Monday, September 2, 2013

"What in God's name were we doing in this place"!

Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar

"We had a sudden sense of foreboding as though we were about to be attacked, the alien walls were closing in on us, encompassing us with solemn malicious whispering, suddenly we seemed cut off, devoid of hope, no one knew whence the blow might suddenly fall--unless there were no other--and we were in it, in our image and likeness."   


It is with the voice of the Bible that I should come to you--as Ruben Dario wrote in his poem "To Roosevelt." I have recently come to think that the voice that might reach us, the voice of truth (not of reason since reason has a questionable record in matters of justice), must be Biblical; and indeed it is in the tones of the Prophets and with the clarity of Proverbs that "S. Yizhar," the great Hebrew novelist, comes to us.  

Yizhar, the pen name of Israeli novelist, poet, and Knesset member Yizhar Smilansky, was born in Rehovot in 1916 and died in Jerusalem in 2006.  In addition to being the "father of the Hebrew novel," he was professor of eduction at the Hebrew University and a prolific writer on many subjects. Yizhar was the author of six novellas, the thousand-page novel Days of Ziklag, and, his masterpiece, Khirbet Khizeh, a powerful, controversial short novel about IDF military action against Palestinian villagers during the 1948 war of independence.  For many years Yizhar's unsparing account of the violence of one platoon of Israeli soldiers against the Arab residents of the small agricultural settlement of Khirbet Khizeh was required reading in Israeli high schools (this was true even after the 1967 war), a remarkable act of national self-scrutiny which, in the current political climate, is almost impossible to imagine. Later, after the novel was dramatized on Israeli television, it fell out of fashion, or perhaps was forced out of fashion because of the painful memories it envoked--the story of the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes--liberation for Israel, nakba or catastrophe for the Palestinians. 

Of course, this is a book about Israel, and I am hardly in a position to remark on the feelings it might evoke among contemporary residents of that country--that is, Israelis, since Palestinians are not citizens of any country.  But what I found most disturbing about Yizhar's account of the expulsion of "Ayrabs" (always referred to as "dirty" or "scum" or "cowardly" by the members of the IDF platoon of which the unnamed narrator is a part) was not the particular circumstances of the story but its universality; Yizhar renders in prose that alternates between the elliptical and the visceral the feelings of frightened young men who are forced to perform cruel actions in the name of ideals which they only vaguely understand:

"True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since. I sought to drown it out with the din of passing time, to diminish its value, to blunt its edge with the rush of daily life, and I even, occasionally, managed a sober shrug, manged to see that the whole thing had not been so bad after all, congratulating myself on my patience, which is, of course, the brother of true wisdom. 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--that mass compounded of crass ignorance, utilitarian indifference, and shameless self-interest--and exchange a single great truth for the cynical shrug of a hardened sinner."

 As I was reading the middle sections of the novel--with a sense of foreboding--I was thinking of other great novels of war I have read (not "war novels" which are celebrations of violence, but novels in which war strips bare the pretensions of civilized life): All Quiet on the Western Front, James Jones's The Thin Red Line; Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried,  James Salter's The Hunters--novels where the moral world of the narrator is torn to shreds by the dehumanizing temptations of violence.  I thought about how easily young men tip over into violence; how Freud was right in Civilization and Its Discontents to note the fragility of the conventions that keep us from doing violence to one another.  In my first days in the Army--forty years ago--I was stripped of my civilian clothes, my civilian hair, my soft civilian view of the rights of my fellow man and turned, gradually, into a person I couldn't recognize, one whose hold over the "real" me felt like possession and diminished only slowly over several years.  So it was with sympathy for the ordinary soldiers and disgust at the rulers--ideologues, fanatics, madmen of all parties and persuasions--whose power is rooted in the manipulation of young men's souls, that I read Yizhar's searing account of his war experiences. Yizhar writes with a mixture of dispassionate formality and personal pain that is unusual.  One feels the narrator's vacillation between commitment and revulsion, between his belief in the ostensibly humane mission of moving Palestinian villagers out of their homes to the mandated territories and his recognition that neither he nor his comrades have any right to the land they are stealing.  Near the end of the novel, as the platoon escorts (at gunpoint) a group of old men, women, and children out of Khirbet Khizeh, out of their homes and away from the fields they have tended for generations, the narrator finally breaks down:

"Who could I speak to? Who would listen? They would just laugh at me. I felt a terrifying collapse inside me. I had a single, set idea, like a hammered nail, that I could never be reconciled to anything, so long as the tears of a weeping child still glistened as he walked along with his mother, who furiously fought back her soundless tears, on his way into exile, bearing with him a roar of injustice and such a scream . . . and then I said to Moishe, 'We have no right, Moishe, to kick them out of here!'"

But what did S. Yizhar really feel?  He was, after all, a Zionist, a political being, a soldier afraid for his life, a human being.  The power of the novel emerges from the escalating conflict that arises from the narrator's being forced to serve the idea that Israeli settlers will do a better job of living on the fertile land of Samaria than the Arabs could. The voice that we hear, the one whose ambivalence emerges as the platoon enters the nearly deserted village of Khirbet Khizeh, reports with cool objectivity the racism of his comrades (all soldiers are taught to hate their enemies), but we know from the first pages that cruelty is not to be endured without protest, that however estranged all of the Israeli soldiers were from the Arabs they encountered, the grace notes of the novel would be the rejection of the fundamental premise that our enemies are inhuman.  This, I suspect, is why Khirbet Khizeh was once taught in Israeli high schools and why, in a world more interested in truth than in power, it might be again.  Which is not to say that we Americans don't have a thing or two to learn in this regard.  Where is our Khirbet Khizeh?

Khirbet Khizeh, translated by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck, is published by Ibis Editions of Jerusalem.  This edition (I have heard that Granta published the book as well, but I have not seen this version of the text) contains a powerful afterword by David Shulman.  Shulman is himself a remakable figure--the world's foremost authority on the languages of the Indian sub-continent and a long-time peace activist with the Israeli organization Ta'ayush--Shulman has been particularly active in the non-violent struggle to save Palestinians from eviction in villages of the South Hebron Hills.  Shulman's book Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine has been highly praised by, among others, the novelist A.B. Yehoshua.  So: even if, like me, you tend to skip afterwords, don't skip this one!  Here's the link for the novel:

George Ovitt (9/2/13--Labor Day)

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