The Gaza Flotilla and the Exodus analogy
Uri Avnery, Kill a Turk and rest, 5 June 2010
Richard Irvine, Israel: remember 1947 and the Exodus ship
Uri Avnery, Kill a Turk and rest, 5 June 2010
ON THE high seas, outside territorial waters, the ship was stopped by the navy. The commandos stormed it. Hundreds of people on the deck resisted, the soldiers used force. Some of the passengers were killed, scores injured. The ship was brought into harbor, the passengers were taken off by force. The world saw them walking on the quay, men and women, young and old, all of them worn out, one after another, each being marched between two soldiers…
The ship was called “Exodus 1947”. It left France in the hope of breaking the British blockade, which was imposed to prevent ships loaded with Holocaust survivors from reaching the shores of Palestine. If it had been allowed to reach the country, the illegal immigrants would have come ashore and the British would have sent them to detention camps in Cyprus, as they had done before. Nobody would have taken any notice of the episode for more than two days.
But the person in charge was Ernest Bevin, a Labour Party leader, an arrogant, rude and power-loving British minister. He was not about to let a bunch of Jews dictate to him. He decided to teach them a lesson the entire world would witness. “This is a provocation!” he exclaimed, and of course he was right. The main aim was indeed to create a provocation, in order to draw the eyes of the world to the British blockade.
What followed is well known: the episode dragged on and on, one stupidity led to another, the whole world sympathized with the passengers. But the British did not give in and paid the price. A heavy price.
Many believe that the “Exodus” incident was the turning point in the struggle for the creation of the State of Israel. Britain collapsed under the weight of international condemnation and decided to give up its mandate over Palestine. There were, of course, many more weighty reasons for this decision, but the “Exodus” proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I AM not the only one who was reminded of this episode this week. Actually, it was almost impossible not to be reminded of it, especially for those of us who lived in Palestine at the time and witnessed it.
There are, of course, important differences. Then the passengers were Holocaust survivors, this time they were peace activists from all over the world. But then and now the world saw heavily armed soldiers brutally attack unarmed passengers, who resist with everything that comes to hand, sticks and bare hands. Then and now it happened on the high seas – 40 km from the shore then, 65 km now.
In retrospect, the British behavior throughout the affair seems incredibly stupid. But Bevin was no fool, and the British officers who commanded the action were not nincompoops. After all, they had just finished a World War on the winning side.
If they behaved with complete folly from beginning to end, it was the result of arrogance, insensitivity and boundless contempt for world public opinion.
Ehud Barak is the Israeli Bevin. He is not a fool, either, nor are our top brass. But they are responsible for a chain of acts of folly, the disastrous implications of which are hard to assess. Former minister and present commentator Yossi Sarid called the ministerial “committee of seven”, which decides on security matters, “seven idiots” – and I must protest. It is an insult to idiots.
THE PREPARATIONS for the flotilla went on for more than a year. Hundreds of e-mail messages went back and forth. I myself received many dozens. There was no secret. Everything was out in the open.
There was a lot of time for all our political and military institutions to prepare for the approach of the ships. The politician consulted. The soldiers trained. The diplomats reported. The intelligence people did their job.
Nothing helped. All the decisions were wrong from the first moment to this moment. And it’s not yet the end.
The idea of a flotilla as a means to break the blockade borders on genius. It placed the Israeli government on the horns of a dilemma – the choice between several alternatives, all of them bad. Every general hopes to get his opponent into such a situation.
The alternatives were:
To let the flotilla reach Gaza without hindrance. The cabinet secretary supported this option. That would have led to the end of the blockade, because after this flotilla more and larger ones would have come.
To stop the ships in territorial waters, inspect their cargo and make sure they were not carrying weapons or “terrorists”, then let them continue on their way. That would have aroused some vague protests in the world but upheld the principle of a blockade.
To capture them on the high seas and bring them to Ashdod, risking a face-to-face battle with activists on board.
As our governments have always done, when faced with the choice between several bad alternatives, the Netanyahu government chose the worst.
Anyone who followed the preparations as reported in the media could have foreseen that they would lead to people being killed and injured. One does not storm a Turkish ship and expect cute little girls to present one with flowers. The Turks are not known as people who give in easily.
The orders given to the forces and made public included the three fateful words: “at any cost”. Every soldier knows what these three terrible words mean. Moreover, on the list of objectives, the consideration for the passengers appeared only in third place, after safeguarding the safety of the soldiers and fulfilling the task.
If Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, the Chief of Staff and the commander of the navy did not understand that this would lead to killing and wounding people, then it must be concluded – even by those who were reluctant to consider this until now – that they are grossly incompetent. They must be told, in the immortal words of Oliver Cromwell to Parliament: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
THIS EVENT points again to one of the most serious aspects of the situation: we live in a bubble, in a kind of mental ghetto, which cuts us off and prevents us from seeing another reality, the one perceived by the rest of the world. A psychiatrist might judge this to be the symptom of a severe mental problem.
