Monday, September 22, 2014

Israel’s “Human Shield” Hypocrisy: The Early Days

Down those meme streets

In 2001, Edward Said called Leon Uris's 1958 novel Exodus: “The main narrative model that [still] dominates American thinking” about Israel.1 As a Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston put it more recently (2012), in an article entitled “The ‘Exodus’ effect: The monumentally fictional Israel that remade American Jewry,” Uris’s narrative “Tailor[ed], alter[ed] and radically sanitize[ed] the history of the founding of the State of Israel to flatter the fantasies and prejudices of American Jews.” Burston quotes American Zionist Jeffrey Goldberg, who served in the IDF as a prison guard, to the effect that "Exodus … made American Jews proud of Israel's achievements. On the other hand, it created the impression that all Arabs are savages.” And he quotes none other than David Ben-Gurion: "As a literary work it isn't much…But as a piece of propaganda, it's the best thing ever written about Israel."2       

Of course, even more Americans owe their education in Zionism to Otto Preminger’s 1960 movie version of the book, which has been “Widely characterized as a ‘Zionist epic’ [that was] enormously influential in stimulating Zionism and support for Israel in the United States.” It was Exodus, the movie, that really viralized (as we say now) the “Exodus-effect.”3

The film stars Paul Newman as Haganah militant Ari Ben Canaan.4 Newman provides the perfect image of what Burnson calls “the wiry, wily, can-pass-for-Christian New Israeli Jew - exactly [what Uris’s] literary engineering had intended.”  Gleaming blonde Eva Marie Saint plays the love interest, Kitty Fremont, a volunteer American and Presbyterian nurse who starts out all pacifistic and ends up riding off into battle as Ari’s shiksa comrade.  It was an iconic package that was, as Jerome A. Chanes, writing in New York Jewish Week in 2010, said: "just what we needed at the time - the Americanization of Zionism and Israel.”5

Burston and Chanes are nicely describing the production of an ideology – in this case, the American ideology of Zionism – through a fiction that creates a sympathetic identification of the reader/viewer with characters and situations that reinforce Americans’ acceptance.  Zionism becomes a self-evident norm for Americans, not because the case for it has been so well argued, but because Paul and Eva are so obviously “right” in the narrative terms that every American preconsciously understands.

“Literary engineering” is a particularly apt phrase because it evokes recently-coined jargon for what I call ideological production – “memetic engineering.”Memetic engineering refers to the careful placement and arrangement of memes – bits of meaning, carried in ubiquitously-recognizable words, phrases, and images that carry and transmit bits of meaning throughout a culture – in ways that are all the more powerful because they work on a preconscious, “unthinking” level. 

Whatever you call it, for Exodus and its viewers, Zionism is to America as Ari/Paul is to Kitty/Eva – you can’t have one, you can’t have one, without the other.

The plot of the movie centers around Newman/Ben Canaan’s attempt to smuggle 611 Jewish refugees into mandate Palestine in 1947 on a ship named Exodus. The British have the ship blockaded in the harbor in Cyprus, and Ben Canaan organizes a hunger strike among the refugees on the ship to try to force the British to let them sail to Palestine.

Given the power of this film in setting a positive image of Zionism for a whole generation of Americans, one might wonder why it’s never shown on any of the 500 cable movie channels, or anywhere else. In fact, you never even hear it mentioned. It’s virtually disappeared from the cultural conversation.

Now one reason for that is surely because the damn thing is three-and-a-half hours long. But doesn’t the Godfather trilogy play on cable every few months? Other factors are at work, I think, that make the film much more problematic as a vehicle for promoting Zionism today, and therefore unlikely to be shown. The articulate Jewish-good-guys vs. “savage” Arab-bad-guys scenario may be a little too stereotypical for contemporary audiences – especially educated liberal audiences.

Maybe. But a worse embarrassment, I think, derives from the nastier elements of the Zionist strategy itself that the film does not shy away from portraying, probably because the filmmakers at the time could not imagine that anything would undermine the audience’s sympathetic identification with Paul and Eva and their extended Zionist family.

