Photo Credit: Jewish Press

James Albert Michener (1907-97) is best known for his many epic historical novels, which have sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide.

Virtually all his novels were based on detailed historical, cultural, and even geological research, including Centennial (on the historical development of Colorado); Texas (on the struggle for freedom from Mexico and the battle for the Alamo); Journey (on the Klondike gold fever of 1897); Caribbean (on the slavery, power, politics, and social economic status of the ancient Caribbean Indian civilization); Chesapeake (on 400 years of history on Maryland’s eastern shore); The Covenant (on South Africa); Hawaii; Space; The Bridges at Toko-Ri; and Poland. He also wrote books about Japanese art, sports, and the Electoral College.


Michener’s writing career began during World War II when, as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, he was assigned to the South Pacific as a naval historian; he later turned his notes and impressions into Tales of the South Pacific, his first book, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1948). The beloved musical by Rogers and Hammerstein, “South Pacific,” was based on his book.

U.S. Michener stamp

Michener also devoted much time to politics and public service: he campaigned for various political candidates, most particularly John F. Kennedy; he ran a losing Pennsylvania congressional campaign (1962); and he served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention (1968), as a member of the NASA Advisory Council (1979-83), and as Richard Nixon’s correspondent during the president’s 1972 trips to the Soviet Union and China.

His many honors and awards included honorary doctorates in five different fields and the Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award. He was also a noted philanthropist, contributing more than $100 million to universities, libraries, museums, and other charitable causes.

Michener’s most ambitious and memorable novel may have been The Source, a story that takes place at “Tel Makor,” a fictional archaeological mound near the Sea of Galilee, broadly understood by experts to be an amalgamation of archaeological digs at Megiddo, Gezer, Hazor, Jericho, and other locations. Through an exploration of the discoveries by modern archaeologists excavating the site, detailed fictional accounts of the characters and events through history, and an analysis of the artifacts dug up there, he tells the story of 15 different eras and traces the history of Israel from the dawn of man to the birth of the modern state.

A powerful and compelling saga that has withstood the test of time, The Source is more than a mere history of Eretz Yisrael. Rather, as one critic cogently put it, it also encompasses the development of Western civilization and the great religious and cultural ideas that have shaped our world.

According to Michener, he was inspired to write The Source during a 1963 visit to Eretz Yisrael when, during a stay at the Dan Carmel Hotel in Haifa, he visited a Crusader castle in Atlit; he recalled, “As I stood in the dungeon of that ancient fortress, with the shadowy forms of warriors long dead moving in the dust, I suddenly conceived my entire novel.”

In his biography, however, he presents a related but somewhat different story in which three men, including “the future mayor of Jerusalem” (probably Teddy Kollek, who was first elected mayor in 1965), cornered him and urged him to write a novel about Eretz Yisrael similar to Hawaii. As Michener tells it, he initially protested on the grounds that the story “should not be written by a gentile” and that there were competent Jewish writers suitable to the task, but they ultimately convinced him to write the book.

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Jacob Baal-Teshuva, a noted authority on Marc Chagall and one of the most distinguished international editors, appraisers, and critics of modern and contemporary art, served as the editor of The Mission of Israel, a collection of essays contributed by various well-known public figures across a broad spectrum of disciplines. He asked Michener to contribute an essay for his book.

In this January 25, 1964 correspondence to The Jewish World Monthly, Michener notes that Ma’ariv published the piece that Baal-Teshuva wants to use and that he must therefore receive permission from the Israeli newspaper to “reprint their property.” Michener adds that he would have given his “warmest consent” for the use of the article.

One of the best expressions of Michener’s support for Israel may have been a forceful and compelling letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books, published in the September 28, 1967 issue, in which he wrote:

In my extended discussions with Arabs in various lands the following words have been thrown at me by even moderate men: “Assassination, the night of the long knives, complete annihilation, throwing the state and its people into the Mediterranean, crushing, killing, murdering, wiping out” and a score of other threats less final in meaning but equally destructive in result. This is the constant threnody of the Arab, public as well as secret, official as well as private…

On the other hand, during my extensive stays in Israel when eight and ten hours a day were spent in debate, argument and probing, I never once heard any Israeli, from taxi driver to prime minister, make a physical threat against the Arabs who occupied the surrounding countries. Murder was not once spoken of, nor massacre, nor annihilation, nor even injustice. I stress this fact because it pinpoints the moral difference existing between the two contenders.

It seems to me there is a moral difference between the president of an Arab state’s publicly proclaiming that he is shortly going to launch a massacre of all Jews in the area and a private confession by an unwilling Jew that if such massacre is attempted, he will have to resist…

Bluntly, if Arab armies had won the war as completely as Jewish armies did, there would have been in all probability (and here I am extrapolating from the published statements of Arab leaders) a massacre of some three or four hundred thousand Jews…. A sovereign state would have been annihilated, a civilization crushed, and two million surviving Jews tossed upon the world emigration market.

Nonetheless, despite his obviously heartfelt affection for Israel and notwithstanding the lyric quality of The Source, Michener was an extreme leftist and anti-nationalist who was a powerful advocate for the Palestinian position in its propaganda war against Israel. In particular, he rejected all facts and logic in arguing that the Palestinian refugee problem is entirely Israel’s fault and that it is therefore Israel’s responsibility to solve the refugee problem and to achieve rapprochement with its Arab enemies “regardless of cost.”

