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Chase Carter
Senior Thesis
April 24, 2015
On Jewish Nationalism

Lacking the courage to fight for a change of our social and legal status, we have decided
instead, so many of us, to try a change of identity.1
Hannah Arendt, "We Refugees"
With the above statement, Arendt tells the story of the European Jew. This Jew has
transformed identities moving between those of religious devotee, persecuted heretic, assimilated
and secular member of modern society, ghettoized second-class citizen, state-less refugee and
finally, in an ironic and unexpected turn of events, militarized settler. Presently, there is a strong
conflation between Jewish people and the state of Israel. Israel perpetuates this incomplete and
often dangerous association by zealously defining itself as "the Jewish state” and therefore as
representing all Jews. Other organizations (media, governmental, non-governmental, etc.) do the
same. While Israel moves more to the political right, many Jews (ie. Open Hillel, Jewish Voice
for Peace) across the world are disassociating themselves, and their Jewishness, from the state of
Israel. While the state of Israel does not represent all Jewish people, it was created by Jewish
people and continues to be supported by a significant portion of Jews, particularly JewishAmericans. With all these facts in mind, Jewish identity is undoubtedly linked to the state of
Israel in its past, present, and future.2

1

Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, ed. Marc
Robinson (Boston; London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 116.
2
In my own opinion, and for the purposes of this paper, Judaism does not refer only to
religious aspects, but also to the history, culture, and traditions of Jews.

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i. Jews Enter the Family of Nations
Modern Jewish history, arguably, is defined by a series of exclusions. Anti-Semitism in
Europe has afflicted the Jewish population for centuries, excluding them from rights their
Christian counterparts were ensured. With the rise of nation-states in Europe, national citizenship
became a ticket to guarantee one’s unalienable rights.3 Jews around Europe certainly noticed and
understood this reality. Due to their interest in wanting to survive and thrive (and partially due to
a certain shame of being Jewish), Jews started putting their national identity before their identity
as Jews.4 For instance, Franz Kafka is remembered as being either a German or Czech writer
before being a Jew. Many consider Trotsky a nationalist Russian revolutionary before
associating him with his Jewish background. Even Walter Benjamin is seen as a German
academic before his Jewishness is acknowledged. Although many Jewish families jump on the
opportunity to claim one as their own (“He was Jewish you know!”), Jewish people were
projecting their national identity before, and many times as a substitute for, Jewish identity. Due
to a combination of this reality and a general movement towards secularization and
modernization, 19th Century Europe saw Jews assimilate and integrate into whatever nationalist
culture and identity were enclosed within each sovereign state’s geo-political borders. However,
as hard as European Jews tried to assimilate, they were never accepted. Speaking from both firsthand experience and observation of fellow Jews, in 1943 Hannah Arendt writes: “Lacking the
courage to fight for a change of our social and legal status, we have decided instead, so many of
us, to try a change of identity.” She goes on to describe the tragically accurate story of the
European Jew:

3
4

Étienne. Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene (London; New York: Verso, 2002), 82.
Arendt, “We Refugees,” 110.

Carter 3
Some day somebody will write the true story of this Jewish emigration…and he will have
to start with a description of Mr. Cohn from Berlin who had always been a 150%
German, a German super-patriot. In 1933 that Mr. Cohn found a refuge in Prague and
very quickly became a convinced Czech patriot – as true and as loyal a Czech patriot as
he had been a German one. Time went on and at about 1937 the Czech Government,
already under some Nazi pressure, began to expel its Jewish refugees, disregarding the
fact that they felt so strongly as prospective Czech citizens. Our Mr. Cohn then went to
Vienna; to adjust oneself there a definite Austrian patriotism was required. The German
invasion forced Mr. Cohn out of that country. He arrived in Paris at a bad moment and he
never did receive a regular residence-permit. Having already acquired a great skill in
wishful thinking, he refused to take mere administrative measures seriously, convinced
that he would spend his future life in France. Therefore, he prepared his adjustment to the
French nation…As long as Mr. Cohn can’t make up his mind to be what he actually is, a
Jew, nobody can foretell all the mad changes he will still have to go through…Whatever
we do, whatever we pretend to be, we reveal nothing but our insane desire to be changed,
not to be Jews…It is the history of a hundred and fifty years of assimilated Jewry who
performed an unprecedented feat: through proving all the time their non-Jewishness, they
succeeded in remaining Jews all the same.5
After the Holocaust, the remaining European Jewish population became state-less refugees.
Three million Jews were left to make new homes, learn new languages, and invent new modes of
survival, again. Remarkably, before WWII even ends, Arendt begins to reflect on what this
catastrophe means for the Jewish people and their stripped identity:
We lost our home, which means the familiarity, of daily life. We lost our occupation,
which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language,
which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected
expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends
have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private
lives…We were told to forget; and we forgot quicker than anybody ever could imagine.6
The Jewish diaspora spread wider across the world after the Holocaust, but the United States
became the new home for most. In the United States, as in Europe, Jews also tried their best to
assimilate and integrate. However, even in the US, presently seen as a relatively welcoming and
prosperous place for Jews, in the years following WWII, Jewish people encountered more (and

5
6

Ibid., 116–118.
Ibid., 110.

Carter 4
familiar) anti-Semitic persecution.7 If, even in a country composed of immigrants, Jews faced
discrimination, where could they live openly as Jews? While Arendt’s narrative of Mr. Cohn is
true for Jewish intra-European migration and migration across the Atlantic to the United States,
there is an alternative history that many other Jews followed.
European Jews were nearly exterminated during the Holocaust, so it was imperative that
they find another way to live, besides the diaspora. Jews learned from their devastating
experiences in Europe that equality is only guaranteed through a secured nationality. Étienne
Balibar describes this new international order with which Jews in Europe were confronted as
…the modern (nationalist) nation-state, this equality having as its internal and external
limits the national community and, as its essential content, the acts which signify it
directly (particularly universal suffrage and political ‘citizenship’). It is, first and
foremost, an equality in respect of nationality.8
If it is true that in order to have status, and to merely survive, one must be a citizen of a nationstate, and if no country accepts Jews, within the nation-state logic Jews must then create a
nation-state of their own. However, Jews were not the only group looking, or rather being told, to
create a nation-state of their own: “In the international sphere, the vision of the political
leadership was to become part of ‘the family of nations.’”9 Zionists sought after “the
‘normalization’ of Jewish existence along lines similar to those of other nations.”10 Balibar,
building off of Benedict Anderson’s foundational work, Imagined Communities, reinforces the
importance of national identity at this pivotal moment in history, stating, “…no social ‘property’
– material or in the realm of ideas – can escape national determination nor can any be nationally
7

The US displayed its pre-WWII rejection of Jews through the Immigration Act of 1924
and its post-WWII Jewish persecution through the Red Scare.
8
Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous
Identities (London; New York: Verso, 2002), 50.
9
Dalia Ofer, “We Israelis Remember, But How?,” Israel Studies 18, no. 2 (2013): 72.
10
Michael Feige, “Introduction: Rethinking Israeli Memory and Identity,” Israel Studies 7,
no. 2 (Summer 2002): vi.

Carter 5
overdetermined. To each individual a nation, and to each nation its ‘nationals.’”11 Between the
late 19th Century and the end of WWII, hundreds of thousands of Jews immigrated to Palestine to
escape various anti-Semitic persecutions around Europe. Unlike Arendt’s ever-changing Mr.
Cohn, adapting and shifting for survival, losing and gaining different identities along the way,
these Jews found another way to live: if Jews were able to create a nation-state of their own,
opportunely in their ancient and biblical homeland, they would be guaranteed the same rights
that come to all citizens of a recognized nation-state.
ii. The Imagining of Israel
In Palestine, and what was to become Israel, Jews imagined a future where they could be
accepted for who they were, Jews. They could practice their religion and customs openly and
publicly identify as Jewish without any fear of persecution. While the age-old “Jewish Question”
– the combined issue of assimilation, integration, and emancipation – was absent in the
experience of living in Palestine, life there posed new questions, such as “what is Israeli
identity?” and “what are its people’s histories?” Israel, like all new nation-states, needed to
construct new mythologies.12 Israel is what Benedict Anderson, in his groundbreaking work,
calls an imagined community:
It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of
their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the
image of their communion.13

11

Étienne Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” Review (Fernand Braudel
Center) 13, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 337.
12
While undeniably a truth, the Holocaust was but built into a constructed narrative of the
foundation of Israel and Jewish history.
13
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism (London; New York: Verso, 2006), 6.

