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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    A stunning and timely response, Adam. This blog is seriously the best thing on the web.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Your comparison is a disgrace to humanity!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it...

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    Comment number 4.

    "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."
    Indeed, they are quite different, since the contemporary cargo did not include the refugees fleeting for their life, that being the crucial aspect behind the Exodus. However, the main similarity between the events, such as the persistent British attitude towards jews, was conveniently overlooked.

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    Comment number 5.

    "such as the persistent British attitude towards Jews"

    Why so defensive? Every nation beleives Briton hates them, the record is a little worn out now im afraid.

    "the contemporary cargo did not include the refugees fleeting for their life"

    True the cargo in this case happened to be Aid going to help refugees fleeting for their life. So I beleive relevance is up held here.

    Adam Curtis is not responsible for history (well no history beyond his own), Please remember that.

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    Comment number 6.

    And you might want to remember that our soldiers had no intention to kill anyone until they realized that they were lucky none of them had died yet and that if they don't respond they will begin dying.

    According to the San Remo Manual that governs international humanitarian law, it is permissible under rule 67(a) to attack neutral vessels on the high seas when the vessels "are believed on reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade, and after prior warning they intentionally and clearly refuse to stop, or intentionally and clearly resist visit, search or capture."

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    Comment number 7.

    Loss of life in both cases (1947 & 2010) can NOT be morally justified by anyone under any law, thats my personal belief, argue against it if you will, but its not going to be changing any time soon.
    In both cases the ships could have been stopped & turned around(by either party) before physical violence occured on either side.
    In both cases, the holders of the blockade, took measures beyond the point that could be moraly justified in order to make a point "DONT MESS WITH US OR ELSE!"
    In both cases, holders of the blockade made themselves look foolish internationally & seriously undermined any argument they had prior.
    In both cases, the holders of the blockade, having prior knowledge that a ship was heading for a deliberate confrontation had more than enough time to come up with a plan that could have avoided any & all loss of life & made themselves look good in the process.
    However both decided to wave the stick first & will face the penalty for angering almost all of the entire world, the british have been suffering with this since the dawn of time & will continue to do so.

    Any denial of obvious similarities between the 2 cases is absurd. No one can justify these easily avoidable tragedies and needless loss of life on all sides
    To quote Rob McDougall (post 3)

    "He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it..."

    I personaly hope never to take such actions, I would certainly never try and justify them.
    I hope to learn enough so that I can rise above these petty squabbles between Religions/Nations & live in a happier world.

    To quote another
    "You may say im a dreamer, but im not the only one. I hope someday you'l join us & we can live as one".
    Wow all got a little bit hippyfied at the end there heh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    There are some comparisons in terms of the unpredictability of human behaviour and attempts to perhaps manage it. Militarily there may also be some comparisons made. Mostly comparisons reflecting changes as opposed to overt similarities. Naturally the two causes, context and relative social history are utterly incomparable.

    In terms of cynical manipulation and pseudo-intelligentsia, then it is something of a cliché. To dress one cause up in another by comparison is a facile attempt to legitimise and superimpose by association. As a means of ignoring fact and deflecting actual realities. It is also a very weak and lazy method of defending one's views.

    Perhaps it is that Adam has a background in marketing. Maybe he feels the need to justify his views with such pretence in order to express his support via the BBC. For surely he is fooling none other than himself with such nonsense.

    It does make you wonder how the press reacted to the exodus at the time. In the absence of state sponsored blogs, was such propaganda free flowing in the media of 1947. Might we find an echo or two lurking there. A BBC echo even, now that's ironic history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    For those that have problems with the 'compare and contrast' of different political set-ups for similar events, spare a thought for the average court judge, then take a look at two documentaries covering the same subject.

    There was a documentary by Hollywood, I think it was called "Exodus, The Journey Home", that covered the same story. By comparing and contrasting the BBC and Hollywood, you should have a stark appreciation of how the programme makers can weave a different story if they so wish.


  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    There is one similarity in that both Britain and Israel were and are colonialist nations enforcing an immoral (if not illegal) blockade.