Thus, for example, the film can be quite upfront with the character of Dov Landau, played (in an Oscar-nominated performance) by Sal Mineo, a young Zionist radical who joins the Irgun and bombs the King David Hotel.  Making a sympathetic character out of the perpetrator of what still ranks as one of the deadliest “terrorist” attacks in the Middle East (91 killed, still celebrated in Israel), might not play so well with a contemporary American audience primed against “terrorism.”7 It might even start a few viewers thinking about the Zionist freedom-fighters/terrorists Sal Mineo’s character is based on (Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir), who became Prime Ministers of the most moral state, and one of whom (Shamir) wrote a forthright defense of his own and other Jewish radicals’ deadly activities in an article forthrightly entitled “Terror,” saying:
Neither Jewish morality nor Jewish tradition can be used to disallow terror as a means of war…We are very far from any moral hesitations when concerned with the national struggle….First and foremost, terror is for us a part of the political war appropriate for the circumstances of today, and its task is a major one: it demonstrates in the clearest language, heard throughout the world including by our unfortunate brethren outside the gates of this country, our war against the occupier.8
We wouldn’t want Americans starting to historicize their understanding of who the “terrorists” are, now, would we?

King David Hotel, After Dov Landau's Menachem Begin's Bombing

Does the vulgarity of it shock you?

More to the point for our discussion of the how the “human shield” meme is used with mendacious hypocrisy by Zionists today, however, is this telling exchange between Aria and Kitty on the good ship Exodus, with Kitty trying to persuade Ari to end the hunger strike:

(<2 minutes)
Kttty: Then let me ask you this, if I may: Do you have the power to call off the strike?
Ari: I have, if a compelling reason turned up. Why? 
Kttty: Then call it off. I've been talking to General Sutherland. He's a humane man but there's nothing he can do. You've made the issue so flatly that no one can help you. I know it. I feel it. Either you compromise or you lose.
Ari: We won't lose. If the British give in and let us go, we've won. And if we starve to death aboard this ship, we’ve still won.
Kttty: They'll wait. They'll wait until you're too weak to resist and then they'll come aboard and they'll take you off. 
Ari: It doesn't take much strength to set off 200 pounds of dynamite. 
Kttty: You mean you'd still set it off, knowing you've lost? 
Ari: Of course. 
Kttty: Without any regard for the lives you'd be destroying? 
Ari: With every regard in the world for them. 
Kttty: I don’t understand.
Ari: Each person on board this ship is a soldier. The only weapon we have to fight with is our willingness to die.
Kttty: But for what purpose?
Ari: Call it publicity. 
Kttty: Publicity?!
Ari: Yes publicity. A stunt to attract attention. A letter to the newspapers. A help wanted to add to the official journal of the United Nations: Wanted by 600 men, women, and children, a country a native land, a home. It's all they're dying for, just to call attention to Israel, without ever having seen it themselves. Does the vulgarity of it shock you?
Yes, I think that, in the face of the images from Gaza and the campaign of scurrilous and false “human shield” accusations against Palestinians, Paul Newman’s argument for 600 telegenically dead9 Jewish men, women, and children as a publicity stunt to gain the sympathy of the world might not go over as well for the Zionist cause as it did in 1960. Those who saw this movie in 1960 and thereafter, and who still carry around the sense, endorsed by critics like Stanley Kauffmann, that it’s a “powerful instrument of contemporary truth,”10 might find it impossible not to see the hypocrisy of Israel’s current attempts to demonize the Palestinian resistance. With all we now know and have seen, a movie like this makes it uncomfortably clear that the charges Zionists level at Palestinians are all too often projections of Zionists’ own actions and intentions.

In fact, the images and tropes of a movie like this, which were once successfully engineered for an American audience into a heroic imaginary version of Zionist armed struggle (both offensive and sacrificial), now seem disturbingly more relevant to the real struggle of Palestinians for their “native land.” (“The only weapon we have to fight with is our willingness to die.”)

