Gray Matters Remembers -- The Captain of "Exodus"

I have been to Israel more than a dozen times between 1947, when I ran away from home to briefly join the Haganah, and through my dozen years covered the peace talks that produced the Camp David Accords, Israel's treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and a tentative agreement between the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin.

I attended the signing of the treaty with Egypt on the north lawn of Jimmy Carter's White House and, the treaty with Jordan on a river wash between the two nations. And I celebrated with President Bill Clinton when he won the pledge of "no more war" from the Palestinians and Jews on a sun drenched day on the South lawn at the White House.

But much of those agreements have come to little. They have not brought peace. Rabin was murdered by an Israeli; Arafat's Palestinians were hopelessly divided when he died. The Middle East became more volatile. So when the Israelis attacked the Turkish ship seeking to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza with relief supplies, it brought to mind my encounter in 1978 with one of the legendary heroes in the founding of Israel -- a man I knew as Captain Ike Aranne.

I was on an El Al flight from Nairobi, in Kenya, to Tel Aviv to meet my wife who was coming to Israel for the first time. She told me she had been reluctant to come, because her orthodox father, in chanting the prayer at the end of the Passover Seder, seemed to be saying something about dying in Jerusalem. And she thought from childhood that she would die if she went to Israel.

Anyway, I had spent some weeks in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it was suspected that Cuban troops were stirring trouble against the imperialist powers of France and Belgium, whose King Leopold had made billions from its copper and diamonds by wreaking great cruelties among the workers. There were no Cuban troops. The country had been torn by civil war, encouraged by the CIA, tribal rivalries, a culture of corruption and Zaire became a stake in the Cold War. It was ruled by the pro-west dictators, Joseph Mobutu, who stole millions, but he had the support of the U.S., the World Bank and Israel, which was seeking influence in Africa.

I was typing out on my Olivetti my final story from Zaire, when the man next to me on the flight asked what I was doing. He was handsome, and wiry with a shock of white hair, and I noticed that the El Al cabin crew seemed to treat him with deference. I told him who I was and asked him if he was someone famous.

He asked me if I had heard of the President Warfield. Garfield, I said but there was no President Warfield. The President Warfield, he said, had been a Chesapeake Bay ferry, named after the head of the company that owned it. It had been secretly purchased by the Israelis in 1947 to bring Jewish refugees from Nazism to British-occupied Palestine. The ship had been renamed "Exodus, 1947" and my seatmate was its captain, who gave me his anglicized name, "Yitzhak (Ike) Aranne."

In contrast to the happy ending of the Exodus voyage in the movie of the same name, the British, resisting the creation of a Jewish state, rammed and blockaded the ship and refused to let it land as it stood offshore for days, packed with 4,500 sick and hungry passengers, three of whom died in battles with British who boarded the ship. The British raised the phony charge that the refugees were armed.

After days of fruitless negotiations the vindictive British prime minister, deported the ship and with nowhere else to land, it was forced to land in Germany, which just a few years earlier tried to kill every Jew in Europe. The refugees were interned, but one result of the worldwide outcry on behalf of the Exodus was the 1948 vote in the United Nations to partition Palestine, which gave Israel its independence, but left the Palestinians in a national limbo. The voyage of the Exodus had worked.

Not surprisingly, the New York Times saw a parallel between the plight of the Exodus and the Israeli attack on the Turkish ship trying to breach the tight Israeli blockade of Gaza with food and other essentials. The Times reported on May 31, "To some Israeli observers, it was impossible to miss the parallels" with the story of the Exodus. Rafi Man, of the Israeli Democracy Institute, asked on his blog, "Will this be the Palestinian Exodus?"

I am not sure that Captain Ike would disagree with the parallel. Yitzhak Ahronovitch, who died in December at the age of 86, was among the earliest settlers. He came to Palestine from Poland when he was ten and he was only 23 when he commanded the Exodus. He had been a veteran merchant seaman during the Second World War and in the struggle against the British occupation, he was a member of the Palmach, the Haganah's strike force, which fought the British occupiers with bombs and terrorism.

But when we spoke in his apartment, with his American-born wife, and over a long dinner in Joppa, he worried that the Israelis had lost their way and had become the hated occupiers-of the millions of Palestinians, farmers and shopkeepers, who could trace their roots in Palestine-Israel back to Christ's time.

As I remember it, Ike told me that the glow of Israel's spectacular victory in the 1967, six-day war had turned to uncertainty. Israel had conquered three Arab armies and had taken control of Egypt's Sinai, Syria's Golan Heights, Jordan's West Bank of the Jordan River, and most treasured of all, the old city of Jerusalem and the Western Wall of an ancient Jewish temple.

