Exodus: Essays and Questions

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1.   What is Zionism?


Uris gives a narrative review of Zionism, speaking of its beginnings in the French Revolution when Jews were given rights as citizens. They were assimilated into French culture, but the late nineteenth century was a time of world-wide intolerance of Jews, and they lost confidence in assimilation as a solution for anti-Semitism. They began to long for their own country. The pogroms of Poland and Russia fueled the Zionist movement, and Jews moved to Palestine in a series of “aliyahs” or ascents to the holy land. An aliyah was a group emigration to Palestine, a modern exodus. The first aliyah was in 1903; the second was in 1905. The third was after World War I. Others followed. The Rabinskys, however, were among the earliest settlers, already established and helping each successive wave of immigrants to get settled in Palestine.


Uris creates sympathy for Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, by showing the desperate passion of the Jews, their persecution and trials, the overwhelming forces against them, and finally, their almost superhuman faith and unity. After understanding what the children had been through in the war, the reader is not surprised that they would volunteer for a hunger strike or suicide. Their faith and loyalty to one another is all they have in a violent world. The discussion of the establishment of the death camps by the Nazis, their deliberate genocide and the methods used, centered on the story of Dov Landau, are the most heartbreaking in the novel. Uris includes scenes in the death camps to explain why the Jews fight so hard for Israel. Palestine is not only their traditional and religious homeland, but also there is nowhere else to go. Uris extends his historical background to the pogroms of the nineteenth century. Hitler’s atrocities are therefore only part of the larger and continuous war against the Jews, he shows.


Uris includes the idea that Zionism was controversial, even for Jews. He gives a short modern history of Judaism and traditional groups such as the Messiahs (prophets), the Kabbalists (mystics), and the Hasidim (Orthodox Jews who withdraw into prayer). These groups are involved with their religion. The latter-day Zionists were political, demanding the return of their ancient land in Palestine. They claimed that during the Diaspora, or dispersal of Jews after the Fall of Jerusalem and the Destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 CE, that Jews became citizens of every nation, attempting to assimilate into those foreign cultures. Karen’s father, Professor Clement, is an example of a Jew in Germany who considers himself a German as much as a Jew.  His fate is thus shown to invalidate the idea of Jewish assimilation into other cultures. Ari is a political rather than a religious Jew. He believes in an eye for an eye and political action as did the other Zionists.


2.   What are the origins of Jewish history?


The early Jews developed their religion and culture on the east coast of the Mediterranean, in the land of Canaan (where modern Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon are located). They came from the area called the Fertile Crescent between the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers. This area was influenced by the ancient cultures of Egypt, Babylonia, and Arabia. The Bible says the Jews are descended from the people of Israel who settled in Canaan between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River.


In the traditional account of Jewish history in the Bible, the ancestors of the race are Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob. The Children of Israel consisted of twelve tribes, each descended from one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Jacob and his sons left Canaan during a famine and came to northern Egypt where their descendents were enslaved by the Egyptians. After 400 years of slavery God sent his prophet Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage. The first Exodus, celebrated at Passover, was a miraculous event where the Jews left Egypt when the Pharaoh was compelled to let them go by divine intervention. After wandering in the Sinai wilderness with his people for forty years, Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments from God, the moral law of the Jews. Joshua was the military leader who conquered Canaan, and the Israelites returned to their old homeland.


In Canaan, the land was divided among the twelve tribes, a confederacy ruled by the Judges or prophets, such as Deborah and Barak. The Israelite kings were later established under Saul (in about 1000 BCE) and carried on in the glorious reigns of David, and his son, Solomon. David made Jerusalem the political and spiritual capital of Israel. Solomon built the First Temple on Mount Moriah. After his death there was a civil war among the tribes of Israel. The nation split into two kingdoms, Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. The Assyrians conquered Israel in the 8th century BCE. The northern tribes are sometimes called the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, since there is no record of what happened to them. The Kingdom of Judah was captured by Babylon in 587 BCE where many Jews were forced to live in exile without their temple. The prophets Ezra and Nehemiah led them back to their homeland and their ancient practices. The Second Temple was built in Jerusalem in 516 BCE.


