31. Theme of Exodus
Written by Ernest Gold
Performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra
From the CD Academy Award Themes (Intereuro, 2008)
From the Film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, USA 1960




On November 9 1938, a communiqué from the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, arrived at every Gestapo office in Adolf Hitler’s Reich: ‘Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place throughout the Reich shortly. […] Should Jews in possession of weapons be encountered in the course of the action, the sharpest measures are to be taken’.

Over the next two days thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked, two hundred synagogues were destroyed, 91 Jews were murdered and between 25,000 to 30,000 were arrested and deported to concentration camps.

Kristalnacht aka Novemberpogrom aka the Night of Broken Glass was the beginning of a programme whose aim was the systematic eradication of the Jewish people. At the time Ernest Gold was studying at the State Academy of Music in Vienna. He was born in Vienna in 1921 to a family with musical connections that extended back into the mid 19th century. Gold began playing the piano at six. When he was ten Gold told his parents he wanted to compose music for movies: sound had only recently been introduced to this still new medium and the use of music in movies was something new and laden with fresh possibilities. Gold’s parents supported him, but it was obvious by the early 1930s that his ambitions would never be realised under the new prohibitions on Jewish roles in public life inscribed into German law. In early 1938, the Gold family left Germany and moved to New York. Ernest was seventeen. He was twenty two when he moved to Hollywood where he embarked on what was to become a successful career as an arranger and orchestrator on low budget feature films. He got his first break as a composer in 1958 on the film The Defiant Ones. The success of that film propelled Gold into the world of big budget productions, most notably Exodus (1960). As big a box office hit as Exodus was, Gold’s score was even bigger, winning the film an Academy Award for Best Soundtrack Album and a Grammy Award for Song of the Year.

Exodus was based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Leon Uris, in which a group of Jewish illegal immigrants, most of whom had survived the holocaust, embark on a journey to Palestine on a ship called Exodus 47.

Part of the novel’s success lay in its claim to having been meticulously researched by Uris, a claim which gave the movie the weight of at least symbolic truth among its worldwide audience – if only in the mind of the author; speaking in 1988 Uris told Associated Press ‘Exodus has been the Bible of the Jewish dissident movement in Russia… It’s referred to as ‘The Book.’’ [1]

But in recent years the film has come under scrutiny by scholars keen to provide a counterweight to the film’s claims to veracity and also to contextualise the film as a powerful and seductive example of mythmaking about the creation of the State of Israel. Here is the abstract of an essay by Yosefa Loshitzky, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the School of Social Sciences, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of East London. The essay is called National Rebirth as a Movie: Otto Preminger’s Exodus (2002): ‘Although ‘Exodus’ is not an Israeli film, it has become an inspiring model text for the heroic- nationalist genre in Israeli cinema. The promotion of Zionism as a liberation movement by ‘Exodus’ was an imperative. When the film was released in 1960, the propagation of the myth of Palestine as ‘a land without a people’ prior to Zionist settlement was no longer tenable, thus creating a need to rewrite the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for the international community and the American audience in particular. Following a long colonialist tradition, the film presents Zionism as fulfilling a ‘civilising mission’ with regard to the indigenous Arab population (the ‘Canaanites’ of the biblical narrative). To further strengthen this reading, the film shows that the native Arabs actually welcomed the Jews and even gave them the land of Palestine voluntarily as an act of gratitude for the progress they brought to this undeveloped corner of the world.’ [2]

There is also the work of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde, and founder of the website The Fanonite, whose original aim was to provide an alternative voice to the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. An essay posted on The Fanonite by Idrees titled Hollywood and Israel gives an overview of the American film and television industry’s complicity in creating a highly partisan, politically motivated image of Israel for global consumption which all too often runs counter to historical truth. What’s especially useful about the essay is that it informs us of the work by Jewish scholars to make visible and dismantle Hollywood’s relationship with Israeli Zionism. Here is an excerpt, whose subject is Exodus:

The role played by just a single film, ‘Exodus’, in shaping Western perceptions of the Israeli state have been instrumental in erasing Palestinian history and the manner of their dispossession. In a two part analysis of Zionism in cinema, Larry Portis writes: How can the ‘Western democracies’ continue to participate in the genocidal punishment of a population while proclaiming the purest of intentions? One of the reasons is the power of Zionist propaganda over those who lack alternative information and the political fear and hypocrisy that it can inspire in those who understand what is happening. Of the modern means of communication and the formation of consciousness, the cinema is pre-eminent and, in the case of the Zionist state of Israel, one film in particular has been remarkably influential.

