to burn three and a half hours of their lives to join us on this awful propaganda movie, and for that I thank you both all the more. 

There are a few historical points that need clarified for the sake of context before we dive into the film.

Blaustein-Ben-Gurion Agreement (1950)

Through the 20th century, the United States (for all of its notable currents of anti-Semitism) represented a society where Jewish people felt able to participate as citizens. The rise of outright facism in Europe thus encouraged thousands of Jewish Europeans to seek sanctuary on American shores. The MS St. Louis is an instructive and tragic story to this point: the boat set sail from Germany to the United States carrying over 900 Jewish refugees. The United States, in the depths of Depression driven isolationist policy, turned the masses away less than four months before the Nazi invasion of Poland.

After the war, Jewish people liberated from death camps again sought American refuge. The United States (and the other allied power, Great Britain) turned away thousands of Jewish immigrants. The political reasons they did so include anti-Semitism but also general xenophobia and a resistance to absorb massive numbers of destitute refugees.

This left Mandate Palestine as the other option for Jews who, understandably, did not want to return to the lands of recent persecution. Great Britain, protectorate of the Mandate, resisted the influx of Jews in a vain attempt to maintain order and calm between the Palestinian, Arab, and Jewish peoples. The crown made contradictory promises of sovereignty earlier in the century, detailed in our episode on Mandate Palestine. A specific version of this struggle is portrayed in the movie.

Another important context NOT portrayed in the movie but essential to understanding the film as a piece of propaganda is the relationship of American Jews to the State of Israel after the resolution of the First Arab-Israeli War. Zionist organisations in the United States, for reasons touched on in earlier episodes, supported the creation of the State of Israel as a refuge for persecuted Jews. American Jews, though not a monolith, argued Judaism represented a mainstream Abrahamic religion not a national identity. The aim being, their loyalties lay with America and their religion in Diaspora, not based in some other state in the Middle East.

The Reform Movement, the largest Jewish movement in the United States, embraced further acculturation rather than the cultivation of a separate Jewish ethnic identity. In Pittsburgh (the birthplace of the Reform Movement), temple Rodef Shalom went as far as moving the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday to make the religion more in line with Christianity. Rather than get lost in this trivia, its important to note the State of Israel’s stated purpose as a homeland for all Jewish people, regardless of their practice, contradicted the American Reform Movement’s stated purpose that America was home, and Judaism was a religion.

This conflict came to ahead in the August, 1950 meeting of President of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Blaustein rose to prominence after founding the mom & pop American Oil Company, better known today as Amoco. A few billion dollars later, and Blaustein emerged one of the most financially flush and outspoken American Jewish Zionists. The meeting and subsequent agreement between Blustein and Ben-Gurion defined the post-statehood relationship between American Zionism and the State of Israel.

This “Blaustein–Ben-Gurion Agreement of 1950” made explicit the position of Israel as a state which represented only the citizens within its own borders, not a representative of the collective Jew. The most oft quoted portion of Ben-Gurion’s segment of the agreement reads:

The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel. In the first statement which the representative of Israel made before the United Nations after her admission to that international organization, he clearly stated, without any reservation, that the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country. We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad.

Blaustein’s reply is of equal blunt force in its statement that American Jews hold no political attachment to the State of Israel:

American Jews vigorously repudiat e any suggestion or implication that they are in exile. American Jews — young and old alike, Zionists and non-Zionists alike — are profoundly attached to America. America welcomed their immigrant parents in their need. Under America's free institutions, they and their children have achieved that freedom and sense of security unknown for long centuries of travail. American Jews have truly become Americans; just as have all other oppressed groups that have ever come to America's shores.

This agreement, signed by both parties, represented a significant concession from the State of Israel. Charles S. Liebman in his history of the exchange argued, “this is the only case in which Israeli leaders adopted a policy under Diaspora pressure without any significant segment of the Israeli elite being sympathetic to that policy.” Ben-Gurion knew  he needed to keep American Zionists happy so they’d keep sending checks to the state. He knew this statement encouraged American Jews to continue viewing Israel as little more than a massive refugee centre.

