As Benjamin Netanyahu’s spoke to congress about his administration’s view on Iran, I largely ignored it and took the time to hear another Israeli voice, one who describes the events in different war, the war of partition in 1947/48.
I’ve been meaning to read Yizhar Smilansky’s novella Khirbet Khizeh (published under his pen-name S. Yizhar) for some time. It’s a slim book, written and published in Hebrew in 1949. For 60 years, there was no English translation, till one was published in 2008 in Israel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a US edition last year, and the NY Times has a review.
The novel describes the events of a single day, but like all good books, it reaches into both the past and the present, evoking memory and emitting prescience. I would urge you all to read the book, and at 100 pages it takes only a couple of hours to read.
Yizhar was an intelligence offices in the IDF in 1948 and many readers have suspected he fictionalized an incident, or a number of incidents of expulsion he witnessed. The novella begins with a company of young IDF soldiers who have been given the following orders:
assemble the inhabitants of the area extending from point X (see attached map) to point Y (see same map)–load them onto transports, and convey them across our lines, blow up the stone houses, and burn the huts; detain the youths and the suspects, and clear the area of “hostile forces”
To be clear, the UN partition plan (which was accepted by the Israeli authorities, who captured more land than granted in the plan) explicitly disallowed such expulsions. The narrator immediately notes the feigned naivete embedded in the order:
how many good and honest hopes were being invested in those who were being sent out to implement all this “burn-blow-up-imprison-load-convey,” who 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. [pg 5]
Over the course of the day, we hear the narrator consider his own actions, that of the men around him, and the impact this has on the inhabitants of Khirbet Khizeh. There’s a lot of interior monologue and we hear the narrator wrestling with his conscience as the day progresses:
The right thing would be to leave all this now and go home. We were sick of missions, operations, and objectives. And all these stinking Arabs, sneaking back to eke out their miserable existence in their godforsaken villages–they were disgusting, infuriatingly disgusting–what did we have to do with them, what did our young, fleeting lives have to do with their flea-bitten desolate suffocating villages? If we still had to fight, we should fight and get it over with. It was unbearable to be doing neither one nor the other. These empty, godforsaken villages were already getting on our nerves. Once villages were something you attacked and took by storm. Today they were nothing but gaping emptiness screaming out with a silence that was at once evil and sad. [pg 22]
Once the operation commences, the assembled force fires into the village with machine guns. This leads to panic within the village, many of the villagers flee and the narrator describes his company firing repeatedly at groups of people fleeing. Later, the soldiers round up the stragglers, mostly women, children, the aged and disabled, as they move on to the next phase of the operation:
However, when a stone house exploded with a deafening thunder and a tall column of dust–its roof, visible from where we were, floating peacefully, all spread out, intact, and suddenly splitting and breaking up high in the air and falling in a mass of debris, dust, and a hail of stones–a woman, whose house it apparently was, 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, and now her friend got up, and another, and an old man stood up too, and other people rose to their feet as she began to run, while the child attached to the hem of her dress was dragged for a moment and stumbled to the ground and bawled, revealing a brown buttock. One of our boys moved forward and shouted at her to stand still. She stifled her words with a desperate shriek, beating her chest with her free hand. she had suddenly understood, it seemed, that it wasn’t just about waiting under the sycamore tree 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. [pg 71/72]
The narrator reaches both into the future and the past, with an eerie premonition of what would unfold over the ensuing decades:
We reached a field off to the side of the houses, next to a wide dirt track that connected this village to the main road, far away. Suddenly for some reason, a thought crept into my mind, that this track compacted by thousands of feet over generations would now grow grass, break up, bear fruit with no one passing by. Immediately the chords that had been moaning within me separated themselves, and a wave of bitterness washed through me. And I could sense that troublesome somebody inside me, grinding his teeth and clenching his fists.We tried to maintain our indifference and shake off everything that had happened down there, like a goose coming out of the water. [pg 75]
Fields that would never be harvested, plantations that would never be irrigated, paths that would become desolate. A sense of destruction and worthlessness. An image of thistles and brambles everywhere, a desolate tawniness, a braying wilderness. And already from those fields accusing eyes peered out at you, that silent accusatory look as of a reproachful animal, staring and following you so there was no refuge. [pg 85]
Those passages evoked a shock of recognition in me. They seem to have reached into the future as an echo of this piece by Gideon Levy or a description of the iNakba project.
After debating with myself I gathered up the courage to say to Moishe: “Do we really have to expel them? What more can these people do? Who can they hurt? After the young ones have already…what’s the point…””Well,” Moishe said to me affectionately, “that’s what it says in the operational orders.”
