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Exodus (Uris novel)

First edition
Author Leon Uris
Country United States
Language English
Genre Historical fiction
Publisher Doubleday & Company
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 626 pages

Exodus is an historical novel by American novelist Leon Uris about the founding of the State of Israel. Published in 1958, it begins with a compressed retelling of the voyages of the 1947 immigration ship Exodus.

Uris covered the Arab–Israeli fighting as a war correspondent in 1956; two years later, Exodus was published by Doubleday. Exodus became an international publishing phenomenon, the biggest bestseller in the United States since Gone with the Wind (1936). Uris had sold the film rights in advance.

The story unfolds with the protagonist, Ari Ben Canaan, hatching a plot to transport Jewish refugees from a British detention camp in Cyprus to Palestine. The operation is carried out under the auspices of the Mossad Le'aliyah Bet. The book then goes on to trace the histories of the various main characters and the ties of their personal lives to the birth of the new Jewish state.

Otto Preminger directed a 1960 film based on the novel, featuring Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan. It focuses mainly on the escape from Cyprus and subsequent events in Palestine.

The novel became the biggest US best-seller since Gone with the Wind and initiated a new sympathy for the newly established State of Israel.[1] Edward Said suggested in 2001 that the novel still provides "the main narrative model that dominates American thinking" with respect to the foundation of Israel.[2][3]


  • Main characters 1
    • Ari Ben Canaan 1.1
    • Katherine "Kitty" Fremont 1.2
    • Mark Parker 1.3
    • Bruce Sutherland 1.4
    • Karen Hansen Clement 1.5
    • Dov Landau 1.6
    • Jordana Ben Canaan 1.7
    • Barak Ben Canaan 1.8
    • Akiva 1.9
    • David Ben Ami 1.10
  • The origins of Exodus 2
  • Criticism 3
  • References in popular culture 4
  • Further reading 5
  • References 6

Main characters

The main strength of the book is its vivid description of different people and the conflicts in their lives. As in several of Uris' novels, some of the fictional characters are partially based upon one or more historical personages, or act as metaphors for the various peoples who helped to build modern Israel.

Ari Ben Canaan

Ari Ben Canaan was born and raised on a kibbutz but goes on to become one of the mainstays of the Israeli freedom movement. He is described as six feet and three inches tall, with dark hair and dark eyes, and is very handsome.

His father, Barak Ben Canaan (formerly Jossi Rabinsky, born in the Russian Irgun). The brothers came to Palestine after their father was murdered in a pogrom.

As a young man, Ari was in love with a young woman, Dafna, who was tortured, raped, and murdered by Arabs. Dafna later becomes the namesake of the youth village, Gan Dafna, around which a large part of the story unfolds. As part of the Mossad Aliyah Bet (an organization which organized Jewish immigration to Palestine), Ari is extremely creative in devising techniques to bring Jews from all over the world to Palestine – more than allowed by the British quota. During World War II, he served as an officer in the Jewish Brigade of the British army, and he uses this experience to benefit his activities. This is his main occupation until Israel gains freedom, when he joins the Israeli army and is assigned to the Negev desert. He sees himself as part of a new breed of Jew who will not "turn the other cheek". He is probably based on Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military leader and politician; many parallels can be drawn between Ari and Dayan: both the fictional Ari and the real-life Dayan were trained by the same British General and had similar World War II experiences. Ben Canaan is also reported, however, to be based upon Yehudah Arazi.

Katherine "Kitty" Fremont

Katherine "Kitty" Fremont is described in the novel as being tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and beautiful. An American nurse newly widowed, Kitty meets Ari Ben Canaan in Cyprus. Grieving for her lost husband and the recent death of her daughter from polio, Kitty develops a maternal attachment toward Karen Hansen Clement, a German refugee in a Cyprus displaced persons camp. This attachment and her attraction toward Ben Canaan result in her becoming, initially with reluctance, involved in the freedom struggle. She eventually becomes irritated at Ari's lack of emotion towards violent deaths, but comes to understand and accept his dedication to Israel.