Carter 6
Therefore, not only is Israel an imagined community, but so are the Jewish people. While Jews
were already a religious group, arguably an ethnic group, and to many anti-Semitic white
supremacists at the time, a race, they were and are still imagined. Though, that is not to say that
this imaginary connection is not real. Balibar uses Anderson’s notion of an imagined community
to relate the idea of the imaginary to the real:
Every social community reproduced by the functioning of institutions is imaginary, that is
to say, it is based on the projection of individual existence into the weft of a collective
narrative, on the recognition of a common name and on traditions lived as the trace of an
immemorial past. But…only imaginary communities are real. In the case of national
formations, the imaginary which inscribes itself in the real in this way is that of the
‘people.’14
What is special about Israel, though, is its people’s extensive and rich historical connection well
before the emergence of nation-states. Although “gathered together externally from diverse
geographical origin,” the Jewish people were already “subject to a common law” – Judaism.15 It
is no wonder, then, why Zionism was such a strong and easily accessible nationalism for Jews. It
already has the momentum of a previous imagined (religious) community to start from, and one
that just so happens to have been outcast and at the margins of society for, it claimed, eternity.
It is this collective memory and identity that emerging nation-states strive to create.
Balibar reasons that nationalist movements
…justify their claims to autonomy by drawing an ideal trajectory going from a more or
less mythical origin (linguistic, religious, cultural, racial) toward an end considered to be
the only historically normal possibility, the creation of its own national state structure.16
Fortunately for Zionists, the Jewish people already possessed this “more or less mythical origin.”
As discussed earlier, “the creation of its own national state structure” was the only logical
possibility for the Jewish people, and according to this reasoning, their new nation-state belongs
14
15
16

Balibar and Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class, 93.
Ibid., 94.
Balibar, “The Nation Form,” 331.

Carter 7
in their “mythical origins” of the Holy Land. While biblical justification is usually reserved for
religious fanaticism, Zionism – a simultaneously nationalist and colonialist movement – was able
to utilize religious mythos to construct Israel’s eternal history, a “characteristic feature of states
of all types”17 This concept of the eternal is an important notion not just for each individual
nation-state, but for the international order of nation-states as a system. Even though the nationstate is a relatively new concept, it is difficult to imagine a world system without them. In order
for people to wholeheartedly believe in the nation-state system, they must not be able to imagine
any other alternative. Therefore, it is critical that people around the world believe nations have
been and always will be, just as each people always have been and always will be a distinct
people, forever into the past and future. Anderson elaborates on this issue of nation-states
existing as both new and historical:
If nation-states are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which
they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more
important, glide into a limitless future.18
Immanuel Wallerstein complements Anderson’s thoughts with his own concept of pastness:
Pastness is a mode by which persons are persuaded to act in the present in ways they
might not otherwise act. Pastness is a tool persons use against each other. Pastness is a
central element in the socialization of individuals, in the maintenance of group solidarity,
in the establishment of or challenge to social legitimation…pastness is by definition an
assertion of the constant past…The past is normally considered to be inscribed in stone
and irreversible.19
Therefore, as untrue as it may be, according to nationalist movements France always has been
France, and its people were always Frenchmen. The same goes for Germany, Denmark, England,
and even one of the youngest nation-states, Israel.

17
18
19

Balibar and Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class, 88.
Anderson, Imagined Communities, 11–12.
Balibar and Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class, 78.

Carter 8
iii. Conflicting Imaginaries
This engrained myth that Israel was waiting empty, solely for the Jewish return plays
directly into the enduring and dangerous phrase depicting Israel as “a land without a people for a
people without a land.” As it is now – and always should have been – known, there were in fact
people already living in Palestine. However, deliberately ignoring the native population, and
therefore misrepresenting a land as empty, uncultivated, and ready for settlement is a common
theme among colonial movements, whether it be Europeans arriving in the Americas, the West
Indies, or islands off the coast of Africa. Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab
Studies at Columbia University, reflects upon how the term “Eretz Israel” intrinsically
perpetuates Zionists' eternal claim to the Holy Land for Jews:
Eretz Israel, the land of Israel – this is not just a descriptor, this is not just a geographical
place name. This is to ascribe to a land ownership by a people…This is the land of the
people of Israel…Zionism involves a special, a presumptive, and a privileged relationship
to that. If such a privileged relationship exists, then anybody else on that land, in that land
is a problem, because Zionism takes Jewish history and appropriates it as every national
movement does, and it turns it into a seamless whole – ending with the Holocaust, the
establishment of Israel…The Palestinians are a problem for that entire narrative. The
Palestinians, of course, have their own narrative, which is equally fictional, which is
equally appropriative of elements in history that transformed into a modern national
narrative.20
Regarding the Jewish return to Israel (Aliyah), Jewish Journalist I.F. Stone explains the parallel,
but conflicting implications for Jews and Palestinians:
For the Jews, the establishment of Israel was a Return, with all the mystical significance
the capital R implies. For the Arabs it was another invasion…With each victory the size
of Israel has grown. So has the number of Arab homeless.21

20

Rashid Khalidi, “On Palestinian Nationalism” (Lecture, Open Hillel Conference,
Cambridge, MA, October 10, 2014).
21
I. F. Stone, “Holy War,” The New York Review of Books, August 3, 1967,
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1967/aug/03/holy-war/.

Carter 9
The supposition, then, is that Jewish nationalism (as Zionism) and Palestinian nationalism cannot
coexist in one theoretical space, as they both claim rights to the same land. Khalidi expands on
this issue of conflicting imaginaries:
Zionism posits a narrative…In that narrative, the Palestinians and Palestinian nationalism
are extraordinarily disruptive. They’re disruptive because at every level, at the level of
naming, the level of producing a national narrative, the level of understanding of the
conflict. At every level, the very existence of the Palestinians posits serious, serious
problems for the Zionist narrative.22
More specifically, Israeli anthropologist and sociologist Michael Feige points to 1948 as a point
of contention between Israeli and Palestinian national narratives:
Of all the contesting narratives, the Palestinian one is most serious threat to Zionism. It
endeavors to transform the meaning of the 1948 war, the great Israeli founding myth, by
including the Nakba (1948 events from the Palestinian perspective) as a major reference
point.23
While in many cases Zionism has ignored the “Arab Problem,” that is the problem of their
existence within the Holy Land, it has also emphasized the Arab figure in various ways.
In addition to constructing Israeli identity, equally important was constructing the identity
of the other – the Arab. While crafting a simultaneously “new” and “historical” identity for
themselves, Zionists also constructed an identity, although sometimes more of a non-identity, for
the Palestinian Arab. In determining a new nation, and therefore a people, Israel needed to
further categorize and classify who was to be considered an Israeli. While imagining the
physical, geographic external borders of “Eretz Israel,” Zionists were also conceptualizing the
internal, immaterial, psychological borders of their future nation-state. Balibar refers to this dual
delineation of borders:
The heritage of colonialism is, in reality, a fluctuating combination of continued
‘exteriorization’ and ‘internal exclusion’…‘the external frontiers’ of the state have
22
23

Khalidi, “On Palestinian Nationalism.”
Feige, “Introduction: Rethinking Israeli Memory and Identity,” xii.

Carter 10
become the ‘internal frontiers’…external frontiers have to be imagined constantly as a
projection and protection for an internal collective personality…24
Stone elaborates on Israel’s construction of the “other” to dehumanize Palestinians:
A certain moral imbecility marks all ethnocentric movements. The Others are always
either less than human, and this their interests may be ignored, or more than human and
therefore so dangerous that it is right to destroy them…For the Zionists the Arab was the
Invisible Man.
Regarding Palestinian Arabs as subhuman, or nonhuman, legitimizes any and all violence
committed against them. If they are not humans, then no war crimes can in fact transpire. Within
the famous phrase, Israel is “a land without a people for a people without a land,” there is a great
deal of debate over the importance regarding the difference between identifying Palestinians as
“a people” or merely “people.” This debate, essentially, relies on the condition that disregarding
Palestinians as “a people” is somehow better than as “people.” The former does not recognize
them as a nation, while the latter does not even recognize them as humans. This distinction aside,
the point is that under the order of nation-states, if Palestinians are not considered “a people,”
they do not deserve to be treated as “people.” If we recall Balibar, we are reminded of the
guarantee of “equality in respect” only “of nationality.”25 One must possess a nationality and
citizenship belonging to a recognized nation-state in order to be seen as human. Zionism’s act of
dehumanizing Palestinian Arabs simultaneously strengthens Israeli national identity and
solidarity, giving Jewish settlers another identity to oppose themselves against as well as a
common enemy. They are barbaric, and therefore we are civilized. We are democratic, and
therefore they are tyrannical. We love and respect life, and therefore they place no value on life.
As false as these absurd dichotomies may be, this simplistic and delusional “us vs. them”
thinking is precisely what contributes to fundamentally dishonest impressions of an eternal
24
25

Balibar and Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class, 43, 95.
Ibid., 50.

