Comparing "Exodus" and "Kedma"

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[Larry Portis is a professor of American Studies at Montpellier University in France. He an be reached at]

The slogan “never again”, as used in relation to the Nazi genocides during the Second World War, and those which have succeeded, seems empty when we consider the ethnic cleansing carried out in Palestine after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and after the Israeli occupation of the remains of historical Palestine beginning in June 1967. How can the “Western democracies” continue to participate in the genocidal punishment of a population while proclaiming the purest of intentions? One of the reasons is the power of Zionist propaganda over those who lack alternative information and the political fear and hypocrisy that it can inspire in those who understand what is happening. Of the modern means of communication and the formation of consciousness, the cinema is pre-eminent and, in the case of the Zionist state of Israel, one film in particular has been remarkably influential.

Produced and directed by Otto Preminger, Exodus was released in 1960, and had enormous success. In evaluating this success, we are helped by the release in 2002 of another film, Kedma, directed by Amos Gitaï, and, to a lesser extent by Elie Chouraki’s film, O Jerusalem, released in Fall, 2006. The first two films treat the same subject—the clandestine arrival of Jewish refugees in Palestine in 1947 in the midst of armed conflict. This was the eve of the partition of Palestine, proposed by the United Nations Organization but rejected by the non-Jewish (or, rather, non-Zionist) population and states of the entire eastern Mediterranean region. Following the British announcement of their withdrawal from the protectorate established in 1920 by the mandate system of the treaty of Versailles, the stage was set for a defining event of the short, brutal twentieth century: the creation of the state of Israel and the population transfers and ethnic conflicts that accompanied it.

Comparison of the two films, both in terms of their genesis as artistic creations and as political statements, elucidates aspects of an interesting process of ideological formation. Seen as depictions of the birth of the Israeli nation, the two films are extremely different. Exodus is a glorification of a certain type of leadership, at a certain level of decision-making. It works only at the level of strategic and tactical Zionist command within Palestine, immediately before, during and after the war, for the creation of the state of Israel. The film is discreet in its treatment of international diplomacy. Although decisions of the British military administration are implicitly criticized in the film, such criticism is not allowed to call into question Britain itself as an actor on the international stage. When either the British or the United-Statesians (and the French and Italians) are referred to, it is always as individuals, not representatives of overall national sentiments.

In Kedma, Amos Gitaï was concerned to present an historical situation by depicting a single incident, the origins of which are not explained directly and, in the course of which, individuals are shown to be subordinate to developments over which they have no real control. The incident in question is the illegal arrival of a ship, “Kedma,” on the coast of Palestine....

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