In the first chapter of his brilliant book, ‘Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History’, Norman Finkelstein dissects the racist stereotypes of Arabs that litter Leon Uris’s novel on which the film was based. This book, according to Kathleen Christison, ‘had an immense influence on an entire generation of Americans’. Could it be that these racist assumptions are less an evidence of the author’s malice than of his ignorance? Larry Portis continues: It was Dore Schary, a top executive at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) who suggested the idea for the book to Leon Uris. As Kathleen Christison explains, [in her book Perceptions of Palestine] the whole project ‘began with a prominent public-relations consultant who in the early 1950s decided that the United States was too apathetic about Israel’s struggle for survival and recognition.’ Thanks to Schary, Uris received a contract from Doubleday and went to Israel and Cyprus where he carried out extensive research. The book was published in September 1958. It was first re-printed in October the following year. By 1964, it had gone through 30 printings. This success was undoubtedly helped by the film’s release in 1960, but not entirely, as Uris’s novel was a book-of-the-month club selection in September 1959 (which perhaps explains the first re-printing).

The film was to be made by MGM. But when the time came, the studio hesitated. The project was perhaps too political for the big producers. It was then that Otto Preminger bought the screen rights from MGM. He produced and directed the film, featuring an all-star cast including Paul Newman, Eva Marie-Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Sal Mineo, Peter Lawford and other box-office draws of the moment. The film also benefited from a lavish roduction in ‘superpanavision 70’ after having been filmed on location. The music was composed by Ernest Gold, for which he received an Academy Award for the best music score of 1960. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo. In spite of its length—three and a half hours—the film was a tremendous popular and critical success.

It is noteworthy that the release of Exodus the film in 1960 indicates that its production began upon Exodus the book’s publication. It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose a degree of coordination, in keeping with the origins of the project.

[…] Not only did it shape Western perceptions of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it also embedded the myth of the Zionists prevailing in the face of overwhelming odds to establish a Jewish state (In fact, the Haganah [Jewish militia] far outnumbered the combined military forces of all the Arab states in ‘48). The Holocaust is milked in the film for maximum propaganda value, even though in Israel itself, holocaust survivors were referred to disparagingly as ‘soap’ at the time (only last year, Ha’aretz was reporting that 40% of the holocaust survivors in Israel still live below the poverty line).’ [3]

We came across Norman Finkelstein again in a review of Beyond Chutzpah by Matthew Abraham at logosjournal.com. Abraham, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and winner of the 2005 Rachel Corrie Courage in Teaching Award Winner, speaks well of Finkelstein, and we are inclined to share Abraham’s enthusiasm for Finkelstein’s work. Abraham writes:

As a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein has been battling the U.S. Zionist establishment for decades. Beyond Chutzpah is one of those rare books that has the potential to change the nature of the debate about the U.S.-Israel-Palestine conflict because of its willingness to go where others refuse to go with a ‘J’accuse —even when leading to ostracism and perpetual underemployment. Finkelstein indicts much of the U.S. intellectual culture and the cultural institutions that obstruct an accurate rendering of the historical and diplomatic record of the conflict.’ [4]

Abraham mentions another of Finkelstein’s books, The Holocaust Industry, in which Finkelstein makes an important distinction between ‘the holocaust (the historical event) and the Holocaust (the ideological creation nurtured by Israel’s apologists to immunize the Israeli government against critiques).’ Abraham tells us that ‘In ‘Beyond Chutzpah’, Finkelstein alleges that there’s anti-Semitism, a age-old form of prejudice directed against Jews that any decent person would oppose, and then there’s ‘anti-Semitism’ — an ideologically serviceable mystery religion which accrues considerable benefits or the Israeli government. Finkelstein claims that the new anti-Semitism ends up coddling Zionist Jews, particularly American Zionist Jews, protecting them from much-deserved scrutiny in their toadying for special dispensations as oppressed ‘chosen people’ while in fact comprising the most privileged ethnic group in the United States.’ [5]

