S. Yizhar: Khirbet Khizeh

Yizhar was an Israeli soldier in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and it is evident that this novella was based heavily on his own experience. It is the story of a soldier expelling Palestinians from the village of Khirbet Khizeh: what he sees, his tremendous ambivalence, the chatter of the soldiers around him, and the expulsion itself.

The story is tied up in politics, but I don’t think of the novella itself as primarily political. The heartfelt afterword by David Shulman, a brilliant scholar of Indian language and religion who’s also been a peace activist in Israel, feels out of place because it lays down such a definite stance on present-day Israeli matters, talking about conscientious objectors and contemporary Twaneh demonstrations. As Shulman himself says, Khirbet Khizeh is about being stuck in a position where there is no space for conscientious objectors, where moral unease leads to psychical shutdown and thoughtless complicity. That feeling, which Yizhar communicates viscerally, is one to be quietly lived with and absorbed for some time, before going on to a political polemic. Better not to break that spell.

The narrator accompanies a group of mostly unruly and unthinking soldiers. They encounter civilians. They don’t treat them well. They enter the village and do the expulsions. The narrator meekly voices his reservations, but he’s easily told off. What are they supposed to do? The narrator continues.

The novella doesn’t belabor the events, but neither does it withdraw from them. It’s a portrait of a very particular mindset, one that is refusing abstract thought because of the anxiety and immediacy of a situation and so absorbing the details of the environment in a nearly dissociated way. The prose flows at different paces depending on how much is going on, spilling over into long serpentine sentences at the beginning and then becoming more jagged as they near the village. The long paragraphs travel in circles at the start, with vague, guilt-ridden phrases like “a humiliating, shameful silence before the action, small devious ruses to deny it.” Then “The order to start arrived,” and from there the prose starts to pare itself down.

By the time the panicked narrator is helping exile some very helpless and innocent civilians from the village and he says to himself, “Khirbet Khizeh is not ours,” the story is very nearly over. It stops there for the reason that going on would mean the obscuring of the event, which is only being resurrected in his memory against his better instincts and will. “A single day of discomfort and then our people would strike root here for many years.” To go on is to minimize the discomfort.

Such discomfort does not entail a particular political stance. This obituary of Yizhar suggests that he was a somewhat ambiguous pacifist, but Khirbet Khizeh also put me in mind of Benny Morris, who did huge amounts of archival research to reveal occurrences of Israeli massacre and rape in 1948, but still goes on to say:

There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands.

My feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all. If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country – the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River.

If the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948.

Haaretz interview, 2004

I do not think this was Yizhar’s view, yet Morris looked at what Yizhar describes and worse, and Morris came out very far from Shulman’s view. It’s a mistake to assume that even such a politicized book will instill a particular political point of view, or even that it was written with the intent to do so. Whatever the “meaning” of the story is remains greater than can be presented in a particular political commitment. (Which is why I am not discussing the politics of the situation here and have no wish to do so in this venue.) What the novel asks for is living with and in that day of discomfort a bit longer, whatever that may bring.

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