Critical Evaluation

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Leon Uris performed extensive background research when writing all of his historical novels, and Exodus is no exception. He traveled all over Israel, covering about 12,000 miles, interviewed more than a thousand people, and read about three hundred books in preparation for writing the novel.

Exodus became a very popular work, selling great numbers of copies year after year. It was translated into dozens of languages, and although it was banned in the Soviet Union, it enjoyed great underground popularity there. Some early reviewers praised the work. Others called it a fabric of oversimplifications full of stereotypes. It has even been labeled a melodrama—that is, an unrealistic work with no ambiguity and no depth of characterization, in which the world is divided between characters who are exaggeratedly good and those who are exaggeratedly evil. Many critics especially criticize what they see as Uris’s portrayal of Israelis as good and Arabs as bad.

For all of its oversimplifications, Exodus rejects the idea that Jews are the only ones who can be depended on to help the Jews. Uris writes of non-Jews from America, France, and Cyprus helping the Jews in their successful attempt to establish a Jewish state. He also recognizes the contribution of many of the Druse in helping the Israelis. Early in the book, Ari repeatedly says that Americans have consciences, so it is not surprising that he asks Americans for help. Mark Parker is instrumental in gaining British permission for Exodus to sail, and Kitty helps the Jews throughout the book, in spite of her early anti-Semitic belief that all Jews are arrogant and aggressive like the Jewish doctors she worked with in America and in spite of the discomfort she initially feels in the presence of Jews. Kitty is a dynamic character who changes markedly over the course of the book.

In Exodus, Uris tries to create a novel of epic scope incorporating the history of the Jews and focusing on the founding of the state of Israel. His title indicates one of the main organizing principles of the book. Uris explicitly bases his story on the book of Exodus’s narrative of the escape of the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt and their travel to the Holy Land, where they established Israel. In Uris’s tale, Europe under Nazi rule and later Cyprus under British rule become Egypt, and the Jews escape to form the modern state of Israel. The fact that the name of the ship on which the children escape is itself Exodus is highly symbolic.

Uris’s central characters are larger than life. Barak and Ari are giants of men. Many of Uris’s novels contain male characters of this sort. They are morally upright, handsome, clever, intelligent, large heroes who accomplish things other people cannot. In most of his works, these heroes are Jewish.

Bill Fry captains the first boat that takes Karen to Israel. The British catch Bill and Karen, and Karen is sent to Cyprus. When Karen asks Bill why he helps the Haganah, he asserts that he wants to help counter the stereotype that all Jews are cowards. He says that he works for the Palmach, the army of the Haganah, because they present the world with a picture of Jews who are courageous fighters. Here, Fry arguably speaks for Uris himself. However, Uris works in the tradition of another stereotype of Jews in American literature, that of the tough Jew or Jewish athlete. This stereotype is based in part on historic figures like the boxer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom and the baseball player Hank Greenberg. It also incorporates such fictional characters as...

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Robert Cohn, the Jewish boxer portrayed in Ernest Hemingway’sThe Sun Also Rises (1926), and the gangsters portrayed in Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930) and Daniel Fuchs’s Summer in Williamsburg (1934). These are large, brave, virile men with tremendous physical and emotional energy.

In 1960, Uris’s best-selling novel was adapted into a very successful film starring Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint. Uris was dissatisfied with the film because, among other things, he felt that it was less Zionist than the book. The film presents the British and Arabs in a more favorable light than the book does, even omitting some of the Arab and British atrocities that Uris treats. It conveys the idea that the conflicts between the British and Arabs on one hand and the Jews on the other hand were purely political, and it seems to emphasize a message of peace, especially when it ends, not with a Passover Seder but instead with Ari’s Arab childhood friend Taha and Karen Clement being buried together.

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