Joseph Cotto, 3/15/2017 [Archive]

How a 1960 Paul Newman Film is Relevant to the Refugee Crisis

How a 1960 Paul Newman Film is Relevant to the Refugee Crisis

By Joseph Cotto

'Exodus' was on television the other day. Not having received much sleep the night before, and functionally awake only through the grace of caffeine, I half-expected to shut my eyes midway through the picture.

It is a long one, after all; with commercials, four hours. Unless a movie is of superior quality, something with such a running time rarely appears on the small screen.

Fortunately, I did not nod off, and ended up watching 'Exodus' from beginning to end. What a powerful piece of cinema. It provides much to think about in our age of refugee rancor; from the no-man's lands of Syria to the barrios of Cuba, where millions undoubtedly shake with anger over the cancellation of 'wet foot, dry foot.'

For those who have not seen 'Exodus' or forgot what it is about, the movie chronicles revolution in British Palestine -- how this impacted colonial Protestants, recently-arrived Jews, and generations-resident Muslims. Paul Newman plays the leading role: a Palestinian-born Jewish nationalist who, though having served in His Majesty's military, becomes increasingly hostile toward Crown administration in what he yearns to be globally-recognized as Israel.

Eva Marie Saint portrays an expatriate American nurse who, while being initially uncomfortable around Holocaust-ravaged Jewish refugees, comes to identify with their plight; risking her life to assist them in securing a permanent home in the Holy Land.

The premise of 'Exodus' is based in a World War I-era promise the British government made: Its Palestinian territory would be revamped into a haven for Jews the world over. Britain made this assurance amid a pinch for money and manpower -- things much of European Jewry could well provide.

These Jews came through for the Crown, but HM's government soon found itself in another pickle: Muslim Arabs, who generally populated Palestine and its neighbor states, threw a fit over Jewish immigration. Not only were these folks rich in number, but their leaders had tons of oil.

Britain reneged on its deal, attempting to placate Muslim militants and, later, intensely disappointed Jews.

An uneasy balance was maintained until large waves of Jews were displaced by Nazism. The Crown was forced to either own up to its initial promise or face perpetual domestic terrorism. Ultimately, the Jewish refugees got their way; meaning not only a Hebraic country, but one ruled sans the Union Jack.

Palestine's Muslims were outraged and, with the help of ex-Nazis, many waged a genocidal campaign against area Jews. Warfare between these groups has continued for generations on end.

Much can be learned from 'Exodus,' specifically by the American government. First and foremost, never make a promise unless it is well-devised, with no apparent reason as to why it might grow untenable. Uncle Sam often preaches high civic ideals while ignoring his broken commitments; both at home and abroad. In the long run, people you lie to will cry hypocrisy and distrust you.

On another level, be careful who is accepted as a refugee. Rather than pledge allegiance to the Crown, scores of Holocaust survivors joined the Irgun; an anti-colonialist terrorist network so savage that it won the IRA's admiration. Just because someone has been through hell does not mean he or she has no intention of inflicting it on your homeland. Poor, huddled masses stepping off a boat one day may be killing machines targeting civilians the next.

Indeed, the person seeking refuge is not necessarily out to build a sanctuary. Extreme vetting is an absolute must, even if that means a greatly diminished refugee resettlement tally. Had the British authorities taken more care to discern who would be a good fit for Palestine, untold violence may have been avoided.

Of course, HM's government should never have made a faulty promise to begin with -- raising hopes which were dashed and channeled into terrorism. This brings us back to the first lesson of 'Exodus.'

America ought never involve itself in the discontent of our world, either by making grandiose guarantees to foreigners or claiming the ill-designed excess baggage of other countries. The United States has more than enough troubles of its own to address.

Simply put, we need an exodus from the sort of situation that created an environment for 'Exodus.'


Copyright 2017 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Ford Cotto is, the editor-in-chief of The San Francisco Review of Books. Email him at

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