Carter 11
conflict between the two groups, reaching forever into the past and projecting forever into the
future.
iv. The Holocaust in Israeli Institutional Memory
The conflict between Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms is not the only conflict with
which Zionism is confronted. Zionism, while trying to shape Jewish history into a “seamless
whole,” starts to show signs of cognitive dissonance when attempting to both repress and
promote the remembrance of the Holocaust. Jewish-Israeli scholar Alon Confino discusses
Israel’s early suppression of certain memories and experiences over the promotion of others:
Survivors who came from "there," as the Holocaust was called in a mixture of awe and
removal, symbolized the Diaspora Jews who went like lamb to the slaughter, a
diametrically opposed image to the new Jewish man and woman of the Zionist
revolution, who worked the land and defended the homeland. But the silence over the
victim's experience in the heroic national narrative was commingled with many noises of
Holocaust memories and traumas in Israeli society.26
These memories and experiences from the Holocaust create a rupture in the Zionist hegemony.27
Accordingly, Zionism ultimately found it beneficial to include the Holocaust as part of the
Zionist narrative. Rather ironically, the Holocaust was the catalyst for creating a widespread and
strong nationalism within the Jewish diaspora. Stone, in 1967, writes:
By the tragic dialectic of history, Israel would not have been born without Hitler. It took
the murder of six million in his human ovens to awaken sufficient nationalist zeal in
Jewry and sufficient humanitarian compassion in the West to bring a Jewish state to birth
in Palestine.28

26

Alon Confino, “Remembering the Second World War, 1945-1965: Narratives of
Victimhood and Genocide,” Cultural Analysis 4 (2005): 56.
27
“The meaning of hegemony in this context is that the national narrative was understood
as “objective history,” and was taken at face value as irrefutable truth by most Israeli Jews.”
Feige, “Introduction: Rethinking Israeli Memory and Identity,” vi.
28
Stone, “Holy War.”

Carter 12
Furthermore, he adds that “Israel grows on Jewish catastrophe.”29 Stone is correct that,
historically, anti-Semitism is often followed by a growth in Jewish immigration to Israel. What is
perhaps more important about Stone’s comment, though, is that Israel’s ideological strength and
international support grows on Jewish catastrophe as well.
Confino observes that these narratives “were fundamental to national recovery and to
creating and sustaining national identity after the war.”30 Nationalist narratives – a people’s
history – are, perhaps, the most essential part to building national identity – the key identity for
the modern-nation state. Wallerstein secures this notion:
Any group who sees advantage in using the state’s legal powers to advance its interests
against groups outside the state or in any subregion of the state has an interest in
promoting nationalist sentiment as a legitimation of its claims.31
Aleida Assmann supposes that “without a story that we can tell about ourselves, there is no
identity.”32 Feige maintains: “National narratives give meaning to struggles for independence
and survival.”33 After all, what is independence, if not expressed through national terms?
Zionism, just like other nationalist movements, uses archetypal narratives of heroism,
martyrdom, and victimhood to construct a national identity for Jews after WWII.34 The heroic
narratives include both ghetto rebels and Zionist leaders (like its forefather Theodor Herzl and
Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion). Narratives of martyrdom and victimhood are
expressed through both the deceased and the survivors of the Holocaust. Just as Wallerstein
proposes, these narratives are deliberately used as tools for the construction of a new Israeli, and
Jewish, identity. Early in Israel’s history, the Holocaust was rejected as a narrative, because
29
30
31
32
33
34

Ibid.
Confino, “Remembering the Second World War,” 48.
Balibar and Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class, 82.
Aleida Assmann, “Remembrance and Memory,” Goethe-Institut, 2008.
Feige, “Introduction: Rethinking Israeli Memory and Identity,” vi.
Confino, “Remembering the Second World War.”

Carter 13
Zionists wanted to replace “the Jew’s traditional self-image as victim” with “new Zionist ideals
of strength and determination.”35 However, in order to support strengthening the Israeli military
for the purposes of protecting the Jewish people from another Holocaust, it was brought into
Israel’s national mythology through the concise two-word maxim, “Never Again.”36 Historian
Dalia Ofer explains: “During those days [before the outbreak of the 1967 War] the ‘never again’
aspect of the Holocaust was dominant.”37 Furthermore, the Holocaust was also used toward the
martyrdom narrative as well. Demonstrating this point, Tina Wasserman quotes James E. Young
in her essay on Israeli trauma:
However, in a remarkable twist of history, Young continues, the early founders reframed
the Holocaust as the first battleground in a fight toward Jewish self-determination and
statehood: in this new narrative, the six million Jews that were exterminated by the Nazis
become ‘martyrs’ and ‘are recollected heroically as the first to fall in defense of the
state.38
In addition to both victimhood and martyrdom, Israel has even gone so far as to paint a picture of
heroism when it comes to the Holocaust, by establishing in 1959 the national Remembrance Day
for the Holocaust and its Heroism.39 Regarding Israel’s use of institutions to define memory,
Ofer writes:
Israel was aiming to construct a master narrative of the Holocaust that would ensure
recognition of the major elements of the Zionist ethos of destruction and rebirth and those

35

James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New
Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1993), 213.
36
In addition to being a common and ubiquitous saying, “Never Again” is the official
slogan of the ultranationalist Jewish Defense League and has been used by organizations like the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
37
Ofer, “We Israelis Remember, But How?,” 77.
38
Tina Wasserman, “Intersecting Traumas: The Holocaust, the Palestinian Occupation, and
the Work of Israeli Journalist Amira Hass,” in Culture, Trauma and Conflict: Cultural Studies
Perspectives on War (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publ., 2007), 232.
39
Confino, “Remembering the Second World War,” 48. Confino cites Segev 1993; Almog
2002; Young 1990.

Carter 14
of exile and redemption by utilizing the tools it had devised – Yad Vashem, state
ceremonies, and the educational system.40
The Holocaust not only operates internally within the collective consciousness of Israelis or
Jews, but also is a tool for building international support for Israel. Regarding this matter, Ofer
continues:
…the codes and symbols of the Holocaust are central to and extremely sensitive in the
Israeli consciousness, and…political groups make use of it to promote their goals…This
inevitably calls our attention to the political dimension, in which the memory and lessons
of the Holocaust have been used and abused.41
Stone takes an even stronger and more critical stance on the political uses of the Holocaust,
quoting from Ba’ath Socialist Gabran Majdalany:
Some people admit the inevitably racist character of Israel but justify it by the continual
persecutions to which the Jews have been subjected during the history of Europe and by
the massacres of the Second World War.42
Israel understands the importance of support among those in the Jewish diaspora, and so, makes
efforts to lobby the American Jewish community:
Conversely, a ‘homeland’ government may exploit diaspora sentiments for its
purposes…the Israeli government has used American Jewish leaders as interlocutors for
the promotion of pro-Israeli policies…43
Today, Israel continues to use these narratives to legitimize their violent acts as “self-defense.” It
can be argued that self-preservation has become the most “important common denominator about
the message of the Holocaust – the commitment to ensure the future of the Jewish people.”44 It is
clearer now to see how present-day Israeli and Jewish mentalities are deeply rooted in these

40

Ofer, “We Israelis Remember, But How?,” 75.
Ibid., 70–72.
42
Stone, “Holy War.”
43
William Safran, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return,”
Diaspora 1, no. 1 (Spring 1991).
44
Ofer, “We Israelis Remember, But How?,” 71.
41

Carter 15
nationalist narratives of fear, sacrifice, and self-preservation built during the construction of the
Jewish State.