The propaganda of the government and the army tells a simple story: our heroic soldiers, determined and sensitive, the elite of the elite, descended on the ship in order “to talk” and were attacked by a wild and violent crowd. Official spokesmen repeated again and again the word “lynching”.
On the first day, almost all the Israeli media accepted this. After all, it is clear that we, the Jews, are the victims. Always. That applies to Jewish soldiers, too. True, we storm a foreign ship at sea, but turn at once into victims who have no choice but to defend ourselves against violent and incited anti-Semites.
It is impossible not to be reminded of the classic Jewish joke about the Jewish mother in Russia taking leave of her son, who has been called up to serve the Czar in the war against Turkey. “Don’t overexert yourself’” she implores him, “Kill a Turk and rest. Kill another Turk and rest again…”
“But mother,” the son interrupts, “What if the Turk kills me?”
“You?” exclaims the mother, “But why? What have you done to him?”
To any normal person, this may sound crazy. Heavily armed soldiers of an elite commando unit board a ship on the high seas in the middle of the night, from the sea and from the air – and they are the victims?
But there is a grain of truth there: they are the victims of arrogant and incompetent commanders, irresponsible politicians and the media fed by them. And, actually, of the Israeli public, since most of the people voted for this government or for the opposition, which is no different.
The “Exodus” affair was repeated, but with a change of roles. Now we are the British.
Somewhere, a new Leon Uris is planning to write his next book, “Exodus 2010”. A new Otto Preminger is planning a film that will become a blockbuster. A new Paul Newman will star in it – after all, there is no shortage of talented Turkish actors.
MORE THAN 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson declared that every nation must act with a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind”. Israeli leaders have never accepted the wisdom of this maxim. They adhere to the dictum of David Ben-Gurion: “It is not important what the Gentiles say, it is important what the Jews do.” Perhaps he assumed that the Jews would not act foolishly.
Making enemies of the Turks is more than foolish. For decades, Turkey has been our closest ally in the region, much more close than is generally known. Turkey could play, in the future, an important role as a mediator between Israel and the Arab-Muslim world, between Israel and Syria, and, yes, even between Israel and Iran. Perhaps we have succeeded now in uniting the Turkish people against us – and some say that this is the only matter on which the Turks are now united.
This is Chapter 2 of “Cast Lead”. Then we aroused most countries in the world against us, shocked our few friends and gladdened our enemies. Now we have done it again, and perhaps with even greater success. World public opinion is turning against us.
This is a slow process. It resembles the accumulation of water behind a dam. The water rises slowly, quietly, and the change is hardly noticeable. But when it reaches a critical level, the dam bursts and the disaster is upon us. We are steadily approaching this point.
“Kill a Turk and rest,” the mother says in the joke. Our government does not even rest. It seems that they will not stop until they have made enemies of the last of our friends.
(Parts of this article were published in Ma’ariv, Israel’s second largest newspaper.)
Like the Exodus in 1947, the Gaza aid flotilla has now etched itself on the mind – whatever the eventual consequences
Linda Grant, 4 June 2010
In the summer of 1947 a semi-derelict 200-berth Chesapeake Bay steamer carrying 4,500 Holocaust survivors, renamed the Exodus, set out from France to run the British blockade of Palestine. The survivors had been rotting in displaced persons camps since the end of the war, waiting to find a country that would take them. The organisers of the expedition, the Zionist movement, were operating a policy of illegal immigration as both a humanitarian rescue operation and as a calculated move to politically gerrymander the country’s Jewish population. They didn’t expect to be able to land, but they knew that the rickety vessel with its pitiful human cargo of refugees would show up the British as cold-hearted colonial masters. The Exodus could equally have been called End of Empire.
As the ship approached Haifa, the commander received a radio signal from the Zionist leadership not to risk the lives of the passengers by a confrontation. But the incalcitrant Polish captain refused to turn back. Hemmed in by three British destroyers, the crew and passengers found themselves boarded, and retaliated with whatever weapons came to hand – a consignment of cans of kosher corned beef. The British killed three people, one bludgeoned to death by a rifle butt in the face. A few days later the passengers were transferred to another ship and sailed back to Germany, back to the refugee camps, under withering press headlines: “Return to the death land,” read one.
The gripping events in the eastern Mediterranean, shown on the news reels, evoked massive public sympathy, particularly in America where Britain was seen as the old colonial regime. The media coverage was a PR catastrophe for Britain. To the ship’s captain, Ike Aronowitz, when I met him in 2007 shortly before his death, Ernest Bevin’s decision to repel the Exodus was a gift from a God who had “sent us Ernest Bevin to create a Jewish state”.
Against the single image of a ship full of Holocaust survivors being beaten by squaddies, the British had to set a complex narrative, too complicated for a public looking for a simple story of victims and oppressors. The British spoke of the needs and wishes of the existing Arab population of Palestine; a new Jewish state implanted in the Middle East against the will of its native inhabitants was not to be the happy ending of a tragic Jewish story. Yet the Exodus was to be instrumental in cementing support later that year for the UN partition vote which divided Mandate Palestine, and the largely erroneous novel and film of the same name in the late 1950s would create a lasting mythology. The image of the boat had greater power than the warnings from the Foreign Office or the pleas of Arab leaders.
