When Uris was writing in the 1950s, most Israeli Jews were natives of the Islamic world who’d either been drawn to the new state or forced from their home by their former neighbors. Many of the rest were survivors of the Holocaust trying to hack out a living without losing what was left of their mind. They lived alongside a sizable Muslim Arab minority, a remnant of those displaced by the war, feared as a fifth column and kept under military rule. Kibbutznik pioneers like Ari Ben Canaan were never more than a tiny share of the population—and as committed socialists, would never have gone anywhere near the foxtrot. Few people here were blond. A more representative hero for Exodus would have been the Arabic-speaking seamstress from the Jewish ghetto in Marrakech.
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But Exodus wasn’t about representation, or about a strange country in the Middle East. It was an attempt to get American readers to look at Israel and see themselves. Ari Ben Canaan was a hero from the America of Ernest Hemingway and John Wayne. He was a blue-eyed, chiseled, gorgeous Paul Newman.
Although a close relationship between America and Israel has been taken for granted over the past half century, it solidified only once Americans decided that Israelis were like them. In novels and countless press reports about pioneers and fighters in the ’50s, “Israel and Jews came to be perceived as masculine, ready to fight the Cold War alongside America,” the scholar Michelle Mart wrote in her study of the topic, Eye on Israel. “By contrast, Arabs were increasingly stigmatized as non-Western, undemocratic, racially darker, unmasculine outsiders.”
“In the images of Israelis, then,” she wrote, “Americans constructed their own self-image at mid-century.”
That construction has been on my mind this month as disturbing events unfolding here have been picked up and interpreted abroad. Many Americans are now using their image of home to construct their image of Israel. Indeed, for some on the progressive left, the conflict between Jews and Muslims 6,000 miles east of Washington, D.C., has become jumbled up with American ideas about race.
“What they are doing to the Palestinian people is what they continue to do to our Black brothers and sisters here,” Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan shouted to applause at a rally earlier this month, leaving listeners to ponder the word they. Celebrities tweeted the phrase “Palestinian Lives Matter,” echoing the American protests for racial justice. “Until all our children are safe,” Representative Cori Bush of Missouri told the House, “we will continue to fight for our rights in Palestine and in Ferguson.”
I first encountered this sort of American projection about 15 years ago, as a local reporter working for a U.S. news service. A few Israeli motorists had been murdered by Palestinian gunmen on a road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that cuts through the West Bank. The army had closed the road to Palestinian traffic, allowing access only to drivers, Jews and Arabs, with Israeli license plates. This decision was effective; the shootings stopped. One of my colleagues in the bureau, a recent arrival from America, asked if we could now say that the road was “segregated.”