Carter 16

Chapter 2
Exodus: Otto Preminger's Zionist Myth-Making
Otto Preminger’s 1960 epic film Exodus is the United States’ first Hollywood film about
modern day Israel.45 It is significant not only because it was the first, but also because of its mass
popularity. Exodus was a true blockbuster, grossing an estimated $19 million in the US, and $22
million internationally.46 Before the film’s release, Leon Uris’ Exodus (1958) was the bestselling novel in the US since Gone with the Wind, and topped the New York Times best-seller list
for five straight months. It sold in the millions, was translated into fifty languages, and was said
to be the second most common book found in Jewish-American households, only after the
Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).47 Exodus (in both its printed and cinematic versions) thus became an
essential framing device for American and Jewish-American perspectives and beliefs about
Israel. While the novel was an essential piece of shaping the American and Jewish-American
psyche regarding Israel, I will be focusing primarily on the film. Although the film follows the
novel closely in some places, Leon Uris’ text includes some key differences. I am focusing on
the film because of its availability to and acceptance by a wide global audience. I will also be
comparing this film to a contemporary cinematic interpretation of Israel’s foundational story,
Amos Gitai’s Kedma (2002). Through this comparison, I am able to examine numerous
conflicting narratives concerning nationalism and identity in Israel over the last forty-two years.
My own analysis shares and develops many ideas from Rachel Weissbrod's essay “‘Exodus’ as

45

Otto Preminger, Exodus (United Artists Corporation, 1960).
“Exodus (1960) - Box Office / Business,” IMDb.,
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053804/business.
47
Bradley Burston, “The ‘Exodus’ Effect: The Monumentally Fictional Israel That Remade
American Jewry,” Haaretz, November 9, 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-send/the-exodus-effect-the-monumentally-fictional-israel-that-remade-american-jewry-1.476411.
46

Carter 17
Zionist Melodrama,” but where Weissbrod focuses on the melodramatic qualities of Exodus
(1960), I ground my argument in theories of national mythopoeia.
i. Mass Market Appeal
While critical response to Exodus (1958) was “by-and-large mocking,” its popular and
institutional reception was left largely unharmed. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was
quoted as saying, “As a literary work it isn’t much, but as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best
thing ever written about Israel.”48 As Rachel Weissbrod argues, the Israeli government used
Exodus precisely in that way, presenting it to members of a United Nations delegation, and
marketing translated versions of the novel to tourists and new immigrants.49 With the
government’s firm stamp of approval, Exodus was positioned as Israel’s official narrative for
many readers and viewers. While Exodus was clearly geared toward American audiences,
“Israelis flocked to the theaters to see the finished product, curious to see their story on screen,
and the film was enormously popular in Israel.”50 In Israel, the novel was also a success,
especially with youth, who in 1957 indicated a preference for American melodramas.51 While its
effects are most noticeable on the American mind, Weissbrod argues that Exodus (1958) was
published at a perfect time to affect Israeli consciousness. :
When Exodus was published, Israel was celebrating the tenth anniversary of the
establishment of the State in the shadow of severe social problems. The novel bolstered
Israeli national pride at a time when the nation apparently was in need of just this…52

48

Ibid.
Rachel Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” Israel Studies 4, no. 1 (Spring
1999): 129, 144.
50
Ibid., 146.
51
Ibid., 142.
52
Ibid.
49

Carter 18
Israeli journalist and author Jeffrey Goldberg recalls that Exodus (1958) strengthened JewishAmericans’ pride of Israel as well, “Exodus set me, and many others, on a course for Aliyah, and
it made American Jews proud of Israel's achievements.”53
ii. An American, Melodramatic, Liberal Zionist Epic
Bradley Burston, Senior Editor for Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, has accused Uris of
“tailoring, altering, and radically sanitizing the history of the founding of the State of Israel to
flatter the fantasies and prejudices of American Jews.”54 Uris’ revisions to Israel’s history in
order to appeal to Americans (not just American Jews) can be spotted at multiple points in his
fictionalized version of history. For instance, the protagonist Ari Ben Canaan tries to gain
sympathy and support from Kitty Fremont (who functions as the American reader or viewer) by
drawing direct comparisons between the underdog (but ultimately victorious) qualities of the
American Revolutionary Minutemen and the Zionist fighters of the Haganah.55 Uris also made
political alterations. Understanding the tension that might occur if anti-Communist Americans
realized the “socialist character of the most important Zionist movement of the time,” he
sterilized the kibbutz of its fundamental socialist qualities.56 According to literary critic Jerome
A. Chanes, this appeal to American Jews “popularized Jewish empowerment…just what we
needed at the time – the Americanization of Zionism and Israel.”57 Uris, rather surprisingly for
the time, produced a novel that simultaneously empowered Jewish readers and allowed
American readers to identify with Jews.

53

Burston, “The ‘Exodus’ Effect.”
Ibid.
55
Ibid.
56
Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 134.
57
Jerome A. Chanes, “‘Exodus’ And the Americanization Of Israel’s Founding,” The
Jewish Week, September 6, 2011.
54

Carter 19
Preminger and Trumbo only further Americanized, dramatized, and universalized Uris’
novel. Exodus was accurately characterized by Israeli critics as “the story of the establishment of
the State of Israel as Hollywood would have produced it.”58 Exodus was directed by veteran
filmmaker Otto Preminger, adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Donald Trumbo (who, in
1960, with both Exodus and Spartacus, returned to the public after being blacklisted), scored by
prolific composer Ernest Gold (who won Exodus an Academy Award for Best Music), included
titles and advertisements by the renowned graphic designer Saul Bass, and starred silver screen
icon Paul Newman as the Zionist sabra Ari Ben Canaan and starlet Eva Marie Saint as the
American Kitty Fremont. The Americanization of the film is noticed in the casting of Arabs too,
such as John Derek as Taha, Ari’s Arab counterpart. Exodus screams Hollywood.
Preminger’s version also sees the introduction of “a common American literary and
cinematic device.”59 At the film’s end, Nazis become the ultimate villains of the story. The
casting of Nazis as the final villains leads to three important outcomes. First, it removes much of
the burden of guilt placed on Britain, the previous antagonists until this turning point. Second, it
enables American viewers to easily accept this Israeli narrative into the United States’ own
World War II narrative. Third, the existence of undetected Nazis in Palestine increases the threat
of anti-Semitic persecution, and therefore strengthens the case for a militarized Jewish state. This
one plot point is incredibly important for cementing the bond between the United States and
Israel.
Exodus dramatized Israel’s foundational story, presenting “the story of Zionism in a
popular, readily accessible form – melodrama.”60 In Exodus, melodrama is not only used to

58
59
60

Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 148.
Ibid., 140.
Ibid., 129.

Carter 20
create a more digestible version of Israel’s foundational story, but also because “it provides the
ideal vehicle for transmitting clear ideological messages” by “neatly dividing the world into
diametric opposites” of good and evil. Following the model of melodrama, the central conflict of
the film is external; it remains between the conflicting forces of the Jewish heroes, and the
British, Arabs, and eventually Nazis as well. Through melodrama and its ability to sweep “the
reader up in a tide of emotional involvement and identification with the heroes,” Exodus
positions the Zionists as the protagonists of the story, and in this case history as well.
Along with its dramatization and Americanization of Israel’s past, Exodus whitewashes
history too. Humanistic themes of peace, brotherhood, and coexistence form the foundational
principles promoted by Exodus. According to statements made during the film’s public-relations
campaign, Preminger chose deliberately to present Arabs and Brits in a more positive light.61 By
removing anti-Arab language and focusing on these universal messages (instead of Zionism),
Trumbo and Preminger helped make Exodus more easily accepted and supported.62 In Exodus,
Kitty serves as an avatar for the non-Israeli, non-Jewish, and particularly American audience.
During several of Ari’s conversations with Kitty, he faces the camera, thus replacing Kitty’s
identity with the viewer’s. Kitty performs as “‘the foreign observer,’ whose indifference and
even hostility toward Zionism are gradually replaced by admiration.”63 Through her romance
with Ari and maternal relationship with Karen – a young Jewish refugee from Denmark that
really looks like she could be her relative – Kitty becomes a full-fledged supporter of Zionism.
Barak Ben Canaan serves as the perfect messenger for these themes, throughout the film
giving multiple speeches advocating for Arab and Jewish coexistence, attempting to unite them

61
62
63

Ibid., 139.
Ibid., 139–40.
Ibid., 134.