    But anyway.... Curtis is not trying to make a point about the cyclical nature of history, or I believe even the present nature of Israel, rather he is showing how an event similar to a modern one fitted into the Israeli historical narrative, which the Zionist leadership constructed as a pretext for the necessity of nationhood, and questioning how, if at all, this current event will fit into the Palestinian narrative of liberation and what role it may prove to have. As he says, the Exodus is now seen as 'one of the most significant events that led to the founding of the modern Israeli state.'

    The point he is making is what role will this event have for the Palestinian state in the future. The nature of the events themselves is peripheral to how they are perceived.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Another interesting nautical event is the Altalena Affair. Here is a wiki version:


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    Comment number 12.

    When at war the first victim is the truth especially when you know how to manipulate the media.
    Arabs Militants manipulated the flotilla organizers into a daft emotional decision resulting in Israels response and a lot of the western passengers on board were and are very naive about the whole Arab Israeli conflict , I think the truth lies more in Israels favor.

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    Comment number 13.

    Im amazed that so many clever people are willing to try and justify the the murder of innocent people (no matter how naieve) & the persecution of millions of others who they deem undesirable over the course of years.
    All sounds a litte too much like bloody history repeating itself in more ways than just a naval blockade.

    The clever the defense of such actions, the more hideous the interlectual crime. Murder is murder(no matter who dies) & the percecution of an entire people for the alleged crimes of a few is no differant whether your Irish, English, Palistinian, Isreali, Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, African, French, German, Turkish, Kurd etc or any other race, colour, creed, religous beleif, political beleif etc or any other collective grouping (eg hoodies, gypsies, hippies, lager louts, drivers, cyclists, campers, rich people, poor people, clever, stupid, brown eyed, blue eyed, brown hair etc. (that list is only a handful of examples & are in no particular order).

    My last comment on the subject, because its as riddiculous as debateing the morality of torture. If you werent given the basic tools of compassion & sympathy, I think you need to go and have words with your parents & teachers as they have done you a great disservice.

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    Comment number 14.

    Whether or not the 'truth' lies in Israel's favour, world opinion certainly does. Switch some names around; imagine if Iran had killed 9 U.S. peaceprotestors in international waters, and what the backlash would be of that. Israel is allowed, in a literal sense, to get away with murder.

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    Comment number 15.

    Yotam the San Remo manual only covers action during a war. If you wish to use this then you must treat Hamas members as legitimate belligerents, entitled to proper POW status (it also legitimises their firing of rockets into Israel) you can't have it both ways. If you read that section of the San Remo manual it appears to say that boarding is only legal if the ships contain contraband (and there is no sign that they did having been searched by local customs before leaving to forestall such an argument) or within a formally notified blockade zone ( and the expectation was that they were outside any area for interception)

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    Comment number 16.

    Those supporting Israel in its current blockade will not like this historical parallel, because they are unwilling to extend to the Palestinians the same compassion they demand for themselves, AND because they do not like the world to be reminded that it was they who were the terrorists in the Palestine of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. But in time, the Palestinians will break this blockade as the Jewish refugees did then, and will regain at least part of their land as their rightful home.

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    Comment number 17.

    How tragic it is that the children of abusive parents so often grow up to inflict the same abuse on their own children. So it is with the innocent victims of Nazi persecution, who now treat their Palestinian neighbours with contempt, denial of basic human rights and extreme violence. Let us hope that these current events finally galvanise the world to show some moral courage by insisting on the creation of a homeland in Palestine for today's innocent victims.

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    Comment number 18.

    As for historical parallels, I think the Israeli historian Benny Morris reflects the mindset of the current administration and a large section of Israeli society when he stated in Ha'aretz in 2004 -

    "Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history."

    I think this statement is interesting because it departs from the standard David verses Goliath narrative cultivated by apologists for Israeli state violence. The reporting by the BBC of the Gaza blockade has been particularly grim with an emphasis on the pronouncements of Israeli officials and military advisors. I wonder what Adam Curtis makes of the role his employers play in the dissemination of state lies and propaganda. Maybe a documentary on this subject is long over due and would test the boundaries of what the BBC proclaims as it's impartiality and objectivity.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    "The ends justify the means" has always been the favourite slogan of Evil. Goring used it, Stalin used it, Franco used it. It always boils down to the same thing: we're going to kill you because you're in the way.


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