Jewish culture and philosophy were influenced by the Greeks, during the time the early books of the Bible were written and compiled. The Hasmoneans or Maccabees were Orthodox Jews who resisted Greek culture and rule. They formed their own Jewish state ruled by the Hasmonean Dynasty (165-63 BCE). The Romans conquered Israel in 63 BCE and made Judaea a province. After the revolt of Bar Kokhba (132-136 BCE), the Romans killed or sold into slavery most of the population of central Judaea. The Jews were banished from Jerusalem and the Romans sacked the city and destroyed the Second Temple. Though some Jews remained in Galilee, there was a tremendous Diaspora or dispersal of Jews from their homeland.


3.   How did the Jews fare during the Diaspora?


In Israel, Judaism had been an oral tradition. During the Diaspora, without a central Temple, Jews were held together wherever they moved by  teachers or rabbis who knew the written scriptures and commentaries, such as the Talmud and Mishnah. In the Middle Ages between 800 and 1100 the Jews in Europe held a special place outside the Christian feudal system. They were accepted for their financial and professional services to the rest of society, especially in Moorish Spain 900-1100 CE. Christian scholars consulted Talmudic Rabbis respected for their great learning. With the strengthening of the Catholic Church, however, through its preaching orders, and the towns that fostered competitive middle-class merchants, the position of Jews changed. Christians began to portray the Jews as the killer of Christ because they rejected him as the Messiah, and the persecution of Jews was condoned. The Crusades to the Holy Land also contributed to Jewish massacres. The Jews of Jerusalem defended the city against the Christian invaders in 1099 but were destroyed. Jewish scholars returned to Jerusalem by 1267 to keep open academies where rabbis could study. In Europe after 1300, Jews were the heart of the banking system but subject to frequent expulsions. Around 1500 Jews found a place of security and prosperity in Poland.


The European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, spread ideas of a secular society with equality for all. Jews began to modernize in their thinking and adopt ideas that led to Zionism, their desire for political freedom. France was the first country to give Jews rights during the French Revolution. Many Jews became respected as highly intellectual thinkers in Western philosophy and science.


With frequent pogroms or massacres in Russia and in Russian held Poland in the late nineteenth century, over 2 million Jews fled to the United States, while many others immigrated to Palestine in the Zionist movement. After World War I, Britain controlled Palestine, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave British support to a Jewish state. The British Mandate of Palestine began in 1920. After several waves of Jewish immigration, Arabs began to oppose the influx of Jews to Palestine with violence. When the British changed their policy to be pro-Arab, the Jews organized the Haganah, the army to protect Jewish settlements. With the Holocaust of World War II, thousands of Jews tried to immigrate illegally to Palestine, such as on the ship Exodus. This genocide was the immediate pressure and justification needed for the Jews to win their own nation. Uris details all the events leading up to that point, and what it took afterwards for the Jews to hold their land. Much of this history is covered in the novel in scattered paragraphs.


4.   How did the Holocaust occur?


The Holocaust refers to the genocide and mass murders perpetrated by the Nazi regime of Germany during World War II. It is called the Shoah in Hebrew, “the catastrophe.” The Germans called it the Final Solution to the Jews, whom they considered a racial problem. Generally the term refers to the systematic extermination of the European Jews, but many Soviet prisoners of war and other social “undesirables” like homosexuals and Gypsies were also included. The persecution happened in stages. First, civil rights were suspended; Jews were prohibited from public life; then they were publicly humiliated by wearing badges. Later, they were rounded up and removed to concentration camps for forced labor, where they were often sterilized; then finally, they were sent by trains to extermination camps.