Carter 21
together as oppressed, occupied people in their rightful homeland. At Gan Dafna, Barak tells the
recent arrivals from Exodus that the Kibbutz could only have been built due to the generous
donation from his “old-friend” Kammal, former Mukhtar of the neighboring Arab village Abu
Yesha. Barak ends this first speech with an imperative for the new arrivals to “speak always than
name [Allah] with respect.”64 Taha, Kammal’s son and current Mukhtar of Abu Yesha, supports
his sentiments of peace, brotherhood, and coexistence, illustrating the similarities between
Arabic and Hebrew:
In this Valley of Jezreel, we dwell together as friends. It is natural that we should live in
peace, since even our words for it our exactly the same. We say salaam, and you, shalom.
Let us seal our friendship forever with that most beautiful of Hebrew toasts: L’chaim, to
life. [Together] L’chaim!65
They are shown to be successful of this mission on a micro-scale, through the two generations of
friendship built between Jews and Arabs, demonstrated by Barak and Kammal, and Ari and
Taha. However, a sense of irony sets in after learning Taha’s toast to life is followed by his
eventual death and the promise of a “friendship forever” between Israelis and Palestinians has
not panned out in the last sixty-seven years.
Barak’s second major speech comes after the UN agrees on the Partition Plan to divide
Palestine into two lands, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. During a Jewish celebration of
the UN’s support for British withdrawal and an independent Jewish state, Barak addresses the
“Arab population of Jewish Palestine” with an appeal:
The Grand Mufti has asked you to either annihilate the Jewish population or to abandon
your homes and your lands, and seek the weary path of exile. We implore you: remain in
your homes and in your shops, and we shall work together as equals in the free state of
Israel! [Together, the crowd sings Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem].66

64
65
66

Preminger, Exodus.
Ibid.
Ibid.

Carter 22
This speech posits the Jews as protagonists with liberal humanistic goals, and Arabs as a guarded
population, and therefore a potential obstacle toward those goals. Either due to an irrational fear
of Jews, they will exile themselves, or due to irrational hatred, they will commit murder.67
Barak’s appeal assumes that most Arabs inherently do not have the same humanistic values of
peace, brotherhood, and coexistence, and will act from self-destructive emotions of fear and
hatred. The film makes it clear that most Arabs either attacked the Jews or fled. Only a Jew’s
leadership can teach them these values, and steer them toward peaceful coexistence. While the
character of Taha could be used as an example against my argument, he and his village is
characterized in the story as only an exception to the norm. He plays the “benevolent Arab” that
is ultimately punished for his allegiance to the Jews. In fact, these claims of orders to “either
annihilate the Jewish population or to abandon your homes and your lands” have been
questioned and opposed by both Palestinians and Israel’s New Historians – a debate I will return
to later. Taha’s response to the UN Partition Plan diverges from Barak’s positive reaction. He
tries to make Ari, his oldest friend and “brother”, understand what this decision will mean for
Arabs living in the freshly established Jewish territory:
Taha: You’ve won your freedom, and I have lost mine.
Ari: We never had freedom, you or I. All our lives we’ve been under British rule. Now,
we’ll be equal citizens in the free state of Israel. The resolution guarantees it.
Taha: Guarantees are one thing, reality’s another…I’m a minority…Now, where shall my
people go?68
In the film, Taha is depicted as unnecessarily cynical – why should he distrust the Jews when the
Ben Canaan family has treated him with nothing but respect and equality for so long?

67

Of course any fear would not have been irrational, because Palestinians were harmed and
murdered by Zionist militias.
68
Preminger, Exodus.

Carter 23
Preminger and Trumbo liberalize Israel’s foundational story further by contrasting the
Irgun and Haganah as opposing forces within the Zionist struggle for independence. The Irgun
are represented as terrorists (rightly so), and the Haganah as noble heroes.69 This opposition is
represented through Ari and his uncle Akiva, who as leader of the Irgun supports more violent
methods of rebellion: Akiva serves as a foil to his relatives, the honorable Ari and Barak. These
groups could have been incorporated into a singular, simplified idea of the upstanding Zionist,
and so Akiva’s character does add complexity to the traditional black-and-white and holistic
archetypes of melodrama. However, this division of Zionist factions is more useful as a tool to
promote the Haganah, and therefore our protagonists, as “good.” Akiva is punished for his acts
of terrorism – imprisoned by the British – and so his (and the Irgun’s) principles are left behind,
confined to the past. On the other hand, the Haganah, and in turn their righteous values, becomes
the foundation for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Consequently, in the eyes of the viewer, the
IDF and Israel become associated with those liberal, humanistic, universal values of peace,
brotherhood, and coexistence.
The film’s messages culminate in the final scene, when Taha, an Arab, and Karen, a Jew,
are buried together. Ari gives the only eulogy during their joint burial:
It’s right that these two people should lie side by side in this grave, because they will
share it in peace. But the dead always share the earth in peace. And that’s not enough. It’s
time for the living to have a turn. A few miles from here there are people who are
fighting and dying, and we must join them. But I swear on the bodies of these two people,
that the day will come when Arab and Jew will share in a peaceful life in this land that
they have always shared in death. Taha, old friend and very dear brother. Karen, child of
light, daughter of Israel. Shalom. [After shoveling dirt onto the grave, they drive off to
battle as Ernest Gold’s score intensifies. The film ends.]70

69

An interesting exception is the character Dov Landau, who serves with the Irgun, but is
ultimately seen as a noble hero. I will return to analyze Dov’s character later.
70
Preminger, Exodus.

Carter 24
Ari’s statements are filled with pro-peace sentiments, but are also infused with an imperative to
fight. This line of thought is “similar to right-wing texts” where “revolt and military action to
restore national honor are seen as the proper response to oppression.”71 Throughout the film, and
especially in this final scene, Ari and other Zionist soldiers promote the idea that peace can only
be won through armed resistance.
iii. From Victims to Heroes: Changing the Dialogue
Exodus is an essential early framing device for the development of the “sabra” in
American and Jewish-American minds.72 This “new Jew” exists in direct contrast to the
European and American Jew.73 The European Jew, most accurately described through Hannah
Arendt’s Mr. Cohn, is a powerless and defeated victim.74 Early on in the film, Dov Landau, a
Jewish teenager and passenger aboard the Exodus, describes an essential difference between
Jews in Europe and Palestine: “Because, there [in Palestine], Jews fight instead of talk.”75
Exodus is central to the development of “Jewish empowerment in a Jewish world that was yet
emerging from the ashes of its destruction in Europe.”76 Like the mythological phoenix, the
Diaspora Jew is resurrected as the sabra, Israel’s “new Jew.” The metaphor of the phoenix is
visually detected in the image Saul Bass designed for Exodus’ titles and advertisements, which
depicts hands rising out of flames to grip a rifle, serving as a representation for any Jew willing
to take arms to defend the survival of his people. Any potential victory for the Jewish people
71

Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 134.
Sabra refers to a Jew born and raised in Israel. Israeli Jews are related to the sabra, a
prickly pear cactus, because they have a hard and spiny exterior, but soft and sweet interior.
73
The use of generalizations here is because they are important and ubiquitous archetypes,
and not because they are representative of actual populations.
74
Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, ed. Marc
Robinson (Boston; London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 116–118.
75
Preminger, Exodus.
76
Jerome A. Chanes, “‘Exodus’ And the Americanization Of Israel’s Founding.”
72

Carter 25
resides with the fate of the Jews in Palestine, who have the power, agency, and selfdetermination to fight for an independent Jewish state. Whereas Jews in Europe found only
defeat, there is a chance for Jews in Palestine to be triumphant.
The model of the “new Jew” is most clearly represented through Ari and Dov.77 They are
the strengthened, masculinized, and even Aryanized counterparts to the feminine, weak, and
ethnic Jews of Europe and the United States. First, both their names point toward masculinity
and strength; in Hebrew, Ari means “lion” and Dov means “bear.” Ari’s masculinity is clearly
observed through his portrayal by heartthrob Paul Newman, and romantic relationship with
Kitty, portrayed by Hollywood darling Eva Marie Saint. Hollywood often chose actors “already
identified with the qualities the embody in the film.”78 This deliberate casting also relates to
Newman’s light hair and blue eyes, which helped create the idea that the “new Jew” was also
physiologically different from his European counterpart. This notion of physiological difference
comes to a peak when Ari, undercover as a British soldier in Cyprus, chats with a British officer:
British Officer: And they look funny too. I can spot one a mile away.
Ari: Would you mind looking into my eye, sir? It feels like a cinder.
British Officer: Certainly. [The officer examines Ari’s eye closely]. You know, a lot of
them try to hide under gentile names. But one look at that face, and you just know.
Ari: With a little experience, you can even smell them out.79
While there is, of course, no way to “spot” a Jew, this scene supposes, “the ‘new Jews’ are so
different from their coreligionists in the diaspora that anti-Semitic gentiles can no longer identify

77

While she only has a minor role in the film (her role is larger in the novel), Jordana Ben
Canaan (Ari’s sister) is also characteristic of the female “new Jew.” She is as Bradley Burston
put, “the gun-toting, makeup-scorning antithesis of the Jewish American Princess.”
78
`
Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 137.
79
Preminger, Exodus.

