21 Miles Off The Coast of Palestine

Wednesday 2 June 2010, 18:47

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Here is a strange echo from history.

It is a documentary made by the BBC in 1973 about the story of the ship, the Exodus.

It was the ship full of Jewish refugees - many of them survivors of the Holocaust - that tried to break the British blockade of Palestine in 1947. The participants from both sides appear and describe in detail how British soldiers boarded the ship 21 miles off the coast of Palestine killing 3 of the refugees and wounding others.

It caused an international scandal and was a PR disaster for the British government. It is seen in Israel today as one of the most significant events that led to the founding of the modern Israeli state.

The shock was compounded when the British took most of the refugees back to Germany and put them on trains and sent them to internment camps.

Here is a still of the ship after it was captured by the British.

As you watch the film - it raises complex reactions and thoughts in your mind. But it is ironic that, although the two events are in many ways completely different, the Israelis are now preventing Palestinians and supporters of Hamas from doing what the Israeli defence organisation - the Haganah - tried to do over 60 years ago. From 1945 the Haganah, along with the Irgun, had been carrying out a terror campaign against British soldiers in Palestine. Then in 1947 they organised the Exodus operation as an attempt to break the British blockade.

It is full of all the central characters in the story - including the captain of the Exodus, and the commander of the British warship. He uses little models of ships to demonstrate how he came alongside and British soldiers jumped from special platforms onto the roof of the Exodus - and took over the wheelhouse.

For some unknown reason the film starts in colour - then goes to black and white and finally comes back into colour. I'm sorry about this - but it is fascinating.

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    Comment number 21.

    Think of the children!

    What self respecting propagandist wouldn't stoop to using the 'whelps and dams of murderous friends'. The good doctor, Theodore Dalrymple, writes a different take on the Gaza peace flotilla:


    Likewise we can see a similar use of 'innocence' deployed by protest speakers in London; the video shows Craig Murry giving a rather stirring speech regarding the legality of the Israeli raid, declaring it as an act of war; but look at the character to his left, who is waiting to cue the angelic chorus of children, to underline the morality of the protest:


  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Thank you so much for posting this highly interesting and apt documentary.

    On a bit of a side note, I loved the intro music, played when the title of the film emerges, and thought I recognized it from Star Trek. If anyone could direct me as to how to find this theme and tell me it's name and from which film or series it is, that would be highly appreciated.

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    Comment number 23.

    For Einarsteinn:

    The music towards the start of the film is Fanfare for the Common Man. It's been covered by many but the original is by Aaron Copland. Copland was born in America and of Lithuanian Jewish descent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Thank you so much for this, Andy. Listening to it right now. Truly fantastic music. I also very much enjoyed Copland's Appalachian Spring and will definately check out more music by him. :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @eshklyar: Since the Exodus incident took place in 1947 - after the war - you can't claim these refugees were "fleeing for their lives". At least not those from Germany.

    Just to add a little more historical context, here's what happened to another refugee ship just a few years earlier. I recently read about it in a book by Necla Kelek, a Turkish writer - I'm not sure if it's available in English, but the title should be something like "Bittersweet Home" (German: Buttersüße Heimat). Here is what she wrote:

    On December 7, 1941 the SS Struma, an old cargo steamer, left the harbour of Constanta in Romania, heavily overladen with 770 Romanian Jews, among them 269 women and children. Their destination was Palestine, across the Black Sea, through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to Haifa. Since 1938, some 21.000 refugees had taken this sea route with the help of Jewish organisations.

    The British started to put pressure on the Turkish Government to stop all refugee transit by land or sea, because they wanted to impose a limit of 10.000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine per year. If the Struma wasn't stopped, they threatened to force it into the nearest Turkish harbour after the Dardanelles. But they didn't have to, because just a few hours after she had left Constanta, the Struma's engine failed and was totally wrecked by an explosion just short of the Bosporus. A Turkish tugboat towed the stricken vessel to Istanbul, where it remained for the next three months while the governments in Ankara and London quarrelled. Neither the British nor the Turks wanted these Jews - nobody was allowed off the ship, there was no electrical power, heating or even enough food. People got sick and desperate. Some jumped overboard into the icy water, but were fished out and brought back aboard. The drama of the ship moored not far from Istanbul's Topkapi Palace could hardly have been overlooked by the international press, but it went unreported.

    Finally, on February 23rd, the Struma was towed out of Istanbul's harbour - back through the Bosporus and into the Black Sea. The refugees panicked. "SOS", "We're Jewish" and "We're all going to die", they wrote on shirts and placards, but nobody on shore took notice. 10-12 miles off shore, the tows were unfastened and the Turks left the powerless, drifting Struma to its fate. She was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine the following night and sunk. One Romanian boy, David Stoliar, survived on a plank long enough to be fished out by men from the Turkish rescue station at Sile - he was put into a hospital and later arrested for illegally entering Turkey.
    Hungarian-born writer/dramatist George Tabori has written a novel about this, "Beneath the stone (the scorpion)" (1945).

    Note the particularly cruel negligence through which these people died. If I was Jewish and had been raised on stories such as this - I don't see how you could avoid hearing them - I couldn't care less about what the world thought of me.
    But there's another parallel to the Palestinians here, too - I don't think Israel would still occupy Gaza and the West Bank if the Arab World wasn't allowing it to. It's just too convenient a distraction for angry Arabs and Western TV cameras alike.

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    Comment number 26.

    Adam, you're so often correct and truly brilliant in the way you present your case (on film and in writing) that it's difficult for me to disagree with you. But when you compare the Exodus ship to the Flotilla, you go badly off the tracks.

    Two ships full of people trying to reach Israel is about as far as the analogy can be made. The historical and legal rights, plus the intentions and purposes of the two different sets of passengers couldn't be more diametrically opposed.

    Had the British, during the Mandate period, honored their moral and legal obligation to establish the Jewish Homeland, as is so clearly stated in every legal document related to the enterprise, there most certainly wouldn't have been 6 million Jewish deaths resulting from the Shoah in Europe and North Africa.

    The plans for the Jewish State were in the works long before the Shoah, and it's historically incorrect to claim that we got Israel because of those horrifying years. But what should be repeated again and again is the fact that Jews were prevented from coming to Israel by the very powers who were entrusted with the responsibility of seeing that the Jewish State come into existence.

    It's likely that there'd still be turmoil in this region even if we'd gotten all our rights, to say nothing of realizing our ancient hopes of returning to the land of our ancestors. Owing to Islamic, and to some degree Christian, intransigence and revanchist grudges vis a vis the Jewish people, there probably wouldn't be genuine peace in the region today; but, at the same time, we wouldn't be mired in the slough of false arguments and dehumanizing propaganda questioning our right to live in and develop the land from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean (the 1922 Partition borders, ratified by law and by treaty).

    If our historical and legal rights are somehow taken away (and there is good reason to think this might happen), then this will open a case for denying the same historical and legal rights to every political entity established following the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the two World Wars.

    I'm hoping you'll put your considerable intellectual and research skills to the task of carefully examining the history and legal aspects that led up to the founding of the State of Israel.

    While you might not present things exactly as I and other Jews in Israel and around the world would hope, after having studied most of your documentary films over the past several years I'm certain you'd produce a useful and interesting look at the puzzling false dilemma styled as "The Arab-Israeli Conflict" and its current morphing into world-wide hatred directed at Israel.

    You might even dare to draw out the parallel with what took place in the run-up to the mass expulsion of Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 40s. "Hope springs eternal".

    With respect, from Israel...

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