Two momentous historical events helped shape Jewish identity in the modern age: the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. After the Holocaust, Jews’ attitudes toward themselves and their relations with the non-Jewish world changed. Jewish sensitivity to anti-Semitism intensified, and an unquestionable linkage emerged between the Holocaust/Holocaust remembrance, a strengthened national Jewish identity, and a belief in Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish people’s nation-state. [1.]
In the film Sword in the Desert (1949), Hollywood’s first cinematic treatment of Israel, a fictional present is set between those two seminal events. The Holocaust hovers in the background, as it were, while Israel’s founding is imagined as a longed-for future objective. Despite the film’s weighty historical subject matter and attendant emotional intensity, it is primarily a Hollywood action movie reminiscent of the Westerns for which its director, George Sherman, was best known. Nevertheless, the film’s dichotomous good guy-bad guy structure (Jews versus British, presaging future Jewish-Arab bifurcations), its depicted moral justification for the Israeli Jewish struggle, and its pervading sense of American identification with that struggle, are central motifs that would reappear and be further developed in later films, such as The Juggler (1953), Exodus (1960), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), and Judith (1966). All of these films are notable for their American point of view and main-role casting of such Hollywood icons as Paul Newman (Exodus), Sophia Lauren (Judith), and Kirk Douglas (Cast a Giant Shadow, The Juggler), with Frank Sinatra, Dana Andrews, John Wayne and other luminaries in supporting roles.
Without a doubt, the most important and famous of these movies is Exodus (1960). Based on Leon Uris’ best-selling novel and directed by Otto Preminger, Exodus was a global “blockbuster” that did much to solidify the fledgling Israel’s status and to shape its (legitimate and positive) image – not only in the eyes of American Jewry or the general U.S. public, but in world opinion as well.1
The movie, which was filmed in Israel and Cyprus, is historical fiction, but its plot dovetails with actual historical events. The main conflict is the tension between the Zionist dream and its realization through violent means. The moral quandary of violence is resolved by emphasizing the historical transition from exilic oppression to freedom and national rebirth in the homeland. Viewers veer between sympathy and solidarity. They feel for the Holocaust survivors inspired to seek redemption for themselves and their people, and they identify with the rugged sabras, the pioneer fighters who conquer the land in order to build it.
The similarity between the film’s characters and the American audience, is strikingly embodied in the casting of the protagonist – Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan. The half-Jewish Newman (son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother), blessed with alwl-American good looks, is a hero American viewers found easy to love. In fact, as with the other films of this period, most of Israeli roles were played by American actors. Ari and his fellow sabras have much in common with the iconic American pioneer. The Israeli landscape and the fictional Kibbutz Gan Dafna remind Kitty, Ari’s American love interest, of the Indiana vistas of her childhood. The pioneer enterprise naturally accords with the American frontier narrative. Like the American pioneering ethos, Jewish nationalism is also anchored in local landscapes, in this case ancient Biblical ones. Ari quotes the Book of Joshua on the Jezreel Valley’s capture from the Canaanites. [2.]
Moreover, the emphasis placed on the morality of the protagonists, especially Ari and his father, is aligned with prevailing assumptions of correspondence between Zionism and Americanism. The movie thus reflects the common view articulated by the American Zionist-Jewish leader, Justice Louis Brandeis (1856-1941).2 Brandeis strove to forge a deep connection between Zionism and the central American values. Zionist realization constitutes the fulfilment of the American vision of democracy, social justice and freedom. It is a salient feature of American Zionism that it not only believed in Jewish integration in American society, but also regarded Zionism as a means of achieving that end. Zionism and Israel constituted a positive basis for Jewish existence in the U.S.
The film’s effectiveness in disseminating the message articulated by Brandeis cannot be overstated. U.S. Jewry was quick to embrace this message, which gave them the best of both worlds: it reinforced their separate Jewish identity while also allowing them to be patriotic Americans, loyal to their home country and its basic values. The imagined utopian and Americanized Israel thus became an object of identification and admiration. The cultural channels of film, other artistic media, and explicit pro-Israel campaigns disseminated and reinforced the similarity, intensifying both U.S. Jewry’s attachment to Israel and the young Israeli state’s positive (essentially American) image.
It is important to understand that the early years of Israeli statehood were also formative years in the history of American Jewry. American Jewish culture was itself reconstituted during the post-World War II period. A diverse group of key Jewish players – journalists, cultural figures, educators, members of Hadassah, community leaders and the like – mobilized individually and, in turn, enlisted the cultural arena on Israel’s behalf. Their primary aim was to “introduce” Israel into the American cultural world. For this purpose they “imported” the hora and other folk dances from Israel, making them a part of the Jewish cultural scene; they commissioned Israeli art exhibitions, disseminated Israeli photo collections, and exposed audiences on a large scale, mainly Jewish ones, to Israeli art and, thereby, to Israel itself. In this sense, Exodus should be regarded as an (unwitting) product of this engaged pro-Israel activity, a product that itself became an unprecedentedly effective mobilization and publicity tool on Israel’s behalf. [4.]
Additionally, in contrast to the view of Israel as a strategic burden that prevailed among senior U.S. officials during the early years of Israeli statehood, prominent Jewish figures working to promote Israel in American-Jewish and general-American culture posited an alternative narrative, one in which ties to Israel served American interests during the Cold War. Here as well, emphasis was placed on the normative similarity, and the joint ideology a shared by the two nations as well as other points of resemblance. [5.]
Overall, the factors that led to the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel were, ultimately, a combination of political/strategic interests and shared values/ideology, the former (the strategic interests) being the deciding factor. [6.] Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power”. [7.] to denote the ability to attract potential allies in a positive manner, rather than through the use or threat of force. Disseminating a positive image and the idea of shared values with Israel through cultural channels is, of course, a manifestation of soft power. The cultural images had less of an impact on U.S. diplomats and policymakers, but they found resonance within the American public, which abounded in pro-Israel feeling during that time period and rejected the unfavorable diplomatic narrative.