He supported Israel, but held it responsible for failing to address the refugee problem as well as failing to enter into a peace agreement with the Arabs. He characterized the Palestinian “quick defeat” in 1967 as a “crushing blow” that understandably led many of the Palestinian youth to join Al Fatah; he characterized the perpetrators of terrorist activities of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine as “patriotic young men”; and he said he understood how Israel’s failure to solve the refugee problem led to desperation and a strong desire for revenge that produced the Fedayeen.

Moreover, he blamed the civil war in Jordan and the hijacking and destruction of international airliners by Palestinian refugees on the failure of Israel to provide justice for the Palestinian people. He further demanded not only that Israel immediately repatriate all Arab refugees displaced during the Six-Day War, but also that it offer financial compensation to every Arab who was dispossessed in 1948 – supported in part by Israel’s military budget and “the Jews of the entire world.”

Michener laid out his rejection of Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians in an important September 27, 1970 New York Times Magazine article in which he discussed how, prior to the Six-Day War of 1967, he had spent time in a desolate and hideous refugee camp near Jericho, which he described as a collection of tents and shacks that had no paved roads, water system, sewage disposal, schools or hospitals – a “great scandal” that was somehow Israel’s fault.

He sounded nonchalant about being told by a Palestinian youth, “In two years or three years, we are going to march into Israel and slaughter every Jew. We shall go directly to Haifa and drive into the sea any who have escaped.” He did not react with shock and disgust when boys in the refugee camp asserted that, given the opportunity, they would invade Israel and kill every Jew.

In his above-cited letter to the New York Review of Books, Michener characterized as “specious” the Arab argument that while Israel expelled the Arabs because the Jews had no practical use for them, the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands was proper because the expelled Jews made important contributions to Israel. He wrote that Arab refugees left Israel “in the heat of war,” but the Arab countries dumped their Jews “callously in cold blood in times of peace.” Moreover, as he explained, the Arab nations could have absorbed Palestinian refugees and thereby solved the “refugee problem” the same way that Israel absorbed and integrated Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

Yet, in his New York Times Magazine article, he excused the Arab failure to repatriate and characterized their willingness to exploit their own people as “a conscious political gamble” shrewdly designed to exert international pressure on Israel and that, in any case, the real fault lies with Israel for occupying “Arab lands.”

In this context, he seems to justify the Palestinian rejection of what he otherwise admits was a “generous” November 29, 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine and does not challenge the Palestinian argument that since Eretz Yisrael belongs entirely to them, the UN lacks the authority to give anything to anybody.

Turning to the “bitterly contested” question of whether the Arabs fled from their lands, as Israel argues, or were expelled by the Israelis, as the Arabs claim, Michener considers the question “idiotic” because the original owners were “the ancient Canaanites, all subsequent visitors being interlopers.”

With a single-minded focus on Palestinian refugees and impermeable to reality and facts on the ground, he concludes that the resolution of this question is, in any event, irrelevant because “the only moral issue which need concern us is that refugees are rotting in camps.”

Original newspaper photograph of Michener in Eretz Yisrael.

Michener writes, “I have grown especially impatient with Jewish arguments that Israel was never an Arab land, and, more specifically, never under the governance of Palestinians.” In taking this position, he fails to answer, let alone address, the basic questions which Arabists and pundits never want to discuss, even today:

If there was a historical “Palestinian” nation, when did it begin, when did it cease to exist, and what caused its demise? What were its boundaries, what was its form of government, and who were its leaders? (In particular, can anyone name a single “Palestinian” leader before Arafat who, by the way, was an Egyptian?) What was the nature of its commerce, its international and intergovernmental relations, and the structure of its society? In short, where are any indicia that such a state or government ever existed?

Michener contends that Israel must pay reparations to Palestinians, notwithstanding Israeli arguments that there are many Jewish refugees from Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Morocco, to name only a few Arab countries that have expelled large portions of their Jewish populations and that, as such, the considerable wealth left behind by these Jews should be deducted from what Israel allegedly owes the Arab refugees.

He counters that these amounts are “unquantifiable” and, almost unbelievably, cites Arab arguments that they did Israel a favor by expelling all these Jews because Israel needed them to populate an empty land and work in industry to develop Israel’s economy. Again, Michener considers this entire issue “irrelevant and nonproductive,” and his single-minded emphasis is on the Arab refugees.

Michener’s criticism of Israel went much further than blaming the country for the Palestinian refugee issue. He vehemently opposed what he characterized as Israel’s “theocracy” which “held Israel in its grip,” and he wrote of witnessing the agony of American Jews who seek to marry in Israel: “I understood why so many young Israelis are atheists.”

Moreover, he unreservedly supported the Israeli Supreme Court judge who charged that Israel’s laws concerning the parentage of Jews were similar to the Nuremburg laws of Hitler, and he criticized both the Israeli press for “abusing” that judge and the Knesset for threatening to impeach him.

He vehemently criticized Israel after the 1967 war for choosing as its spokesman General Moshe Dayan: “It was bad enough to have a military man posturing before the world as the philosophical leader of Judaism, but it grew worse when he spoke vengefully and as an uncomplicated nationalist.” Dayan was most likely the model for General Teddy Reich in The Source (though Teddy lost an arm, not an eye like Dayan).