If any country should be able to spot political theatre, it's Israel


CULTURE SHOCK:The storming of the flotilla taking aid to Gaza this week was an astonishing folly that sabotaged a founding myth of the Jewish state, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

IN JULY 1947 a ship set sail from a small harbour near Marseilles, carrying 4,554 survivors of the Nazi concentration camps towards Palestine. The purpose was to break the embargo on Jewish immigration to Palestine imposed by the British rulers of the territory. It was one of the most brilliant publicity operations ever mounted. The British fleet ended up harassing a ship full of Holocaust survivors – some still in their camp uniforms – and, in the end, forcing them to return to camps in Europe.

The voyage was a magnificent piece of political theatre. The very name of the ship was a stroke of genius. It was actually called the President Warfield, a name that remained imprinted on the prow and that the British tried in vain to use on every occasion. Sticking up a banner, as it approached the port of Haifa, proclaiming that the ship was called the Exodustapped not just into Jewish tradition but, perhaps more importantly, into the Christian biblical appropriation of that tradition. Once the international media picked up on the new name, the propaganda battle was at least half won.

The British, stupidly, decided on a military response to what was a political and theatrical gesture. They rammed and boarded the ship. There was chaotic fighting in which three of those on the Exodus,including a 15-year-old boy, were killed. In the propaganda battle that followed, the British claimed that some of the Exoduscrew members were armed. This was almost certainly a lie.

The voyage of the Exodusis one of the founding myths of the state of Israel. It was also the basis for another brilliant cultural coup, Leon Uris’s 1958 novel and Otto Preminger’s 1960 film, with Paul Newman in the lead role. This was an entirely deliberate act of myth making. It was conceived by the American PR man Edward Gottlieb, who was charged with boosting the popularity of the new and fragile state of Israel in the US and internationally. Gottlieb commissioned Uris’s novel, which, although often only tenuously connected to the facts, created the template for almost half a century of western understanding of Israel.

Uris’s novel is no masterpiece of prose, but it manages a tricky double manoeuvre of simultaneously demolishing one set of stereotypes and erecting another. In his preface Uris boasts of his achievement in sweeping aside “all the cliché Jewish characters who have cluttered up our American fiction – the clever businessman, the brilliant doctor, the sneaky lawyer, the sulking artist . . . all those golden riders of the psychoanalysis couch” and replacing them with “fighting people”.

At the same time, however, Uris constructed a whole new set of vile cliches – of Arabs. His Arabs are universally dirty, lazy, sexually threatening and cowardly. The Ben Canaan family, who are at the centre of the narrative, find, on their first visit to an Arab village, “dung-filled streets”, “swarms of giant flies” and an “overwhelming stench”. Arabs are snakes “slithering along the ground with knives in their teeth”. Exodusis in fact an old-fashioned western, with the tough Jews as rugged pioneers bringing civilisation to a land inhabited by savages who clearly do not deserve to live there. It is also, rather grotesquely in the context, reminiscent in its basic concepts of the Nazi justification of the acquisition of Lebensraum by the pure Aryan at the expense of the lesser races.

The pertinent point about Exodus, however, is that it was an enormous success – not just as an international bestseller but as a way of shaping understanding of the foundation and purpose of Israel. No work of fiction has ever been such a powerful asset to a political cause. Jews in Israel itself were not universally happy with Uris’s depiction of their intentions – most, after all, were peaceful idealists with no desire to be seen as aggressive colonists. But in the wider world and among the Jewish diaspora in the US , Exodusgenerated enormous sympathy for Israel.

Which brings us to the events of this week: unarmed ships sailing across the Mediterranean on a mission that is partly practical and partly a piece of political theatre. A government that is trying to exert its control over the territory of what used to be British-run Palestine faces a flotilla that has the moral mandate of humanitarianism. One would imagine that a state that has the Exodus episode as part of its foundation myth would be immediately alert to the power of this narrative. One would imagine that Israel, above all, would understand the terrible mistake the British made when they stormed the Exodus, killed some of its passengers and then made false claims to justify their disastrous actions. Leaving aside such questions as human rights and international law, intelligent self-interest would suggest that this was a situation to be handled with delicacy.

There is an astonishing folly in sabotaging one of your own great propaganda assets and forfeiting the great power of the Exodusstory. That this could happen is emblematic of the much larger cultural tragedy: the distancing of Israel from the cultural meaning of the Holocaust itself.

Jean Améry, the Austrian philosopher who was tortured by the Gestapo for his Resistance activities and then sent to Auschwitz because he was a Jew, wrote that “anyone who has been tortured remains tortured . . . Faith in humanity, already cracked by the first slap in the face, then demolished by torture, is never acquired again.” That loss of faith in humanity is still at work in Israel’s paranoid configuration of humanitarian intervention as a hostile act.

There is also the reality captured by Primo Levi, the great witness to Auschwitz, when he wrote of the growing “gap that exists between things as they were down there [in the camps] and things as they are represented by the current imagination fed by approximate books, films and myths. It slides fatally towards simplification and stereotype.”

Uris’s simplifications and stereotypes have now hardened into myths so far from the basic truths of the Holocaust that they have even destroyed themselves.