When many Westerners peer out at the world, what they’re really looking for is a mirror.
Rereading exodus, the schmaltzy 1958 best seller about Israel that became a Hollywood movie starring Paul Newman, I was surprised by something I hadn’t noticed as a teenager. The author, Leon Uris, describes a utopia of brave young pioneers in khaki shorts, farming when possible and fighting when necessary, quoting Bible verses as they hook up in ancient ruins, and so forth. But the novel isn’t just a fantasy about Israel, as I’d remembered, or even primarily that: It’s about America. Exodus says less about the country where it’s set than about an American tendency, one very much in evidence this month, to imagine people here in Israel as a reflection of themselves.
“She was one of those great American traditions like Mom’s apple pie, hot dogs, and the Brooklyn Dodgers” is how Uris describes his main female character, Kitty Fremont, a nurse who isn’t Jewish but finds herself embroiled in Israel’s War of Independence. The male lead, Ari Ben Canaan, is a blond frontiersman, tough yet sensitive, who knows his way around good cognac, the foxtrot, and an automatic rifle. He’s a Jew worthy of the great American tradition embodied by Kitty, and Exodus ends with them together. That seems, in fact, like the point of the book.
When Uris was writing in the 1950s, most Israeli Jews were natives of the Islamic world who’d either been drawn to the new state or forced from their home by their former neighbors. Many of the rest were survivors of the Holocaust trying to hack out a living without losing what was left of their mind. They lived alongside a sizable Muslim Arab minority, a remnant of those displaced by the war, feared as a fifth column and kept under military rule. Kibbutznik pioneers like Ari Ben Canaan were never more than a tiny share of the population—and as committed socialists, would never have gone anywhere near the foxtrot. Few people here were blond. A more representative hero for Exodus would have been the Arabic-speaking seamstress from the Jewish ghetto in Marrakech.
But Exodus wasn’t about representation, or about a strange country in the Middle East. It was an attempt to get American readers to look at Israel and see themselves. Ari Ben Canaan was a hero from the America of Ernest Hemingway and John Wayne. He was a blue-eyed, chiseled, gorgeous Paul Newman.
Although a close relationship between America and Israel has been taken for granted over the past half century, it solidified only once Americans decided that Israelis were like them. In novels and countless press reports about pioneers and fighters in the ’50s, “Israel and Jews came to be perceived as masculine, ready to fight the Cold War alongside America,” the scholar Michelle Mart wrote in her study of the topic, Eye on Israel. “By contrast, Arabs were increasingly stigmatized as non-Western, undemocratic, racially darker, unmasculine outsiders.”
“In the images of Israelis, then,” she wrote, “Americans constructed their own self-image at mid-century.”
That construction has been on my mind this month as disturbing events unfolding here have been picked up and interpreted abroad. Many Americans are now using their image of home to construct their image of Israel. Indeed, for some on the progressive left, the conflict between Jews and Muslims 6,000 miles east of Washington, D.C., has become jumbled up with American ideas about race.
(Read the whole thing here.)