Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Exodus by Leon Uris

The Palestinian/Israeli conflict seems to be following me this fall. I have had more than one long conversation about the history and the current reality of the situation. Technically, I was trained in grad school to teach the subject. I never would have presented myself as an "expert" or even particularly knowledge about the region and the conflict. However, as I have taught it I have discovered that I do know a lot more about what happened than the average American citizen. However, most of my reading is academic, relatively dispassionate prose about dates and events and responses. Dispassionate is a relative term when talking about Palestine/Israel because anyone who knows the name has an opinion - and usually a very strong opinion about who is wrong and who is right. My university training tended towards a pro-Palestinian stance. I am thankful for that because it allows me to play the devil's advocate in a society that leans towards pro-Israeli beliefs. My own view is uncertain. I feel that there is much too much history to be able to convincingly feel more overt sympathy for one side of the other.
Anyway, that's a long introduction to Leon Uris's book. I picked it up off my shelf, having acquired it by way of my brother. I talked to my mother about the story and she read it sometime in 1963. I am very glad that I read Exodus, but I also have some cautionary fears about introducing a book written in 1958 to today's audience.
Exodus is the story of the creation of the state of Israel. Backtracking through the lives of multiple characters, Leon Uris explains how Jews ended up in the Middle East in the 1940s. His historical knowledge about the ghettos of Poland, the concentration camps of Germany, and the Pale of Settlement seems spot on. There is little that I could find to fault him for and I resoundingly recommended the book to a Jewish student who is curious to learn more about Israel. It is a fascinating read.
However, Uris's perceptions of the Arabs is significantly less historically accurate - to say the least. This is the point in which the book is dated. The Arabs are portrayed in the most stereotypically Orientalist terms possible. The Christian Arabs are sympathetic, but the rest smell bad, are traitorous, have absolutely no morals, and are all identical. The Jews are absolutely, no questions asked, correct in their takeover over the Holy Lands. The "Moslems" are completely wrong because, in Uris's descriptions, they have no love of the land and no ability to care for it. I believe there is some historical accuracy in what he has written, but I would like to think that were he to have written his book forty years later, he would have recognized his universalist dismissal of a people and given the Arabs more credit.
One of the best reasons to read this book is to get a better understanding of the role that the British played in further heightening the tension in the region. Uris shows how the political, religious, and moral dilemmas that the British faced created the conflicts that exist in the region down to today.
I would be very curious to know how, if at all, Uris's views of Israel changed in the 40 years between writing Exodus and his death in 2003. The Palestinian/Israeli region remained mired in conflict and obviously continues to be a major source of tension today. At the very least, reading this book has reaffirmed the need to teach people the history of the Holy Lands in order to allow people to take an educated stance on the continued crisis. But, I would hesitate to recommend Exodus to a dyed-in-the-wool pro-Israeli because Uris's stereotypes of the Arabs will only further confirm their belief that the Palestinians are "evil" and the Jews are not.

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