You might also like some of the following posts…
Musings on an old movie
When I was in graduate school, I dated a Catholic (with both a capital C and a lowercase one) girl. She gave me a book one year for a gift. It wasn’t just any book; it was a book she had read while she was still in high school. According to her, it was a book that changed her worldview and gave her insight into a topic she never expected to be interested in. Having attended Catholic school and grown up in a suburban Midwestern town, she knew very few Jews. In fact, when we met in 1996, I was the first real Jewish friend she had ever had. Fortunately, she was smart enough to know that we didn’t have horns or anything like that, but she still knew very little about the religion or the culture or the people. I am pleased to say that she is quite knowledgeable now, thanks in part to me, but also thanks in part to this book. Of course, that book was Leon Uris’s Exodus.
I dutifully read the book, and thought that it was very interesting. I must confess that I remember very little of the book 12+ years later. I do remember that I enjoyed it, and that I was glad that she had read it and understood a little better the importance to the Jews of a homeland, particularly after the Second World War and the atrocities that were afflicted upon European Jews. I am blessed that I was born in an era where anti-Semitism is at an historic low. True, there is still hate related crimes against the Jews, and, perhaps even worse, anti-Semitic sentiment still reigns, but fortunately, I have never really been personally exposed to serious anti-Semitism. I am also fortunate to have been born in the US, where arguably, I am more protected from anti-Semitism than almost anywhere else in the world. I also consider myself lucky to have been born in an era where the State of Israel has asserted her right to exist, and although too many people still die (on both sides), and there are still too many bombings, there isn’t war and the serious constant threat like from 1948 thru 1967. I have been blessed to have lived and toured Israel at a time when peace was the norm, and attacks were not…at least where I lived in Jerusalem. My friend SK may feel differently; she lived in the north and had to sit in her bomb shelter almost weekly.
I finally got around to watching Otto Preminger’s insanely long movie adaptation of Uris’s book (which was no slim novel itself). In a nutshell it was exactly what I expected. Bad acting, poor sound, obvious dubbing, and too many shadows of the cameraman (most obvious in the scene where Ari and Kitty kiss for the first time as they overlook the Valley of Jezreel). Nevertheless, it fascinated me to watch this epic unfold on my television (I can only imagine what it was like on the Big Screen). It amazed me how propagandist it was (was the book so much so as well?). How could anyone walk out of that movie and not say, “hell yea the Jews deserve their own land…and what’s with those awful Arabs? They were invited to live in peace and said no. F’ them. It’s their own fault.” Of course, the reality of the situation between the Jews and the Arabs was (and still is) much more complicated than Otto made it out to be, and there were other, centuries old forces at play.
I’m not ashamed to say that I got caught up in the moment of the movie, and I kept thinking, how exciting and romantic it would have been to be living back then, just before the birth of a nation. To be among the first generation who created a fertile, vibrant country out of sand and dust. It reminded me of what the Jewish people had to go through to get the world to have any sympathy whatsoever to allow the partition to happen, and what these same people had to go through in order to survive in an arid land with enemies on all sides. Just like the American experiment has baffled economists and historians, so, too, has the survival of Israel baffled all the naysayers. Logically, the country shouldn’t have survived the War of Independence, let alone any of the other wars. And yet, somehow it has. We could talk about God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We could talk about God’s promise that Jerusalem would never fall. We could talk about a myriad other explanations, but no matter what, the bottom line is that the State of Israel did survive, and she has prospered.
I think that the part of all of this that has been gnawing at me lately is that back then, I think everyone knew what they were fighting for. Ari claims to have dynamite strapped to the Exodus’s engines. If the British try to take the ship, he will detonate it, killing every Jewish man, woman, and child, as well as the British soldiers. When the Haganah commander finally decides that all children under 13 must return to Cypress to ensure their survival, he is reprimanded by those very children’s mothers. They would rather see their children die struggling to reach Palestine, then die behind barbed wire like some caged animal. I have heard stories that the #1 bus in Jerusalem (which takes you from town right to the Western Wall in the Old City) used to have grenades regularly lobbed into it. Back then, so the stories go, someone would immediately throw themselves upon it, sacrificing themselves to protect the rest of the bus. There’s another story I’ve been told about a soldier during the War of Independence. He was part of a demolition crew, and they were ordered to destroy a key bridge, lest the Arabs use it to get their forces across. After the explosives were set, it was discovered they had no detonators left. Knowing full well the importance of destroying the bridge, the soldier stayed behind. After giving his unit enough time to get to safety, he ignited the dynamite by hand, taking out the bridge, and himself with it. I’m not so sure that modern Israel has this sense anymore.
The Survivors—those who lived to tell the horrors of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, and the other concentration camps—are dying. There are only a handful left. Likewise, those still alive who fought in the Haganah, the Palmach, and the Irgun are also growing fewer and fewer. The old soldiers who created the Israeli Defense Forces, the army that every other army studied because they did the impossible on a daily basis have all long since retired. The last war in Lebanon is an example of how things have changed in Israel. Ignoring America’s strong hand in the goings-on in that war for a moment, it was still clear that IDF command were at a loss of how to organize and lead a major war. This is not necessarily their fault, and ironically, it can be seen as a good thing: while almost every IDF soldier has seen some sort of combat, none, until the last war in Lebanon, had actually been to war. Israel’s current army is a mere shadow of the once fearsome army that broke the rules and impressed even its bitterest enemies. People today have forgotten what their fathers and grandfathers fought for.
This is not an argument about land for peace or anything like that. This is an argument of patriotism, of familiarity, of comfort. Israel is now 60. By strict definition, that is 2 generations. People of the current generation have forgotten what it’s like to struggle daily for Israel’s very existence. I don’t mean to negate or diminish the current situation of suicide bombers and rocket attacks from Gaza, but I would argue that this is not the same as having to stand guard 24 hours a day so that your kibbutz isn’t ambushed by the enemy. With all due respect to those who have lost loved ones in recent times, today is very peaceful compared to 60 years ago. And this has created a generation that has taken Israel’s existence for granted. Today, no one fights for Israel’s right to exist, or for its right to exist as one piece of land and not two states. Granted, there are still extremist Arab groups that still want to see the destruction of the Jewish State, but with the Jordanian and Egyptian peace accords and the official pacts, accords, and talks with the Palestinian Authority, it is becoming much more rhetorical than literal.
I am a hopeless romantic, always looking for an adventure and excitement. As with most things in my life, I was born too late. I doubt that I will ever find myself telling my grandchildren stories that grandchildren and even great grandchildren today hear from their grand- and great grandparents about what it was like in the late 1940s in Israel. I worry that I might actually have the opportunity. I believe that now is the time for the IDF to look at how it operated back then and learn from itself. If there is a 2 State agreement, I am concerned that our biggest fears will be realized and that there will be another war for independence. It took the United States 2 wars to convince the United Kingdom that we were serious about severing ties with the Empire, and it seems likely that Israel, too, will need to once again demonstrate her resolve to survive in the inhospitable climate in which she resides. Unlike the US, every war that Israel has fought has been for her very existence and independence, and a future one will be no different.
I pray that there won’t be, but, God forbid, if there is another Arab-Israel war, I pray that the old attitudes and feelings of pride will return to the Jewish people, and they will recognize and understand what they are saying as they sing HaTikvah:
The soul of a Jew yearns,
And forward to the East
To Zion, an eye looks
Our hope will not be lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.