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The End of the Exodus Era

January 2, 2010

Dec. 31, 2009
daniel gordis , THE JERUSALEM POST

ExodusInsideI no longer recall who told me to read Exodus when I was a kid. But I was transfixed by the book, and a few years later, when I saw the movie, I was enthralled. I probably saw it only once back then (this was long before VHS), but that was more than enough to form a lasting impression of Israel. As if it were lifted out of the Hanukka liturgy, Israel seemed a tale of the triumph of the weak over the mighty, the few over the many, the righteous over the wicked. It was a story imbued with moral clarity, a sense of purpose and mission. It was, quite simply, the Israel I deeply believed in before I ever saw it.

Many years later, at the start of the decade now just ended, we’d moved to Israel. One day, two of our kids were home from school. The intifada was raging; they were young and confused, hurting and frightened. So I decided that renting Exodus was just what they needed.

But almost as soon as we started the film, I could tell that my planned educational moment had failed. They were bored silly by the movie, appalled by its primitive technology. The story line seemed saccharine, insipid. But even more damning, the movie didn’t reflect the complexity of the conflict in which they were living. I made a feeble attempt to get them to stick with it, but to no avail. In truth, even I could scarcely bear the appalling lack of nuance. We didn’t finish watching it; I mumbled some sort of apology for wasting their time, and returned the movie with no fanfare.

IT’S BEEN years since I’d thought of that failed parenting moment, but it all came back with great clarity last week when I read of the death of Ike Aharonovitch, the captain of the Exodus. The ship’s commander, Yossi Harel, had died a year or two earlier. Leon Uris, the novel’s author, had died in 2003, and Paul Newman, who had played Ari Ben-Canaan in the movie version, passed away in 2008. Thus, with Ike’s death, the Exodus era had ended.

To my surprise, I found myself much sadder than I would have imagined.

IkeFor if I grew up on Exodus, my kids have grown up on Munich and on�Waltz with Bashir. I grew up with an idyllic, Ari-Ben-Canaan-like image of Israel, formed from afar. Our children, though, were raised here. And this decade-just-ended, in which they became adults, began with the second intifada, proceeded to the disengagement and then to the highly problematic Second Lebanon War, and is now ending with a Schalit stalemate, a looming Iran and unprecedented international condemnation of the very fighting force that�Exodus unabashedly held in such high esteem. Ike’s death is thus the perfect metaphor – his passing is a reminder that the world in which I was raised is almost totally gone.

Our kids are busy these days. One’s in law school and getting married, one’s in the army and hardly ever awake on the days that he’s home, and one’s working on matriculation exams, thinking about what he’ll do when he gets drafted. In many ways, they know a lot more than I do about this country; they’re no longer inclined to set aside time for their father’s carefully scripted educational moments.

YET I’M actually tempted to try again. It will never happen, but I still imagine some moment, when for old times’ sake, perhaps just to humor their aging parents, the kids sit down with us and watch�Exodus. I’d tell them to cease the sniggering at the old-Hollywood-style love story, to try not to laugh at the images of the noble Arab in his robe and keffiyeh on the rear terrace of the King David Hotel, and to suspend their incessant political commentary on the obvious oversimplification of the conflict.

Why bother? Because despite the oversimplification and the saccharine overdose, Exodus reminds us of a world that used to exist, but doesn’t anymore. It’s a reminder of the days when young American Jews instinctively knew that the story that was unfolding across the ocean in Israel was also theirs – something we can no longer take for granted. It brings us back to those days when American Jews, and their Israeli counterparts, knew that the story was complicated, but also knew, with every fiber of their being, that the Jewish future depended on Jewish sovereignty. It was an era when Jews across the world still believed in the possibility of genuine leadership, when Jewish masses could speak without embarrassment of the fundamental justice of our cause.

Our kids, and most of their close friends, still believe those things. But they’ve learned that most people don’t; in much of the world, those convictions are considered naive, or worse. Exodus is a vestige of an era when the world was different. Moviemaking has changed, and so has the world. Because of that, peace and justice are more elusive now than they were then.

LIKE OUR times, Ike Aharonovitch was complicated. Were it not for Harel, he probably would have gotten the ship sunk and its passengers killed. We, too, are prone to extremes. But his legacy matters because he believed in the Jews, in their still-emerging state and in the fundamental justice of their cause.

None of us would write Leon Uris’s novel today; but that’s no excuse for having no story to tell. Ike’s memory demands that we recapture the narrative – perhaps with more nuance, but with no apology for insisting on the fundamental justice of our cause.

They won’t watch the movie, though. So I’ll say it to them here. We’re in Ike’s debt, and in the debt of his contemporaries. So, as a new decade dawns, our obligation to him is simple. Somehow, we have to find once again the courage and the fortitude to believe, and to bring to fruition the dream his generation lived and bequeathed to us all.

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