Mark Parker

Mark Parker is an American journalist and friend of Kitty Fremont's. He is credited as the whistleblower of the Exodus after it left on its voyage to Palestine, as a blackmail against the British.

Bruce Sutherland

Bruce Sutherland is a British military officer (rank of brigadier) whose mother was Jewish. After a lifetime of soldiering, he is posted to Cyprus, with instructions to maintain security at the detention camps. Like many British aristocrats he has a stifling, formal manner of speech. Internally, he is torn between his sympathies with the Jews he is required to guard and his duties as a British officer; the horrors he witnessed when his battalion liberated Bergen-Belsen is also a factor. He retires from the army at his own request after a mass escape engineered and led by Ari Ben Canaan. Despite this, he moves to Palestine to settle, becomes good friends with Ben Canaan, and acts as a very unofficial military advisor. This facet may be based on the activities of Mickey Marcus, although Marcus himself (under his real-life alias of "Colonel Stone") makes a brief appearance in the book.

Karen Hansen Clement

Karen Hansen Clement, described as tall, with long brown hair and green eyes, is a German teenager who was brought up for a while by foster parents in Denmark. She was sent there by her family when Hitler rose to power in Germany. Her family was subsequently interned in concentration camps, where her mother and two younger brothers die. Before she is transported to Israel, Karen is placed in a Cypriot refugee camp and is one of the passengers on the Exodus. Karen does meet her father again in Israel, but he is a broken man who is unable to communicate or recognize his daughter; the experience leaves her unnerved and shattered. Despite this, she maintains her gentle and dainty personality. At the end of the novel she is murdered by fedayeen from Gaza.

Dov Landau

Dov Landau, described as being blond, blue-eyed, small, and young-looking for his age, is an angry teenager who lost his entire family to the fedayeen, he forces himself to go on working for Israel, to make her proud of him.

Jordana Ben Canaan

Jordana Ben Canaan, described as tall, red-haired, and blue-eyed, is Ari's fiery younger sister, a leader of the Palmach (Haganah elite unit), and the lover and fiancée of David Ben Ami. Jordana is typical of the young native-born girls and, initially hostile toward Kitty - believing that American women are no good for anything other than dressing up prettily - changes her opinion when Kitty saves Ari's life and later becomes more identified with Israel's struggle. After the death of David Ben Ami, Jordana sinks into depression but never mentions his name.

Barak Ben Canaan

Barak Ben Canaan (born Jossi Rabinsky) is 6 feet, 3 inches tall, red-haired, and blue-eyed and the father of Ari Ben-Canaan. He was born in the Russian Pale of Settlement. After their father was murdered in a pogrom, he and his brother Yakov walked overland to Palestine, where they settled. There, he met and married his wife Sarah, and his son Ari and daughter Jordana were born. He became a kibbutz pioneer and eventually head of the Jewish Agency. After his brother Yakov/Akiva joins the Maccabees, he cuts off all contact with Akiva. Near the end of the novel, Barak dies of cancer and was buried next to Akiva.


Akiva (born Yakov Rabinsky), is of medium height, brown-eyed, and dark haired. He is Barak Ben Canaan's brother, a poet, and leader of the radical underground group the "Maccabees". While Akiva bears some resemblance to the real-life Irgun (Etze"l), the character may be inspired by Avraham Stern of Lehi. Near the end of the book, he is shot by the British during the Acre prison break; his brother Barak is later buried next to him.

David Ben Ami

David Ben Ami is black-haired and brown-eyed, and a close colleague of Ari Ben Canaan, both in the Haganah and later in the IDF. He is also Jordana's lover and a friend of Kitty Freemont's. He was born in Jerusalem, is university educated, and plans to take a doctorate. Steeped in religious and mystical lore, he is also a specialist in Biblical archaeology and warfare. In this regard, his knowledge is valuable in the relief of besieged Jerusalem. He is killed in action after leading a suicide mission to capture the Old City of Jerusalem.

