Half-told stories: “Exodus,” the Armenians, and Holocaust Day

In real life, Yossi Harel didn’t really look like Paul Newman. Harel was the commander of the “Exodus,” the illegal immigration ship that was stopped by the British in 1947 before it could bring 4,500 Holocaust survivors to Palestine. In real life, the “Exodus” carried the survivors back to Germany. When Leon Uris fixed up the story for his potboiler, the boat got here. In the movie, Newman played Harel, renamed Ari Ben Canaan. OK, so Hollywood makes everything prettier and simpler and bigger. Nonetheless, Yossi Harel really was a hero, who also commanded three other illegal immigration ships.

Harel died last weekend, at age 90. The Hebrew obit in Ha’aretz quotes him describing what drove him. When he was 21, he said, he read Franz Werfel’s novel “40 Days of Musa Dagh,” about the Armenian genocide during World War I. “The book influenced my generation. I knew it by heart and my sense of mission grew sharper. I knew it was my job to save Jews.” Later, commanding the immigration ship Knesset Yisrael, he stood on the deck and looked north toward Turkey, and “the story of the Armenian people’s fight connected to my mission. To bring the survivors of the Holocaust, the refugees, to a safe shore, was the greatest thing I could imagine.”

For Harel, according to that testimony, there wasn’t a line between answering one genocide and another. He was helping Jews because fate had put him in a place where those were the people he could help.

Last week was the memorial day for the Armenians. It passed virtually unnoticed here. But the Knesset, at last, is supposed to hold a committee hearing on whether to recognize what the Ottomans did to the Armenians as genocide. The government isn’t happy, because the Turkish government isn’t happy. So far Foreign Minister Livni hasn’t asked the Knesset to drop the subject, as she did last year.

This week Israel will mark Holocaust Day. Recognizing or refusing to recognize what happened to the Armenians defines our own remembrance in a fairly stark manner. Do we see what happened under the Nazis as uniquely evil because it happened to Jews, or as a specific case of the incomprehensible ability of human beings to do evil? In opposing evil, are we obligated only to ourselves or to humanity?

Yossi Harel and his fictional doppelgänger have inspired a good many people who see the lesson in the most particularistic terms. According to his own testimony, he believed deeply in the wider meaning of his action.