“But it’s not right,” I protested, not knowing which of all the arguments and speeches that were fighting within me I should set before him as a decisive proof. And so I simply repeated: “It really isn’t right.” [pg 79]
I clung to that famous phrase in the operational orders “operatives dispatched on hostile missions.” I conjured up before my eyes all the terrible outrages that the Arabs had committed against us. I recited the names of Hebron, Safed, Be’er Tuvia, and Hulda. I seized on necessity, the necessity of the moment, which with the passage of time, when everything was settled, would also be set straight. I once again contemplated the mass of people, seething indistinctly and innocently at my feet–and I found no comfort. I prayed at that moment that something would happen to seize me and take me away from here so I would not see what happened next. [pg 83]
In two short passages, the narrator tells us all we really need to know about forced expulsions with the moral clarity of someone who knows wrong when he sees it.
Some plots were left fallow, and others were sown, by design, everything was carefully thought out, they had looked at the clouds and observed the wind, and they might also have foreseen drought, flooding, mildew, and even field mice; they had also calculated the implications of rising and falling prices, so that if you were beset by a loss in one sector you’d be saved by a gain in another, and if you lost on grain, the onions might come to the rescue, apart, of course, from the one calculation they had failed to make, and that was the one that was stalking around, here and now, descending into their spacious fields in order to dispossess them. [pg 87/88]
The first group was standing by the gap in the hedge. This field might have belonged to one of them. And this place, which we considered just any old place, they considered a specific place that was close to something and far from something else and belonged to somebody and had a greater meaning than just some big dirt track. They stared at the trucks with a gaze that gradually filled with a realization of what was happening to them. [pg 91]
I can’t help but think how apt the term Nakba is. It was a catastrophe, which can be of human design. And to the inhabitants of Khirbet Khizeh, it fell as a thunderbolt out of the clear blue sky.
The narrator’s misgivings are shared by others:
“How come they’re not taking any stuff with them?” asked the driver.”What stuff?” they asked him.
“Possessions, bedding, I dunno.”
“There’s no stuff. There’s nothing. That them away from here and let them go to hell,” [pg 92]
There were numerous instances where IDF personnel stripped Palestinians of their valuables and belongings. In the novella, the narrator’s superior officer refuses to let an old man take his camel, laden with household goods, with him. The narrator has earlier shared that his company will not bother to strip this village of ordinary farm implements and goods because they were tiring of it after so many instances.
Then we saw a woman who was walking in a group of three or four other women. She was 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. So much so that I felt ashamed in her presence and lowered my eyes. It was as though there were an outcry in their gait, a kind of sullen accusation: Damn you. We also saw that she was too proud to pay us the least attention. We understood that she was a lioness, and we saw that the lines of her face had hardened with furrows of self-restraint and a determination to endure her suffering with courage, and how now, when her world had fallen into ruins, she did not want to break down before us. Exalted in their pain and sorrow above our-wicked-existence they went on their way and 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.
I couldn’t stay where I was. The place itself couldn’t bear me. I went round to the other side. There the blind people were sitting. I hastily skirted round them. I went through the gap into the field that was bounded by the cactus hedge. Things were piling up inside me.
I had 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. They had played on all my nerves. Our nations’ protest to the world: exile! I t had entered me, apparently, with my mother’s milk. What, in fact, had we perpetrated here today? [pg 99/100]
The word “exile” resonates throughout the story. Yizhar alludes to the fact that the exile narrative is so strong that 30 generations on, his people are willing to spill blood to end their exile. And in the process, exiled someone else. And then the counterpoint…
Of course. Absolutely. Why hadn’t I realized it from the outset? Our very own Khirbet Khizeh. Questions of housing, and problems of absorption. And hooray, we’d house and absorb–and how! We’d open a cooperative store, establish a school, maybe even a synagogue. There would be political parties here. They’d debate all sorts of things. They would plow fields, and sow, and reap, and do great things. Long live Hebrew Khizeh! Who, then would ever imagine that once there had been some Khirbet Khizeh that we emptied out and took for ourselves. We came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile.What in God’s name were we doing in this place!
My eyes darted to and fro and couldn’t fix on anything. Behind me the village was already beginning to fall silent, its houses gathered on the slope of the hill, bounded here and there with treetops, from which the sun, behind them, forged silent shadows, which were sunk in contemplation, knowing much more than we did and surveying the silence of the village, that same silence which, more and more, was conspiring to create and atmosphere of its own, a realization of abandonment, an oppressive grief of separation, of an empty home, a deserted shore, wave upon wave, and a bare horizon. And that same strange silence as though of a corpse. And why not? It was nothing. A single day of discomfort and then our people would strike root here for many years. Like a tree planted by streams of water. Yes. On the other hand, what of the wicked… But they were already there on the trucks, and soon they’d be nothing more than a page that had been finished and turned. Certainly, wasn’t it our right? Hadn’t we conquered it today?
I felt that I was on the verge of slipping. I managed to pull myself together. My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. Why hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue… our refugees, naturally. Those were were driving out–that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were the masters now.
