- Zionism as Anticolonialism: The Case of Exodus
Lots of people around the world have decided that they want to run their own lives. Colonies are going out of vogue in this century.Leon Uris,Exodus
“I’m curious to hear you talk about the Zionist idea. Do you believe that it has justice on its side?” Jeffrey Goldberg put this question to presidential candidate Barack Obama in a 2008 Atlantic Monthly interview. “I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel,” responded Obama, “is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth.” Goldberg introduced this exchange with a fictional reference: “speaking in a kind of code Jews readily understand, Obama also made sure to mention that he was fond of the writer Leon Uris, the author of Exodus” (“Obama”).
In his memoir published two years earlier, Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew across the Middle East Divide, Goldberg recalled a more militant lesson about Israel from reading Exodus as a teenager. He discovered his new ego ideal in the novel’s protagonist, Ari Ben Canaan, a “Hebrew (not, somehow, Jewish) warrior, brave and cold-eyed, who defended Jewish honor” (51). This figure of the heroic warrior motivated Goldberg to emigrate to Israel and enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), where he served as a prison guard during [End Page 870] the First Intifada. Israel appealed to him not as Obama’s universal metaphor but as the particular “lesson of the Shoah,” which he summarized: “it is easy to kill a unilaterally disarmed Jew but much harder to kill one who is pointing a gun at your face” (89). During target practice at IDF boot camp he relished the prospect of avenging anti-Semites who had ravaged the Jewish people for centuries and humiliated him in his Long Island suburban schoolyard.
Although Goldberg took Obama’s reference to Uris as a special code for Jewish readers, their exchange helps explain why this 1958 novel has had such a profound impact, beyond the Jewish community, on Americanizing the Zionist narrative of Israel’s origins and why the novel continues to matter. Obama found in Israel a universal symbol of social justice and redemption in Zionist rejuvenation of the land. Goldberg learned a particular lesson about avenging historical injustice in the rehabilitation of Jewish masculinity. Exodus seamlessly interwove these two apparently contradictory stories of a universal mission and a particular national triumph, the rebirth of humanity and regeneration through violence. This double narrative cast Israel as a mirror of American exceptionalism, as both unique and exemplary.
In his famous Cairo speech of 2009, President Obama called America’s “strong bonds” with Israel “well known” and “unbreakable.” He was ritually reaffirming what President John F. Kennedy had first dubbed “the special relationship”: an attachment assumed to be timelessly rooted in a joint biblical heritage, shared ethical values, a common political system, and ongoing moral outrage at the Holocaust. An analysis of how Exodus construed this relationship as exceptional can help us historicize the emergence of these assumptions and recover the strangeness of an affinity that has come to be seen as self-evident.
Exodus narrates the founding of the state of Israel as an anticolonial struggle for national liberation against the British Empire. A sprawling historical romance, it offers readers a heroic myth of Israel’s origins. Often compared in popularity and epic proportions to Gone with the Wind (1936), Exodus is a type of foundational fiction that nations tell about themselves. Such popular novels do for nations what Virgil’s Aeneid did for Rome: they yoke the state to the land in a mystical eternal unity, and they narrate the birth of the nation as the apotheosis of an inevitable historical trajectory. Exodus, however, is not a story told by...