Reading Between the Lines: Celebrating complexity

Khirbet Khizeh tells the story of an army unit that is given the task of expelling the residents of an Arab village.

IDF soldiers gaza 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
IDF soldiers gaza 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Birthdays are supposed to be times of unadulterated celebration, times to ignore growing pains and the indignities of aging, to eat, drink and be merry, commemorating another year of sustained life - or at least survival. But nothing related to Israel is unadulterated, birthdays in particular. Indeed, the 60th anniversary of the country's creation has been celebrated worldwide, but this commemoration has also yielded a counter movement. Perhaps no birthday has ever been as consciously not celebrated. In March, famed Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim announced that he would not take part in the festivities. "It is 60 years of Israel's independence, which also means that it is 60 years of suffering of the people who were here," he said. Over the last few weeks, as college campuses throughout the United States prepared for Yom Ha'atzmaut, students at Columbia University organized a "Palestine Nakba Week." Even more provocatively, the Muslim Student Association at the University of California, Irvine, staged a week-long conference entitled "Never Again? The Palestinian Holocaust." Of course, the fact that there are those who remember 1948 in different ways is nothing new. But these birthdays and anniversaries tend to engender renewed polarization. It's no coincidence, then, that Ibis Editions - the small Jerusalem-based publishing house run by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole - chose this time to release the first English translation of S. Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh. Yizhar's novella, translated by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck (who, full disclosure, has been a friend of mine since high school), does its part to shatter the possibility of a one-sided narrative. Khirbet Khizeh tells the story of an army unit that, as the War of Independence comes to a close, is given the task of expelling the residents of an Arab village called Khirbet Khizeh. For the most part, the story's drama takes place in the mind of the narrator. Even as he rounds up the villagers, he's weighed down by moral questions. "My eyes roamed this way and that. I was ill at ease. Where did this sense come from that I was being accused of some crime?" Khirbet Khizeh is not the first work of literature to take a hard look at the ethical conundrums of war, but Yizhar's ruminations on violence are not generic. He is troubled by this specific war and what he's been charged to do, destroy one homeland to build another. "My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours." Ultimately, though, Khirbet Khizeh is important for its context - who wrote it and when - not merely its content. S. Yizhar was, of course, the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky, a professor, Knesset member and one of the great scribes of modern Hebrew. Yizhar was a Zionist who helped to shape Israel, politically and culturally. That someone of this ilk could publish Khirbet Khizeh - and in 1949, no less - proves that the founding myths of Israel were not destroyed by the occupation of the West Bank or by the New Historians. The founding myths of Israel were themselves myths. The moral complexities of Israel's birth were clear from the outset, and we can thank Khirbet Khizeh for reminding us of this. Which is why I must take issue with one aspect of Ibis's Khirbet Khizeh: David Shulman's afterword. Shulman, a professor of Sanskrit at the Hebrew University, is a long-time peace activist. He writes about rereading Khirbet Khizeh in the Palestinian village of Twaneh, where he works with "the villagers, along with other like-minded Israelis, against their common foes, the Jewish settlers intent on terrorizing these people and driving them off their land." Why include such an ideologically specific essay in a volume that so laudably subverts politics as we know it? I asked Ibis's Hoffman and Cole this in an e-mail, and they acknowledged that Shulman's afterword may be off-putting for some. But they defended the decision. "Khirbet Khizeh is a major work of literature and a vital historical document that treats a history that is ongoing. It's easy to look back on this work as a marvel of Hebrew literature that describes an event in the increasingly distant past, and something that should be admired solely, or primarily, for its literary virtues. But that would be to miss its central import - which is its disturbing relevance to what is happening all around us today." Yet, while I'm thankful that Cole and Hoffman have brought us an English version of Yizhar's lost classic, I disagree with their assessment. Yizhar's original Hebrew may have been somewhat arcane, but de Lange's and Dweck's translation is eminently readable. Khirbet Khizeh will help readers see the past more clearly and, well before the afterword, will force them to make connections to the present. The book doesn't need Shulman's political exegesis to do its job. And I worry that for some who have been moved and challenged by Khirbet Khizeh, Shulman's words will transform the volume into something that seems manipulative, an ideological tool. This, of course, would be counterproductive - and a pity. [email protected]