“Above all, I recognize the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-semitism.” –Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, 1895
Herzl concluded that Jews needed to leave Europe because they would never be safe or welcome. Their best bet was to establish a country of their own in The Holy Land.
In 1895, his perspective sounded paranoid and fanciful.
In 1946, it sounded like basic common sense and an existential necessity.
“Exodus” shows us how a few hundred thousand revolutionaries made Herzl’s dream a reality.
The story begins in a sprawling refugee camp in Cyprus in 1946. Countless European Jews are stuck there. They can’t go back into Europe. And they aren’t allowed into Palestine because the British fear Arab unrest.
Enter our hero Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman). He puts together a bold escape plan to smuggle 650 refugees onto a rickety boat called the Exodus. When the Brits blockade the Harbor, Ari leads a hunger strike.
The hunger strike shames the pharaoh (I mean Prime Minister) into letting Ari’s people go. It also shines a world spotlight on the plight of countryless Jews.
If the movie had ended here, “Exodus” would have been a triumph of cinema and effective propaganda.
Unfortunately, this is just act one of an unfocused epic. When the action switches from Cyprus to British Palestine, the film gets slower, more violent, and less character-driven.
I’m glad I watched “Exodus” but that does not mean I think it’s a good movie. One of the lead characters professes her love for another character late in the film and it felt like it came out of nowhere. We’ve been watching these two for 3 long hours and I didn’t really know them at all. Had they even seen each other in years?
“Exodus” is definitely educational, though. Some people think that the British gave Israel to the pitiful Holocaust survivors because they felt super guilty. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo shows that no one gave the Jews anything.
There were three main groups of Zionist revolutionaries.
Ari Ben Canaan is a leader of the Haganah. His organization’s grand plan is to smuggle as many Jews into British Palestine as possible. At a certain point, they theorize, a Jewish state just becomes a demographic reality.
Ari’s uncle Akiva leads the Irgun. Akiva is more like George Washington, in that his idea of revolution is to slaughter as many British men as possible by any means necessary.
Finally, Ari’s dad has founded a thriving kibbutz. The kibbutz movement hoped to build Israel from the ground up: with a grassroots Communist economy, a new (old) language, and a new set of social ethics.
One of the ways that Israel stood out from the beginning is that women were the true equals of men: working and fighting side by side.
The three revolutionary movements had little in common. But they were all painfully aware that kicking the British out was just the easy first step in a long, bloody journey.
All Jewish groups were arming themselves in preparation for the upcoming war against their Muslim neighbors. It was no secret that the Islamic world was never going to accept Israel. Even in 1946, people realized that this war is going to last until the last Jew in the Middle East is killed or until the world ends – whichever comes first.
I learned a lot from this movie. Ultimately, I am glad that I sat through it. That said, it was a slog; it is way, way too long. We Jews have a saying about things like this: Never Again.
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