11/5 Lecture, Amy Kaplan: "Exodus and the Americanization of Zionism"
Guest Writer: Ben Allen

Monday, November 8, 2010

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[On Friday, November 5, 2010, the Unit for Criticism collaborated with the Center for Advanced Study and the International Forum for US Studies in hosting "Exodus and the Americanization of Zionism," a CAS/MillerComm presentation by Amy Kaplan of the University of Pennsylvania]

Amy Kaplan's "Exodus and the Americanization of Zionism"

Written by Ben Allen (East Asian Languages and Cultures)

Amy Kaplan’s lecture, which she described as part of a nascent book project about “American Zionism,” examines the 1958 book Exodus, the subsequent 1960 film, and the roles of both in shaping American opinions and attitudes towards Israel and political Zionism at a key moment in the relationship between the still-new Jewish nation and its American benefactor. To Kaplan, the “unbreakable bond,” (to quote our current president) between the United States and Israel has become so taken-for-granted and hallowed, that it is difficult for people to realize that this relationship and the historical exigencies that surround it are the product of a historical moment.

Kaplan’s project then is to historicize the assumption of this supposedly natural relationship, and her analysis of Exodus is one key facet of that. As a scholar in American Studies, Kaplan is primarily interested on the American side of this dialectic, and Exodus, though it is “the dominant narrative of Israel’s birth” (alternately the “foundational myth”), is a book written by an American, for American audiences, in English, and later adapted into a Hollywood film for domestic consumption. In this regard, Kaplan has chosen a particularly pertinent and effective object of study.

To Kaplan, Exodus does some cultural heavy lifting in support of the Zionist political cause, presenting an unambiguous narrative of Jewish/Israeli righteousness that dovetails with American exceptionalism and American Cold-war self-image(s). Exodus explicitly compares the actions of the small, rag-tag group of Jews (under the guidance of Jewish paramilitary agitators) aboard the ship that provides the title of the book to the Minutemen of American Revolutionary history and imagination. This and other constructed similarities highlighted in the book and film create an ideological simpatico between the new nation and its far-off and quite different potential benefactor.

Opposed to this is the image of the Arabs, who, in Kaplan’s reading of Exodus are depicted as not even being worthy as antagonists. The latter role largely falls to the British, who are the occupying colonial power. Most of the film’s action, violent and non-violent, is directed against this sclerotic empire, rather than the Arabs with whom the Jews share Palestine, or will until the Nakba, the Palestinian narrative of these events. Kaplan describes this counter-narrative as haunting the mythic Israel-centered, American-inscribed narrative that Exodus represents.

Kaplan argues that America’s nearly unwavering support of Israel was not inevitable, and at the moment in which Exodus, in book and movie form captivated American audiences, public support in this country for Israel had not yet crystallized, Not coincidentally, Israel’s place in the Cold War geopolitical regime of the United States had also not yet crystallized. Kaplan is not arguing that these cultural products, and others like them, are alone responsible for the movement and consolidation of American public support for Israel. She also acknowledged the influence of the United States’ own strategic interests in the region as well as the well-organized and active lobbying efforts on the part of Israel and her domestic supporters. However, Kaplan is primarily interested in the cultural element of this complex interplay of forces that gradually helped construct the “natural” relationship between Israel and the United States, a construction which seems to hide its artificial nature through the claims of similarity to the American experience and strategic silence of alternative perspectives (such as the Palestinians’.)

Though Kaplan makes a solid case for her still in-progress arguments, there seemed two lacunae. The first is the question of millenarianism or utopianism. Although the presentation frequently used terms like “redemption” and “promised land,” Kaplan did not acknowledge the plainly millenarian and utopian cast of Zionism. This lacuna seems doubly curious in light of the centrality of Judaic theological models, the Jewish people, and the notion (and nation) of Israel in the genesis of millinerian and utopian projects, including (but not limited to) modernizing colonial projects such as those of the British Empire, a connection not lost on some of the audience members who posed questions at the end of the talk.

A second elephant in the room of Zionism which Kaplan also failed to mention is the Holocaust. Any discussion of Israel’s founding or of the 20th century experience of the Jews (in Europe, the United States, or the Middle East) seems curiously incomplete without at least a reference to the Holocaust. This is especially the case with a talk relating to Exodus, which wears the memory of the Holocaust on its sleeve. (Perhaps to say that the film wears the Holocaust on its sleeve is an understatement—the Holocaust is practically tattooed on the film’s arm.) While these two theoretical issues are not Kaplan’s focus, they cannot be wholly ignored, and her discussion would have been enriched by at least making reference to the significance of these issues.

In short, however, Kaplan’s ongoing project is sure to yield an important book, one that has the potential to be a significant intervention in the as-yet underexplored field of Israel in the American popular consciousness. As Israel exists in seemingly outsized proportion in the American imaginary, as in the political reality of United States policy, an in-depth investigation of precisely this sort seems long overdue.


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