Adolf Hitler rose to power with his Nazi party in Germany in 1933. The blatant anti-Semitism of this regime, with its repressive measures against Jews, was condoned by other Germans, or at least, they looked the other way, as did many Western nations. The Nazi propaganda accused the Jews of trying to take over the world. They viewed Jews as a race rather than a religion. The anti-Semitic ideology and philosophy about superior and inferior races had been around in Germany since the nineteenth century. They posted Jews as the enemies of Aryan peoples. Hitler picked up on current prejudice and carried it to extremes. In Germany, Jews were in many prominent positions and had considerable wealth. The Nazis took their wealth and killed anyone with any amount of Jewish blood. They intended to take their extermination program to Britain and other countries. No Jew in Europe was safe.


Jews began to get out of Germany as they could, going to other European countries, or to the United States. This is when the exodus to Palestine heated up with the British opposing the ships packed with immigrants, and Jews began organizing their underground groups, such as the Palmach and Mossad Aliyah Bet, to get them past the British blockade. During World War II, Hitler occupied almost all of Europe, including Poland. In 1941, the Nazis carried out their Final Solution of putting Jews to death in gas chambers. Six million Jews were killed, including one million at Auschwitz, which had been scientifically designed to murder as many as possible. There have been many instances of genocide in the history of the world, but none is as chilling as this methodic disposal of human beings. The rest of the world heard rumors but did not know for certain until the end of the war what had happened. Brigadier Bruce Sutherland in the novel is among the liberators of the death camp at Bergen-Belsen. In 1960, the Mossad found Adolf Eichmann, one of the administrators of the Nazi Holocaust, in Argentina, brought him to trial in Israel and hanged him.


5.   How has Israel survived since its independence in 1948?


The United States has been a principal ally of Israel in the modern world. The U.S. is second only to Israel in the number of Jewish citizens. After its war of Independence in 1948-49, Israel had a number of wars, including the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon War, the 2006 Lebanon War and ongoing minor conflicts concerning the Palestinian Arabs. During the 1967 war, Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank of the Jordan River. Many peace conferences and peace initiatives by the U.S. and other countries, tried to negotiate a settlement between the Jews and their neighbors. In 1979 peace with Egypt was established based on the Camp David Accords; in 1993 peace treaties were signed with the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization); and in 1994, with Jordan.



In 1977 President Anwar Sadat of Egypt tried to create peace in the Middle East with his recognition of Israel, but he was assassinated, and the 1980s saw the rise of Islamic fundamentalism with extremist groups such Hezbollah from Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Israelis settled and occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leading to the first Palestinian Intifada or uprising in 1987. Human rights abuses by Israeli soldiers gave sympathy to the Arabs in these Palestinian Territories. They declared their independence as a separate Palestinian state in 1988, recognized as such by some nations, but not Israel or the United States.



In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and Israel, starting the Gulf War. An allied force, led by the United States defeated Iraq and left peace-keeping forces in the area. In 1993, Israel and the PLO agreed to a transfer of power from Israel to the Palestinian Authority to begin the process of making a Palestinian state for Arabs in exchange for their recognition of Israel. The PLO would take control of the occupied territories in exchange for giving up terrorism. This compromise was opposed by Hamas, who attacked Israel with suicide bombers. The failure of the peace process and continued attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah made the Israelis lose faith in negotiation with the Palestinian Authority.



In 2005 all Jewish settlers were evacuated from Gaza and the West Bank. Jews accepted there would be a Palestinian state. Hamas won the Palestinian election in 2006, and their leaders rejected all agreements with Israel and kept up their program of terrorism. In 2005 the Iranian policy toward Israel became more hostile, and many believe they supported Hamas and Hezbollah to undermine the peace process. In the Battle of Gaza in 2007, the fundamentalist Hamas took over Gaza, while the Fatah, a more moderate PLO party, ruled the West Bank. Hopeful signs for the future include the attempt to unify Palestinian rule in the Gaza and West Bank, and in a peace between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt. The novel Exodus gives a historical background of the Arab-Israeli conflict, mostly from the Jewish point of view, though Uris tries to create sympathy for village Arabs.


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