Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Captain of “The Exodus” dies at the age of 86

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2009 at 8:41 am

Israeli novelist Yoram Kaniuk eulogizes his friend Ike Aharonavich, the daring Captain of The Exodus. In a touching tribute, Kaniuk recalls an argument between Aharonavich and his commander Yossi Harel that is still with us to this day:

All of Zionism is the story of the struggle between Yossi and Ike. Ike wanted Yossi to continue the war to show that we were heroes and in order to beat the British and Yossi said he didn’t bring the ship so that 4,500 Holocaust survivors would be killed, and if Ike’s Palmach wanted war he should bring the young people from the kibbutzim. Ike didn’t forgive him. No logic would get through to him. He accepted the battle that was almost Masada in the sea. Yossi wanted life. Ike wanted struggle and victory.

American Jews of my parents generation know their Israeli history through bestsellers like the novel Exodus and the Otto Preminger film that bears the same name.  I remember Paul Newman, as the new Jew, Ari Ben Canaan, literally son of Canaan, returning to his primordial national roots where diaspora Judaism is a perversion of Jewish destiny that should only be realized through connecting to the Land!  The book and the film made American Jews fiercely proud, but for most, not proud enough to actually live there. Nevertheless, fledgling Israel benefited from a new form of Jewish guilt that brought a disturbing conundrum to Jewish consciousness: Suppose a people was given a homeland and nobody wanted to go there.  Dollars and trees were sent as the surrogates for flesh and blood forging an uneasy alliance between the builders of statehood and their American partners who were, for the most part, rooting from the sidelines.

From 1945 until 1967 Israel had the enviable status of valiant underdog.  She was neither perceived as a victim, nor an oppressor, but a survivor, perpetually defying all odds.   Let’s imagine, in memory of Ike, a counter-history where there were 4500 martyrs from the Exodus, children, women and men, who had died valiantly for the right to be a nation like everyone else.  Where Ike would have been remembered as the catalyst for removing the immigration quotas that the British had enforced, and alongside Yom Ha’atzmaut there would be a day of reflection recalling the bold and heart rending battle of the 4500 against British tyranny, of those who had already endured the unimaginable horrors and indignities of Hitler.  Indeed, a ‘Masada in the sea’.

Masada doesn’t make it into the Talmud, and if it weren’t for Josephus, we would have no record of it.  Our Sages were reluctant to see objectively futile acts of resistance as positive, when hundreds, or thousands would lose their lives.  They were more forgiving in remembering, mourning and implicitly praising individual acts of martyrdom like the death of Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Hanina Ben Tradyon.  The Sages were more comfortable with playing the honorable individual victim card.  Some even justified it theologically:

Our Rabbis taught: When Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma fell ill, Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion went to visit him.  Rabbi Yossi said to him:  Hanina, my brother, don’t you know that  Heaven has ordained this Roman nation to reign? Even though she has laid waste to God’s House, burnt His Temple, killed His pious ones and caused His best ones to perish, she continues to stand! (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 18a)

Ike would have fought the British not to win, but to show the world that the New Jews were fighters, and would not go away quietly. His commander thought that these, the scarred remnants of war torn Jewish Europe, were not the people who should be asked to deliver this message. Ike would have certainly answered “But who of us had more to prove than these?”

Nowadays when the moniker “valiant survivor” rests not so easily on Israel’s shoulders, we should take a moment, pause and reflect on how complicated a once simple, straightforward narrative has become and how the shadow of the Exodus still informs our present.


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