The memes have gone off the rails. And that, at least as much its length, is why you never see Exodus anymore.

Stranger than Fiction

Lest anyone be tempted to dismiss all this as irrelevant because it’s dealing with a fiction – anyone, that is, who still does not understand that imaginary narratives like Exodus are much more powerful in establishing and maintaining Zionist ideology in the United States than are historical treatises – we can remember that Leon Uris was basing the fictional Exodus on real events, well-known to the world at the time.

There was a ship called Exodus 1947  that attempted to bring Jewish emigrants from France to Palestine in July of 1947 and was seized by the British navy, which sent all the passengers back to Europe.11

More to the point of the movie, however, is the fate of the SS Patria in 1940.  The Patria was carrying 1800 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe whom the British authorities refused entry into Palestine and were sending to Mauritius. While the Patria was in the port of Haifa, it was blown up and sunk by the (official, “non-terrorist”) Haganah, which did not want Jewish refugees going anywhere but Palestine. At least 267 people were killed. The Haganah put out the story that the passengers had blown up the ship themselves – a story that lasted 17 years, nourishing the imagination of Leon Uris.12

SS Patria, After Haganah Bombing

These incidents were part of the horrible plight of Jewish refugees from Nazism during the war and the holocaust (Patria, 1940), and of the Jewish population of the Displaced Persons (D.P.) camps in Europe in the years immediately after the war (Exodus, real and imaginary).  Americans, and the Hollywood audience globally, should be aware that the attitude of Zionism to the “refugee” issue throughout this period was more complicated than we might have been led to imagine.

As Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, President of the Zionist Organization of America emphasized in 1946:
Zionism is not a refugee movement. It is not a product of the Second World War, nor of the first. Were there no displaced Jews in Europe, and were there free opportunities for Jewish immigration in other parts of the world at this time, Zionism would still be an imperative necessity.13
There is ample evidence that Zionists resisted efforts to give safe haven to Jewish victims of Nazism anywhere but in Palestine. For just one example: In the United States, the Stratton Bill, introduced in Congress in 1947, which would have allowed 400,000 Displaced Persons “of all faiths” into the country, was met with tepid support by Zionists (11 hours of testimony by Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish organizations).  On the other hand, the Wright-Compton resolution, which called for a “Jewish Commonwealth,” elicited 500 pages of supportive testimony by American Zionist organizations.14

Among the other stories of skewed Zionist refugee priorities, I’ll mention briefly the one told by Ben Hecht in his book, Perfidy, regarding Hungarian “fanatical Zionist” Rudolf Kastner, who, according to the testimony of Adolf Eichmann: “agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation -- and even keep order in the collection camps -- if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine.”15

Prominent American Jews noticed, and fiercely criticized, Zionist priorities regarding refugees. A Yiddish paper said:
by insisting that Jewish D.P.'s do not wish to go to any country outside of Israel; by not participating in the negotiations on behalf of the D.P.'s; and by refraining from a campaign of their own—by all this they [the Zionists] certainly did not help to open the gates of America for Jews. In fact, they sacrificed the interests of living people—their brothers and sisters who went through a world of pain—to the politics of their own movement.16
Louis Finkelstein of the Jewish Theological Seminary complained that: “if United States Jews had put as much effort into getting D. P.'s admitted to this country as they put into Zionism, a home could have been found in the New World for all the displaced Jews of Europe."

