Posted by: simonsteachingblog | June 1, 2010

History, ships, and symbolism

Ships carry a good deal of historical freight and symbolism. Ships have transported people into slavery, carried vast armies towards conquest, saved other armies from annihilation, and brought refugees from tyranny towards new lands. Ships have symbolised the horrors of the Middle Passage, the might of empire, and the hope of a new life free from persecution. It is this rich history of the ship as a technology of transportation and a symbol that I have been thinking about since yesterday morning when the IDF stormed the flotilla of ships heading for Gaza. The obvious connection I have been making in these thoughts is to the ship Exodus 47 that carried Jewish refugees from Europe towards Palestine in 1947, but was boarded by British forces before it arrived in Haifa. For the new Israeli state, the Exodus became a symbol of the idea of Jewish return to Israel and of the salvation of the survivors of the Nazi camps that Israel was taken to represent. In turn, the Exodus came to symbolise these things for many others outside Israel through Otto Preminger’s epic film Exodus released in 1960.

The Exodus is not only relevant to the events of yesterday morning because of the similarity between what happened to its passengers at the hands of the British and what has happened to the passengers of the ‘Free Gaza’ ships, but also because it is the powerful symbolism of the ship as the saviour of the desperate and of the Exodus in particular, that activists supporting the Palestinian cause have sought to appropriate. As far as I know, this first occurred in 1983 when Palestinians, leftist Israelis, and international supporters, many of whom were artists of different kinds, chartered a ship they defined as the Palestinian Ship of Return with the plan of sailing it from Greece to Haifa. Unfortunately the ship was mysteriously mined in Athens Harbour by unknown forces and never made its symbolic voyage. The ‘Free Gaza’ ships have picked up where this failed venture left off. They are not ships of return, but they are ships of salvation bringing supplies and moral support to the blockaded Gaza Strip. They are also meant to be a media story and an image, just like the Exodus and the Palestinian Ship of Return before them.

Lahav Halevy, 'Exodus 2' May 2010


What kind of image the ‘Free Gaza’ boats will become now that they have been stopped is something being fought over in the media-sphere as I write. Whatever this image will be, it will be a fractured one. For some, encouraged in their considerations by the Israeli state, the ships are instruments of ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘terror’, with the activists on board being defined as those who have links with terrorist organisations. For others, including myself, the ships represent a legitimate form of protest over the military and economic siege of Gaza. However this struggle within the media will play out over the days and weeks to come, it would be good if the people in the former camp considered the symbolic irony of Israeli troops violently and fatally storming ships as they neared the coast of Palestine seeking to help the wretched of the earth.


  1. I was also thinking about the image of the sea in all this. Is it changing. Palestinians have feared for some time now that they are being pushed into the sea- the sea as representing annihilation. Then with the Free Gaza flotilla the sea might represent the direction from which rescue might come. But today I read that IDF Killed 4 Palestinian divers allegedly caught on their way to commit a terrorist attack. My fear is that with these stories coming so close together, the benign image of ships like the Rachel Corrie might become associated with the connotations of stealth, deception and threat that are attached to images of those who move under the sea, so the Mediterranean and all who use it might come to be seen/used by Israel as the final piece in the jigsaw of hostile areas surrounding it.

    • In terms of symbolism the sea is clearly something that can have shifting functions. Prior to the June 1967 war, there was widespread fear amongst Israelis that the Arab armies were going to drive them into the sea. This was despite Israel’s military strength that was proven through the defeat of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian forces. So this anxiety about the sea as a place of doom has been shared by both Israelis and Palestinians. One might also suppose that during the era of Jewish immigration into Palestine via the sea, that for Palestinians the sea also signified a source of threat in contrast to the Jewish immigrants who saw it as a passage, albeit perilous, to salvation.

      There is an interesting Israeli Communist Party image from 1954 that depicts a Jew and an Arab embracing on a ship on a sea that is full of perils near to land which is dotted with architectural symbols of a modern socialist society. So at certain points for certain people the sea was symbolic of a threat to both ethnic-national groups. Presumably the sea in this case represented capitalism and the bosses and everything that threatened the interests of the working class united across other dividing lines.

      I do think that you might be right that for the near future, the sea will complete the circle of perceived threat for Israelis. A sense of threat that is the driving force behind the reactions to the attack on the flotilla that I have seen while staying in Israel. Generally the opinion is that the whole world is against us and these ships full of crazy people coming from the sea are just one more sign of this.

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