In his novella of the 1948 war, the Israeli writer S Yizhar sought to preserve the memory of the Palestinian nakba. Jacqueline Rose on a haunting tale that still stirs intense controversy
Jacqueline Rose, 12 March 2011
Renowned for many years as the only tale in Israeli literature to tell the story of the 1948 expulsion, Khirbet Khizeh also owes its power and status to the way that it recounts the resistance to memory which this dark episode of Israeli history will provoke in the nation’s consciousness: “True, it all happened a long time ago,” the story opens, “but it has haunted me ever since. I sought to drown it out with the din of passing time, to diminish its value, to blunt its edge with the rush of daily life.” In fact Yizhar wrote Khirbet Khizeh in 1948, long before the question of memory could even have arisen. But it is as if, in the charged moment of writing, he already saw that his task was to rescue this history from oblivion. Unlike the other soldiers in his unit, the narrator knows that this story is not going to go away. As he walks through the desolate Palestinian landscape, his soldier companion exults in the emptiness which he sees as proof of the superiority of the Zionist pioneers: “Wow! Our old-timers used to break their backs for any strip of land, and today we just walk in and take it!” For the narrator, by contrast, the Jews who reap the profits of this war, the future inhabitants in whose cause the war is being fought, will be haunted: “The people who would live in this village, wouldn’t the walls cry out in their ears?”
Little known in this country, S Yizhar – the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky – is recognised in Israel as the “godfather” of modern Hebrew writing. He was born to Russian immigrants in 1916 in Rehovot, in what was then Ottoman Palestine. His uncle and mentor, Moshe Smilansky, was an agricultural pioneer. Yizhar was therefore a sabra, part of the new generation, untainted by exile, who bore on their shoulders the expectation of the new nation waiting to be born. It is a burden that Yizhar repeatedly refuses – or rather finds himself unable – to bear: “I still had a strong feeling of being a stranger here,” the narrator comments, “of being totally out of place.” This is not what he is meant to be feeling. It was a central tenet of Zionist belief that the Jews were returning to their ancestral home; Chaim Weizmann, first president of Israel, only just lost his struggle to have the 1917 Balfour Declaration refer to the right of the Jewish people to “reconstitute” their homeland in Palestine.
Yizhar’s vision is oblique in Khirbet Khizeh, as it is in another famous story, “The Prisoner”, in his magnum opus Days of Tziglak, which follows a battalion during the 1948 war, as well as in the three-part memoir that started to appear in 1992 after a literary silence of nearly 30 years. He is the dissident chronicler of his nation. He was also a member of the Knesset from 1949-66. In 1948, he had been actively engaged in the offensive against Egypt – another story, “Midnight Convoy”, is a tribute to the soldiers that enters exuberantly into the drama of trying to get supplies past the enemy to an army under siege. Yizhar therefore occupies both sides of the divide which he charts with such brilliance in his writing.
Khirbet Khizeh is the story which, with the least ambivalence, offers to official Zionist history its strongest, unanswerable, counterpoint. The translation is long overdue. In lyrical, haunting prose – evocatively rendered into English by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck – the narrator describes what was done to the Palestinians in 1948. As the story builds to its climax, the writing at times is paced and slow, such as when the soldiers languish and wait; then it suddenly erupts, like the exploded stone house of a woman who “leapt up, burst into wild howling and started to run in that direction, holding a baby in her arms, while another wretched child, who could already stand, clutched the hem of her dress, and she screamed, pointed, talked, and choked”. All at once she understands “that it wasn’t just about waiting under the sycamore trees to hear what the Jews wanted and then to go home, but that her home and her world had come to a full stop, and everything had turned dark and was collapsing; suddenly she had grasped something inconceivable, terrible, incredible, standing directly before her, real and cruel, body to body, and there was no going back”. By recounting this crisis from inside her mind, Yizhar dismantles at a stroke the poisoned rhetoric of enmity, the image of the Palestinians as unknowable, distant, threatening. You cannot read Khirbet Khizeh without experiencing 1948 – “body to body” – as a tragedy for the Palestinians.
In its most unsettling and best-known moment – the only section of the novella previously translated into English – the narrator is struck “like lightning” by the analogy between the treatment being meted out by the army to the Palestinians, huddling together on the point of departure, and the history of the Jews:
All at once everything seemed to mean something different, more precisely exile. This was exile. This was what exile was like. This was what exile looked like . . .
