Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sailing with the Exodus - again

[This is not just a nostalgia piece - but you may have to read to the end to understand why I'm writing this.]

The other night I was "cruising" my non-cable TV listings and stumbled on a PBS showing of "Exodus." I first saw this epic movie as a somewhat post-Bar Mitzvah young man with about six years of four day a week Hebrew School, confirmation class and a solidly Zionist family. I thought Exodus was wonderful. Whenever I speak to groups and talk about my background I say - only partly facetiously - that the two great heroes in my family/community were David Ben Gurion and Paul Newman. 

I viewed the film at least one other time many years ago and, frankly, don't remember much about how I felt except that it was very emotional. So now I offer this review, 50 years after Exodus first opened.
To begin with, despite the stellar cast and production group [Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo based on the best-selling Leon Uris novel; directed by Otto Preminger; starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Sal Mineo, Ralph Richardson, Lee J. Cobb, Peter Lawford, David Opatashu and Hugh Griffith!] this really isn't a very good film. The dialogue is stilted, sometimes pedantic and frequently preachy.  None of the actors quite overcomes the shortcomings of the script and, at 208 minutes [almost 3 ½ hours!], it's not long enough to capture the enormous scope of the events yet too long to completely capture my attention. 

Then there is the story. Every myth and stereotype is included before the heartbreaking last image fades.  The cast includes every "type" we need for a story like this: There is, of course, Ari Ben Canaan [Paul Newman] the ultimate sabra - hard and prickly as a cactus outside with a soul soft enough to ache for the wall between his father and uncle, and ultimately able to make room in his heart for the shicksa  turned pseudo-Zionist, Kitty Fremont [Eva Marie Saint]; Ari's father Barak, the Ben Gurion figure [Cobb] and Barak's estranged brother Akiva, the stand in for Irgun leader Menachem Begin [Opatashu]; the violently angry Dov Landau [Mineo] whose rage - and expertise with explosives - were born in the hell of Auschwitz where his life was saved by blowing up the bodies of his fellow Jews gassed in the "showers";  the almost unbearably innocent Karen who is the only one who can break through Dov's shell and, for the sake of the story, has to die; Taha, the "good" Arab, an almostzz brother to Ari, whose father gave Barak the land on which his village was founded and who, like Karen, must die, hung by the bad Arab followers of the Grand Mufti and a vicious German Nazi.

 And, as for the mandatory plot lines: a boatload of Holocaust survivors ready to give up their lives if they cannot go to Palestine; the charming anti-Semitic young British officer who is outsmarted by the clever Ari; the hostility between the moderate, heroic, good Haganah [represented by Ben Gurion/Barak Ben Canaan] and the extremist, violent Irgun [Begin/Akiva Ben Canaan], but even the Irgun is made up of well-intentioned, misguided Jewish heroes so even they aren't terrorists [Dov, after blowing up the King David hotel, killing 91 people, reminds us: "We gave them three warnings. If they want their own people slaughtered that's up to them"; the obligatory scene where the American Presbyterian Kitty first begins to understand it all as she sits on the hill overlooking the Jezreel Valley with an intense Ari, taking in the beauty of the resplendent view of the valley that the amazing halutzim [pioneers] brought, literally, to life [Ari to Kitty: "I know every tree we have planted here"]; teenagers carrying babies with taped mouths on their backs, in dead of night, to save them from the impending Arab attack; and, finally, Ben Gurion/Ben Canaan's rousing balcony announcement of the UN partition vote, including a heartfelt plea to our Arab "brothers" to stay in their houses and stand with us to build the new nation.

So, here's the point: everyone should take the 208 minutes to watch this movie. Exodus is the narrative of Israel that my my generation grew up with, never suspecting that any of it might not be true - and certainly unaware of any parallel narrative.  We on the "left" have appropriately demanded that Israelis, Jews and Zionists at very least listen to and acknowledge the Palestinian narrative.  It is just as important that we listen to and acknowledge the Zionist narrative. On the one hand it is only fair to listen to our adversaries and remember, myths are not always false. There was a Holocaust and centuries of the persecution is part of the Jewish experience. And there were Jews who thought they were developing a nation that would include all of Palestine's people [e.g., Buber and Magnes]. We cannot diminish these realities nor should we.  But, if the morality of this isn't persuasive enough, think of the strategy. How can we hope to reach our goals of ending the occupation and guaranteeing the civil/human rights of Palestinians without understanding what motivates those who stand in the way of those goals.
I can't deny that now and again, as I watched the movie, I cried. I could chalk that up to the swelling strains of Hatikvah and the Exodus theme, both used to great effect throughout the film. But, if I am honest, I have to acknowledge that I was also crying for the loss of my innocent past, a time when the story of Israel was simple, when I could count on the ultimate success of my heroic people. For cripes sake: wasn't Paul Newman there to make everything turn out okay?!?!


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