Carter 26
them.”80 It is specifically Ari, the light-haired, blue-eyed “new Jew” from Palestine that can
deceive an anti-Semite.
While it seems contradictory with the Aryanization of the “new Jew,” Ari embodies
another myth about the “new Jew” – that he is a “direct descendent of the biblical Hebrews.”81
Early in the film, while Ari is leading the ship Exodus to Palestine, he compares himself to
Moses, thus comparing these two Jewish journeys for freedom, the flee from Egypt to Israel and
from Europe to Palestine. After arriving in Palestine, Ari takes Kitty to look over the Jezreel
Valley, showing her (and in turn, the viewer) the beauty, history, and biblical importance of the
land:
Ari: If you dug straight down far enough there, you’d find the ruins of Meggido. You’d
find the very same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered it…That’s
Mount Tabor…That’s where she [Deborah] stood when she watched Barak march out to
fight the Canaanites…3,200 years ago. That’s when the Jews first came to this valley. It
wasn’t just yesterday or the day before.
Kitty: Isn’t your father’s name Barak?
Ari: In Russia, he was Yakov Rabinski, but when he came here, he took the name of
Deborah’s general. He called himself Barak, the son of Canaan, and this valley became a
Jewish land once again…I just wanted you to know I’m a Jew. This is my country.
Kitty: I do know. I understand.82
Again, his name is an important detail connected to this myth. Ari’s ethnicized family name, Ben
Canaan, relates them to the Canaanites, an ancient people of Israel. In this scene, Ari also uses
“biblical archaeology” as proof toward a direct inter-millennial connection to the Ancient
Hebrews, supporting the Zionist national narrative and a Jewish right to the land.83 By the end of

80

Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 139.
Ibid., 133.
82
Preminger, Exodus.
83
“Biblical archaeology was one of the most important Zionist undertakings, aimed at
mobilizing scientific practices to prove their truth of the national narrative.” Michael Feige,
81

Carter 27
this scene, Kitty’s support for Zionism is sealed with a kiss, and she remains that way for the rest
of the film. According to Zionist mythology, the sabra – Israeli national identity – is both new
and historical, just as Benedict Anderson proposes in his theory about the myth-making of
nation-states in Imagined Communities. Through biblical archaeology, comparisons of modern
Israelis to the Ancient Hebrews, and the Aryanization of the Jew, Exodus posits Israel as both
new and historical – a characteristic necessary to represent nation-states as having both “an
immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future.”84 Exodus adds a new
chapter to Israeli and Jewish mythology – the return of Jews to their homeland, and the
establishment of modern Israel. In this new chapter, there are not only new stories, but also a reimagining of Jewish identity through the birth of the “new Jew.” This simultaneous construction
of linked national narrative and identity is exactly what Anderson argues nation-states strive to
create.
Dov’s migration from Poland to Palestine is paralleled with his transformation from
helpless Holocaust survivor to proud Zionist freedom fighter.85 This transformation reaches a
climax during his interview with the Irgun. Akiva tests Dov’s memory by interrogating him
about his time in Auschwitz. Dov originally states that he learned demolitions during the
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but after exhaustive questioning, he realizes that he learned
demolitions during his time at Auschwitz, blowing up mass graves for the dead, fellow Jewish
prisoners. Akiva makes him come to terms with his repressed memory of being a 12-year old
Sonderkommando in the camp. Dov and Akiva’s powerful descriptions horrify the audience:
“Introduction: Rethinking Israeli Memory and Identity,” Israel Studies 7, no. 2 (Summer 2002):
xi.
84
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of
Nationalism (London; New York: Verso, 2006), 11–12.
85
Here the film takes an important departure from the novel, where Dov is courageous from
the start.

Carter 28
Akiva: It was the duty of those Jews who served as Sonderkommandos to shave the heads
of other Jews…To remove dead bodies from the gas chambers. To collect gold fillings
from their teeth.
Dov: Yes! [Breaking down into tears] What could I do? What could I do?
Akiva: …Is there anything else?
Dov: …No, I won’t tell you. Please don’t make me tell you. Kill me. I don’t care. I won’t
tell you…They used me. They used me, like you use a woman. [Crying.] [Directly after
this, they swear Dov into the Irgun.]86
Dov originally repressed his memories, replacing the traumatic truth with the heroic narrative of
killing Nazis during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He feels ashamed, degraded, and emasculated
– common depictions of the Post-Holocaust Jew. Particularly, his rape “supports the perception
of the diaspora Jew as having feminine attributes or homosexual leanings.”87 However, by
joining the Irgun in Palestine, Dov is able to replace his traumatic memories from Europe with
new personal narratives of triumph and heroism. The Irgun enables Dov to gain back his
(Jewish) pride and manhood. He changes from a feminized, feeble European Jew to a
masculinized, militarized Israeli Jew. Dov is also the perfect candidate for the Irgun, as his
trauma facilitates “feelings of hatred and the desire for revenge.”88 His trauma is used as fuel to
the fire for the Irgun to commit acts of terrorism. Dov’s transformation is an allegory for the
story of many Holocaust survivors turned Zionist militants. These Zionists turned to violence
during the War of Independence, at least in part, because their trauma led them to believe it was
the only way to defend themselves, and ensure their continued existence.

86
87
88

Preminger, Exodus.
Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 150, note 19.
Ibid., 134.

Carter 29
The necessity for the Jewish people to create a nation in order to ensure their survival and
equal treatment is a prominent Zionist ideology in Exodus. While arguing with Ari about
methods of resistance, Akiva asserts,
I do not know one nation, whether existing now or in the past, that was not born in
violence. Terror, violence, death. They are the midwives who bring free nations into this
world.89
While Akiva is the most extreme member of the Ben Canaan family, Ari and Barak also express
“the pre-Zionist belief that the Jews are a nation apart, facing a hostile world alone” and that
Zionism will return “the Jews to the family of nations, from which the diaspora Jew had been
excluded.”90 This imperative of the Zionists in Exodus to establish the Jewish people as a
recognized member of the “family of nations” reaffirms the notion that much of Zionism’s
appeal relied on Jews’ understanding that equality is only granted “in respect of nationality.”91
iv. Exodus and Zionist Mythology Today
The effects of Exodus’s powerful myth-making over fifty years ago are still evident in
American, Jewish-American, and Israeli culture and politics today. Exodus has shaped
conceptions of Israeli, Jewish, and Palestinian identities. While still on Exodus, Karen and Dov
take two opposing outlooks regarding humanity, each perspective shaped by their individual
experiences. Dov’s trauma leads him to cynicism, whereas Karen, grateful for her assisted
escape, adopts an optimistic stance:
Dov: I’m going to kill Englishmen, kill and kill and kill them, ‘til there won’t be
anymore, that’s all.
Karen: The British aren’t all bad Dov.
89

Preminger, Exodus.
Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 134.
91
Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous
Identities (London; New York: Verso, 2002), 50.
90

Carter 30

Dov: They’re rotten, the whole bunch of them. The British, all the Russians, all the Poles.
Karen: Not the Danes. When I was there –
Dov: The Danes too. Don’t tell me.
Karen: That’s not true. The Hansens were Christians, and they adopted me…When the
Nazis marched into Denmark, they ordered every Jew to wear the yellow armband, with
the Star of David on it…And the next morning, when every Jew in Denmark had to wear
his armband, King Christian came out of Amalienborg Palace for his morning ride…He
wore the Star of David on his arm…By afternoon, everybody was wearing Stars of
David. [Karen breaks into a smile] The Jews and the Danes, and well, just everybody.
Karen’s story, although moving, is a myth central to Denmark’s alleged role during WWII as
altruistic saviors of the Jews. The first part of this national narrative is King Christian’s public
adornment of the Star of David, and his directive to the Danish nation to do the same as an act of
solidarity and defiance. The second part, not explicitly told by Karen but implied by her rescue,
of this national narrative is the Danish collaboration with Swedish resisters to covertly move
Jews from Nazi persecution in occupied Denmark to “neutral” Sweden. While both parts of this
story have been successfully propagated throughout the world – appearing as truth in historical
authorities, such as Yad Vashem in Israel, the US Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and
other Holocaust museums – they are indeed fabricated.92 While there was a Danish resistance, as
in most Nazi-occupied areas, and King Christian X was opposed to the Nazi’s persecution of
Jews, he did not wear a Star of David and neither did the non-Jewish Danish population. Even
though Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II, granddaughter of King Christian X, has admitted this
story is false, its presentation as truth endures until today.93 The rescue operation was also not
organized secretly. Rather, it was known and possibly organized by Werner Best,

92

The original source of this story is attributed to various periodicals and organizations, but
all potential authors are American.
93
Even the Danish version of Exodus (1958) removes text referring to this myth.