None other than the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, insisted that:
plans to move Jews to Palestine should be but part of larger plans to empty these camps of all refugees, Jew and otherwise…[W]hy in God's name should the fate of all these unhappy people be subordinated to the single cry of Statehood? I cannot rid myself of the feeling that the unfortunate Jews of Europe's D. P. camps are helpless hostages for whom statehood has been made the only ransom.17
At this crucial moment in history, it was Zionists who practiced the original “human shield” strategy, holding the victims of Nazism “hostage” to the Zionist “statehood” project – as even the New York Times recognized. Ari Ben Canaan/Paul Newman’s willingness to blow up 600 Jewish refugees on the imaginary Exodus represented a principle actually followed by the Zionist movement for years, and enunciated quite clearly by its “mainstream” leader, David Ben-Gurion, as early as 1938: “If I knew it was possible to save all [Jewish] children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to Eretz-Yisrael, I would choose the latter.”18

Not to open up that whole can of Zionist worms: Another reason we don’t see much of Exodus today.

It’s important that we notice, as most in the American audience could not in 1960, this historical use of “human shields” in the Zionist conquest of American minds and Palestinian lands. It is also urgently important that we recognize how we are still being played, and Palestinians ravaged, by Israel’s memetic, and actual, engineering of human shields today.

Really, it’s time for Americans to wipe from their minds the narrative model conjured by a “literary engineer” like Leon Uris, which still dominates American thinking, and pay heed to the accounts of a witness like Max Blumenthal, who describes what happened to 19-year-old Mahmoud Abu Said of Rafah when Israeli soldiers in invaded his family home on July 14th:
After ordering the family to evacuate the house under the shelling their army had just initiated, the soldiers called for Mahmoud’s father, Abdul Hadi El Said. As soon as he appeared at his doorstep, they shot him in the chest, leaving him to die. …[T]he soldiers grabbed Mahmoud and refused to allow him to leave.

Mahmoud said the Israeli troops dragged him back into his house, blindfolded him and wrapped him in a blanket on the floor as they began to blow holes in the walls to use as makeshift sniper slits — what US troops in Afghanistan called “murder holes.” Then the soldiers stripped Mahmoud to his underwear, handcuffed him, slammed him against a wall and began to beat him. With an M-16 at his back, they forced him to stand in front of open windows as they hunted his fleeing neighbors, sniping directly beside him at virtually anything that moved. When they were not using him as a human shield, Mahmoud said, the soldiers left him alone in the room with an unleashed army dog who was periodically ordered to attack him.19
And, yes, it’s time to wipe from our minds the image of charmingly masculine, “wiry, wily” Paul Newman acting up the Hollywood Haganah meme, and be captivated instead by the more important visage of Ramadan Mohamed Qdeih, telling us what sixty-five years of Zionist-American memetic engineering has wrought:

(<4 minutes)


See previous post on this topic: Israel's "Human Shield" Hypocrisy
And related post: Gaza Calling: It’s the Colonialism, Stupid!

Notes and Links

1Al-Ahram Weekly | Opinion | Propaganda and war Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 6 - 12 September 2001, Issue No.550

4 The Haganah was the main, “official” Jewish army in mandate Palestine. Its offshoots, the Irgun and the Stern Gang (also known as Lehi), were more radical, and were considered “terrorist” organizations even by the Zionist Congress and the Jewish Agency. As indicated below, however, their actions were at least ultimately embraced by the mainstream Zionists, and two of their leaders – self-acknowledged “terrorists” – went on to become Prime Ministers of Israel.

5 Cited in Brunson. Chanes was reviewing M.M. Silver's 2010 book, Our ‘Exodus’: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story.

10 Jacob M. Victor, Politics, Cinema, And The Middle East: Reconsidering Exodus | New Society. This is an article from a Harvard student, who, in 2008, admired the film’s idealism and “optimistic and meaningful vision,” or something like that.

12 Patria disaster - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Munya Mardor, the militant who planted the bomb, revealed that it was a Haganah operation in 1957, and claimed the intention was to disable, not sink, the ship.

The Kastner story is complicated and contentious, and includes Kastner’s role in testimony that acquitted some Nazis at Nuremberg. Hecht, an ardent Zionist himself, takes to task not only Kastner, but the Jewish Agency executive, including Ben-Gurion. For a more complete picture of these issues, Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators and 51 Documents are indispensable.

16 Quoted in Lilienthal

Also quoted in Lilienthal

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