One on One: The old man and the sea

At 85, the captain of 'Exodus 1947' is as formidable, feisty and foul-mouthed as ever. Meet Ike Aranne.

Ike Aranne 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ike Aranne 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Though best-selling author Leon Uris popularized the story in 1958, and Paul Newman subsequently starred in its 1960 screen version, for Ike Aranne (formerly Yitzhak Aronowicz) the Exodus is anything but fiction. In fact, says the 85-year-old Zichron Ya'acov resident, neither the novel nor the movie bears any resemblance to the cold, hard facts. As the captain of the World War II ship famous for its historical significance, Aranne ought to know. Indeed, he says - taking a long drag of a cigarette and exhaling while he speaks - he remembers the events that took place during the fateful voyage "like they happened yesterday." To recap those events: On July 11, 1947, the ship set sail from France with a crew of Hagana members who were transporting more than 4,500 Jewish refugees, most of them Holocaust survivors, to Palestine. Faced with steadily increasing illegal immigration to the land under its control, the British decided to stop all such ships en route and return them to their ports of origin. As soon as this one (renamed Exodus 1947 a few days later) left the port near Marseille, British naval boats began to follow it. A week later, as it neared its destination, the British rammed and boarded it. Resistance on the part of the crew and the passengers resulted in a violent altercation that left three dead and dozens wounded. The British then towed the ship to the Haifa port, and forced the passengers to board boats that would return them to France. When they arrived in France, however, they refused to disembark. The French authorities also refused to cooperate with the British in forcing them to do so. Under appalling conditions, due to overcrowding and a shortage of food - in an August heat wave, to boot - the passengers remained steadfast for nearly a month, until the British ordered the boats to head for Hamburg in Germany. There, the exhausted, hungry and despondent refugees were taken to detention camps near Lübeck. So horrified was the world by this act of cruelty towards victims of the Nazis that the British changed their policy. From then on, instead of sending illegal immigrants back to Europe, they would be sent to detention camps in Cyprus. But, whatever grudge Aranne holds against the British, it's nothing compared to that which he harbors for those of his own countrymen for surrendering to them. By now, it's all water under the bridge, so to speak, since none of the people at whom he spews almost mantra-like vitriol during our hour-long interview is alive to defend himself or fight back. Even Uris and Newman have both since passed away - the former five years ago, and the latter in September. Not that the Danzig-born ideologue ("way to the Left on social issues, and way to the Right on national ones") strikes one as a person who ever had difficulty verbalizing his displeasure face-to-face in any of the several languages he speaks fluently. Nor is he the least bit reticent with a tape recorder rolling. On the contrary, when asked whether he agrees to be quoted on what might be considered controversial statements at best, and outrageous at worst, he is amused by the question. "B'vadai; of course; bien sur," he says, shrugging off the mere suggestion that his words might be misconstrued, or possibly inappropriate for a family newspaper - particularly one he "reads regularly." But then, Aranne - as learned and literate as he is, with degrees from Georgetown and Columbia universities - is also a sailor through and through. This means he's got what could fondly be described as "a mouth on him." His referring to Israel's first prime minister as a schwanz is but one example. That today he lives on a street named after his nemesis, he says, is "stupid and unfortunate," but quickly qualifies the irony by pointing out that he built his house in 1993, before it was called Sderot Ben-Gurion. And what a house it is. Built like a ship, rooms in a row, and a faux mast on the roof, its huge picture window providing a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean. It is a large structure - one which Aranne now occupies alone, since the death of his wife, Irene, in 2001. Another whole saga in and of itself, as Irene was a Lutheran from California, who came to pre-state Israel in 1949 with her first husband. "She divorced him and married me," Aranne says, matter-of-factly, as he does about everything we discuss. No regrets. No apologies. And happy, at least, to have two daughters, grandchildren and a great-grandchild not far away. Aranne came to this country at the age of 10. His father first arrived in 1932. The following year, he returned to Danzig to collect his wife and four sons, and the family settled in Tel Aviv. "He was bourgeois," says Aranne, dismissively. "A capitalist. The rest of us were against that." To this day, the Greater Land of Israel adherent still is - though, he insists, "I was never interested in politics." What made you want to become a seaman? That happened completely by accident. When I was 17, I wanted to fight Hitler. But I didn't want to join the [Jewish Brigade] of the British army, because they gave us lousy jobs. So I decided to go to Odessa and enlist in the Red Army. To do this, I stowed away on a [Histadrut-owned construction company] Solel Boneh ship. But I was caught on the way and returned home. When I got back, everybody told me I was all talk, and that I was just trying to show off and impress people. I was so embarrassed by this that I boarded a Palestinian ship that sailed from Haifa to Tobruk [in northern Libya]. You simply got on the ship and said you wanted to become a sailor? No, it wasn't so simple. I had to bribe a guy named Perlman a whole month's salary to arrange it. After sailing on various ships, I did my officers' courses in London - for third, then second and then first officer. In 1942, when I returned to [pre-state] Israel, I heard that there was this thing called the Palmah [the first mobilized regiment of the Hagana, which preceded the IDF] that had a naval branch called the Palyam, and I wanted to join it. I got my friend, [cofounder of the Palmah and its first commanding officer] Yitzhak Sadeh, to help me. Now, at that time, there were other Jews here who sailed, but they did it to make a living - not as part of an ideological Zionist endeavor. And the Palmah had no sailors at all. Since I already had eight months' worth of experience at