Sometimes, a novel can awaken the conscience of a nation. The recent release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, an earlier, less transcendent draft of her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, reminded Americans of how much they calibrated their moral compasses to the actions of Atticus Finch. For some Israelis, that same connection is made with Israeli writer S. Yizhar’s 1949 novella Khirbet Khizeh, first published in English in 2008 and recently reissued in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
When Khirbet Khizeh was first released in Israel, the book challenged the young nation to reflect deeply on its purpose, values, and place in the world. And though it has become more and less influential with shifts in Israeli politics and society, Khirbet Khizeh’s central themes have remained relevant and prophetic to this day.
The Story of Khirbet Khizeh
Set in 1948, Khirbet Khizeh opens at the end of Israel’s war of independence. A unit of the Israeli Defense Force is preparing to empty Khirbet Khizeh, a fictional Arab village. One young unnamed soldier, Yizhar’s alter ego, wrestles with the task at hand—while removing Arabs from their homes, he wonders if he is contributing to a forced mass exile similar to the one that brought European Jews to Palestine in the first place. Despite his misgivings, he obeys his orders, which come with a personal consequence: As exiled Arabs march out of the village, the soldier is left with the sinking feeling that, in the quest to become a Jewish state, his country has created a fraught and unequal situation that will remain beyond its control for years. He wonders if this is a place he can still call home. “I had a single, set idea, like a hammered nail,” Yizhar writes through his narrator, “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.”
The young soldier leaves the town feeling ambivalent about how to explain to others what he has witnessed. Does he tell them what he saw as it was? In his very first sentence, Yizhar sets up a central question in his novella: To what extent does our conscience influence the way we remember and retell history? “True, it all happened a long time ago,” he says, “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, managed 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.”
Anita Shapira, in her essay “Hirbet Hizah: Between Remembering and Forgetting,” sees in this first sentence a parallel with Israeli society’s evolving understanding of Yizhar’s best known work. Immediately after its publication, she writes, the story was well received by Yizhar’s literary peers, many of whom considered it a necessary call to examine the foundation of the new Jewish state. The author was admired for asking if European Jews, who had so recently been victims of unimaginable crimes, were committing similar injustices on their Arab neighbors. “The tortured victim of yesterday turns into the torturer the moment he picks up the whip, and the exile of yesterday now banishes others,” one of Yizhar’s postwar critics observed. Others praised Yizhar for his ability to reflect objectively amid the trauma of war, to analyze with detachment history while it unfolded. As S. Uriel, writing in Haaretz, put it, “…a literary work of such merit was produced in our midst during the armistice itself, smoke still rising.”
Yizhar had his detractors as well. In “The Place Could Not Bear Me: Expulsion and Exile in Khirbet Khizeh,” Yonatan notes that older Jewish settlers of the prestate yishuv criticized the “Generation of ’48,” as Yizhar and his peers were called, for fighting the war of independence but giving in to feelings of alienation and doubt. What happens to Yizhar’s protagonist, Sagiv writes, is bitter irony: As he recognizes the reality of the Arab exile his platoon is creating, he himself is thrown into spiritual exile. The character, a native of Palestine who “has never been in the Diaspora,” suddenly feels out of place, separate from the land of his youth.
A Shift in Public Opinion
The early debate over Yizhar’s call for self-examination of the Jewish state eventually faded. By 1964, only 15 years after its first publication, Khirbet Khizeh had become optional reading in Israeli high school, but schools that assigned the novella tested students less on the story’s central moral struggle and instead asked them to analyze the form and aesthetics of Yizhar’s writing. The book’s loss of influence mirrored the attempt of Yizhar’s own protagonist to “drown [his experience] out with the din of passing time.”
The novella did remain influential among some young people, but the broader reaction was more mixed. In the 1970s and ’80s, high school students and young soldiers who were part of the first wave of students to study Khirbet Khizeh in school criticized Yizhar, at least once to his face. Students considered their exposure to the story, with its lack of sentimentality or moral resolution, at least partly responsible for their own generational uncertainty about how to regard the Zionist project.
Khirbet Khizeh‘s loss of favor would come to a peak in the late 1970s, when director Ram Levi created his television film adaptation, The Story of Hirbet Hizah, which aired on Israeli TV in 1978. Israel’s first right-wing government, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, had come to power, and against this backdrop, the film was regarded as anti-Israel propaganda. If Israel were to project a stable, moral image to the world, conservative thinking went, it could not show its soldiers beating Palestinians, even if those images were part of a fictional film. The Broadcasting Authority made a move to postpone the film’s release date in light of political talks with Egypt, instigating further political discord between left and right. Once it aired, the debate only intensified: Why had the filmmakers chosen such a one-sided representation of the war? Why revisit this piece of Israel’s past now, and for what purpose?
During this time, Shapira notes, historians largely kept quiet. But Yizhar’s story continued to influence writers now considered giants of Israeli literature, especially those whose works explore themes of power, home, and war, including Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman.
A New Translation
Khirbet Khizeh has yet to receive a wide readership outside of Israel. But an English translation, now coming from a major publisher, could change that. What will English readers take with them from the novella? An afterword by David Shulman in the first English edition (2008) gave some predictions. Shulman, an activist, Indologist and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote that a new audience of readers should find the story prophetic: “A direct line links Khirbet Khizeh with today’s peace movements,” he writes. “None of us could formulate the matter with Yizhar’s unflinching forcefulness, but there is not one of us who would fail to recognize the feelings he describes—the outrage…the isolation from one’s friends and fellows, the paralysis and hesitation, the bodily urge to protest.”