Representations of the Arab Israeli Conflict
September 28, 2010
Otto Preminger??™s Exodus featuring Paul Newman??”one of the most famous films regarding Israeli history??”has educated thousands of Americans regarding the formation of the State of Israel and the different forces involved, both diplomatically and militarily, such as the Etzel (a Revisionist Zionist military force), the Haganah (a left-wing military force affiliated with the kibbutzim), the British Empire, the UN, the Arab population, and the kibbutzim. Analysis of the communities depicted by Preminger in the Jezreel Valley, Abu Yesha and Gan Dafna, and the relationship between them enable the audience to better understand the film and its portrayals.
Firstly, let??™s examine the community less central to the plot, Abu Yesha, the Arab town outside Gan Dafna and Exodus??™ representation of the Arab population within Palestine. Barak Ben-Canaan, founder of Gan Dafna, claims to have received the land as a donation for the youth village from the Mukhtar of Abu Yesha. Thus, the Mukhtar demonstrates a gracious acceptance of the Jewish pioneers from Europe, welcoming them into the valley as peaceful partners coming to live as neighbors in harmony. Although some Arab populations may have perceived the Jews in this manner, it is disingenuous to show this behavior as representative of the whole Arab population, most of whom viewed the Eastern-European Jewish immigrants with almost the exact opposite perspective (Ofengenden).
The vast majority of the Arab population understood to the Jewish pioneers in the context of the Napoleonic Wars and the subsequent influence of colonial powers, particularly the United Kingdom and France (Ofengenden). To them, the Jewish waves of immigration only furthered the region??™s colonization at the hands of Europe (Ofengenden). Already pressured to conform to Western norms regarding culture, technology, and societal organization, the Arab population generally saw the Jews as an extension of this policy, further pushing Western traditions on them (Ofengenden). Thus, out of fear, the communities reacted defensively in order to preserve their own cultural traditions; it does a major disservice to the Arab cultural legacy to pretend that they would graciously welcome the manifestation of their own cultural oppression.
Preminger disrespects the Arab narrative, not only in his characterization of the old Mukhtar, but also in the depiction of Taha, the new Mukhtar. Taha initially claims that they ???dwell together as friends,??? since ???it is natural that we should live together in peace??? (Exodus). Taha fails to recognize that as separate national groups fighting for autonomous control of the same land, they cannot both succeed. Eventually he recognizes this harsh truth, declaring that ???You won your freedom and I have lost mine??? and eventually proclaims, ???Today, more than ever I realized I am a Muslim. I cannot go against my own people??? (Exodus). However, Taha??”respectably??”refuses to resort to violence until coerced by both a Nazi and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Despite the respect the character Taha deserves for his reluctance to use violence, as a caricature, he (a representative of the Arab narrative in Palestine) fails to demonstrate the perspectives and sensibilities of the mainstream Arab population, who responded aggressively to the Jewish settlers, never forgetting their nationality.
Unfortunately, Exodus does not depict those settlers with any more historical accuracy. Their ???youth village,??? as Gan Dafna is constantly described in Preminger??™s film is intended as a kibbutz. When the refugees arrive in Haifa they pass trucks going to Alonim and Yad Mordechai before boarding the one headed to Gan Dafna. The first two are well known kibbutzim; the last is a fictionalized location. Inductively speaking, Gan Dafna is clearly a kibbutz, even though it is never referred to as such. In fact, the word kibbutz is only used once in the entire film, when Ari declares that ???every kibbutz and moshav [will] fight to the end??? (Exodus). However, the distinction between the kibbutz and the youth village illustrates much more than a simple semantic debate; in fact, it illuminates the fundamental principles behind the portrayal of Gan Dafna in Exodus and one of Preminger??™s broader goals with the film.
Gan Dafna, a place populated mostly by youth with scattered adult supervisors who even wake them up in the morning, evokes a sense of a summer camp, albeit an intensely military agricultural summer camp. A few select individuals (Ari, Barak, etc??¦) clearly run Gan Dafna authoritatively; when they give orders, the youth all obey. When the refugees arrive at Gan Dafna, the reception ceremony is meticulously organized down to the last detail. By contrast, the kibbutz, according to a testimony by Asher Aranyi, ???made every possible mistake in absorbing us??? (Near 84). This difference is emblematic of the central difference between the kibbutz and Preminger??™s youth village; the kibbutz was essentially a collective. Compared the collective, a community with a clear leader can act efficiently??”one of the major advantages to authority. No collective would have organized a reception so detailed and no sensible authority would have absorbed its members so poorly. Preminger??™s disregard for the collective appears repetitively throughout the film.
