Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Exodus Origins: The Making and Unmaking of a Myth

There is a Jewish proverb about a man who had been spreading malicious lies about one of his neighbors. Feeling guilty about it, he went to his Rabbi and asked what he could do for penance. The Rabbi told him:

"Take three pillows outside, and tear them open so the feathers are cast to the wind."

The man did so, and returned to the Rabbi. The Rabbi then instructed him to go out and collect all the feathers.

"But that's impossible! The feathers have been scattered; it would be impossible to track them all down."

The Rabbi nodded sadly, and remarked that this is the danger of telling lies -- even if one feels genuinely guilty and wishes to recant, it is unlikely that they every can be truly returned to their box.

Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi has taken to delivering a speech where he purports to tell the true story behind Leon Uris' famous novel Exodus. Khalidi claims that the novel was "commissioned" by "Edward Gottleib ... one of the founders of the modern public relations industry" and "father of the American iteration of Zionism." Gottlieb hired Uris to write the book and sent him off to Israel to do so.

By all appearances, Khalidi's claim is a complete fabrication. Martin Kramer thoroughly breaks it down -- indeed, I have to say I've rarely read a more systematic rib-cracking than the one Kramer delivers to Khalidi on this point. The supposed connection between Gottlieb (who was, at most, a middling figure in the public relations industry and had little to do with the broader American Zionist movement) and Uris can now be found in several books, including one published by the University of California Press. My guess is that Khalidi was relying on these sources when making his claim. But all the claims trace back to a 1985 (several decades after Exodus was published) PR advice book which recounts the story in similar terms, as an anecdote to aspiring young PR professionals.

In terms of historical evidence, this is a very thin reed. And it stands alone: Gottlieb's name does not show up in Uris' papers, he is unknown to either of Uris' biographers, there is no contemporaneous evidence or documentation relating any connection between Gottlieb and Uris whatsoever. The author of the 1985 anecdote says that it was recounted to him by Gottlieb himself, but -- given the time lag, lack of corroboration, and the tendency for PR professionals to perhaps slightly exaggerate while self-promoting -- he admits that he cannot vouch for its accuracy. In fact, Gottlieb's chief assistant on matters related to Israel claims to have no knowledge of such a link between her boss and Uris, and firmly concludes that none exists. The odds that this story is true, in sum, is almost infinitesimally small.

So Khalidi is engaging in abysmal history to weave a typical narrative of Zionist perfidy and malignancy, and now it has been debunked. Which is good. And Khalidi is a trained historian, so that makes his terrible methodology all the more scandalous. But unfortunately, the genie probably still won't be returned to the bottle.

True historical research -- digging up primary source documents and interviewing surviving subjects -- is hard work, and work I personally find breathtakingly boring. It's one reason why going into the field of History never interested me. I know what good historical methodology is, but I don't practice it -- I'm reliant on actual historians to do their job right the first time. I assume that when someone like Khalidi tells a tale like this, that he got his information via true historical exploration (or at least relies on others who did) -- not simply taking a trade paperback at face value. The problem, though, is that every time such a story -- even if false -- is recounted by people with impressive-sounding Columbia University titles or prestigious university presses -- it provides another secondary source which the average person (myself included) generally relies upon in order to understand history.


PG said...

What a weird little fiction. The only connection of which I know between Leon Uris and any Gottlieb in the publishing industry, is that *Robert* Gottlieb famously convinced Joseph Heller to change the title of his book from "Catch-18" to "Catch-22" because Uris had a book called Mila 18 coming out at the same time.

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

David, Khalidi worked as PR man himself, specifically for the PLO when it had its HQ in Beirut 30 years ago. Kramer has proof on that too. So Khalidi's accustomed to lying for the cause. Yes, he's also a trained historian and some of his work as a historian is useful, even from my own Zionist point of view. But where does the PR man-cum-propagandist end and the objective historian begin when it's all within one person??