Those whom the gods would destroy, they first sucker into believing their own PR.
In 1958, an American novel appeared that David Ben-Gurion described as (if I remember the quote correctly) “the best propaganda ever written for Israel.” He got that one right. Or so it seemed at the time.
Leon Uris’ Exodus, the still-in-print best seller about Israel’s founding, and the 1960 hit movie that followed, shaped the American attitude for decades. Israel couldn’t have asked for more adoring PR. Perhaps Israel did.*
But overselling is always dangerous. Especially when the product’s defects become known.
Uris’ fantasia did more than indulge his obsession with Jewish fighters, tough as fossilized matzoh but also handsome and humane. Exodus was classic “Israel Can Do No Wrong.” Uris elided anything that might detract from the image. In the book, there were neither Irgunists nor Sternists; the (understandable and sympathetic) bad guys were the “Maccabees.” The Palestinian refugee problem got one sentence.
So did the death of Mickey Marcus, the American colonel who came as a volunteer adviser, became Israel’s first general and contributed significantly to the war effort. Marcus, Uris notes, en passant, “was killed.”
Which brings us a bit closer to the subject at hand.
My wife and I made Aliyah in February 2010. A year later, I was one hurting oleh: cancer, disintegrating vertebrae, a couple other nuisances. Since I was going to have a lot of time in treatment and recovery, and not much access to anything beyond books and the Internet, I thought about writing a novel. After seven non-fiction books, sitting in a room by myself, making up imaginary dialogues between non-existent people might be fun.
Actually, I’d been trying to write a novel, the same novel, for thirty years. I’d started it in graduate school so I could sit at my typewriter – yes, typewriter – and give myself the impression of doing something while in reality I was merely and assiduously avoiding my dissertation. The book never did get done, in part because I’d patterned the heroine after a former girlfriend, and even in fiction she refused to behave. So I decided that if I was going to write a real first novel, I had to rid myself of the old one.
I did. Free at last. Now what?
At the critical moment, a well-known American Jewish philanthropist came to my rescue. No, he didn’t kick in a dime. Nor did I ask. But he’d funded my wife’s tours in Iraq and Afghanistan while she researched her first book, on American women at war. He’d gotten in touch with her, asking if Israel had any new information on a hero of his, Mickey Marcus.
Lacking anything better to do, I started looking. I found nothing new: If I missed anything that came out after the 1980s, somebody please let me know.
I started with Ted Berkman’s 1962 biography, Cast a Giant Shadow (movie, 1966), then went on to everything else I could find. That wasn’t much. Marcus had been extolled, then forgotten.
The Mickey Marcus myth did not disintegrate upon investigation. But it became a lot more complex, and his death a lot more questionable.
The received narrative is that Marcus was instrumental in some vital early successes against Egyptian Army supply lines, then in building the “Burma Road,” sometimes aka the “Marcus Road” bypass into Jerusalem during the siege. Then, very early on the morning of 11 June 1948, at his own headquarters, he was “accidentally shot by a sentry.”
Unquestionably, Mickey Marcus did important and heroic things. But he was also a man as self-destructive as he was brilliant and brave. A late-stage alcoholic who spoke no Hebrew, toward the end his behavior grew increasingly bizarre. Worse, he found himself ensnared in struggles between Haganah, Palmach, Irgun and the Sternists, and the high-level cliques and personalities vying for fame, honor and rank in the new Army.
A careful reading of Berkman’s book revealed so many gaps, omissions and dubious statements that it’s a wonder it ever got published. Dan Kurzman, a respected journalist and strong supporter of Israel, after much nagging, got hold of the official report of the Israeli investigation of Marcus’ death. The inquiry was, to say the least, superficial. In his 1983 biography of Ben-Gurion, Kurzman quoted B.G.’s suspicion, expressed in an old interview with the author, that the Palmach killed Marcus. According to Kurzman, Ben-Gurion offered no evidence for his claim.**
The writings of other major characters in this drama, especially Moshe Dayan and Yigal Yadin, are vague about Marcus and uncomplimentary by their vagueness. Herman Wouk’s 1993 fictional treatment of the period, The Hope, features Marcus at the beginning. His depiction of the resentment he caused among the sabra officers is telling.
Then gradually, it all got me to thinking. And the idea for a novel appeared: a novel that might be of some present and possibly future value to Israel in the United States. Exodus it ain’t. But then, more Exodus ain’t what we need.
Next: The Execution of Mickey Marcus, Part 2 of 3.
* See A. A. Silver, Our Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story.
**Dan Kurzman, Ben-Gurion: Prophet of Fire. See also Kurzman’s 1970 book, Genesis 1948.