The origins of Exodus

Numerous sources say that Uris, motivated by an intense interest in Israel, financed his own research for the novel by selling the film rights in advance to MGM and writing articles about the Sinai campaign.[4][5] It has also been reported that the book involved two years of research and involved thousands of interviews.[6]

Arthur Stevens relates that the idea for Uris' book came about when Edward Gottlieb, an American public relations man seeking to improve Israel's image in the US, decided to commission a novel about Israel's origin that showed Israel in a good light and hired Uris to write it. According to Stevens, "Uris' novel solidified America's impressions of Israelis as heroes, of Arabs as villains; it did more to popularize Israel with the American public than any other single presentation through the media."[7]

According to Jack Shaheen: "In the 1950s, when Americans were largely apathetic about Israel, the eminent public relations consultant Edward Gottlieb was called on "to create a more sympathetic attitude" toward the newly established state. And so, he sent Leon Uris to Israel to write a novel, which became the bestseller Exodus... Exodus introduced filmgoers to the Arab–Israel conflict, and peopled it with heroic Israelis and sleazy, brutal Arabs, some of whom link up with ex-Nazis. The movie's only "good Arab" becomes a dead Arab."[8]

However further research by Martin Kramer,[9] Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and President-designate of Shalem College, Wexler-Fromer Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Schusterman Senior Visiting Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), reveals these claims as spurious conjectures based on a claim by Gottlieb made to Arthur Stevens, author of The Persuasion Explosion: Your Guide to the Power and Influence of Contemporary Public Relations. "Gottlieb, who at the time headed his own public relations firm, suddenly had a hunch about how to create a more sympathetic attitude toward Israel. He chose a writer and sent him to Israel with instructions to soak in the atmosphere of the country and create a novel about it. The book turned out to be Exodus, by Leon Uris".[10]

Gottlieb's claim was rejected by the account manager for the Israeli account at Gottlieb's second tier PR agency, Charlotte Klein, who said: "1984, of course, is a long time from 1955 and Ed may have met Uris and felt he influenced him. However, there never was money enough on the account for Ed to 'commission' anyone to write a book. I am also pretty sure that Ed would have bragged about meeting and talking to Uris if this happened. He would have asked me to come up with some ideas of what Uris ought to cover. I would have had a meeting of my staff on the Israel account and would have drawn up a plan to include people in Israel for Uris to contact." [11]


The book was first criticised in 1960 by Aziz S. Sahwell of the Arab Information Center for historical inaccuracies and its depiction of Arabs.[12][13] Ghassan Kanafani in his book about Zionist literature writes that this book is the worst distortion of history (fi aladab alsehyoni, page no 100.)

Robert Fisk wrote in 2014 that it was "a racist, fictional account of the birth of Israel in which Arabs are rarely mentioned without the adjectives “dirty” and “stinking” [and] was one of the best pieces of Socialist-Zionist propaganda that Israel could have sought"[14]

Norman Finkelstein espoused a similar view in his 2008 work Beyond Chutzpah.[15]

References in popular culture

In Mad Men S1/E6, "Babylon", Don Draper reads the book throughout, and others mention its upcoming film release and bestseller status.

