This week in the Research Forum Professor Tony Kushner, from the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations and History Department at the University of Southampton, came to speak to our students. Prof. Kushner, author of The Battle of Britishness: Migrant Journeys since 1865, is currently writing two books titled: Journeys from the Abyss: The Holocaust and Co-Presents to the Holocaust. The lecture he presented to the students was about the contested memory of the Exodus 1947.
The Exodus left France in 1947 destined for Palestine. When the ship arrived at the Haifa port it was stopped by the British. (According to the Balfour Declaration, Palestine was a British mandate, and therefore had authority in immigration.) All of the people on board, most were survivors of the Holocaust, were ordered to disembark from the ship, they were then transferred to three different ships and sent back to France. Upon arrival they were again turned away. The ships then set sail for Gibraltar, and again were denied. After two months at sea, these Jewish “illegal” immigrants were received in Hamburg, Germany. Finally, after several months of attempting to reach Palestine, the people of the Exodus were brought back and accepted into Palestine.
As Prof. Kushner studied this event he attempted to understand it through a variety of perspectives. He looks at the Exodus as a result of forced migration from manmade disaster, the Holocaust. He believes these studies are important and relevant to today as he, likewise, studies the situation in Syria. He’s specifically interested in the British and how they use history to justify their actions. During the Exodus crisis a war of propaganda was launched, as the story hit newspapers all over the empire and America.
Ruth Gruber, an American Journalist, wrote that Exodus was “the ship that launched a nation.” Gruber wrote a book on the Exodus which became widely popular in the States and later was produced as a feature film. The book although available in Britain did not make much of an impact on British society. To some extent this reaction was linked to the fall of the British Empire, which was likened to the fall of the Roman Empire, a tumult of chaos and corruption. It was as if media and propaganda took the moral high ground against a decrepit empire, while the British defended their stance.
And thus started the battle over history. The British government still refuses to call the Exodus by that name, because of historical significance, but rather they call it by SS President Warfield, ship’s name during the World Wars. The Exodus has zionist connotations, which the British did not want to confirm. In the newspapers, pictures were printed of the atrocities on board the ship, as Prof. Kushner says, “the facts couldn’t have been better situated for atrocity propaganda.” And the British retorted that the inhumane conditions on the ship were a result of poor Jewish leadership. A section of a poem written on the ship says, the British were using “red Jewish blood to pay for black oil.”
While on the ship, the British conducted a survey, which speaks volumes of their attitude. The survey asked four questions: Where do the Jews come from? Which if any of these Jews were in concentration camps? Did any of them fight in WWII? And are any of them associated with terrorist organizations? The popular response to the Exodus in Britain is trifold. First, not many knew the mass murder of the Jews during WWII as the Holocaust. In other words, the Holocaust is much better known today, and carries moral weight to discussions of the present day, in the 1940’s it did not carry the same weight. Furthermore, Britain was still very anti-Semitic. And lastly, there was a popular question of why Palestine was a responsibility of Britain. Prof. Kushner said “the retreat from Empire was bloody.” For example, the British didn’t have the resources to quell violent disputes in Pakistan and they simply left, a civil war then ensued.
We now know that the Jews from Exodus did eventually make it back to Palestine, soon to be Israel. But the question remains: How can we learn from the Exodus, and apply these lessons to the current geopolitical situation? Our students had good questions and held a scholarly dialogue with Prof. Kushner after his lecture. Thank you, Prof. Kushner for visiting our classroom.
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