Shameful episodes in stunning prose

We bought this book in Tel Aviv last week, just days after viewing the exhibit and film Alone on the Walls about the heroic but ultimately failed struggle of residents of Jerusalem's "Jewish Quarter" against the assault by overwhelming forces of the Arab Legion and other Arab armies. A few dozen young men with small arms and lots of ingenuity, aided by women, children and the elderly, managed to hold off the siege for 150 days, from December 1947 to final surrender in May 1948. It is a powerful, moving story, documented by a photojournalist who, in disguise, accompanied the Jordanian troops and was able to get close to the attackers and, after the defeat, to the defeated.

But the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, like all wars, was morally complicated. This famous book by a prolific and highly respected Israeli novelist probes actions of Israeli forces that cannot inspire pride, and that help explain the deep pain and anger of Palestinians today.

Khirbet KhizehKhirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Published (in Hebrew) in 1949, just months after the events it describes, this was the first novel to (as the author himself described it years later) "[lay] bare the original sin of the State of Israel": the forcible, violent expulsion, killing, and razing of the homes of Palestinian villagers whose ancestral lands happened to fall on the Israeli side of the 1948 partition — the expulsion that Palestinians remember as the Nakba or "Catastrophe." Yizhar (Yizhar Smilansky) was a Sabra, born in Eretz Yisrael (in Rehovot) in 1916, 31 years before there was a state of Israel. He writes with an understanding of his Israeli character's psychology from the inside, which makes his portrait of a young Israeli soldier on a mission of what we would now call "ethnic cleansing" sharply, shudderingly convincing. The IDF detail assigned to erase the village of Khirbet Khizeh in the 1948 war is supposed to believe that they are acting in self-defense, that the villagers are all potential terrorists. But as the day of shooting at and sometimes killing fleeing men, mindlessly slaughtering farm animals, terrorizing women, children and old men too infirm to run, and blowing up houses continues, with no sign of an enemy weapon or hostile reaction anywhere, the soldier wonders what in his God's name he and his fellows are doing if not recreating the Jews' own history of exile.
"All at once everything seemed to mean something different, more precisely exile. This was exile. This was what exile was like. This was what exile looked like . . ."
But the young soldier does not bring himself to resist an order, and he does not dare to appear soft or Arab-loving to his comrades, so ever more reluctantly he continues with his squad until the village and its lives are totally destroyed. But his shame continues to haunt him. The book was a best-seller in Israel when re-issued in 1964 and was for a time required reading in high schools. Its merit is not merely its denunciation of "the original sin" but also its exquisite description of landscape, people, sensations and the doubts of the young soldier. It reads brilliantly in this translation by ; it must be wonderful in Hebrew.

For another review, thoughtful and seemingly well-informed, see Jacqueline Rose's "rereading" from the Guardian.

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