Swans Commentary » swans.com January 2, 2012  



Dispossession Set In Stone


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Yizhar, S. [Yizhar Smilansky]: Khirbet Khizeh, 2011, Granta Books, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck, Afterword by David Shulman, ISBN 978 1 84708 394 4, 131 pages.


"My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours." Page 109


(Swans - January 2, 2012)   An online article in February 2011 of the JTA ("The Global News Service of the Jewish People") begins:

Is the Holocaust passé for Hollywood and the world's filmmakers? This is the first year in at least half a century that not a single Oscar or Golden Globe entry has focused on the horrors of the Shoah. Equally ignored, with one peripheral exception, are films on World War II and the Nazi regime.

The presuppositions here are several. First, that the Shoah and European history of the 1940s should be the permanent centerpiece of the entertainment industry. Second, that movies, in constant flow, are the best way to recall such events. Third, that as the horrendous wounds to humanity go, the Shoah cut deeper and is in a class of it own.

All of this is questionable. The world is wider than Europe and its North American clone. Unspeakable horrors have occurred on the globe before and after WWII. Such events can't be seriously considered in commercial movies where they are diluted by melodrama and a tub-full of kitsch. There is no hierarchy in humanity's tragic moments, and they take place even where our purveyors of information would rather not venture.

Dispossession is the essence of all crimes against humanity. It ends in taking life, but begins with denial of the means to live, seizing the tools of life and the very ground to stand on. It negates personal identity. There are certainly movies that stun us by glimpses of this process at work. Dispossession as a reality (to linger on the Holocaust) comes across with a jolt when we are shown European Jews being rounded up in illustrious capital cities to be shipped on like livestock. They are ripped from the only existence they know like weeds from a garden. Simply to see those lines of victims shuffling toward oblivion brings to mind the homes, families, and daily routines they will not know again.

The feat of S. Yizhar, pen name of Yizhar Smilansky (1916-2006), was to show in Khirbet Khizeh dispossession in action and scrutinized by a dispossessor, an authorized usurper of possessions. Yizhar would go on to a long literary and political career. He published his magnum opus, a thousand-page novel, Days of Tziklag, at the end of the 1950s and was a member of the Knesset, with a year's interruption, from 1949 to 1967. But none of his subsequent work as a polemicist and author had the knife-in-the-flesh impact of his novella of 1949. S. Yizhar in 1988 "announced himself as the man who had laid bare the original sin of the State of Israel." (Shapira, A: Hirbet Hizah: Between Remembrance and Forgetting, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1.)

We are in the 1948 War between the Arabs and Israelis that the latter call the War of Independence but the Palestinians know as al-Nakba, the time of the Catastrophe. The narrator, like the author, is part of an Israeli military operation. The object is to drive the inhabitants out of the Palestinian village of Khirbet Khizeh and to raze its buildings. No resistance is expected since all the able-bodied men have already departed. The narrator's company has been given the easy task of taking up a position on the flank of the village to wait and observe.

The narrator is a voracious observer who takes in much more than his comrades lounging about eating oranges and kibitzing. But in his ruminations, which will constitute his story and the novella we read, he has to conclude that personal observation is a matter of choosing what not to see. Like all his conclusions, this one is drawn from conflicts within himself. For he has a conscience, a serious encumbrance for any soldier.

He has been told to beware of terrorist cells and of the village people who are treacherous. But what he observes is a dirt-poor clump of dwellings situated on rich land amidst well-tended fields and gardens. The order, peace, and silence don't reassure him. He senses that something bad is going to happen and feels his way toward another conclusion. He and his comrades are that bad thing.

Yizhar the author, born in Israel, has an astonishing familiarity with the terrain. He doesn't describe nature. Nature is part of him. A tree or a plant is as real as himself. The narrator views the insignificant village with the same intensity as he would consider the rest of world and its living things. It's a vision that will make his comrades' petty destructiveness -- their spite and childish sadism -- hard to bear. But he's a soldier and thinks his duty is to bear it and much more. The conflict within him between duty and decency is the high drama of his story.

A young soldier says that it's one thing to go where you might be killed and quite another to go where only others are to be killed. In the morning the men are sharp and determined. But soldiering consists for the most part in waiting around. No one has portrayed the boredom involved like Yizhar. By afternoon, exasperation leads to the beating of a camel that turns a well and the kicking of an old Arab who stayed behind to tend it. A heated conversation takes place about how best to shoot a donkey dead. Page 17: "...as one lay idly about, thoughts would stealthily creep in, and we knew that when the thoughts came, troubles began; better not to start thinking."

The company's machine gun is set up and finally the order comes to fire. The houses of the village are the target. The people scurry out and run like ants from an anthill, writes Yizhar. The soldiers vie for a chance at the gun to shoot the fleeing figures. Pages 34-5: "To hell with you! You don't know how to shoot at all!" Are the young soldiers evil or simply innocently stupid, unthinking? It's like a game, but one whose aim is to end lives. "The thrill of the hunt that lurks inside every man had taken firm hold of us." The narrator is caught up in the excitement. He calculates the range for the man at the gun. When the stumbling Arab isn't hit, the narrator is happy. But he's full of shame too. He hears two voices inside him, the happy one and another that calls him a "bleeding heart."

