Soon afterthe War of 1948, Jewish writer Yizhar Smilansky, under the penname S. Yizhar, published a novella entitled Khirbet Khizeh. The story has since become a fixture within the cannon of Israeli literature, largely due to Yizhar’s beautiful command of the Hebrew language and his mastery of the short story.
Perhaps more important than the elevated prose of the book is the tale told within the Khirbet Khizeh. At a time when the nascent nation was still scrambling to secure itself and its power, Yizhar boldly puts forth the story of one Israeli soldier’s struggle to justify his role within the Palestinian Nakba.
Decades before the conception of the “New Historian” movement, Yizhar’s narrator within the Khirbet Khizeh openly challenges the morality of the exodus and questions the validity of the army’s operations as he helps clear out the Arab village of Khirbet Khizeh.
From the outset, the narrator of Khirbet Khizeh has an extreme awareness of the fact that what he is doing is “wrong” in some way. Yizhar does an astounding job conveying the difficulty of communicating such a visceral feeling. It is not simply that the narrator sees the new Israeli army as categorically unethical, or that leaving Arabs alone is necessarily a possible solution. Rather, he is able to express in a deeper sense that what happened in 1948 was the irreversible beginning of a new era of struggle within the region. Though it is difficult for the narrator to point out exactly when and where he went wrong, it is clear that he grapples with a constant feeling of guilt over his actions. Though he tries to focus purely on his army orders, when faced with weeping, fragile, and very human Arab villagers, he is constantly overcome with pangs of conscience.
More importantly, for the narrator of Khirbet Khizeh this conscience is not something that can be ignored. Yizhar eloquently notes that, “Even if there was nothing easier than to disregard it, simply deny it, it mattered to me that it was beginning.” After perpetually trying to put his feelings into words and express his reservations to those around him, the novel climaxes with the narrator realizing what specifically is going on. Exile. Exile of a people. Exile, he realizes, is what he sees in the faces of the Arab villagers, in the tears of a proud mother, and in the gait of an old man as he leaves his home behind.
And to be a perpetrator of such a thing, to be responsible for such an exile: this he knows is not his right. For the young soldier realizes that no matter how much they can change Khirbet Khizeh – no matter who moves into the vacant houses, no matter how many synagogues are built, no matter how many new political parties are formed – the walls of this place will scream with the fact that this is not the only story. The place is not theirs. It is not their right to live within the walls of Khirbet Khizeh.
But is this realization enough? The novella closes on a note of helplessness after the narrator’s revelation. He speaks to his commander and is brushed aside. He does not refuse his orders or seriously challenge authority, but instead notes with sadness that, “nothing would come of it.” It is a shame, he says, “such a crying shame.” His rage will fade, history will move forward, and his actions alone are small and insignificant.
Despite seemingly leaving us with such a futile message, what Yizhar presents in the Khirbet Khizeh is not at all to be disregarded as such. Written amid a flurry of state-building propaganda and burgeoning patriotism, Yizhar is able to impart with extreme grace the importance of remaining aware. Through this tale he reminds us – even today – of the vital necessity of thinking beyond orders, beyond the views of your neighbors, and beyond your written history. He reminds us to force ourselves to confront things that are difficult to see. We must choose to look at these things, to question these things, and ultimately to recognize these things for what they are.
David Shulman, a professor at Hebrew University, articulately captures this idea in his afterword to Yizhar’s book, as he says:
The choice has something to do with extricating oneself from the thick envelope of one’s tribe… 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. It is from this point that one can act.
At a defining moment in history, Yizhar sought to challenge, disturb, and question. What emerged from his fight was a breathtaking novella that reveals the importance of examining our inner struggles. Though at times it may feel fruitless and exhausting, through the confusion and chaos exist transient moments of revelation and truth. It is imperative that we continue seeking these moments.