The events early this week of the boarding of the Gaza aid flotilla should have jogged the memories of Israel’s political leaders and its military. The sight of Israeli politicians, diplomats and army spokespeople trying to assert a more complicated story than that of innocent civilians brutally murdered by an act of piracy has not washed with the public. No amount of showing videos of the peace activists attacking the abseiling Israeli soldiers will answer the question: what were the soldiers doing there in the first place and why would the passengers not defend themselves against their attackers, exactly as the refugees had done in 1947?
Israel’s political reasoning, of a Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, of the threat to the Jewish state from Gaza in the south and Hezbollah in the north, backed by the nuclear-ambitious Iran, falls on deaf ears. Legal arguments by maritime experts that Israel was within its right to assault the ship in international waters can’t compete with the authoritative presence on another of the vessels of the internationally bestselling novelist Henning Mankell, who risked his own life to bring aid to the starving millions of Gaza.
Palestinian solidarity movements have not, until now, attained the critical mass of the campaign against apartheid South Africa. Perhaps, like the Exodus in 1947, the Gaza aid flotilla will be the tipping point in the long agony of the Palestinian people, when wavering public opinion finally turns decisively against Israel and the whole Zionist project of a national home for the Jews.
When public sympathy is outraged by what has been described as a massacre, the fine points of what is to be the solution to the rival claims of Arabs and Jews for the same piece of territory are not the point. We look back on the ship Exodus and wonder if our parents and grandparents should have thought harder and emoted less. But emotions are what you feel, you cannot help it. Human empathy for the inmates of a vast open air prison undergoing collective punishment will always trounce the warnings of the thinktanks. The image of the Gaza flotilla has etched itself on the mind, whatever the unforeseen consequences of our collective outrage.
No one can accuse history of not having a sense of irony. Sixty-three years ago, in July 1947, a passenger ship destined for Palestine and named the Exodus was stopped and boarded by the British navy. The ship was crowded with Holocaust survivors determined to make a new life for themselves in British-controlled Palestine. The British, facing Zionist terrorism and trying to keep promises made to the Palestinian Arabs to limit Jewish immigration, were determined to stop it. Accordingly, when the Royal Navy boarded the ship 20 miles out from Haifa, a full-scale battle ensued.
Three immigrants were killed and dozens injured as British troops beat the passengers on to three separate prison ships. From there these Holocaust survivors were transported back to Germany and were once again placed in camps. The world was horrified; an American newspaper ran the headline “Back to the Reich”. Delegates from the UN Special Commission on Palestine who watched what occurred were similarly shocked; the Yugoslav delegate cited that what happened to the Exodus “is the best possible evidence we have for allowing Jews into Palestine”.
Since then, the fate of the Exodus has achieved legendary status: Leon Uris used it as the basis of his 1958 bestseller of the same name; an award-winning film starring Paul Newman came out in 1960; and the former Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, drew a direct link between the Exodus story and the ending of British rule in Palestine. Tellingly, a 1996 documentary celebrating the story is entitled, “Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched A Nation”.
Beset by violence and poverty, Gaza is home to 1.5 million dispossessed and imprisoned Palestinians. Under Israeli control since 1967, Gaza has seen it all and been through it all. Yet the events of the last two years are without precedent. Under blockade since 2007, bombarded in a three-week-long assault that is called a war, its people have been barely subsisting since – “put on a diet”, according to Israeli government adviser Dov Weisglass. Much that is essential for everyday life is banned: cement is banned, pencils banned, paper banned, toys banned, medicines and food restricted.
Of course you can agree with all this and say it is the terrorist organisation Hamas that is to blame. You can say that even though all this is illegal under international law it is necessary for Israel’s security. Or you can ask how banning toys is fighting terror.
Like Mary Robinson after the war you can be shocked, of course: “Their whole civilisation has been destroyed. I’m not exaggerating … It’s almost unbelievable that the world doesn’t care while this is happening.” Or you can believe Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman: “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Despite Hamas’s war crimes against Israeli citizens … Israel continues to respond in the most humane way possible.”
Regardless of whom you choose to believe, this week the world witnessed another example of Israel’s humanity. Just like the British all those years ago, Israel boarded and attacked the small flotilla far out to sea; at least 10, possibly 16 were killed and dozens injured, the survivors transferred to holding camps or prisons inside Israel before deportation. But for Israel’s foreign minister this was never an aid convoy, but “a blatant provocation” and “violent propaganda”. Which is odd, really, since the convoy, if left unimpeded, would not have gone to Israel itself. As for violence, well, we can all see who supplied that.
However, even as Israel celebrates its success in stopping the aid for Gaza, it should be aware that its position on blockading a whole people is not sustainable. At the time of the Exodus affair, future Israeli prime minister Golda Meir declared: “To Britain we must say: it is a great illusion to believe us weak. Let Great Britain with her mighty fleet and her many guns and planes know that this people is not weak, and that its strength will stand it in good stead.” Replace Great Britain with Israel and the same applies today.