The occupation of these territories, which is still not recognized as legal by the U.N. or the U.S., brought internal violence again as the Palestine Liberation Organization asserted itself with terror bombings not unlike those of the Palmach against the British occupation. As Ahronovitch told me, "we were sure that the '67 war would give us peace at last. But now, we don't know what comes next." Israel's confidence in its future as a Jewish state had been shaken.

By 1978, as Palestinian resistance grew more violent, the inevitable dynamic of the occupied, and the occupier became increasingly violent, and the call for security clashed with the democratic idealism of the nation's founders, like Ahronovitch. Palestinians were treated badly, to counter the violence of Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, which led to stronger, angrier Palestinian resistance and the spiral of violence that continues today. Although Israel regards itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, democracy does not extend to the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, the Bedouins and non-Jews.

As the traditionally non-secular (younger, immigrant) Jews in Israel have become dominated by orthodox Rabbis and their right-wing parties (women are forbidden to pray at the Western Wall) have turned racist, seeking to expel the Palestinians and even the Israeli Arabs. For self-protection, the Israelis have built apartheid walls which keep the Palestinians and their plight out of sight of most Israelis and visiting Americans.

Because of real security concerns, the domination of the Israeli Defense Forces in the cabinet and the religious orthodoxy that closes down the country on the Sabbath and rules the lives of women, in particularly, have made much of Israeli a military theocracy. Such are the fruits of occupation that lead to unintended consequences. To counter the influence of the non-secular Palestinians, Israel invited into the country elements of the deeply religious Muslim Brotherhood, based in Egypt.

They became Hamas, a grassroots political and social movement hostile to the more moderate non-fundamentalist Palestinians. Hamas' religious fundamentalism is especially hostile towards Israel as an affront to the Muslim faith. But they won a democratic election and they now rule Gaza. From which they send rockets into Israel, which responded with an invasion, many innocent civilian deaths and today's blockade. So nowhere is the peace in sight that Yitzhak Ahronovitch had hoped for in 1978. For without the reluctant support of the Palestinians, Hamas and the stalling Israelis, the so-called two state solution seems untenable.

That brings me to another sad chapter in the ongoing Middle East drama -- the reprehensible call by my friend, a long-time colleague, that Israel should "get the hell out of Palestine" and Jews should go back to the European nations of their origin. But I know something of the background to the outburst. Helen Thomas, born in Kentucky, in a Lebanese family, covered dozens of Israeli officials who came to the White House and she traveled to Israel with presidents. Despite her inner anger at some of the more hostile Israeli statements and policies towards Arabs, and their bloody invasions of Lebanon, her reports remained straight with nary a hint of how she feels. But her unthinking mini-diatribe was born from frustration that the 30-year peace process that is going nowhere and suggests a new path to peace -- the one state solution, in which Israel and Palestinians shared the land as Israel's founders intended.

Let's face it: It is impossible to cobble together two states out of the walled off Palestinians, whose lands are torn by hundreds of armed settlements, a modern semi-secular and paranoid Israel and the besieged, destitute and powerless Gaza under Hamas. So why not one state with Palestinians and Jews who are more alike than they would admit, in looks, culture, intelligence, intellectual achievement, a desire for education, business sense and acquisitiveness, their penchant accumulate wealth and build a business?

In 2003, the Middle East scholar and political scientist Virginia Tilley, writing from South Africa in the London Review of Books, and writer Tony Judt, who is Jewish and a frequent writer on the Middle East, opened a discussion on the alternative to the faltering two-state solution.


The two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an idea and possibility whose time has passed, its death obscured by the spectacle-the hoopla of useless road maps, the cycle of Israeli gun ship assassinations and Palestinian suicide bombings, the dismal Palestinian power struggles, the house demolitions....

And now as a last resort for safety, the walls of what Israelis acknowledge as Apartheid. What next?


The peace process is dead. The time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state solution -- the core of the Oslo process and the present "road map" -- is probably already doomed. With every passing year we are postponing an inevitable, harder choice that only the far right and far left have so far acknowledged, each for its own reasons. The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. That is indeed how the hard-liners in Israel's cabinet see the choice; and that is why they anticipate the removal of the Arabs as the ineluctable condition for the survival of a Jewish state.

Other Middle East actors, including the Palestinian Authority have begun serious consideration of the one-state solution. The early Zionists, like Yitzhak Ahronovitz, according to Amos Elon, saw Israel (perhaps naively) as a socialist democratic home for Jews and Arabs, not necessarily a secular Jewish State, but a homeland for the Diapora. Captain Ike would not have supported the unthinkable, the expulsion of millions of Palestinians; if there is to be peace, I believe the one state solution -- call it Israel or Palestine or both -- is inevitable.

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