I have never been in the Diaspora – I said to myself – I had never known what it was like . . . but people had spoken to me, told me, taught me, and repeatedly recited to me, from every direction, in books and newspapers, everywhere: exile. Our nation’s protest to the world: exile! It had entered me, apparently, with my mother’s milk. What, in fact, had we perpetrated here today?
Later, the narrator pushes the analogy even further: “Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were the masters now.” In the Hebrew, the tense of exile is the present: “This is how exile is” (“hineh ze galut”). And in a later edition of the story, a sentence at the end of the passage underlines the responsibility of the soldier as a Jew: “Anakhnu yehudim higleynu galut” – “We Jews have exiled an exile.” Perhaps even more important, the lines “but people had spoken to me, told me, taught me, and repeatedly recited to me” echo the Shema, the Jewish prayer in which God instructs his chosen people to take his words into their heart: “And you shall rehearse them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you go on the way and when you lie down and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7). As David Shulman remarks in his afterword to the new edition, Yizhar is well known for such allusions. This one is particularly shocking. He seems to be suggesting that Israel has usurped the voice of God by inscribing its national plaint into the minds of its subjects in the same way that God issues his spiritual injunction to his people. Yizhar’s offence is therefore double – first to imply that the Jews are perpetrating against the Palestinians the cruelties of their own history, and that the nation is invoking divine sanction in order to do so.
When the story was published in 1949, the controversy it provoked was intense – mainly among an older generation who refused to accept that the story had any bearing on the conduct of the war, or if it did, insisting that the policy was justified, or that the narrator’s pained consciousness demonstrated that this generation of Israeli soldiers had not been taught to hate the Arab enemy enough. More than one of these criticisms is pre-empted by the story itself, as the narrator tears at his own conscience: “bleeding heart, bleeding heart, bleeding heart”. Not all the responses were hostile. For one Israeli commentator, the story was true and demonstrated the cruel existential choice presented to the Jewish people by the war. One Arab critic pointed to the story as indicating the possibility of real understanding between the two peoples and hence of peace. In her lengthy account of these disputes, Anita Shapira has suggested that the soldiers themselves were more or less silent in the early debate – as if the victory, which was above all their victory, had turned into a sore too painful to contemplate. Thirty years later, in the aftermath of a state ban on the screening of a film of the novella on national TV, one of these soldiers, Ephraim Kleiman, stepped forward to claim that every soldier will have recognised the truth of the story, that every soldier has his own personal “Khirbet Khizeh”. By then the dispute had become more overtly political. Between the ban and its subsequent overturning, Likud was elected and a rightwing government came to power. The story was now seen as damaging Israel’s image of itself.
Yizhar himself had stated that the story was fiction. But in response to the banning of the film, in a 1978 article published in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot, he insisted that, while not necessarily representing a “totality of events”, it was true: “Everything there is reported with great accuracy, meticulously documented, beginning with the operation order on a certain date, right down to all the details.”
Since 1964, Khirbet Khizeh, together with “The Prisoner”, has had its place in the standard literary syllabus of the Israeli school curriculum. We should be wary, however, of seeing this fact as a “tribute to an open society”, as Ian McEwan suggested in his Jerusalem prize acceptance speech last month. Most often it is elevated to the status of a universal moral tale, or taken as evidence of the superior ethics of an army so willing to examine and expose itself (the nation’s guilt as the key to its redemption). The stress on the agony of Israeli conscience usurps the suffering of the Palestinians. A proposal in the 1970s that the story be included in the new civics class, which would have ensured that it was discussed as history, was never implemented.
In the aftermath of the 1967 war that led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Yizhar returned to his story in an essay, “Re: The Poets of Annexation”. “If there is indeed a ‘Jewish consciousness’, it must pause here to ponder our own selves.” Now the lesson of the tale was clearer: “What does victory by armed force actually bestow upon the victors? . . . Because you don’t get a country by means of weapons. Any such acquisition is unjust.”
It is the abiding importance of Khirbet Khizeh, as well as what makes this publication so timely, that it returns the issue of justice squarely to the heart of the nation, and then leaves it hovering – like the cry of the villages, or like the question that trails the narrator of the story as he wanders through the landscape: “some kind of question that posed itself of its own accord, or a kind of aside, that must be said.”