When it was first published, Exodus deservedly became an instant bestseller. In a brief period after its publication, it was translated into 50 languages. It remains an enduring, classic saga of the Jews, who as the book shows, "return home." That Leon Uris has poured passion into the book is apparent on every page.Exodus is almost an epic narrative of the history of Jews beginning somewhere in the late 1900s right up to 1948 when Israel was formally born. It is narrated through the spirit, deeds, and achievements of about five or six principal characters. It is touching and harsh, thrilling and depressing, gruesome and uplifting all at once. You cannot afford to be not shaken when you finish the book. Perhaps the Jews are the only race to undergo sustained indignities from every other race, in every country they migrated to, and emerged loftily victorious against centuries of insurmountable odds. The 500-plus pages of Exodus traces this journey to victory in painful detail.
The novel opens with an American journalist who lands in Cyprus in search of a long-lost friend. He discovers that the imperial British have placed thousands of refugee Jews behind barbed wires. These are "Hitler’s refugees," the ones who survived his concentration camps. A passionate Jewish freedom fighter, Ari Ben Canaan is on a mission to rescue them and move them to Palestine against the British diktat of not allowing any more Jews into Palestine. That sets the tone for the rest of the book. Then Leon Uris slowly unrolls the canvas of both time and place through these refugee Jews. Karen, a German refugee, and Dov Landau the Polish Jew are the two other principal characters who accompany Ari on this journey. Ari is the son of a Russian Jew, Barak Ben Canaan who migrates on foot from Russia to Palestine. Through Karen’s eyes, we get to read the now-familiar horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution. Dov’s tale unfolds the oppressive anti-Semitism that persisted for centuries in Poland climaxing again, with Hitler. Barak Ben Canaan opens the door on the Russian breed. The account of Barak and his brother, Akiva’s journey by foot from Russia to Palestine is one of the most amazing sections of Exodus. Of the triumph of grit sustained by faith.
Every single chronicle has the same horrid strand: violent anti-Semitism and how the Jews’ unshakeable faith as the faithful keepers of the laws of God kept them going….Simon Rabinsky was a believer among men. But even one so devout could not shut his eyes to the misery around.. him. "How long, O Lord…how long…must we live in this abysmal darkness?" And then his heart would grow light and he would become exalted as he repeated his favorite passage of the Passover Prayer–"Next year in Jerusalem."
Leon Uris casually throws the massive numbers of Jews killed in each land over several centuries: a few hundred thousand in Poland, a million in Russia, and Hitler’s tally of more millions. What fascinated me was the strain of anti-Semitism in Poland. Despite declaring themselves as Poles first, the Polish Jews were betrayed by their fellow countrymen under German occupation. The author’s sketches of Jewish ghetto life in Poland are very disturbing. Equally, their spirit of fighting the Germans "to the last man" are revealing.
Centuries of mindless anti-Semitism finally gave the Jews a new direction in late 19th century. The Dreyfus Affair really laid the seeds that gave birth to modern Israel. Herzl, who intimately covered the Dreyfus affair concluded that it was futile to counter anti-Semitism. He convened the first Zionist Congress. Herzl’s efforts eventually culminated to the Balfour Declaration. An independent Jewish state would ensure to the Jews that Jew was no longer a term of abuse.However, the Balfour Declaration was really the beginning of prolonged British betrayal. Jewish cooperation in both world wars was rewarded with postponements and cloak-and-dagger games.
Imperial Britian wasn’t willing to surrender her position in the Arab world. The British pitted the Arabs against the Jews and Arabs against themselves. Leon Uris documents the extent of British depravity when it pardoned known war criminals like the self-styled "Mufti," Haj Amin El Husseini. As late as 1945, the British still harboured illusions of its imperial grip despite staggering public opinion against its treatment of Jewish refugees. The British persist in this foolhardiness till the very end by voting against the Partition. As with its other colonies, the British has made a mess of the region when it left.
Without vocalizing it too much, the book correctly traces the roots of anti-Semitism to Christianity and specifically, the Crusades. He shows how the Arabs/Moslems held Jews in respect, or at the worst, tolerated them as second class citizens without killing them wholesale. This is unlike the indignity and brutality Jews suffered in Christian Europe.On the other side, Exodus shows what grit, determination, sacrifice and a spirit of unity can accomplish. Leon Uris describes in painstaking detail the prevailing conditions in Palestine and surrounding areas and how each wave of Jewish immigration–first in trickles, then in massive numbers after WW2–built a flourishing civilization in the most arduous geography. Uris brings this transformation alive. From hand-to-hand combat to full-fledged armed forces. In contrast, Uris shows how the Arab leaders use religion to keep their states in perpetual degradation. He portrays ordinary Arabs sympathetically, as prisoners of their own superstitions.
I don’t want to dwell a lot on characterization and plot and other literary finery. For its own sake, the novel suffers from weak characterization but that’s forgivable because the author operates in a constraint-bound atmosphere. There is little scope for characters to examine their thoughts and actions when a bomb is ready to fall any moment. It has huge gaps before the action moves forward. In fact, these pauses are more than a hundred pages. The description of the region’s landscape is a little overwhelming and bores you after a point. You wouldn’t miss anything if you skip ten pages in these sections. But you don’t need to look at these aspects when you read Exodus.The choice of the title is significant. The original Exodus was the migration of Israelites from Egypt. The birth of Israel shows the migration of scattered Jews back into their holy land after two thousand years. The migration in itself pales in importance with its motive force: a tradition that was preserved for so long. When Barak Ben Canaan and his brother trek from Russia to Jerusalem, they seek out Jews in every village and town. Their faith in the faith of their fellowmen to tradition is intense and unerring. From the book,
In each village they asked, "Are there Jews here?" …. These Jews were different from any they had known. They were peasants filled with ignorance and superstition, yet they knew their Torah and kept the Sabbath and the Holy Days.
"Are there Jews here?"
"We are Jews."
"Let us see your Rabbi."
"Where are you boys going?"
"We are walking to the Promised Land."
It was the magic password….Never once were they refused hospitality.
When in 1948, the Promised Land finally declared statehood, Jews from all corners of the world poured into it. Yemen, Kurdistan, Turkey, France, Italy, (erstwhile)Yugoslavia, Czech, Rumania, Bulgaria, Britain, Greece, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, South Africa, India, Canada, Argentina, Australia…
Exodus is without question a historical novel told from the obvious Jewish perspective. I cannot obviously cover everything in the space of a book review. I’ve purposely not dwelt on the evolution of the Israeli fighting forces, ideological differences (example, the Maccabees), and the important wars en route to freedom and after. My focus in this review was to showcase the extraordinary spirit of these amazing people. In an age when heroism is an obscenity, Exodus is mandatory reading. Some reviews hold the "Jewish perspective" against the novel to dub it "biased." It takes only a sick mind to detect a hidden agenda in a tale of Himalayan struggle because at the end of the novel, you feel elevated. I did.
Because Israel is the realization of Hope.