Carter 31
“Reichsbevollmächtigter” to Denmark, as a way to preserve Germany’s relationship with
Denmark – a fellow Aryan nation. Exodus is often credited as popularizing this urban legend.
Another massively propagated myth present in American, Jewish-American, and Israeli
culture is the claim that Arabs benefitted from Jewish settlement of Palestine.94 This claim is
most often manifested through the myth that Jewish settlers cultivated the supposed barren and
unused Palestinian landscape. While there is truth to the Jewish settlers’ aggressive and
successful cultivation of the land, the myth presumes the Arab population was completely
inactive on the land, wasting it, therefore making a worthy argument for the Jews to take over.95
In Exodus, Barak’s storyline is a prime example of this:
Barak: And over in that valley, the swamps, and mosquitos so big, they were picking
fights with the sparrows. Now we have changed those swamps into such fields. On a
quiet night, you can hear the corn grow. Oranges so big, five already make a dozen.
[Later] Ari: [Looking over the Jezreel Valley with Kitty] He called himself Barak, the
son of Canaan, and this valley became a Jewish land once again. He can give you the date
every clump of trees was planted there, to the month.
The absence of cultivated land is often used to imply the absence of people entirely –
perpetuating the “a nation without a people, for a people without a nation” myth. This narrative
undeniably invites a comparison to the American ideology of Manifest Destiny – a Divine
Providence for the recently settled and independent Americans to expand their territory
westward over uncultivated territory, disregarding any local preexisting indigenous populations.
Similar to biblical archaeology, Jewish agricultural success is regularly referenced as an
argument for the Jewish right to Israel.

94

Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 33.
This myth of Arab inactivity also implies Arabs are lazy, unproductive, and uncivilized –
unable to develop modern agricultural systems, a foundation for modern civilization.

95

Carter 32
I now return to Barak’s UN Partition Plan speech, and the claim that Arab leaders
stipulated commands to either “annihilate the Jewish population” or “abandon your homes and
your lands.”96 In reality, this event has been questioned, problematized, and arguably debunked.
Since the 1980s, most historians have accepted that the major cause for the Palestinian exodus
was not voluntary, but rather due to Israeli military advances, attacks against Palestinian villages,
and expulsion mandates from Zionist militias.97 Yet, this outdated story is employed in Zionist
mythology regardless of its truth. Despite its refutation, this myth has been firmly cemented in
Jewish-American consciousness.98 The particular interpretation of these events is critical,
because it can be used to determine the refugee status of Palestinians. This scene in Exodus also
leads to another prominent myth in the Israeli and Jewish-American psyche. The alleged olive
branch offered by Barak to the “Arab population of Jewish Palestine” is the first example Israel
and the US point to in regards to the tired notion that there is “no partner for peace.” As stated
earlier, Barak’s plea assumes that most Arabs do not have the same desires for peace, and so they
must be persuaded into it. Connected to this belief is the impression that Palestinian hostility
toward Israel is founded in anti-Semitism of the same type that was widespread in Europe during
the 19th and 20th Centuries. This connection between Palestinians and European anti-Semitism is
cemented in Exodus when the audience is introduced to a Nazi officer who, supposedly,
collaborates with the Grand Mufti and takes control of Abu Yesha. While Palestinian anti-

96

Preminger, Exodus.
Several “New Historians,” like Ilan Pappé have also defined this exodus as ethnic
cleansing, agreeing with the Palestinian perspective of the 1948 War of Independence as the
Nakba, or catastrophe.
98
This myth, and Zionist myths in general, is perhaps even more embedded in JewishAmerican consciousness than in Israeli Jews’ consciousness, as myths tend to work more
effectively on an uneducated population. That is to say not that Jewish-Americans are
uneducated, but that they have a lesser knowledge of Israeli history than Israelis, and therefore
can be persuaded more easily by longstanding myths.
97

Carter 33
Semitism exists, it is not of the same Third Reich category or proportions. Here, anti-Semitism
becomes a generalized term, applied regardless of any contextual differences. It erases individual
experience, which is so essential to understanding a conflict such as this. When anti-Semitism
does exist in Palestinians, it is largely due to frustration, anger, and misery resulting from
oppressive, violent, and destructive Israeli policies, which sometimes results in misguided
generalized hatred toward Jews – a conflation perpetuated by Israel, as it defines itself as “the
Jewish state.”
The final Zionist myth propagated through Exodus is related to the CatastropheRedemption narrative.99 This myth, characterized by a “flight from slavery to freedom in the
Promised Land” is prevalent throughout western culture, and is “often used to interpret historical
events and to plant the seeds of hope in the hearts of oppressed groups.”100 The CatastropheRedemption narrative started, of course, with the original biblical Exodus story. Its modern
equivalent is the Jewish migration from Europe to Palestine, as depicted in the aptly named
Exodus. The Catastrophe-Redemption narrative, in specific terms can be translated to the
Holocaust-Israel narrative, which supposes that immigration to Palestine was the dream of
Holocaust survivors. Due to this narrative, in the US the Holocaust “emerges to become the
driving force behind American Jewish identity.”101 Judaic scholar Jacob Neusner proposes that
Jewish-Americans “act out our Jewishness by way of Redemption that is, by commitment to the
State of Israel, that place which gives meaning and significance to a remission from the

99

Shaul Magid, “American Jews Must Stop Obsessing Over the Holocaust,” Tablet,
January 26, 2015, http://tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/188365/stop-obsessingover-holocaust. The term and idea behind the Catastrophe-Redemption narrative comes from
Shaul Magid’s Tablet article on Jewish-American culture and review of Jacob Neusner’s work,
therefore the term can be attributed Jacob Neusner as well.
100
Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 142.
101
Magid, “American Jews Must Stop Obsessing Over the Holocaust.”

Carter 34
terror.”102 The dominance of the Catastrophe-Redemption narrative greatly contributes to
Jewish-American support and connection to Israel. As the Holocaust becomes more important to
American Jewish identity, so does the significance of Israel. I.F. Stone, in 1967, understood the
impact of a growing Holocaust-Israel narrative and simply declared, “Israel grows on Jewish
catastrophe.”103 After WWII, American Jews became more connected to the myth of HolocaustIsrael than to Judaism itself. This explanation is very useful in order to better understand the
reasons why Jewish critics of the State of Israel are not accepted into mainstream American
Jewish institutions and communities. However, “this commonly held view of post-World War II
European Jewry has recently been called into question.”104 One such challenge to the
Catastrophe-Redemption myth is Amos Gitai’s film, Kedma.105
v. Exodus vs. Kedma: Triumph vs. Defeat
Exodus and Kedma share similar setting, time period, and characters, but relay very
different messages. Similar to Exodus, Kedma follows the story of a group of Holocaust
survivors who migrate from Europe to Palestine on a ship named Kedma. Like Exodus, it was
also a real ship. However, instead of an easy escort to a nearby kibbutz as seen in Exodus, the
new arrivals are immediately met with violent hostility from British authorities. The remaining
survivors must travel across the country, not by bus, but by foot. To survive, the refugees must
sleep outside, make their own fires, and take arms against local Arabs. They escape from one
hardship only to experience another.

