“Khirbet Khizeh: A Novel” by S. Yizhar— It Happened a Long Time Ago

khirbet khizeh

Yizhar. S. “Khirbet Khizeh: A Novel”, translated by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck, afterword by David Shulman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

It Happened a Long Time Ago

Amos Lassen

I have often heard “Khirbet Khizeh” called the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of Israel. Both books are known by the controversy they caused and during the course of this review, I think you will understand what I mean by that. “Khirbet Khizeh” is S. Yizhar’s fictionalized account of life as a soldier in the Israeli army during the 1948-49 war, and was published shortly after the war’s end. It has for many years been unavailable in English translation but now has been newly translated again and has been published with a new afterword.

Yizhar was the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky. He was a native born Israeli and a longtime member of the Knesset who is most famous as the author of “Khirbet Khizeh” and the non-translated magnum opus “Days of Ziklag”. He died in 2006. My connection to the book goes back to when I lived in Israel and it seemed like everyone had read this book and had an opinion about it. I have long wanted to teach it but the translation that existed missed the mark on several issues and it was not until this new translation was recently published that I feel comfortable enough to give a go and it will be part of one of the courses I will be teaching in the fall. This new translation by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck gives the novel a renewed poetic significance and makes for its place of relevance for today’s contemporary culture.

The narrator starts his account by noting that the event he is describes here “happened a long time ago, but it has haunted [him] ever since.” He writes of the passage of time and his hope that time would heal the sorrow and despair he felt about what he writes in “Khirbet Khizeh”. That did not happen and we are taken back to the beginning of his story. We do not just go back to his story but also back to his mindset before he was so disturbed by what he experienced in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. his and his cavalry’s actions.

We are thrust into both the internal and external action of the story and we stay there throughout the 144 pages of the text. One of the problems of reading literature in translation is that the physical translated words that we see on a page are not really translations but representations of the original in which the novel was written. In the case of this translation of “Khirbet Khizeh”, this is not the case.

Translators De Lange and Dweck capture the poetic essence of the text beautifully and aptly. The Dickens-like sentences come together as paragraphs that pull us in and move us forward. We sense and actually feel the action, the distress, and the ambivalence that characterizes Yizhar’s work. Yizhar wrote this on an intimate and personal scale and it is quite powerful in that it still connects to the present with an answer that is not only relevant but also accurate. Yizhar Smilansky was an intelligence officer who had acute vision and mortal dignity. He knew that during the war in 1948 that Arabs had been expelled from their homes. This experience led him to write “Khirbet Khizeh” which was published in 1949 under a pen name. It is the story of a tormented soldier who was reluctantly following orders to evict helpless Arab children, women and the elderly from their village.

In the years following the novel’s publication, Israel experienced a defensive silence which was only occasionally broken until the mid-1980s when newly declassified records were looked at my Israeli journalist and historian, Benny Morris. He documented the places where expulsions occurred and what he found made its way into textbooks and general knowledge. Looking back at history in Israel, we see that then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1979 wrote in his memoir that the Arab residents of the towns of Lydda and Ramle were expelled from their homes during the War of Independence. What this was it seems was a contradiction of the official heroic line of the time and this pictured Arabs as fighting and not being forced out. Rabin wrote about the opposite and five paragraphs of his memoir that contained this information were deleted before publication. Those in the Israel Defense Forces knew of the expulsions as did S. Yizhar who dared to write a book about them.

In the deleted paragraphs of Rabin’s memoir, he shows compassion but not for the expelled Arabs—rather for the Jews who were assigned to carry it out. What we see here is that Yizhar was not alone n what he had to say. His narrator is a lonely man who comrades in the army are deaf to their own internal feelings. He is torn by the cruelty of war that he sees all around him and he grew to hate himself. Yizhar down to write a war novel that disregards all of the pieties of that genre and develops into an anguished–and unresolved–meditation on Jewish history and the meaning of exile. This is from whence its relevance comes still.

“Khirbet Khizeh” instantly became a classic of modern Hebrew prose. Yizhar continues the biblical tradition with prose that is poetic and filled with longing. More important is that the consequences of what happened at places like Khirbet Khizeh are still headline news, which makes this short, powerful book a work of prophecy and not so much about history. This is the story of a young Israeli soldier who is on duty and on that day finds himself battling on two fronts: with the villagers and, ultimately, with his own conscience. The various debates that have come about as a result of the novel make this more than just a novel but an important historical document. It is also very fine literature filled with Yizhar’s haunting, lyrical style and charged view of the landscape. It is no surprise that “Khirbet Khizeh” is considered a modern Hebrew masterpiece, it is an extraordinary and heartbreaking book.

What Yizhar (Smilansky) knew or hoped was that he was ahead of his time,. That is why his story begins by framing it as a recollection from the distant future. The narrator, like the reader, was known by the author to be unable to see for years to come.

“Khirbet Khizeh” is a work of masterful insight and storytelling that grips you and makes us enter the experience of its narrator and his companions, as they do what the author had done. The book was like a seed. It was planted in the minds of Israelis and it grew. Now at last we have it in English. The fact that the book was ahead of its time is a benefit and a disadvantage. “When the narrator makes a slight resistance to what he is engaged in, no reader can find anything but humanitarian motivation in his resistance. The idea that this soldier, questioning his fellow soldiers, is engaged in anti-Semitism would literally make no sense. He’s revolted by the cruelty, no more no less — cruelty that every adult and child has to have always known was part of any mass settlement of ancient lands in 1948.” This new translation is lyrical and captivating. I read this translation with a copy of the Hebrew text next to it and my faithful up-to-date electronic Hebrew/English dictionary. (This is one of my habits when reading translations). We become immediately aware of the author’s uses of biblical allusion. The Hebrew text is of an extraordinary high level (something that would compare probably to Abba Eben’s spoken Hebrew that was always perfect and not usually the Hebrew spoken by the masses). There is also the portrait of the early sin of Israel.

To me it seems that this is a book that cried out to be written. It begins and ends with tortured introspection and we read of days minus combat yet with operational order to burn, blow up, imprison, load and convey with a restraint that is born of true culture. We see the village of Khirbet sitting on a hill, alone and silent. The village is awakened by a machine-gunner who peppers the village with bullets. There are small figures running in the fields and the gunner tries to kill them but is soon replaced by another gunner who wants his chance to kill. The military unit descends on the town and heads after old men and mothers with children. Arabs are brought to the city square where they are put on trucks with nothing in their hands or on their bodies and they are dumped on the other side of the borders. We see a woman holding a child and weeping—all she has ever known is gone now. The child looks at the soldier as if to mouth “why”? I cannot help but wonder what would happen if this book was to be translated into Arabic and taught in Palestinian schools. Would students then find justice for their rage or would they also see the conscience of their enemy, even if struggles in vain against the outcome.

The best we can wish for is that there be no more Khirbet Khizehs on the people of Palestine and many more Khirbet Khizehs on the world.

Leave a Reply