sea, I was considered practically an expert. What about the Exodus? It was the first ship of which I was captain. Six months earlier, I had become first officer - and I had four months missing to becoming a captain. But, because it was a boat from Honduras, where they didn't give a hoot about such regulations - I could do it. If that same boat had carried a British rather than a Honduran flag, there's no way I would have been made captain, because to become captain required seven years seatime, and I only had six and a half. [He is referring to the fact that after the ship was purchased by the Hagana from the American navy, which had anchored it, following its service in the allied invasion of Normandy, the Honduras consulate gave it permission to sail under its flag.] What was your experience on the ship? We had a commander who was sent by [head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine who would become first prime minister of Israel] David Ben-Gurion. His name was Yossi Harel. [The character Ari Ben Canaan, played by Paul Newman, is loosely based on him.] He died a year ago. He was a politruk brought to the ship to supervise us Palmahniks whom Ben-Gurion considered to be a bit nutty. And we told him he could go f---k himself. He was a guy who didn't even know what the inside of a ship looked like, let alone how it worked - though later he would go on to study naval architecture. Anyway, he got it in his head that the ship was going to sink. I told him he was talking nonsense - that the ship was not sinking. Why did he think it was going to sink? Because the British rammed it 20-odd times, so water began seeping in. But I tried to explain to him that the ship itself wasn't damaged at all. You see, this ship - originally called The President Warfield - was built for shallow water. [Named after the president of a shipping company in the Chesapeake Bay, it was originally a luxury liner that sailed between Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia, during the years 1928-1940. In 1940-1, it was converted into a troop and supply ship for the British navy. Then it was assigned to the US navy, where it took part in the allied invasion of Normandy. It was the short draft of the ship that caused Aranne to notice it in the first place at the ships' "graveyard" in Baltimore in 1946, and purchase it for the Hagana for the purpose of bringing Jewish refugees to Palestine. Its short draft is precisely what would enable it to get close enough to the coast of Palestine unhindered by boats that could sail only in deep water.] Anyway, the point is that Harel was not a seaman, and didn't know anything about it. But he thought the ship was going to sink, and Ben-Gurion told him to surrender. So he surrendered. How did you feel about that? The crew and I were all against it. It was that surrender that brought about the decision of the United Nations to divide Palestine. What was your opinion of Ben-Gurion? Ben-Gurion is considered to be a great, daring leader, and it's complete nonsense. He thought that the Jewish people, without the support of America and the United Nations, would go kaput, which is ridiculous. It's now that we're kaput - or at least on the way there. What is your most vivid memory from that episode? My most emotional and horrible memory is Ben-Gurion's ordering Yossi Harel to surrender - and our surrendering. Do you remember that day clearly? Every aspect of it. Did Leon Uris interview you prior to writing the book for the details you remember? Yes he did, in 1956. What emerged from that interview? I told him that he was a very gifted writer, but not a historian, and therefore it shouldn't be he writing the history of the Exodus. How did he react when you said that? He was very offended. But, of course, I turned out to be right, because afterwards, he wrote a very good novel, but it had nothing to do with reality. Exodus, shmexodus. Was it completely inaccurate? I'm telling you, it had nothing to do with reality - not because of my own story, but because of the situation as a whole. What happened on the Exodus caused the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine to divide Palestine into two states. The Palmah was against this decision, as were the Lehi and the IZL. We said that Israel had already been divided once in 1920 by Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann [Zionist leader, who later became the first president of Israel] after Balfour gave the declaration to have a Jewish state in 1917. And the Balfour Declaration was in favor of giving Palestine to us as a Jewish national home. That included all of Transjordan - which is eight times the size of Palestine, inhabited at the time by a mere 15,000 nomadic Beduin. But then Ben-Gurion and Weizmann decided to give it to this guy from the Hejaz - Emir Abdullah - who wasn't even from Jordan. And that is how the Kingdom of Jordan was declared in 1920, against the decision of the League of Nations in 1917 to give Palestine to the Jewish people as a Jewish national home. All this partitioning - having two states here - is bullsh-t. And we still have two states here. Never mind, [he sighs disgustedly] we'll see what the next elections bring. What do you say to those who claim that a two-state solution is necessary demographically in order for Israel to retain a Jewish majority and remain a democracy? I say they're full of sh-t. The people of Israel always were for the right of the Jewish people to return to the land of their forefathers - which included Transjordan. And now we have given 80 percent of this land to the Kingdom of Jordan. Do you think that the Palestinians should live in Jordan, then? No, I think that whoever wants to live in this land is welcome to live here. With full equal rights? With full equal rights as citizens. There will be one little state of the Jewish people called the Land of Israel - Eretz Yisrael - which will have a Jewish majority. Do I believe this? Unfortunately I do, because I'm not so sure that anti-Semitism has subsided. And we will be forced to leave what we call the Diaspora, and come to our own land. Likud MK Yuval Steinitz has warned of the enhancement of Egypt's navy and its current move to an open sea capability for which he says Israel must prepare. Do you agree ? Steinitz is quite a guy. And since I'm a seaman, I agree that the sea is very open - which means it is not improbable that they may try to invade from the sea. But our seamen are not worse than theirs. In fact, I think ours are even better than the British, who are considered the seamen. The bottom line is that we have to be strong and prepared, because we have no choice.