Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Howler 2

"People will die. They died the last time the navy forced boats back to Indonesia and they will die the next. They have always died. That's why the navy hates these operations and that loathing is deep in the DNA of the service. It goes back to the violent blockade carried out by the Royal Navy before and after the Second World War to prevent Jews reaching Palestine. Jews were trapped in Europe. Jews and sailors died at sea. The film is called Exodus." (Turn the boats back & people will die - Abbott knows this)

These are the opening two paragraphs of David Marr's otherwise relevant and accurate analysis in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald of the latest twist in the LibLab muscle-flexing competition over which party can be tougher on asylum seekers - Tony Abbott's declaration that, if elected prime minister at the next election, he'll order the Navy to turn refugee boats back to Indonesia.

Unfortunately, Marr has once before put his foot in his mouth with this Exodus-asylum seeker analogy, but, presumably in the absence of anyone (MERC excepted) having drawn his attention to what amounts essentially to a caricature of postwar events off the Palestinian coast, he's gone and done it again. Getting it wrong once may be excusable, but this reappearance of his initial howler does no credit to his reputation as a serious scholar. (See my 29/12/10 post Howler)

The sad fact is that Marr obviously still believes - in 2012! - that Exodus (1958), Leon Uris' best-selling Zionist propaganda novel, and the Otto Preminger film (1960) of the same name based on it, is historically supportable.

Whatever the worth of his expert opinion on the history and plight of asylum seekers heading by boat to these shores from Indonesia, Marr's portrayal of the 1940s Exodus phenomenon as a simple matter of desperate Jews with nowhere else to go up against an implacable British government presumably presided over by some earlier British incarnation of Tony Abbott is nothing more than an ill-considered retrojection of the Australian present into the Palestinian past. Had these same Exodus Jews been off the coast of England, knocking on England's door, Marr's analogy might have been on surer footing, but, in that event, it would have been the Zionist movement, not the British Navy, resisting their entry.

Hypothetical historical scenarios aside, what Marr's simple-minded Exodus version of history overlooks is the then Zionist leadership's cruel and cynical campaign to use displaced European Jews as a propaganda weapon in their violent struggle to dislodge their former ally, Britain, from Palestine and gain the upper hand there over the majority indigenous Palestinian Arab population.

Now I've dealt with this matter before, particularly in my 17/6/10 post Cannon Fodder for Zion: Exodus 1947, but seeing Marr's specifically referenced the film Exodus this time, I can do no better than clarify the matter by quoting from M.M. Silver 's recent study, Our Exodus: Leon Uris & the Americanization of Israel's Founding Story (2010):

"The Exodus incident, in its real and fictionalized guises, was about politics. Throughout the real-life saga of the Exodus, the Zionist leadership grasped its political implications. 'From the very start', writes Tom Segev, the Exodus ship affair 'was intended as a public-relations tool for the Zionist movement'. For instance, throughout the... affair Palmach chief Yigal Allon displayed a keen awareness of its political and public relations utility. Allon cabled Palmach comrades in Europe, saying 'it's inconceivable that Jews can be expelled from Eretz Israel without their doing the utmost to resist deportation'. Much like the fictional Ari Ben Canaan, Allon understood that while Jews would need to fight to win political independence, the value of this particular battle over Exodus was not to be measured in terms of what actually happened on the boat. Its worth was the way waves lapped from the ship in public consciousness. Resistance to the British, Allon explained in his June 21, 1947, cable, "should make the process of deportation as difficult as possible, since this, anyway, is one of the less pleasant tasks an oppressive administration has to fulfill. Now and then resistance has to rekindle the support of our people in the Diaspora, who might be able to help us and to awaken the conscience of those nations of the world who have not yet lost theirs'.

"In the battle for public perception, one of the Zionists' strongest cards was the ship's name. A brilliant, and highly deliberate, designation chosen by Moshe Sneh, the head of Mossad le-Aliyah Bet (the organization that spearheaded the illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine), the name Exodus reinforced a contemporary understanding that the Jewish campaign for survival and rebirth had universal implications... In the annals of illegal Zionist immigration to Eretz Israel, the name Exodus was uniquely rooted in biblical ground recognizable to Christians and Jews alike. The name powerfully associated the age-old Jewish struggle for freedom with the uplifting sense of democratic triumph in the postwar world. 'The name is a stroke of genius', noted the highly communicative director of the Jewish Agency's Political Department, Moshe Shertok (Sharett). 'This name by itself says more than anything which has ever been written about it [the boat's story]'.

"Few parties connected to the Exodus affair questioned the morality of relating to the 4,500 DPs as instruments operated to promote political visions of Mandatory Palestine's future. Few wondered whether it was cynical to exploit the fate of Holocaust survivors for political purposes. In this important respect, fiction followed real life. In Uris's fictional Exodus, Kitty Freemont remonstrates here and there about how Ari Ben Canaan is an 'inhuman beast', after the Yishuv partisan orchestrates an 85-hour hunger strike to stir world sympathy for the boat... Overall, however, Ari's act is lauded in the book as consummate politics, and Kitty, his American admirer, comes to accept the necessity of his methods. Similarly, in the real-life Exodus episode, the political and public relations effects of the DPs plight took precedence over their actual suffering - virtually nobody among the Zionists or their supporters identified this tendency as cynicism... The Jewish Agency, functionally the government of prestate Israel, was a political institution, and the politics of the Exodus affair were inextricably tied to calculations about world public opinion. The intensity of the Exodus ha'apalah struggle was calibrated strictly in line with public responses. As soon as Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders judged that UNSCOP's officials had turned the corner and were formulating recommendations in favor of a Jewish state, they knew that the time had come to scale back the Exodus struggle." (pp 78-80)

David, no third time, please!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is sometimes necessary to sacrify a few for propaganda purposes...