21 January 09 | Chad W. Post

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next three days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck. (Israel, Ibis Editions)

I won’t be surprised if this post gets attacked by someone in the “blogosphere”: Jewish-Arab relations and military actions is an intellectual powder keg. So before saying anything, I want to make it clear that this book—written from the point of view of an Israeli soldier involved in the takeover of Khirbet Khizeh and the evacuation of the Arabs living there—is on the longlist is on here for aesthetic reasons only. And for the quality of the prose and the translation.

That preface might not even be necessary . . . Khirbet Khizeh is considered a classic work, and although it has been the focus of many debates over the course of its history, what’s interesting is how it was received when first published in 1949, just months after the 1948 war:

Fifty-nine years ago, when “Khirbet Khizeh” was first published, it was not an expose of wartime misconduct. No expose was needed. In 1949, few Israelis were unaware that Arab villages had been forcibly evacuated. As historian Anita Shapira has shown in a brilliant essay on the novella’s reception from its publication until the 1990s, though “Khirbet Khizeh” was a best-seller in its first years, and though it was much discussed in newspapers and magazines, its veracity was hardly challenged and few questioned whether such an unpretty account of events should be published. When “Khirbet Khizeh” first came out, it was a rumination on something people knew to be true – how could they not? – and its aim was to clearly describe what had appeared vague in the fog of war and then the exaltation of victory: the moral muck inevitable in creating a Jewish majority in Palestine. This was the “Khirbet Khizeh” that was added to the high school curriculum. [from Noah Efron’s review in Haaretz ]

As mentioned in brief above, this short novella is about the violent expulsion of the Palestine villagers by Israeli soldiers acting under orders. The hatred the Jewish soldiers express about the Arabs, the fact that they’re doing this because “they were ordered,” the callous, unforgiving behavior, allows one to make parallels between this situation and other wars/conflicts. And even in the abstract, this base violence toward “the other” is universal, and the book illustrates as much about human nature as it does about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

And for all the beautiful descriptions of Khirbet Khizeh, there are passages that are tough to swallow, that force the reader to see the worst parts of war. From a section after the village is secured and all the inhabitants are being loaded up and sent off:

“They’re just like animals,” Yehuda explained to us, but we did not reply.

The women were gathered onto another truck, and they began to scream and weep, and no one envied those who had to look after them. [. . .]

We felt a mood of beggary, pus, and leprosy, and all that was lacking was the sound of dirges and charity saveth from death.

“Ugh, revolting!” said Shlomo.

“Better they should die!” said Yehuda.

“How many blind people and cripples do they have in this village!” said Shlomo.

Not always so explicit, these sorts of sentiments run throughout the novella and make this a bit hard to read. One of the things that complicates, and elevates, this novel is the main character’s interior reaction to these events, which isn’t always straight down the party line:

But not this . . . not this . . . something was still unclear. Just a kind of bad feeling. Like being forced into a nightmare and not being allowed to wake up from it. You’re caught up with several voices. You don’t know what. Maybe the answer is to stand up and resist? But maybe, the opposite, to see and be and feel . . .


My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue—our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out—that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were masters now.

But as David Shulman writes in his afterword, “this story is in fact far from being moralistic, utterly remote from preaching and pontification.” And maybe that’s what’s made it such a lasting book, one that’s prompted a lot of discussion and debate, as great books should.

S. Yizhar—the pen name for Yizhar Smilansky—passed away rather recently (2006), was a longtime member of Knesset, and in addition to Khirbet Khizeh, is known for his 1,156-page magnum opus, Days of Tziklag. (Which hasn’t been translated into English.)

It’s unfortunate that Ibis Editions doesn’t get more attention from American reviewers and publications. They’re doing some very interesting books, and personally, I like the simple, unadorned style and feel of this title. We’ll make a special effort to review more of their books for Three Percent in the upcoming months. But for now, if you can get your hands on it, Khirbet Khizeh is worth checking out.

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