The state of Israel is created in 1948, resulting in war with its Arab neighbors.
The theme is the founding of the state of Israel. The action begins on a ship filled with Jewish immigrants bound for Israel who are being off loaded on Cyprus. An Intelligence officer succeeds in getting them back on board their ship only to have the harbor blocked by the British with whom they must negotiate. The second part of the film is about the situation in Israel as independence is declared and most of their neighbors attack them.
Following World War II, the life of the Jewish nation is uncertain. The United Nations is contemplating taking a vote on creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Until then, many Jews are exiled from much of Europe - especially Germany - and as they have no where to go, they are sent to detention camps among other places Cypress. Ari Ben Canaan, a Palestinian Jew, wants to smuggle as many Jews as possible into Palestine. In his mind, the easiest way to influence the United Nations vote is by sheer numbers residing in Palestine. Ari commandeers a ship with 600 Jews, and after some obstacles, manages to make it to Palestine. Ari grew up in a mixed Arab/Jewish community in Palestine. His best childhood friend, Taha, is Arab and is now leader of the Arab section of the community. Regardless of the United Nations vote, the road to Ari's dream of a peaceful Jewish homeland in Palestine will be a difficult one because despite his own model community, extremist factions, both on the Jewish side and the anti-Zionist side, will never see living together in peace and advocate violence to achieve their own ends. Within this fray is widowed American nurse, Kitty Fremont. Kitty is initially naive about the conflict and hostile toward Ari's means of achieving his goals. However, she ultimately falls in love with him and with his dream despite their religious and cultural differences.
- Nurse Katherine "Kitty" Fremont is an American volunteer at the Karaolos internment camp on Cyprus, where thousands of Jews-Holocaust survivors-are being held by the British, who will not let them go to Palestine. They anxiously wait for the day they will be liberated.
Ari Ben Canaan, a Haganah rebel who had been a decorated captain in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in the Second World War, obtains a cargo ship and smuggles 611 Jewish inmates out of the camp for an illegal voyage to Mandate Palestine before being discovered by military authorities. When the British learn the refugees are in a ship in the harbor of Famagusta, they blockade the harbor and prevent it from sailing. The refugees stage a hunger strike, during which the camp's doctor dies, and Ari threatens to blow up the ship and the refugees. The British relent and allow the Exodus safe passage.
Kitty has grown very fond of Karen Hansen Clement, a young Danish-Jewish girl searching for the father from whom she was separated during the war. She has taken up the Zionist cause, much to the chagrin of Kitty, who had hoped to adopt Karen and take her to America to begin a new life.
During this time, opposition to the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states is heating up. Karen's young beau Dov Landau proclaims his desire to join the Irgun, a radical Zionist resistance group. Dov goes to an address given him by an Irgun recruiter, only to be caught in a police trap. After he is released, he is contacted by members of the Irgun and is interviewed by Ari Ben Canaan's uncle Akiva, who is the head of the Irgun. Before swearing Dov in, Akiva forces the boy to confess that he was a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, and that he was sodomized by Nazis. Due to his activities, Akiva has been disowned by Ari's father, Barak, who heads the mainstream Jewish Agency trying to create a Jewish state through political and diplomatic means. He fears that the Irgun will derail his efforts, especially as the British have put a price on Akiva's head.
Karen has gone to live at Gan Dafna, a fictional Jewish kibbutz near Mount Tabor near the moshav where Ari was raised. Kitty and Ari have fallen in love, but Kitty pulls back, feeling like an outsider after meeting Ari's family and learning of his previous love: Dafna, a young woman kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by Arabs, who is the namesake of the Gan Dafna kibbutz.
Leaving Kitty, Ari promises to help find Karen's father. Dr. Clement is eventually found in a mental hospital in Jerusalem. He is in a dissociative state, withdrawn to a degree that borders on the vegetative. Because of the horrors he experienced in a concentration camp, he has completely disconnected from the outside world. He does not recognize Karen, who is devastated.
When the Irgun bombs the King David Hotel in an act of terrorism resulting in dozens of fatalities, Akiva is arrested, imprisoned in Acre fortress, and sentenced to hang. Seeking to save Akiva's life, as well as to free the Haganah and Irgun fighters imprisoned by the British, Ari organizes an escape plan for the prisoners. Dov, who eluded the soldiers who captured Akiva, turns himself in so he can use his knowledge of explosives to facilitate the Acre Prison break.
All goes according to plan. Hundreds of prisoners, including Akiva, escape from the prison. Akiva is mortally wounded by British soldiers while evading a roadblock set up to catch the escapees. Ari is also badly wounded. He makes his way to Gan Dafna, where Dr. Lieberman, head of the village, removes a bullet from his right lung. With the British on Ari's trail, he is taken to Abu Yesha, an Arab village near Gan Dafna, where his lifelong friend, Taha, is the mukhtar. Kitty goes with him and provides postoperative treatment that saves his life. The romance between Ari and Kitty is rekindled as a result. Meanwhile, Dr. Lieberman is arrested by the British when they learn the camp has stored illegal weapons within the children's village.
An independent Israel is now in plain view, but Arab nationals commanded by Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, plot to attack Gan Dafna and massacre the Jews, including the children. Ari receives prior warning of this attack from Taha, even as Taha reluctantly decides he must join the Grand Mufti in fighting the establishment of Israel. Ben Canaan spirits the younger children to safety in a nighttime evacuation as a small detachment of Palmach troops arrives to reinforce the defenses of Gan Dafna.
Karen, ecstatic over the prospect of the new nation, finds Dov (who was on patrol outside Gan Dafna) and proclaims her love for him. Dov assures her that they will marry as soon as the war is over. As Karen returns to Gan Dafna, she is ambushed and murdered by a gang of Arab thugs. Dov discovers her lifeless body the following morning.
The same day, the body of Taha is found hanging in his village, killed by ex-Nazis working for the Grand Mufti. A Star of David is carved on his body. A swastika and a sign saying "Jude" is written on the walls of the village, indicating the Arabs' hatred of the Jews.
Karen and Taha are buried together in one grave. At the burial ceremony, Ari swears on their bodies that someday, Jews and Arabs will live together and share the land in peace; not only in death, but also in life. While the others each add a shovelful of dirt to the grave, Dov angrily steps on the shovel and leaves, refusing to accept Karen's death. The movie ends with Ari, Kitty, Dov, and a Palmach contingent boarding trucks, heading off to battle.