Book Review // Khirbet Khizeh
Translation by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2014, pp. 213, $16.00
by David K. Shipler
One Morning in a Palestinian Village, 1948
In 1979, an Israeli censorship committee chaired by the justice minister deleted five evocative paragraphs from Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s memoir: his first-person account of the expulsion of Arab residents from the towns of Lydda and Ramle during Israel’s War of Independence in 1947-49. The description contradicted the heroic official line, which pictured Arabs as fleeing the fighting, not being deliberately forced out by Israeli forces. Yet the deletion puzzled Rabin. When I learned about it at the time, he told me wryly that he had intentionally given the censors something else to do by writing about Israel’s nuclear weapons.
He and his generation knew very well that Arabs had been expelled. It was no secret to those who had been there, one of whom happened to be a masterful writer, Yizhar Smilansky, an intelligence officer with acute vision and moral dignity. Out of his disturbing experience he produced a novella of searing eloquence, Khirbet Khizeh, which appeared in 1949 under the pen name S. Yizhar and has now been published for the first time in the United States. Its tale of a tormented soldier, reluctantly following orders to evict helpless Arab children, women and elderly men from a sorrowful village, speaks to the ambivalence of the victorious. It traces a scar of guilt into the present.
In the decades after the novella’s original publication in 1949, a defensive silence descended on Israel, broken only occasionally, until the mid-1980s, when newly declassified records were mined by Benny Morris, an Israeli journalist turned historian. He documented the precise places where expulsions had occurred, findings that gradually filtered into textbooks and general knowledge so that today, Rabin would have no trouble publishing his censored paragraphs.
In the suppressed section, Rabin makes a striking statement of compassion—not for the Arabs being uprooted but for the Jews assigned to do the job. “Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action,” he writes. “There were some fellows who refused to take part in the expulsion action. Prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action to remove the bitterness of these youth movement groups, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action.”
So Smilansky in real life was not alone in his misgivings. Yet he creates a poignant loneliness in his fictional narrator, whose comrades in arms seem deaf to internal doubts, to “the chords that had been moaning within me . . . that troublesome somebody inside me, grinding his teeth and clenching his fists.” The protagonist is torn by the casual cruelty of war: “If someone had to get filthy, let others soil their hands. I couldn’t. Absolutely not. But immediately another voice started up inside me singing this song: bleeding heart, bleeding heart, bleeding heart. With increasing petulance and a psalm to the beautiful soul that left the dirty work to others, sanctimoniously shutting its eyes, averting them so as to save itself from anything that might upset it, with eyes too pure to behold evil, who has looked upon unbearable iniquity. And I hated the entirety of my being.”
This English translation, published in Israel in 2008 and in Great Britain in 2011, is lyrical and captivating. But for those who can read the original Hebrew, the scholar David Shulman writes in an afterword, Smilansky’s brushes with biblical allusion are more apparent. The level of Hebrew may foil young Israelis, which may be one reason—alongside the novella’s wrenching portrait of the country’s early sin—why the book has been assigned unevenly by high school teachers, despite being “in theory, still an optional part of the standard curriculum,” Shulman says. When it was made into a film in 1978, the Education Ministry lobbied hard, in vain, against Israeli television’s decision to broadcast it.
Soldiers who watch keenly, and who watch themselves watching, are often driven into the anguished poetry of catharsis. Khirbet Khizeh feels as if it compelled itself to be written. It begins and ends in tortured introspection, traveling through a day without combat as the narrator’s small unit “set out that clear splendid winter morning, cheerfully making our way, showered, well fed, and smartly turned out.” Under their “operational order,” they “would burn blow up imprison load and convey with such courtesy and with a restraint born of true culture, and this would be a sign of a wind of change, of decent upbringing, and, perhaps, even of the Jewish soul, the great Jewish soul.”
From a hill, the village of Khizeh seems dead and silent. A machine-gunner wakes it up by peppering it with bullets. Small figures run in distant fields; the gunner tries to shoot them, misses, is replaced by another who wants his chance. The unit descends into the town echoing with “the emptiness of sudden catastrophe,” then into sharply etched encounters with terrified old men, mothers with children. Smilansky has the writer’s power to depict the powerless.
An old man “rose up to greet us, and began to pester us with the whole ceremony of greetings and blessings, and even tried to kiss the hand of our wireless operator (whose strange equipment lent him an air of importance), but he withdrew it angrily: get out of my way, you too! And immediately that white-turbaned yellow-sashed man began to lecture to us about how there weren’t any young people left in the village, only old men, women, and children, and how he’d tried to persuade the ones who had fled that morning not to go, because the Jews didn’t do bad things…and finally someone pushed him in the middle of his torrent and said to him brusquely that he should go over there and shut up.”
As Arabs are assembled in the square and trucks rumble down to take them, with no possessions at all, to dump them across the lines, the narrator’s eye is caught by a woman, walking, “holding the hand of a child about seven years old. There was something special about her. She seemed stern, self-controlled, austere in her sorrow. Tears, which hardly seemed to be her own, rolled down her cheeks. And the child too was sobbing a kind of stiff-lipped ‘what-have-you-done-to-us.’ It suddenly seemed as if she were the only one who knew exactly what was happening…It was as though there were an outcry in their gait, a kind of sullen accusation: Damn you.”
And then comes the prescient line: “We could also see how something was happening in the heart of the boy, something that, when he grew up, could only become a viper inside him, that same thing that was now the weeping of a helpless child.
“Something struck me like lightning. 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.”
If this book were translated into Arabic and taught in Palestinian schools, students would find justification for their historic rage. But they would also see their enemies’ conscience, even if it struggles in vain against the outcome.
David K. Shipler, The New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief from 1979 to 1984, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, which will be published in a revised edition next fall.