Back in 1960, Hollywood filmmaker Otto Preminger made an excellent film titled “Exodus.” Set around the time when Israel was founded in 1948, the film’s hero is Ari Ben Canaan, a tall, handsome, muscular Jewish warrior who stands at six feet three inches—the terror of all anti-Semites. In the aftermath of World War II, with Holocaust survivors being shipped in large brown trucks to heavily-guarded refugee camps, Ari almost singlehandedly rescues hundreds of his countrymen from the camps and illegally smuggles them on a cargo ship—called the “Exodus”—into Palestine, where they seek to build their new Jewish homeland.
Shortly after the ship lands and Israel declares independence, hostile Arab armies invade the newly-formed state. In response, Ari transforms his village into a boot camp, hands weapons to every man and woman, and begins to train everyone in the ways of war. The film soon ends with Ari and his ragtag army being shipped off once again in large, brown trucks—this time not to refugee camps, but to war.
What brings this film to mind is the recent death of Yossi Harel—an Israeli ship captain and war veteran whose real-life exploits (and non-fictitious courage) became the inspiration for the character of Ari Ben Canaan. The difference is that in the film, Ari brings one shipload of refugees to Palestine. In real life, Harel brought four.
Yossi Harel, along with contemporaries such as Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan, represents Israel’s version of the Greatest Generation—the generation that struggled to establish Israel as an independent state and fight her largest wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Through both defensive wars and ruthless conquest, Israel expanded, survived, and thrived as a nation. Through great sacrifice, Israel’s Greatest Generation managed not only to preserve Israel, but also to snatch pieces of Arab territory—the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Gaza, and the Sinai.
But even as Israel celebrates her 60th year of independence on May 14th, the question remains as to whether modern Israelis are tough enough to preserve the country built by their ancestors. For some Israelis, and even many Jews around the world, Israel’s remarkable success in deafending itself has led to guilt and the belief that the Arabs and Palestinians are the true underdogs, not Israel. As a result, some Jews have come to criticize Israel for being an “apartheid state,” others propose the “one-state solution,” and some even argue that Israel’s very founding was illegal. Their logic is: If Israel was founded in response to Hitler’s holocaust, why should the Arab states be made to pay for Germany’s sins by giving land to the Jews?
Of course, the Palestinian cause is deserving of sympathy. Like all human disasters, it is a tragedy in its own right. But the Israelis of Yossi Harel’s generation did what they felt was necessary, given the situation that they faced in the 1940s and beyond. Their generation shed a lot of blood and treasure in order to preserve Israel as a gift to their descendants. Like the fictitious Ari Ben Canaan, they fought for Israel with ruthless resolve and ambition. They weren’t burdened with post-modernist guilt, and made no apologies for taking the Promised Land.
Today, few Israelis dispute that the modern logic of the peace process requires Israel to trade land for peace. But the truly important question is: how much land must Israel give up? Some, or all?
For better or for worse, the answer to that question depends the current generation of Israeli citizens, not their tough ancestors. And how modern Israelis answer that question will determine how (or whether) Israel celebrates its next big anniversary in 60 years time.