Dr Wladislaw Dering sued Leon Uris for libel because of allegations made against Dering in the novel. This lawsuit inspired the fictionalized account of a lawsuit that formed the basis of Uris' later bestselling novel, QB VII (1970).[16]

Further reading

  • Weissbrod, Rachel, "Exodus as a Zionist Melodrama" in: Israel Studies 4.1 (1999) 129–152
  • Peters, Joan "From Time Immemorial, The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine"


  1. ^ God, Guns and Israel: Britain, The First World War And The Jews in the Holy City, Jill Hamilton, p 181: "Two months after the tenth anniversary a novel was published in America that changed the public perception of Israel and the Jews. Exodus by the Jewish US ex-marine Leon Uris became an international publishing phenomenon, the biggest best seller in the United States since Gone with the Wind. Both the novel and the subsequent movie thrust Israel into the lives of millions, and with it initiated a new sympathy for the young country."
  2. ^ "Propaganda and war", Edward Said, Al-Ahram Weekly, 30 August - 5 September 2001, Issue No.549: "The most disturbing thing is that hardly any of the questioned Americans knew anything at all about the Palestinian story, nothing about 1948, nothing at all about Israel's illegal 34-year military occupation. The main narrative model that dominates American thinking still seems to be Leon Uris's 1950 novel Exodus."
  3. ^ This view is shared by other authors such as:
    *Kaplan, Amy (2013), "Zionism as Anticolonialism: The Case of Exodus", American Literary History (Oxford University Press) 25 (4): 870–895,  
    : "Exodus shaped the American memory of Israel’s origins for decades to come, even among generations who never read the book or saw the movie", and
    *Nadel, Ira (2007), "Exodus, or "The Book"", Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen, University of Texas Press,  
  4. ^ Chris Fujiwara (2009). The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger. Faber & Faber. p. 255.   [3]
  5. ^ Patricia Erens. The Jew in American Cinema. Indiana University Press, 1988. p. 217.   [4]
  6. ^ Joel Shatzky; Michael Taub (1994). Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Greenwood Press. p. 440.  
  7. ^ The Persuasion Explosion, Art Stevens, Acropolis Publishers, Washington DC, 1985, ISBN 0874917328 pp 104–5
  8. ^ Reel Bad Arabs, Jack Shaheen, Olive Branch Press 2001, ISBN 1-56656-388-7
  9. ^
  10. ^ Stevens, Art (June 1985). "The persuasion explosion: Your guide to the power & influence of contemporary public relations".  
  11. ^
  12. ^ Aziz S. Sahwell, Exodus: A Distortion of Truth, Arab Information Center, 1960
  13. ^ Salt, Jeremy (1985), "Fact and Fiction in the Middle Eastern Novels of Leon Uris", Journal of Palestine Studies (University of California Press) 14 (3): 54–63,  
  14. ^ The Independent, Robert Fisk: If the Nobel Peace Prize can be handed to Obama, why not hand it to the Israeli Defence Force?, 10 August 2014
  15. ^ Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, Norman G. Finkelstein, 2008, p2-3, quote: "Putting aside its apologetics for Zionism, the sheer racism of Uris's blockbuster bears recalling. The Arabs, their villages, their homes—to the last, they're "stinking" or engulfed in "overwhelming stench" and "vile odors." Arab men just "lay around" all day "listless"—that is, when they're not hatching "some typical double-dealing scheme which seemed perfectly legitimate to the Arab," or resorting to "the unscrupulous ethics of the Arab ... the fantastic reasoning that condoned every crime short of murder," or "becom[ing] hysterical at the slightest provocation." As for Palestine itself before the Jews worked wonders, it was "worthless desert in the south end and eroded in the middle and swamp up north"; "a land of festering, stagnated swamps and eroded hills and rock-filled fields and unfertile earth caused by a thousand years of Arab and Turkish neglect. ... There was little song or laughter or joy in Arab life. ... In this atmosphere, cunning, treachery, murder, feuds and jealousies became a way of life. The cruel realities that had gone into forming the Arab character puzzled outsiders. Cruelty from brother to brother was common." Truth be told, not much has changed in official Zionist propaganda"
  16. ^ LEHMANN-HAUPT, CHRISTOPHER (June 25, 2003). "'"Leon Uris, 78, Dies; Wrote Sweeping Novels Like 'Exodus. New York Times. Retrieved 25 April 2015. 
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