Leon Uris is a master of the underdog novel, and his 1958 blockbuster is no different. It tells the story of the founding of Israel, beginning with the Jewish refugee camps in Cyrprus. Britain, one of the novel’s big bads, still holds Palestine as a colony, and refuses to let these refugees enter Palestine. A ship named the Exodus is found and a daring escape is made, eventually allowing the small existing Jewish population in Palestine to swell into a group large enough to form its own state. For the entire novel the Jews are underdogs, fighting the other big bads, the surrounding Arab states who are determined to snuff out this tiny country before it gains a foothold. The Jews they pour their hearts and souls into building a new state; they literally and figuratively make the desert bloom.
I had some major issues with the nearly entirely one-sided approach the novel takes. While I have a lot of sympathy for the Jewish refugees, and for all Jewish people feeling like they needed a Jewish homeland after centuries of oppression and murder, Palestine was not an empty land. Just because you lived somewhere thousands of years ago doesn’t make it yours. Uris is scathing in his depiction of the Arab government actions, but he lacks sympathy for all the ordinary people that Israel killed and displaced. He alternately says they were mislead by the propaganda of the Arab governments (except for one little mistake where the Israelis did massacre Arab civilians- a mistake I tell you, so it doesn’t count!), that if they really loved their country they would have stayed on their land instead of being frightened by propaganda (so: because they left they loved the land less, and they shouldn’t get it), that the Arabs could have easily found these people land elsewhere but wanted to keep them trapped in refugee camps to use as a political tool (even if true, how is this the fault of the ordinary people who have been dispossessed?), that if only these Arabs had sworn loyalty to Israel they wouldn’t have been massacred (a little rich coming from a nation that was persecuted for refusing to convert), and that really, these Arabs weren’t using their land very well and it’s the Israelites who made the desert bloom, so they deserve to have it. Ugh.
Putting aside all of my increasingly nagging reservations, this was a good, if long book. I gather that at the time it was published, this book was the biggest bestseller since Gone With the Wind- and it certainly fits the same themes (sweeping saga of love and war). In addition to being entertaining, I feel like I learned a lot (or at least was prompted to do more digging into more balanced/nuanced explanations of events).