Staying with Finklestein, Abraham conveys the exploitative nature of the Holocaust’s relationship with holocaust survivors: ‘In fact, as Finkelstein documents, the billions of dollars the Holocaust industry extorted from Switzerland and Poland in the name of reclaiming Jewish assets seized during WWII went not to Holocaust survivors or their families, but instead to Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress and the Anti Defamation League, which are U.S. front operations for the Israeli government. Hence, the Holocaust Industry has not only robbed survivors blind but also engaged in a form of ruthless grave robbery for the glorification of that massive land-based U.S. aircraft carrier, Israel.’ [6]

Given the enduring presence of Exodus in the public imagination and its role in manufacturing global consent around the Israeli occupation of Palestine, as much by way of the seductive power of Ernest Gold’s score as by the movie itself, it would be something of a surprise if Abraham did not place the film in the context of the Holocaust industry.

Abraham summarises the reasons why a film – soundtrack and all – so emblematic of Zionist mythmaking cannot also have a claim to consistency with historical events: ‘Once one understands that the founding of Israel had little to do with the Holocaust; that the vast majority of Holocaust survivors—who sought to come to the U.S. but were blocked from doing so by American Jewish Zionists—were forced to migrate to Israel, in Yosef Grodzinsky’s words as ‘good human material’ (a translation of his book’s Hebrew title—chomer ‘enoshi tov); that to describe Palestinian hatred of occupiers of Palestinian land as an expression of ‘anti-Semitic sentiment,’ because those occupiers are Jewish, is inexplicable; and that anti-Semitism is not an ageless parasite that infects non-Jews but is instead a context-specific form of ethnic discrimination that has arisen throughout history just as other forms of ethnic discrimination; then the typical Leon Uris Exodus history becomes quite untenable.’ [7]

In 2007 the revision of Exodus moved from academia to the mainstream of news journalism, and was the subject of a piece titled The Real Exodus, by Guardian journalist Linda Grant. Grant highlighted the differences between the book and the film’s account and the historical events. She tells us that for a start, the boat wasn’t called Exodus 47; its name was The President Warfield, which obviously doesn’t evoke any synonymy with the Old Testament, the figure of Moses, or the journey of the Israelites. Here’s Grant: ‘Both film and book tell the story of the post-war illegal immigration ships bearing a human cargo of Holocaust survivors who tried to break the British blockade of Palestine in the last days of the Mandate. It was an incident that would become part of the founding mythology of Israel, legendary because the fictionalised account came to symbolise the birth of a nation and generated international sympathy and support. But it was a fairy tale. In Uris’s version, the Jewish refugees, stranded on Cyprus, are saved by a sympathetic British general who convinces the British government to allow the ship to land. In real life, the British army boarded, killed three people, loaded the passengers on to prison ships and took them back to Hamburg.’ [8]

Grant interviewed some of the people who made the voyage to Palestine. One of them was the ship’s captain Ike Aronowitz, played by Paul Newman in Preminger’s film and whom Uris interviewed during his much vaunted research for his book. Aronowitz, Grant tells us, was a bit sceptical about Uris’ competence: ‘I told him: you’re a great writer of bestsellers, but for history you’re the wrong guy. He was very offended.’ [9]



[1] Leon Uris, author of ‘Exodus,’ novel of founding of Israel, and other Deseret News (Salt Lake City), 24 June 2003, by Hillel Italie AP national, with contributions from Associated Press writer Madison J. Gray

[2] National Rebirth as a Movie: Otto Preminger’s Exodus, by Yosefa Loshitzky. Published in: National Identities, Volume 4, Issue 2, July 2002 www.informaworld.com/index/3XBXQ6CJYTF4CGDC.pdf

[3] Hollywood and Israel. Posted by M. Idrees, 23 February 2007 in The Fanonite

[4- 7] Norman Finkelstein: How His Book on Israel May Change Public Debate, by Matthew Abraham at logosjournal.com 23 November 2005
History News Network http://hnn.us/roundup/archives/14/2005/11/

[8 & 9] The Real Exodus, by Linda Grant, The Guardian, 30 June 2007
www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jun/30/israelandthepalestinians.lindagrant s



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