The people who would live in this village–wouldn’t the walls cry out in their ears? Those sights, screams that were screamed and that were not screamed, the confused innocence of dazed sheep, the submissiveness of the weak, and their heroism, that unique heroism of the weak who didn’t know what to do and were unable to do anything, the silenced weak–would the new settlers not sense that the air here was heavy with shades, voices, and states? [pg 104/105]
The English translation has an afterword by David Shulman which seeks to put the novella in today’s context of occupation, settler violence and everyday discrimination. Shulman notes that expulsions and house demolitions directed at Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel proper are a continuing feature of official Israeli policy. Shulman wrote a note for the NY Review of Books that has some of the same themes as the afterword.
And since Yizhar’s story is about families being expelled from their homes, it reminds me of two episodes, about two Israeli women and mothers. One is a quote of Golda Meir:
It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. Next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe, during World War II]’.
When she, as head of the Jewish Agency Political Department visited Arab Haifa and reported on her visit (6 May 1948); quoted in “The birth of the Palestinian Refuge problem revisited” by Benny Morris.
and the other is a story Miko Peled relates about his mother:
My mother remembers the homes of the Palestinians who were forced to leave West Jerusalem. She herself was offered one of those beautiful spacious homes but refused. She could not bear the thought of living in the home of a family that was forced out and now lives in a refugee camp. She said the coffee was still warm on the tables as the soldiers came in and began the looting. She remembers the truckloads of loot, taken by the Israeli soldiers from these homes.
and I cannot help but think that Golda Meir and every other Israeli leader before or since, in the grandest, most expansive way, chose the path Mrs. Peled shrank from.
What is remarkable about this novella is how it encapsulates the seed of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the events of a single day and the thoughts, actions and observations of a single person.
A word on the language and biblical allusions. I’m not sure how well the translation captures the original Hebrew. To my eyes, it is a fairly good translation of a stream of consciousness novel interspersed with more standard first-person narration. The novella ends with a striking apocalyptic passage and the afterword notes a number of Biblical allusions, for instance the ones around exile.
I first stumbled onto the Israel/Palestine conflict when a college friend (who had Russian-Jewish relations) insisted that Palestine had no permanent inhabitants prior to the founding of Israel, there was no such thing as Palestinians, they all had other homes in Egypt and Jordan and were part-year residents, the rest were migratory Bedouin, everyone who left did so freely and were encouraged to leave by other Arab leaders who wanted to attack the Jews without harming their own population.
None of this sounded right to me, knowing something of the Indian partition and the European settlement of the Americas and the treatment of American Indians. The Nakba and the ongoing occupation can be understood in a vein similar to these two episodes (though it is not identical). So I looked around for history and stumbled onto Benny Morris’ book Righteous Victims.
But I wonder now, after reading Khirbet Khizeh (which is an assigned text in many Israeli schools), how it is that Hebrew speakers who have read this book managed to make their peace with its narrative. Benny Morris and the New Historians work began to be published in the 1980s, but Khirbet Khizeh was a best-seller almost from the day it was published in 1949. Some commentators have noted that Benny Morris’ claim to have been the first to pull back the veil from the 1947/48 expulsions is not credible. What they’re saying is that this narrative was hiding in plain sight, in a fictionalized account that was widely read and accepted as part of 1947/48’s legacy. The novella has sparked controversy for decades, quoting from the NY Times article on the first English translation:
In 1978, “Khirbet Khizeh” caused a huge furor when an Israeli director made a television series based on the book. By then, Israel had been through the 1967 war and had voted in its first right-wing government, led by Menachem Begin. The series was almost canceled. When it was finally broadcast, it met a wave of criticism. “Even if the Fatah Information Bureau were headed by a genius, he couldn’t have come up with a better one than this,” the Israeli journalist Yosef Lapid wrote in the Israeli daily Maariv in 1978. “And even if a fifth column were operating in our television studios, they couldn’t have performed a better service to aid the enemies of our state.”
It is of course, difficult to accept that the neatly-packaged story of your nation’s founding, colorfully relayed to you in elementary school, may not be the whole truth. And there is a certain sort of person who will do their best to perpetuate the neat myths, to the extent that they demand history books be re-written or suppressed (look at examples in the two largest democracies, India and our own country).
Some will ask why I’m ignoring Palestinian art that covers the Nakba with depth and sensitivity. I’m not, a good place to start would be Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains and in book form there is Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun and As Though She were Sleeping, Ghassan Kanafani’s Return to Haifa, Sahar Khalifeh’s Of Noble Origins, Radwa Ashour’s The Woman from Tantoura, Sari Nusseibeh’s Once Upon A Country and Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief some of which I’ve read and some that I intend to read.
PS. I never did manage to change my friend’s views.