Exodus and Anti-Exodus

The power of literary mythmaking


Leon Uris's death last week briefly revived discussion of Exodus, his famous 1958 novel about the establishment of Israel, if only to remember the book's extraordinary impact. It was a curious moment that, more than anything, served as a reminder of how much the novel's stature has shrunk. Exodus is still in print, and still attracts readers, but its power to move a readership appears to have become limited. The once-popular Paul Newman epic that was based on the book seems to have lost its reputation as well.

Perhaps the book's representation of the complex conflict between Arabs and Israelis has come to seem too simple; perhaps Uris' shortcomings as a writer have finally overtaken his skill as a storyteller. Whatever the case, the book's reputation may have grown smaller, but the shadow it casts remains a long one. Exodus remains a good example of the argument that it is works of popular literature, with all their shortcomings, that influence history far more than do more highly regarded works of literary fiction.

Obits of Uris were respectful, noting dutifully that he was never regarded as much of a stylist, and that he had relatively little talent for character. According to these postmortem appreciations, Uris's real strength was story telling. The New York Times, for example, paid mixed homage to Uris by quoting from a 1976 review by Pete Hamill. "[I]t is a simple thing," wrote Hamill of a later Uris novel, "to point out that Uris often writes crudely, that his dialogue can be wooden, that his structure occasionally groans under the excess baggage of exposition and information. Simple, but irrelevant. None of that matters as you are swept along in the narrative."

Millions were indeed swept along. Exodus, recalled the Times, had been a hardcover best-seller "for more than a year, with 19 weeks at No. 1." The novel sold as many as 20 million copies in its various editions just in the U.S., where the paperback went through 80 printings. It was the biggest best seller since Gone With the Wind.

The work's real impact, however, lay beyond mere literature. For a great many people, the plot of the novel—and of the even more popular 1960 film—became the popular template for understanding the Mideast, especially issues involving the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Uris popularized Israel as a place of righteous refuge, solidifying a link between the Holocaust and Israel that is actually a matter of contention among Israel's own historians and intellectuals. This is not to say that his story was false; the refuge narrative is at least one valid Israeli theme. But Uris helped make it the primary such narrative, characterizing critics of Israeli policy in terms of that story, and setting the terms of debate for decades.

For example, academic Melani McAlister, in a recent analysis of the relationship between American culture and U.S. Mideast policy, argues that when the novel came out, "most Americans still knew little about Zionism or Israel," and that the Uris story was "a foreshadowing of what Israel was to come to mean to Americans." Author Edward Tivnan called Uris's novel "the primary source of knowledge that most Americans had about Jews and Israel."

Yale's Deborah Dash Moore has even argued that Exodus not only gave Israel its positive persona, but provided the narrative used by the U.S. media to cover the 1967 Six Day War. Yitzhak Rabin, notes Moore, was identified by both Life and The New York Times as the prototype for the novel's protagonist. Moore's thesis is that Uris borrowed his essential dramatic elements from the American Western. As recently as 2001, Edward Said was still complaining that "The main narrative model that dominates American thinking [about Israel] still seems to be Leon Uris's 1950 [sic] novel Exodus."

Said's ultimate complaint, in that 2001 piece, was the failure of Arab leadership to counter Israel's case effectively, at least for an American audience. That's a debatable premise, since by then Israel was often on the defensive. But the larger point at which he hints in his derogatory reference to Uris is perfectly valid: No one, neither Palestinians nor other Arabs nor any of their allies elsewhere in the world, had managed to generate a narrative myth powerful enough to counter the one that Uris had helped generate.

Not that there weren't counter-Exoduses, as it were, to emerge from the Arab world. There were numerous anti-Israeli novels and films that appeared at more or less the same time that Uris's work did. The best of these political novels, according to a contemporaneous 1967 review of Arab fiction by the critic George Sfeir, was a work entitled Six Days, by the Lebanese author Halim Barakat. That novel treated the Zionist enemy as both ruthless and treacherous: It had given the inhabitants of a Palestinian village six days in which to surrender or be killed. Barakat's hero, however, is a political revolutionary who wants to bring down the stagnant Arab system, too, and he worries that in battling against the enemy, he's defending a system he hates. It's apparent that however much such a work might have resonated with conflicted leftwing Arab intellectuals of the period, it was not a mythmaking cry of resistance.

Novels that offer an alternative to Uris's narrative have emerged from within Israel as well, including a body of fiction written in Arabic by Sephardic Jews from Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. These works have challenged the "righteous refuge" story with a tale of unrewarded sacrifice on the part of such immigrants. In these works, Sephardic families that were once secure, prosperous, and happy have been undone by their experiences among Israelis of European origin.

Such Sephardic works were never intended to replace the dominant Israeli narrative established during the so-called "time of consensus" of the 1950s and 1960s. However, the rise of Post-Zionist revisionism among intellectuals and historians has resulted in a bitter debate over Israel's understanding of its origins and past. Thus, while Israel's critics never generated a counter-myth to the Exodus story, some other Israelis have been involved in a continuing effort to challenge that narative.

The issue of Exodus metamorphosing into a template for perceiving Israel was contentious even at the time of the novel's release. No less than Otto Preminger, the director of the film version, regarded the book as unfair to both Brits and Arabs, though he believed that his film had avoided the novel's weaknesses. Uris, for his part, accused Preminger of ruining his book. For all that, the book and film are invariably regarded as a single phenomenon that managed to displace the history that inspired it, and provided a context for events that followed. No small achievement.