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21 Miles Off The Coast of Palestine

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Adam Curtis | 17:47 UK time, Wednesday, 2 June 2010

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.


exodus1947x.jpgAs 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 1.

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

  • Comment number 2.

    Your comparison is a disgrace to humanity!

  • Comment number 3.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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."

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • 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.

  • Comment number 11.

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


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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:


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. :)

  • 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.

  • 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...

  • Comment number 27.

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


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