January 16, If history is written by the victor, then clearly the war between Israel and its Arab neighbors has not yet been won, since its history continues to be told in two very different versions. In the Israeli narrative, it is remembered as the triumphant War of Independence, in which a tiny Jewish population managed to fend off attacks from five Arab armies and secure a Jewish state for the first time in 2, years. In the Palestinian narrative, it was the Nakba, the catastrophe, in which Jewish armies dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Arabs, taking their land and sending them into an exile that has not yet ended.
Neither of these stories has canceled the other out, and peace in the region may not come until each side grants the other the legitimacy of its narrative. Yizhar Smilansky, born in , served in the nascent Israel Defense Forces during the war.
In , just after the fighting ended, he published — under the pen name S. Yizhar — a novella called Khirbet Khizeh , drawing on his experience as a soldier. The book was recognized as a classic of modern Hebrew prose and soon became a standard text for Israeli high school students. It is now published for the first time in an American edition, translated by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck; and it immediately becomes required reading for anyone interested in the history of Israel and Palestine.
Khirbet Khizeh is the name of the Arab village where the spare and poetic tale is set. Even before we know what is to happen there, in the first sentences of the book, Yizhar makes clear that it is a tale of haunting disgrace:.
Khirbat Iskander Dig
But sometimes I would shake myself again, astonished at how easy it had been to be seduced, to be knowingly led astray and join the great general mass of liars". After such an opening, the reader proceeds with a kind of hypnotic dread, knowing that something terrible is going to happen and afraid to find out what it is.
In fact, by the standards of 20th-century war crimes, the events in Khirbet Khizeh are tame. No one is killed, there are no massacres or rapes of civilians. Instead, a small group of Israeli soldiers round up the remaining inhabitants of the village — most of the able-bodied have already fled — and send them off in trucks.
It is the kind of scene that could take place in just about any war: These could easily be American troops in Vietnam or Afghanistan. Paradoxically, he does this by focusing not on the Arab civilians but on the Israeli soldiers, who are driven less by anger than by the exhausted, callous indifference typical of soldiers everywhere. Ever since the Bible, the Land of Israel has been a subject of poetry and longing for Jewish literature, and Yizhar continues that tradition in a prose that is — as the afterword by David Shulman points out — full of untranslatable biblical echoes:.
The Khirbat Iskandar Excavations
Everything took on a new dimension, areas were opened and closed, and it appeared there was something that had almost been forgotten but actually seemed solid, and you could lean on it — until the next moment, as its being became real, suddenly here was the checkerboard of fields, plowed and verdant".
At such moments, "Khirbet Khizeh" reads like an idyll. Yet the action of the tale punctures the serenity of the setting. The soldiers arrive in the village and begin machine-gunning the houses, hoping to drive out any hidden enemies.
Hishams Palace in Khirbat Al Mafjar
When civilians emerge and begin to run away, the soldiers compete to use them as target practice. Only luck, or incompetence, prevents them from killing anyone. When the soldiers enter the village and begin to round up the population, Yizhar contrasts the desperation of the Arabs — an old man who tries to intercede, another man who vomits with terror, a mother with a child, a group of blind people — with the callous indifference of the Israeli soldiers, who shout at them to hurry up.
Throughout, we see events through the eyes of the narrator, who is part of the squadron but also removed from it.
If someone had to get filthy, let other soil their hands. Absolutely not. What is especially troubling, for this Israeli writer and his initial Hebrew-speaking audience, is the way the episode reverses the traditional equations of Jewish history. Exile had always been something the Jews suffered, in place after place over thousands of years; now, for the first time, it was something they inflicted. This was exile.
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