Leon Uris and Exodus

This conception of Israel as full of poor, destitute Jews which gained purchase in the minds of American Jews encouraged Leon Uris to write his 1958 novel Exodus. Uris at 18, signed up to serve in a U.S. Marine battalion in the South Pacific during World War II. His first novel, Battle Cry, fictionalised the complete devastation of his own battalion at the Battle of Saipan which he only avoided because he contracted dengue fever. The novel and subsequent movie (which he also wrote) set a major precedent of his career: loved by the public and despised by critics. Uris continued writing pulp novels and films featuring macho leading men, damsels in distress, and plenty of violence including the Greek resistance to Germany invasion in the 1955 novel (and film) Angry Hills and the iconic 1957 western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Sometime in this early portion of his career New York public relations firm of Edward Gottlieb approached Uris, born Jewish though not practising, to “create a more sympathetic attitude toward Israel.” [Uris himself contested the influence of Gottlieb, but numerous historians back up its validity.] At first, Uris gravitated toward writing a novelization of his uncle Aaron who, unlike Leon’s father, made his home in Mandate Palestine and participated in the First Arab-Israeli War. Uris after (by his own account) travelling “nearly fifty thousand miles” over two years collecting hundreds of interviews and reading every book on Israel he could find published Exodus in 1958. 

Uris sought to reframe Israel not as a place for passive refugees but rather as akin to the American mythos of rugged frontier individualism. The dust jacket description alone captured this quite well:

[Exodus] is the picture of a people’s dream to establish a homeland, to live in God-given freedom, to build cities, turn desert into gardens, laugh and sing, worship in the ways of Abraham, love and be loved far from the shadow of oppression, It is the story of men in mortal struggle and of men and women in love

In at least two letters to his father in 1956 and 1957 (according to historian Matthew M. Silver) and then in the first paperback print, Uris made blunt his desire to remake the idea of the Jew in American popular culture:

All the cliche Jewish characters who have cluttered up… American fiction–the clever businessman, the brilliant doctor, the sneaky lawyer, the sulking artist…all those good folk who spread their chapters hating themselves, the world, and all their aunts and uncles…all those steeped in self-pity…all those golden riders of the psychoanalysis couch…all these have been left where they rightfully belong, on the cutting-room floor…I have shown the other side of the coin, and written about my people who, against a lethargic world and with little else than courage, conquered unconquerable odds…Exodus is about fighting people, people who do not apologise either for being born Jews or the right to live in human dignity…it has been a revelation to the readers, Jewish and Gentile, alike

Uris optioned the rights to the book to MGM while still completing the novel. The book’  s runaway success guaranteed the film’s production. Uris wrote the initial screenplay but director Otto Preminger rejected this draft as too long, aimless, and relying too heavily on anti-Arab and anti-British tropes. Preminger brought on Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted since 1946 for Communist Party sympathies, to rework the script. Though redrafted by a Communist and though Uris denigrated the final script, the film still embodied Uris’s narrative.

As a concluding statement, there is no subtlety in either the book or the film. Both need to be understood as a piece of propaganda: as a specific fictional framing meant to model thought and action. Ben-Gurion himself in 1959 remarked, “As a literary work [Exodus] isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” Writing in 2001, Palestinian academic Edward Said concluded, “The most disturbing thing is that hardly any of the questioned Americans knew anything at all about the Palestinian story, nothing about 1948, nothing at all about Israel's illegal 34-year military occupation. The main narrative model that dominates American thinking still seems to be Leon Uris's 1950 [here Said meant 1958] novel Exodus.” What I hope we can break down and discuss: what is this narrative, why did Uris [and Preminger] craft their work the way they did, and what has changed (if anything) in how the American media presents the narrative of Israel’s foundation and character.

Blausten-Ben-Gurion Agreement
Jews Not Looking Jewish
Israel-America Connection
Justification for Violence
The Arabs
The Long and Boring Slog
Religion Represented
The Holocaust
Nazi Islamists
The Final Eulogy