The core of any kibbutz was the asefa klalit (general assembly) where members made all decisions collectively based on the principle that each member would receive in accordance with his or her need, not age, productivity, or any other justification. Each member received both equal material goods and equal voice in decision-making. This value-based essence of the kibbutz, conspicuously absent in Preminger??™s Exodus, derived from the kibbutz??™s role within the socialist-Zionist youth movements such as ???Hashomer Hatzair,??? ???Habonim,??? and ???Dror,??? each of whose memberships made aliya with the express intention of forming new kibbutzim or joining existing ones. Subsequently, the kibbutzim organized into larger kibbutz movements (Near) Thus, kibbutzim throughout Palestine could rely upon each other as members of the larger kibbutz movements. Preminger again disregards historical fact; Gan Dafna lacks any external connections except for Ari and Barack??™s personal connections. These fundamental differences??”socialism, collective decision-making in place of authoritative figures, and participation in a larger movement??”demonstrate the difference between a kibbutz and Exodus??™ youth village.
This simple misunderstanding of the kibbutz compromises the film??™s entire ability to accurately represent any history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The movements and kibbutz members even facilitated the mass illegal emigrations from Europe. From the moment a refugee boarded the ship Exodus, he or she would have been surrounded by socialism and its values (Near 78). This demonstrates one of the many ways in which the kibbutzim took responsibility for the burgeoning Israeli society.
Firstly, within the framework of a partition plan, the kibbutz movement located kibbutzim in regions without many Jews to claim territory (Negev, Beit She??™an region) as Jewish land (Near 100, 104). Simultaneously, these kibbutzim??”planted amongst hostile Arab villages??”also stood as independent military bases for the Haganah, the precursor to the IDF (Near 89). The kibbutzim also performed another essential role for the Jewish people, the absorption of new immigrants, as many arriving Jews were initially placed in kibbutzim where they learned Hebrew and were able to contribute to the society around them (Near 181). Lastly, as a labor-based community, the kibbutz produced goods for society??™s general use.
Thus, the kibbutzim were responsible for every one of the nation??™s needs, ???settlement, security, absorption of immigrants, conquest of the desert, and ingathering of exiles??? (Near 181). David Ben-Gurion himself, Israel??™s first Prime Minister, asserted that the kibbutzim should be the fabric of Israeli society, continuing to provide for the needs of the people (Near 183-184). None of the Zionist initiatives??”political, military, or economic??”can be properly understood without recognition of the kibbutz. Every kibbutz simultaneously claimed land for the Jewish people, provided a military stronghold against Arab assault, absorbed new immigrants, provided supplies for the people, and pervaded the entirety of Israeli socio-political life. By butchering the depiction of not only the kibbutzim, but also the Arab population, Preminger denies his audience the opportunity to see the conflict as it occurred sixty years ago and as it pertains to the modern state of affairs in the Middle East.
Instead, he shows us his censored version, in which anything perceived as controversial is sliced out of the film, so that it will appeal to everyone, thereby maximizing profit (Weissbrod). In the context of the Cold War, socialism inspired too much fear in American audiences, so he eliminated its influence. Similarly, in order to appeal to Arab audiences, he casts Taha as a moderate. He was even ???like a brother??? to Ari (Exodus). Instead, the Nazi absolves Taha and Abu Yesha of their responsibility for the violence. However, as Preminger slowly removed bits of historical fact to market his film, he also ignored off some of the history??™s essence, fundamentally reshaping the picture he paints in Exodus, so that neither are Kibbutzim socialist, nor are Arabs and Jews actually in conflict. Thus, the film forfeits its relevance as a quality primary source on either the Arab Israeli conflict or Middle-Eastern history; the film is only worthwhile as a vehicle through which to study American culture in the 1960??™s.
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