By Justin Amler
Last night I watched a movie about a journey.
It was a journey about a man and even the actor that played a man.
Maybe it was a journey about me, or you, or all of us.
It was a journey that resonated in my soul, tugging at my heart and moving me on so many emotional levels.
Because it was a journey about a certain time – yet it was also a journey about all time.
It was a journey about the Jewish people and what it means to have a home – a home that you are forced to defend with everything that you have, because without that home, you truly are alone.
The movie I watched was an old Kirk Douglas movie called Cast a Giant Shadow.
It was about an American army officer, Mickey Marcus, who was born Jewish yet never really cared much about it. He always saw himself as American first and the Jewish part was just something he was incidentally born into – yet never really formed a part of his essence. But he suddenly found himself thrust into the very centre of Jewish life as pre-state Israel Jewish agents asked for his help in early 1948 just as the new country was preparing to declare independence. All of this was happening while being threatened by the entire Arab world. And even though many were saying it was a lost cause, there was a hope and a stubbornness in its people that refused to accept that.
For Israel was a country that truly stood alone. While an arms embargo was in force against it, the British were continuing to arm the Arab legions around her as well as providing training and actual British officers.
It was a country that was without weapons, without an air force, without an army and without international friends who would support it.
It was a country surrounded by fanatical enemies who were dreaming of unleashing a campaign of terror that would fill the streets and the alleys and the beaches with the blood of the Jewish people.
It was a country made up of many of those who had survived absolute hell on earth in Europe, only to be fighting for their lives once again.
Yet it was not a hopeless country. In fact it was a country in which hope was its biggest asset.
Hope and belief that the People of Israel were back in the only place on earth that could truly be called their home.
At the time, the British, who had betrayed the Jewish people by reversing their promise to create a Jewish homeland, were trying desperately to stop Jews from entering the country in the hope of appeasing the Arabs. They turned away ships full of Holocaust survivors returning them to the lands on which the blood of the families still soaked the soil. And those they did make it to the Promised Land, were being herded off to internment camps on Cyprus, rather than being allowed to remain there.
But the will of the Jewish people is strong – stronger than the mightiest armies on earth, and the Jews continued to make their way to Eretz Yisrael – enduring harsh conditions on leaky boats just to get home.
In a scene that was particularly moving, a group of survivors, Jews who had lost everything and everyone in the world, managed to get ashore only to be confronted by a British army patrol. The British officer ordered the survivors to step forward so that they could be detained. But from over the hills, Jews who were already living there, including Micky Marcus who had come to see what was happening, flocked towards them, mingling with the new immigrants, making it impossible for the army officer to distinguish who had just arrived. So the British officer once again ordered the new arrivals to step forward, ordering his men to fire a warning shot over their heads.
And yet, the people didn’t flinch and didn’t take a single step forward. A battle of wills ensued with the army officer warning them that the next shots would be aimed at them. His soldiers lined up their weapons, aimed at the ragtag group of people. And yet, they continued to stand defiantly, refusing to move. The officer warned them again that on the count of ten, his men would open fire. But still the people continued to stand, bracing themselves for what would come, knowing that they would and could no longer bow to anyone in their own land. The countdown continued, closer and closer – and yet there was no movement. Perhaps in that moment, Micky came to understand just how strong the will of the Jewish people – his people – was.
Eventually the count reached ten and the army officer realised that these were indeed a stubborn people who could no longer be bullied anymore. So he ordered his men to lower their rifles and the people cheered. “I suppose they’re going to dance now,” he quipped, as the people rushed past him to join their fellow Jews in Eretz Yisrael.
Jews are a stubborn people. A people who refuse to die and refuse to bow and refuse to give up on being Jews. It’s our strength and our belief and our hope that has sustained us through thousands of years of persecution and oppression and even genocide.
Because there exists a spark in all of us – a Jewish spirit if you like – that continues to defy what the world tells us and refuses to give up our identity. A spark that that will continue to fight for our rights and our dignity despite so many wanting to take that away.
Micky Marcus, who always saw himself as American first, realised that no matter where he was or where he lived, he was and always would be a Jew – and that was a part of him that couldn’t be ignored, even if he tried. It called to him, igniting that spark and making it burn inside him with such fierce pride that it was a flame that could never be extinguished. It was that spark that made him ignore his comfortable life in America to throw himself into helping the newly formed Jewish state – his people – to survive.
In a way, Kirk Douglas was the same. He was born to poor immigrant Jewish parents, and fought hard to fit into American society, ignoring his Jewish side. And yet throughout his life, he was drawn to Jewish projects and Jewish stories – including making this movie about the birth of the Jewish state. The spark within him never died. It was always simmering. And later in life, when he rediscovered his Jewish roots, that spark – that small flame that was always inside him – ignited and his Jewish soul took flight. He became a fiercely proud Jew who stood up for his people and stood up for his Jewish country of Israel. So much so that when he died, he left behind a Jewish legacy that all Jews can be proud of.
The Jewish spark lives in all of us. It calls us, sometimes in quiet voices in the night, sometimes in loud booming trumpets in the middle of the day. Sometimes we hear it early in life and sometimes much later. And tragically there exists those among us, who don’t simply ignore it, but do everything in their power to put it out.
Yet, it is a flame that cannot be put out, because it continues to burn in all of us, igniting a pride that we feel deeply, a pride that causes our hearts to swell, our chests to rise, and allows us to walk a little taller among the nations of the world. We need to hold onto that pride and to guard it jealously, because it is our strength – an unflinching belief in who we are as a people, and a stubbornness to never let it go.
Justin Amler is a noted South African-born, Australia-based writer and commentator on international issues affecting Israel and the Jewish world.