When the participants themselves in a history-making event cannot agree what happened, how are historians able to interpret the past with unbiased dispassion? How are they able to agree on what happened?

That question was not asked, but was prompted by an exchange toward the end of a symposium on “The Exodus Affair as a Touchstone for the Issue of Illegal Immigration.” Fifty years have passed since that poignant incident, but the University gathering still featured, both as formal speakers and as members of the audience, passengers and seamen of the Exodus.

The issue referred to above was the role of Zionist emissaries in displaced persons camps in Europe following the war. After one of the speakers had argued that the Jewish d.p.’s were sufficiently self-motivated and Zionistic to want to go to Palestine, his contention was challenged by a member of the audience. The latter argued that the d.p. camp where he had been placed had benefited greatly from the preparatory, exhortatory, and organizational work of emissaries. In the course of the mini-debate, the two learned that they had been resident in the same camp, although not necessarily throughout the same period.

“The Exodus was the Jewish minyan.” This is how Mordechai Roseman saw it. Roseman is acknowledged as the leader of the illegal immigrants on the small, former coastal vessel that became known as The Exodus. “This fraternity. It was a true picture of the ‘surviving remnant.’ Everyone was represented there.” He then added in deprecation of his own role: “There were 4,500 leaders onboard.”

After mentioning there were thirty group leaders who saw to it that the passengers had water, food, medical care, he commented: “Such leaders are not chosen in primaries. The British didn’t understand this nor did Tabenkin [a Jewish Agency official associated with the Labor movement]. That was the secret and magic of the Exodus.”

Roseman believes that the immigrants onboard were simply fulfilling a desire to go to Eretz-Israel. “What happened afterwards was due to [British Foreign Minister Ernest] Bevin,” he stated. “Before we saw the shadow of an emissary,” he went on, “we set out in search of a way to Eretz-Israel. A Zionist awareness brought this about. The Zionist organization couldn’t judge the power of those on the Exodus and other immigrant ships.” The epitome of this power, in his view, was exercised at Port du Bouc, where the three British ships taking the Exodus passengers docked in order to give them the opportunity to disembark. “This was the most cruel and most heroic test,” he said. “Everyone had to decide, ‘I won’t get off.’”

Yitzhak Ganuz, a teacher and youth counselor on the Exodus, told of the independent decision made on the British ship taking him back to Europe. He had led a meeting onboard at which the passengers voted “not to disembark even before any emissary boarded.”

The participants’ descriptions of their separate experiences were effectively summed up by Dr. Aviva Halamish of Tel-Aviv University and the author of The True Story of the Exodus, who offered this conclusion: “On the three British ships [taking the immigrants back], there was no one illegal immigrant or Israeli leadership. Nevertheless, despite the different nature of the leadership on each ship, all the immigrants acted in the same pattern.”

The Exodus story, Halamish reminded the audience, did not leave the front pages of the world press for two months. Still, in her view the most important value of the illegal sailings in general was their internal effect in uniting the Yishuv (the Jewish population of pre-State Israel). Though the Zionist leadership in the post-war period looked upon illegal immigration as the most effective political weapon with which to fight the British, she said, the entire Exodus affair had not been planned in advance.

The historian charged that the “immigrants themselves got lost in the historiography,” which usually saw the Exodus chapter as a concrete example of Zionist policy justification. It was Leon Uris’ novel that imparted the later popularity to the story that it has since enjoyed, she said, adding that her research only strengthened her conclusion about the subsequent myth that had grown up around the affair.

Micha Peri had been on the third of the British ships with the Exodus passengers, but he had not been a refugee or d.p. Peri was one of the “escorts” sent to Europe by the Jewish Agency to accompany the illegals to their haven. “Our role was as Jews, not as Zionists,” he said.

He, too, referred to the great mix of persons who crowded on board the ship as amcha, the Hebrew word meaning, in a sense, “we, the people.” He also pointed out that more than with any other clandestine immigrant ship, the passengers on the Exodus had come straight from d.p. camps in Germany. Because of the passengers’ determination not to be detoured, he said, it took six British destroyers and a famous battleship to subdue the little ship. In the end, even the British were as worn down as the passengers themselves, he recalls.

Peri thinks that a great part of their struggle was for the minds of the international public. “The Israeli public must understand this even today,” he advised. “The goal must be clear as it was then.”

Dr. Arieh Kochavi’s research has convinced him that Foreign Minister Bevin saw the sailing of the Exodus “as a touchstone, and he wanted it to be an example.” Kochavi, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of General History, heads the Strochlitz Institute of Holocaust Studies, one of the sponsors of the symposium, along with the Reuben Hecht Chair in Zionism and History and the Joint University of Haifa-Ghetto Fighters’ House (of Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot) Institute.

In his analysis, the British government was more afraid of the Arab reaction to Jewish immigration to Palestine than of the American reaction to halting it. And, indeed, he concludes, the British deportations to Cyprus did prevent a strong Arab reaction. The Foreign Office, though, would have preferred returning the illegal immigrants to Italy or other European embarkation points, in line with the Arab stand; and the example of the Exodus, on which Kochavi’s father was one of the sailors, was meant to show a determination to halt the sailings.

Kochavi stated that the one-day symposium had been organized for the purpose of countering the so-called new historians, who ascribe little importance or influence to the Exodus event

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