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 cross ignorance, utilitarian indifference, and shameless self-interest – and exchange a single great truth for the cynical shrug of a hardened sinner.
Khirbet Khizeh is a novel about the brutalities of war, but no one dies. Shots fired miss their targets; the advancing soldiers find only elderly villagers, the blind, women and children, and these they herd together like cattle. A war is waging between violence and entropy, and entropy is winning.
The action takes place over a single day. A squad of Israeli soldiers have been sent to clear a Palestinian village of its inhabitants. Though the narrator tells us that this ‘all happened a long time ago’, the scenes of soldiers thirsty for violence, persecuting Palestinian villagers out of boredom, have an eerie resonance: here is a one-sided war waged against a group of people largely unable to defend themselves. So too does the sense of stagnation, of inaction, feel modern. Yizhar speaks of an interminable conflict that cannot be won, that will haunt the victors, and ‘the people who would live in this village – wouldn’t the walls cry out in their ears?’
Khirbet Khizeh was written in 1948 and published in 1949, shortly after the war known as either ‘The War of Independence’ (in Israel) or ‘The Catastrophe’ (in Palestine), in which around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their homes. It is one of the first great Israeli novels, a work of extraordinary beauty: lush descriptions of glowing golden fields give way to run-on sentences filled with biblical allusions, twisting the narrator back and forth between a desire for violence, torpor and flickers of compassion.
The Palestinian lands the soldiers have been sent to clear appear as a sort of paradise: ‘the song of the luxuriant land rustled in blue, yellow, brown, and green, and everything in between them, warming itself in the after-rain sun, gazing in total silence toward the light and the gold, throbbing.’ Into this paradise comes our narrator and his fellow soldiers, young men who have seen action and are exhausted by its opposite, which is not peace but a sort of limbo, an endless waiting for a call to arms, no enemy to fight, no chance to return home. They are told they are to clear a village ‘some Khirbet Khizeh or other’, and it is during their approach that the narrator begins to have doubts.
S. Yizhar is the penname of Yizhar Smilansky, who served as an intelligence officer in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Years after the publication of Khirbet Khizeh, Yizhar declared that the events portrayed in the novel were, ‘sad to say, reality, black on white and true to life’. This is the brilliance and the horror of Khirbet Khizeh, a novel which presses us up against the truth of the coloniser, afflicted by his conscience, pushing on nonetheless.
Here is a novel that stands as a foundational text of a country, and yet questions the methods employed in that country’s very foundation. It is a literary paradox, and its lessons extend beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine to the twenty-six millions refugees across the world today.
When I first read the book in 2011, I was astonished to learn that it had been on the school curriculum in Israel for decades – though there is some debate as to how often it has actually been taught. I had taken Yizhar’s novel as a sort-of Cassandra cry from the past: how can all of this still be occurring, I thought, when we were so thoroughly warned? Yet occur it does, on a global scale, and this endless conflict is the true subject of Khirbet Khizeh. Are we not all, every day, seduced into exchanging ‘a single great truth for the cynical shrug of a hardened sinner’?