The greatness of Yizhar and his confused narrator is that they stand in the ranks of the strong and yet identify with the weak in the crosshairs of their gun. When the shots hit the houses the narrator thinks of his own home the time shots were heard in the night. He imagines what happens inside the houses in Khirbet Khizeh when the firing starts. People get up from the table in the midst of a meal. Someone hurries to find his sandals. A pot is left on the fire. Life in a house lived in for generations comes to an abrupt end. Yizhar's truth isn't complicated, no matter how superbly detailed his writing. He's saying that only empathy can keep us human. And of course empathy is also the indispensable tool of the writer.

But the narrator remains in two minds. He is as disgusted as his comrades by two women who have been abandoned in the flight. Pages 52-3: "Two very old women in blue dresses and black scarves were sprawled shapelessly, horribly withered monsters that emitted the stench of newly dug graves, something inhuman, sickeningly foul, their nacreous blue eyes in their blighted dried out faces stared straight ahead, either silenced by fear or in a senseless stupor." Yet he knows they are human too as he goes off up the track with his comrades who agree that the two women would be better off with a bullet in their heads.

In a strange way, Yizhar and his narrator show their humanity by the way the one describes and the other observes fear in its purest form. An occasional old man or pair of women left behind in the exodus is suddenly confronted by the trigger-happy men in uniform. For Yizhar they are not anonymous figures but so carefully delineated that the reader trembles with them as they are bullied and tormented. Without moralizing, simply by showing us fear, he incriminates those who are guilty of causing it. By describing the weak he humiliates the strong. One straggler had a bullet go through his hair and is commanded to approach, page 57:

The man tried to move, and discovered that there was no connection between his legs and his body. Finally his legs uprooted of their own accord, while his body was still. His face was drained of blood, not to pallor, but to a revolting greenish yellow. Finally he somehow swallowed his saliva and spreading his hands out again he tried to smile submissively, the smile of a woeful mask, or to say something, but couldn't manage to utter a sound or even the semblance of a sound.

The army begins to shell the village to complete its demolition. The women, children, and old men who never left have been herded together out of the way. The trucks are ready to take them a good distance -- "to their side" -- and leave them with orders not to come back to Khirbet Khizeh. It's at this point that filmgoers might think of the many movies that have reenacted the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup in Paris or the razing of the Warsaw Ghetto. Page 96: "It was amazing how none of them protested or objected. With resignation they climbed up and huddled together on the truck."

It's at this point too that the narrator's self-hatred at his inner contradictions explodes. "Do we really have to expel them?" he asks to his superior. "What more can these people do? Who can they hurt?" The superior replies, "Well that's what it says in the operational orders." The narrator will say no more except to himself: "Where did this sense come from that I was being accused of some crime. And what was it that was beginning to press upon me to look for excuses?" Other Arabs are waiting for a truck and he mingles with them, "like someone looking for something." He tells himself that this is what dispossession looks like, "Our nation's protest to the world: exile!"

The Afterword, David Shulman's essay Back to Khirbet Khizeh, was written in Jerusalem in 2007 and puts Yizhar's novella in historical perspective. Shulman, a professor of language at the Hebrew University, enlightens us on an aspect of Yizhar's writing that English readers might miss. Pages 118-20: "Yizhar is perhaps the greatest poet of Palestinian landscape in modern Hebrew." Of his use of that language:

No other Hebrew prose is remotely like it. Today it's a vanished language, this experimental mélange of wild, lucid lyricism, often dark and menacing, pointed biblical allusions that go off like hand grenades in the midst of the meandering, stream-of consciousness syntax, and the bizarre, somewhat stiff colloquial speech of his tormented protagonists.

Shulman is also an activist of the Ta'ayush, the Arab-Jewish Partnership. The village of Khirbet Khizeh, he tells us, is not unlike many villages of the occupied territories where he militates today. Expulsion isn't as rapid as in 1948, but it's a constant threat. Military courts, the bureaucracy, and committees dominated by settlers control building permits. Harassment by settlers never stops. It can be violent. Poison has been spread in Palestinian fields to kill the sheep and goats on which the villagers subsist. It's as if once the settlers have taken the villagers' land their physical presence becomes even more intolerable. The BBC reported on November 17, 2011: "The United Nations says the number of attacks by extremist Jewish settlers on Palestinians resulting in either injury or damage to property has roughly tripled since 2009. So far in 2011 around 10,000 Palestinian-owned olive trees have been destroyed or damaged in attacks by settlers." The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs of the United Nations said 80-90% of the files opened against Israeli settlers following attacks on Palestinians and their property are regularly closed by the Israeli police without prosecution.

For Professor Shulman the true import of Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh has to do with "extricating oneself from the thick envelope of one's tribe and neighbors and colleagues and the words that fill all the open spaces, so as to touch, at least in passing, that elusive, unsentimental freedom that defines the human being."


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Published January 2, 2012