Book Review: Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar
“Long live Hebrew Khizeh! Who, then, would ever imagine that once there had been some Khirbet Khizeh that we emptied out and took for ourselves. We came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile.”
One is not always in touch with history and its events. Of course, being Filipino, this means that I am not at all empathetic with the Arab-Israeli conflict that has been going on for centuries, the modern incarnation of which has been the source of one of the most tightly-wound areas of conflict around the world and a subject of one of the most ongoing geopolitical debates in history. If not for the classes that I took in college, I wouldn’t be very knowledgeable about the history and current situation of Israel, Palestine, and their neighboring countries. Even now, I couldn’t really say that I am very knowledgeable in the matter. Most of my reading and knowledge on the subject matter concerns the history and the politics of the situation, treating it as a matter of policy and as a case study on the region. Rarely or rather I have not yet encountered a text that shows the human side of the situation and magnifies the plight of the civilians being forcibly exiled or killed due to the conflict. That is until I read S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh.
Khirbet Khizeh is a story about a forced deportation of the small Palestinian village Khirbet Khizeh by a group of Israeli soldiers not long after the birth of the Jewish State. The protagonist, who is left unnamed, narrates the events of the day from the beginning, when they approached the village at dawn, until the end, when they force the Palestinian villagers into trucks and carried them towards an unmentioned destiny. The whole story is a compact one, it doesn’t change settings nor time although the story unfolds in the guise of the protagonist looking back towards the events that happened that day, his memory and interpretation of events now inundated with new meaning after a period of reflection due to the passage of time.
The book has a limited narrative focus. The narration doesn’t go back and forth between characters, there is no reason given as to why they need to vacate Khirbet Khizeh, and events happening in other parts of Israel are rarely referred to. We only know about the protagonist, the events that happened around him, and the actions of those near him. However, it is exactly this limitation that gives Khirbet Khizeh such a profound platform. By concentrating on the minutae, S. Yizhar (whose real name is Yizhar Smilansky) intensifies the events that happened in this fictional town. The protagonist struggles with what he is doing, weighing his duty to his newly-born country against his duties to humanity. One of the most striking imagery in the novella was the villagers being taken away in trucks and the protagonist thinking that it resembles Jews being taken away by Nazis during the Second World War:
“I felt that I was on the verge of slipping. I managed to pull myself together. 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. Why 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 the masters now.”
That is certainly a controversial stance to take to compare the Jewish soldiers who are perpetuating a forced exile of Palestinians to the Nazis. What Yizhar is pointing out is the steps that the Jewish people are willing to take in order to end years and years of their own exile even if that means doing the same thing that has been done to them which is to force people from their homes and cast them towards the void of uncertainty and darkness. To the soldiers and most of Israel’s citizens, no action is too severe as long as it advances the interests of their nation. This knowledge is the crux of the protagonist’s moral dilemma: Should there be a limit to their actions? Is there a point where a course of action crosses a certain moral line? Have we already crossed such a line?
However, the book is not limited to the moral dilemma that the protagonist faces. Yizhar also sheds a light on the victims of such forced exile, the Palestinian who are being forcibly exiled. All of whom are women, children, and old people as most of the young men are either forced into hiding or are active in fighting against Israel. One of the more striking trends in Khirbet Khizeh is the beautiful and unspoiled landscape surrounding the village that are put into contrast with the sheer cruelty of the events. Here are a people that are nothing but blameless yet they bear the brunt of Israel’s soldiers who do their duty without an iota of remorse amidst a landscape that is indifferent.
Despite the novel being published back in 1949, the themes has remained relevant until today. A new nuclear deal with Iran has caused the government of Israel to rise in furor which is resulting in their heightened paranoia and a general distrust with their neighbors. I am no expert on the political situation in the Middle East but such an event can only result in a cavalcade of events that will eventually result in more problems in the Middle East particularly those in the borders of Israel. With such a tension-filled environment, it is hard to imagine that the Palestinians who were forcibly exiled will be allowed to return to their homes in the near-future. Instead, there is a heightened danger that the Palestinians living in contested territories might be forced to leave their closest definition of home and once again forced to relocate themselves to whatever nook they can find.