Why the enduring “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel? Cultural historians, who look at symbols and stories more than politics and policies, say a big part of it goes back to the late 1950s, when Leon Uris’ novel Exodus reached the top of the bestseller list and was then turned into a blockbuster film, with an all-star cast headed by Paul Newman.
Scholar Rachel Weissbrod called it a “Zionist melodrama.” M.M. Silver devoted a whole book to the phenomenon: Our Exodus, with the subtitle, The Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story.
A preeminent historian of American Judaism, Jonathan Sarna, came closest to the truth in his blurb for Silver’s book: Exodus “consciously linked brawny Zionist pioneers with the heroes of traditional American westerns.” The protagonist, Ari ben Canaan (“lion, son of Canaan”), is the Jewish Shane, the cowboy of impeccable virtue who kills only because he must to save decent people — especially the gentile woman he loves — and civilize a savage land.