The novel’s title Exodus sounds the theme of freedom. For thousands of years the Jews have been trying to be free to practice their religion without persecution. The Jews fled from European genocide to their original home in Palestine, the land promised by God to Moses. The Exodus theme refers to the account of divine intervention in the Bible when God helped the Jews escape bondage in Egypt by a number of miracles, such as the parting of the Red Sea that would let the Israelites pass but not the Egyptians. In this novel, the enemies of the Jews are reminded of the plagues visited on the Egyptians for enslaving the Jews. Cecil Bradford, for instance, the British Middle East expert, reads his Bible and has the epiphany that he must “Let my people go” or he will be like the Egyptian pharaoh. He orders the ship Exodus to be let go.
Young Karen Clement notes that the Bible was filled with “stories of bondage and freedom” (Book 1, p. 84). The Holocaust survivors are filled with a determination to be free in Palestine. Jews have been exterminated by Russians and Germans, put into ghettos, prisons, and camps with barbed wire; or else, if they have been tolerated, there are often social restrictions on their type of work, education, and movement. Barak raises his son Ari to be filled with pride that he is a free Palestinian Jew, not a ghetto Jew waiting to be slaughtered. The Zionist Jews in Palestine even throw off their own past traditions, making new laws in the kibbutzim, or collective farms. They desire a modern democracy instead of authoritarian rule. There is something of a socialist fervor as the kibbutzniks share all work, property, and military obligation. In this way they are contrasted to both the Orthodox Jews and to the Arabs who are still under the control of feudal leaders.
Kitty finds it hard to understand why the Palestinian Jews are willing to fight and die for the land. David says “No people, anywhere, have fought for their freedom as have our people” (Book 1, p. 182). Harriet Saltzman, the American Jew who finances the Youth Villages, says that Ari is a sabra or native born. Sabra is the name of a wild cactus that thrives in the desert. She explains when the concentration camp children come to Palestine they breathe free air, and their country becomes the most important thing to them.
The Jewish love of freedom and truth are so great, it infects others. Kitty cannot leave Palestine, and Bruce Sutherland tells his commander he does not mind being retired over the Jewish question, because he has found himself and truth again among them. Karen rejects an outer life of ease for the freedom to be herself in her own religion. In Denmark she had luxury, but she had to hide, and in America, she would be lost in the melting pot. In other countries, even America, Jews are not in contact with the primal earth from which they come. They believe they are the caretakers of that particular land filled with their history, and they experience their identity as part of that living tradition. Ari says their fight is not about politics: “Fighting for your freedom is a purpose” (Book 1, p. 51).
The Jewish people suffer but do not back down. Professor Clement is willing for his family to be in danger rather than sign a statement that he is not a Jew. He is tortured rather than work for the Gestapo. Barak’s father tells him he is not born a Jew to have an easy life; the mission of Jews is “to guard the laws of God” (Book 2, pp. 204-5). The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto or in the Palestinian settlements fight to the last person. It is part of their faith in the righteousness of their religion to stand together. The Rabinsky brothers find refuge with Jews everywhere from Russia to Palestine in their years of wandering. Bruce Sutherland tells Kitty “The Jews are willing to lose every man, woman, and child to hold what they have . . . Call it divine intervention if you will” (Book 3, p. 447). Kitty admits that when she was with the Palmach youngsters she felt “they were invincible . . . the soldiers of God” (Book 3, p. 447). After the Exodus children are tested by their starvation protest, they are rewarded with a Chanukah party while David Ben Ami tells the story of Judah Maccabee, a Biblical hero who with a band of men freed the Jews from Greek bondage. The children of 1946 are as inspired as if they were part of his band, for they are “the children who had brought the mighty British Empire to its knees” (Book 1, p. 306). The British are frustrated to find “You can’t buy a Jewish informer” (Book 1, p. 102). Not only do the Jews stick together, but they also draw others to help them. Ari tells Kitty there are many Americans and British with consciences who secretly give them aid, arms, information, money, and help.
The British Bradshaw wonders, “Could it be that the Exodus was driven by mystic forces?” (Book 1, p. 188) Kitty constantly feels the mystic force of the holy land holding her there, and she is not even a Jew. The Jews in Palestine seem upheld by this magic force of the land. Kitty is impressed that the young warriors of Israel are not mortal; they are “the ancient Hebrews . . . and no force on earth could stop them for the power of God was within them” (Book 3, p. 357). Finally, Karen Clement is the symbol of faith in the novel, explaining right before she dies: “We’ve taken murder and sorrow and humiliation for six thousand years and we have kept faith . . . Israel is the bridge between darkness and light” (Book 5, pp. 588-589). For such exalted faith in God, she and all the Palestinian Jews put their lives on the line daily.
With faith goes sacrifice. Kitty chooses a life of service in her nursing, but the Jews in the story lead lives of constant sacrifice. Ari’s own mother stoically endures torture while she is ready to give birth to Ari, never complaining about the conditions of living in Palestine. The Zionist farmers all have scratched their farms out of the desert with backbreaking labor year after year. In the war of Independence, “Every home became a battlefield. Men, women, children daily girded to battle with a spirit of defiance that would never be conquered” (Book 4, p. 539). Every home also has lost family members to the cause of Israel. Ari’s mother finally cries out when she sees her son worn down after a life of fighting, when will he have given enough? In most instances, it seems to be the young who die. Dafna, Ari’s fiancée, David, Jordana’s fiancé, Karen, Dov’s fiancée; Zev Gilboa, whose wife is pregnant, are among those cream of the Jewish youth offered up to the country. The Zionists know they will have to sacrifice their children, for they train boys and girls alike to fight from childhood. The children of the Exodus are told to go on a hunger strike, and sixty of them lie unconscious on the point of death. Kitty is angry that Ari would sacrifice children to make a point, but David says, the Jews have a “tradition of fighting to the last man” (Book 1, p. 182). The children are glad to have a cause after the death camps of Europe. They are not intimidated. Sutherland admires the Jews: “To know the truth is one thing. To live it . . . to create the kingdom of heaven on earth is another” (Book 1, p. 186). Ari is traumatized by the death of his loved ones, though he acts tough, but he is also devastated by having to kill Arabs. He is required to give the order to destroy Abu Yesha where his Arab friends live. He is sick and says, where will they live? Barak talks to Ari about the cost of all this sacrifice. Ari is unable to love a woman because all he knows is death and war.