The unforgivable truth

One of Israel's great national authors can finally be read in English. Sixty years after Israel's birth, his words remain resonant
June 28, 2008
Khirbet Khizeh
by S Yizhar (Ibis, $16.95)

by S Yizhar (Toby Press, £14.99)

Samuel Beckett's novel Molloy, a central text in the modernist canon, was published in 1951. Two years earlier, an equally powerful modernist novella, Khirbet Kizeh, appeared from the Israeli writer Yizhar Smilansky (who took the pen name S Yizhar), writing not in French, like Beckett, but in Hebrew, an ancient tongue reforged as a spoken language less than 100 years earlier. Yizhar was born in 1916 in Ottoman Palestine, the son of an idealistic Russian immigrant who farmed by day and wrote journalism at night. Khirbet Kizeh was a tale not, like Beckett's, of existential angst, but of ethnic cleansing and a crisis of conscience in an individual soldier. It is only now, two years after Yizhar's death, that English audiences can finally read it.

The resonant and elegant English of this translation conveys Yizhar's beautifully cadenced sentences, oblique interior monologues, loving descriptions of landscape and poignantly exact descriptions of dignity in humiliation. The story shows a bunch of young soldiers clearing the inhabitants out of a peaceful Arab village during Israel's war of independence. Under orders, they take control of it, killing and wounding a few villagers in the process and load into trucks the few hundred women, children and old people they have rounded up. One truck driver wonders why they aren't allowed any belongings or water.

"There's no stuff," the soldiers tell him, angry at being forced to voice this appalling detail. "There's nothing. Take them away from here and let them go to hell."

The soldiers tell each other that these villagers are "like animals." Then the narrator voices a moral qualm: "Are we killing them?"

"We're taking them to their side. It's very decent of us…"

"What'll happen to them there?"

"Let them ask their… leaders."

"What will they eat or drink?"

"They should have thought of that before they started all this."

"Started what?" says the narrator.

"Stop thinking so much!" shouts his colleague.

This message was as controversial in 1949 as it is today. Thousands of Israeli Jews rushed to buy the book. Critics saluted its literary quality. Here was Israel's own literature, a tough pastoral for a tough land. Its moral challenge touched everybody. A Palestinian journalist called it a sign that peace was possible. Israel's military censors tried to ban the book but failed. (Thirty years later, a television film of Khirbet Khizeh was made, but minutes before it was due to air, it was banned by the ruling Likud.)

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Ten years after Khirbet Khizeh, Yizhar (pictured, right, in 1951) brought out a 1,156-page epic, Yemei Tziklag ("Days of Tziklag"), with an equally controversial message—that Zionist rhetoric was "a millstone around our neck." Yizhar won the coveted Israel prize and was hailed as the master of Hebrew prose. Khirbet Khizeh was put on the school curriculum.

In 1992, after 30 years' silence, Yizhar began something new: an autobiographical trilogy of novels which also address the Zionist enterprise. Preliminaries, the first of these, has recently appeared in a beautiful translation by Nicholas de Lange. (De Lange's most recent prizewinning translation from Hebrew was another, more urban account of the birth of Israel: Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness.) Preliminaries contains a moving portrait of Yizhar's Russian father, and its seamless stream-of-consciousness paragraphs balance the Zionist ideal of a land blissfully welcoming and empty, just waiting for the plough, against the reality of a harsh place full of snakes, scorpions and prior inhabitants.

The story of Khirbet Khizeh counters the orthodoxies of Israeli history. The appropriate name for the process described by Yizhar—which turned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into refugees, people whose plight five decades on is still one of the world's most combustible issues—remains controversial. The official Israeli line has always been that they left voluntarily, or because other Arab states wished it. In 1988, the revisionist historian Benny Morris exploded that myth, documenting the systematic plan behind the process and showing it to be what we now recognise as ethnic cleansing. This phrase, offensive to Zionist ears, reappears in the meticulously documented work of Ilan Pappe. And yet Khirbet Khizeh is still an option on the Israeli school curriculum. No one who had read it at school should have been surprised by Morris. What happens in these pages is convincing, heartbreaking and meticulously observed: it is the enactment of a systematic clearance.

Like the presence of Khirbet Khizeh on the Israeli school curriculum, the publication of this English translation from a tiny Jerusalem press demonstrates that conscience is still alive. And so is the will to bear responsible literary witness. The timing of this publication, 60 years after the nation's birth, is as eloquent as the writing itself.