In the profusion of memoirs, novels and poems published in Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the conflict was routinely portrayed as a triumphant victory in the righteous struggle to create a Jewish homeland. The fact that roughly 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted from their homes in the course of the war prompted little initial reflection or remorse, not least because their departure was depicted as voluntary.
But not every early account followed this script. The most startling exception came from S. Yizhar, the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky, a prolific novelist and longtime Knesset member who served as an intelligence officer during the war. A year later, he wrote Khirbet Khizeh, a slender masterpiece of Hebrew literature that is now appearing for the first time in the United States, in a translation by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $14).
Written in a lyrical style of long cascading sentences laced with biblical allusions and evocative descriptions of the landscape, Khirbet Khizeh is narrated by a soldier whose infantry unit has been dispatched to an Arab village. The men arrive armed with machine guns, mortars and an operational order to round up the village’s inhabitants, load them onto trucks and “blow up the stone houses” so that no one will return.
To contemporary readers, none of this may shock. But Khirbet Khizeh appeared four decades before Israeli historians such as Benny Morris and Tom Segev began to document the role played by Israeli forces in what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (the Arab word for catastrophe). At the time, eulogies extolling the heroism of Israel’s fallen soldiers filled the pages of Israeli newspapers. The figures in Yizhar’s account behave more coarsely—spraying bullets into homes to fend off their boredom, browbeating an elderly Arab man until his knees shake.
“The thrill of the hunt that lurks inside every man had taken firm hold of us,” confesses the soldier who narrates the story. At least in the narrator’s case, the thrill proves fleeting, replaced by a mounting sense of disquiet as the soldiers realize the “hostile forces” they have been ordered to subdue are civilians watching their world implode. When an austere woman with tear-stained cheeks shuffles by with her son, the narrator is struck by the parallel with another banished people’s fate: “All at once everything seemed to mean something different, more precisely: exile.” After the conquered village falls silent, he feels an urge to scream. “Everything, everything was for the refugees…our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out—that was a totally different matter…. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were the masters now.”
The decision to introduce Khirbet Khizeh to an American audience at this late date will surely be seen by some Israelis as further proof that the outside world never misses an opportunity to portray their country in the harshest possible light. Nicholas de Lange, one of the book’s translators, has echoed this misgiving, telling The Wall Street Journal that the soldiers in Khirbet Khizeh “are portrayed really like Nazis.”
But the concern is misplaced. Far from a cartoonish portrait of Israelis in brown shirts, Khirbet Khizeh is, like much of the best war literature, a study in ambiguity, unspooling in the mind of a soldier who is as much in conflict with himself as with the enemy he has been told to fight. One moment, the narrator of the story feels the flicker of conscience: “If someone had to get filthy, let others soil their hands. I couldn’t. Absolutely not.” A countervailing voice immediately warns against being a yafeh nefesh—the Hebrew term for “beautiful soul”—who “left the dirty work to others.” This voice ultimately holds sway, but not without leaving a deep residue of guilt and shame.
Voicing anguish after meting out abuse is a familiar ritual in Israel. It has sometimes been invoked as proof of Israel’s capacity for self-examination and critique, which may explain why Khirbet Khizeh, although denounced in some quarters, became a bestseller. In the 1960s, the book was even taught in Israeli schools. But there were limits to the embrace. In 1978, plans to air a film version of the novel on national television ignited a backlash. The journalist Tommy Lapid complained that “Even if Goebbels were directing Arab propaganda efforts, they couldn’t have had greater success,” a sentiment shared by Israel’s newly elected right-wing government, led by Menachem Begin, which canceled the broadcast. The atmosphere is no more hospitable today, as evidenced by the 2011 Nakba law, which empowers the Knesset to defund any institution that marks Independence Day as a “day of mourning.” In the Israel of Avigdor Lieberman and Benjamin Netanyahu, Khirbet Khizeh is not likely to land on the school curriculum anytime soon.
But perhaps it will compel readers elsewhere. While the events it chronicles are rooted in a specific time and place, the themes of Yizhar’s book—the tension between the individual and the group, the trauma that war can inflict not only on the victims but also on the perpetrators—are universal. And they permeate the memoirs, novels and short story collections that have been published over the past decade by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. “It all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since,” the narrator of Khirbet Khizeh tells the reader at the outset of the story he sets down, a sentiment one can easily imagine resonating among many of the veterans who have swept through Arab villages in recent years under a different flag.