102

Ibid.
I. F. Stone, “Holy War,” The New York Review of Books, August 3, 1967,
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1967/aug/03/holy-war/.
104
Weissbrod, “‘Exodus’ as a Zionist Melodrama,” 149, note 9.
105
Amos Gitai, Kedma (Kino International, 2002).
103

Carter 35
Gitai’s interpretation of Israel’s foundational story and the migration of European Jewish
refugees to Palestine is different and probably more accurate than Uris, Preminger, and
Trumbo’s romantic and heroic epic. A modern-day Israeli response to Exodus, Kedma shows no
representations of Jewish redemption. Gitai’s refugees arrive in Palestine only to learn violence,
death, and tragedy has followed them from Europe. In Gitai’s film, it becomes clear that the
Haganah and other militant Zionists primarily sought to migrate Jews to Palestine not for their
salvation, but instead to bolster their military strength. One of the main characters, Menachem,
becomes a victim to the war. Menachem could be characterized as Gitai’s reinterpretation of Dov
– another traumatized young male set out for revenge, searching for his lost identity in the
cruelest of situations.106 He, too, gives a speech to his female companion, Rossa – one that is
comparable to Dov’s conversation with Karen while aboard the Exodus:
Menachem: Please let me pull the trigger. Please let me throw the grenade. When I
attack, they’ll all burn. I’ll sow death all around me. Soon you’ll see, Ishmael. I’ll water
my land with your blood. Your body will be laid out at my feet. It will be your corpse.
Lion of Judah, I hunger not for bread, nor thirst for water, but to see your bodies riddles
with bullets. That’s what my soul demands.
Rosa: You’d kill all those who are against you? He who isn’t with you is against you?
That’s your credo? Remember: There’s no life after death.
Menachem: My mother and sister were killed after the whole community was deported.
My father died on Yom Kippur, wrapped in his prayer shawl. I dug a hole and buried
him, so the dogs wouldn’t eat him.107
A major distinction between the two versions of this conversation is apparent in a comparison of
Rossa’s response with Karen’s. Even though they both disagree with their outwardly bloodthirsty
friends, they take two different approaches. Whereas Karen tries to lift up Dov’s spirit with
optimistic views of humanity, Rossa attempts to bring Menachem back down to reality,
106

Menachem’s name means “the Comforter,” contrasting the strength associated with
Dov’s’ name, meaning “Bear.”
107
Gitai, Kedma.

Carter 36
reminding him that there is no glory in death. The key difference between Menachem and Dov is
their respective fates. Dov is successful in his transformation through militancy. He gains his
masculinity back, affirmed by his romance with Karen, and his (Jewish) pride, becoming a
central hero to Exodus. On the other hand, just after his conversation with Rossa, Menachem dies
in battle (off-screen); he is, after all, unprepared and not a “fighter.” He achieves no victory, no
glory, and no redemption.
Another major speech in Kedma comes from an unnamed Arab herder, a character
undoubtedly created as a response to Taha. Whereas Taha is represented as unnecessarily
cynical, Gitai (with the benefit of hindsight) uses the unintended irony found in Exodus to grant
his Arab character a prophetic speech, shouted toward Zionist militants and European Jewish
refugees as they leave the scene:
We’ll stay here in spite of you, like a wall! We’ll wash dishes in bars! We’ll fill glasses
for the masters! We’ll scrub your kitchen floors to wrest bread for our youngsters from
your blue clutches! But we’ll stay here in spite of you, like a wall! We’ll be hungry, we’ll
be in rags, but we’ll defy you! Here we will stay, in spite of you, like a wall! We’ll write
poems! Our demonstrations will fill the streets! We’ll fill the jails with our pride! We’ll
father generations of rebellious children! We’ll remain here in spite of you! Like a
wall!108
The irony here exists by the fact that his determination to survive despite all odds resonates so
well with narratives of Jewish determination, like that of Exodus. Now, after years of organized
Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, we have seen that his promises held true.
One of Ari’s revelations to Kitty early on in Exodus serves as a brief, but accurate
representation of its message:
Each person on this ship is a soldier. The only weapon we have to fight with is our
willingness to die…‘Let my people go that they may serve me.’ – Exodus, Chapter 7,
Verse 26.109
108
109

Ibid.
Preminger, Exodus.

Carter 37

In contrast to Jews in Exodus, Gitai’s Jews are not martyrs, and as such they do not have a
“willingness to die.” Rather, they are victims, not specifically of Arab, British, or European
violence, but of an inescapable fate, as explained in the final scene through a five-minute
soliloquy spoken by a hysterical and traumatized Yanush:
Try to think, what’s it [Jewish history] made up of? Oppression, slander, persecution,
martyrdom…No glory, no action, no heroes, no conquerors! Just poor wretches pursued,
moaning, crying, always begging for their lives. I’d make it forbidden to teach our
children Jewish history…Some find it heroic, the way we’ve endured our sufferings. To
hell with that heroism! It’s the heroism of despair…You see, we suffer and we enjoy it.
Because without it, we’d cease to exist…We prefer slavery to redemption, dreams to
reality, hope to a future, faith to common sense, and so on. It’s horrible! Suffering is what
makes us Jews. It proves we’re brave and heroic more than any other people. We don’t
act. We don’t master our destiny. There’s a meaning to it. It means: You’ll never manage
to break us. You won’t be able to destroy us. No power on earth can do it. There are
limits to power, but not to the power of suffering. That explains everything: exile,
martyrdom, the Messiah, all three united, so the Jews will never know salvation. So they
continue to wander from country to country, pursued by hate. Exile, exile! How they love
it! How they cling to it! It’s their most precious treasure, more precious than Jerusalem.
Exile is our pyramid, with martyrdom at its base, the Messiah at its tip, and the Talmud as
the Book of the Dead…Shall we remain exiles for all eternity waiting for heaven to send
someone to come save us? I think that Israel isn’t a Jewish country anymore. Not now,
even less in the future. Time will tell. Everything’s done for. Finished. They change your
names.110
After his speech, the film ends the same way as Exodus, with military trucks driving off into the
distance, but Ernest Gold’s uplifting score is noticeably replaced with a more sorrowful
composition. Yanush (or the original Polish spelling Janusz) and Ari’s respective conclusions
could not be more different. Ari leaves the viewer hopeful for not just an independent Israel, but
a Jewish homeland and nation-state that is democratic, just, and equal – following its heroes’
virtues of peace, brotherhood, and coexistence. In Kedma, no one – Jew or Arab – is left
uninjured, unaffected, or better off than before. Yanush leaves the viewer with no definitive
answers, only questions. What is Jewish history made up of, and what will it be? Shall Jews
110

Gitai, Kedma.

Carter 38
remain exiles or exile another people? In its pointed opposition to Exodus, Gitai’s Kedma
opposes several narratives essential to Israel’s mythology.
vi. Conclusion
As I wrote above, life in Palestine posed new questions, such as ‘what is Israeli identity?’
and ‘what are its people’s histories?’ The answers to these questions were essential for the
creation and legitimation of Israel. Exodus provided its audiences, primarily American and
Jewish-American, with answers to these critical questions and thereby significantly influenced
these groups' perspectives of Israel. Gitai’s Kedma problematizes and complicates these answers
(national identities and narratives) provided by Exodus. Kedma, on the other hand, offers an
alternative to the liberation narrative, or more specifically Catastrophe-Redemption narrative,
promoted by Exodus. Preminger’s Exodus resolves its plot with a position of victory, hope, and
salvation. Gitai’s Kedma, instead, leaves its plot and characters unresolved, still waist-deep,
wading in the trauma and struggle they sought to leave back in Europe.
However, for the last fifty-five years, Exodus is the film that has provided the dominant
framework and vocabulary through which we discuss Israel in the United States. Its documented
popularity and uses by the Israeli government serve as proof of its powerful potential to
influence. The Americanization, westernization, and liberalization of Israel’s foundational
narrative established in Exodus allowed both the film and Israel itself to be more widely accepted
by an international audience – in particular, an American audience. This framework positions
Israel as: the protagonists of all past, present, and future conflicts, suitable allies to the US, under
constant attack from neighboring anti-Semitic Arabs, the natural response to the Holocaust, and
therefore the answer to the age-old “Jewish Question.” Exodus also constructed the sabra as the
new and improved Jew. In what sounds like Hitler’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch,

Carter 39
the new Israeli Jew was more Aryan, masculine, militant, and Jewish than his European
counterpart. Moreover, the Holocaust has become so engrained in the Jewish-American psyche
that seven-in-ten of Jewish-Americans named remembering the Holocaust as the most essential
characteristic of being Jewish.111 Due to the simultaneous dominance of the CatastropheRedemption narrative, connection to and support of Israel also became an essential characteristic
of being Jewish.112 Exodus serves as a central producer of Jewish and Israeli mythology that
creates both a new story and identity for the newly established Israelis to attach themselves to.
Therefore, Exodus bolsters the ideological, or to return to Anderson, imaginative establishment
and defense of the state of Israel.

111

“…roughly seven-in-ten U.S. Jews (73%) say remembering the Holocaust is an essential
part of what being Jewish means to them.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life
Project, A Portrait of Jewish Americans (Pew Research Center, October 1, 2013),
http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/.
112
“About seven-in-ten American Jews (69%) say they are emotionally very attached (30%)
or somewhat attached (39%) to Israel.” Ibid.

Carter 40
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