S. Yizhar’s “Khirbet Khizeh”

Reviewed by Tsipi Keller

Image of S. Yizhar’s “Khirbet Khizeh”

Long considered a classic, Khirbet Khizeh—also spelled Hirbet Hizeh (Arabic: The Ruins of Hizeh)—was first published in Israel in 1949, some months after the end of the 1948–49 war. On the surface, this novella is about a clean-up operation in the last months of the war. A small army unit (five or six soldiers are named by the unnamed narrator) is sent on a mission whose exact nature, at first, is not entirely clear, at least not to the narrator—or, it is entirely clear to him and to the others, but, for now, they prefer not to think about it. It is easier to push doubts and misgivings aside, for, in the final accounting, they are soldiers with orders ("operational order number such and such"), and besides, they can hide behind the notion that their superiors trust them to implement all that they need to implement that day "with such courtesy and with a restraint born of true culture, and this would be a sign of a wind of change, of decent upbringing, and, perhaps, even of the Jewish soul, the great Jewish soul."

The soldiers set out cheerfully on a "clear splendid winter morning," a group of carefree young men, boys really, well-fed and showered, until they reach the hill overlooking the village, where they are told, by radio, they must wait, and here begins one of the most harrowing sections in the book, opening with "No one knows how to wait like soldiers," which prepares us for what will follow as it plunges us deep into the mind-set of a soldier, perhaps to better understand the coming mindless acts. But no, how can one better understand mindless acts? They're abhorrent, no matter the excuse, the rational, and yet these boy-men, who set out joking, and seem like "a flock of chirping sparrowlike urchins," and who will soon, after this outing, go back home to their moms, are the same callous and hardened soldiers who forcibly evacuate the villagers of Hirbet Hizeh, mostly old men, some of them blind, as well as women and children, load them into trucks that will transport them to "their side" of the new cease-fire border. Some of the villagers plead with the soldiers, relying on the Jews' reputation of fair-mindedness, only to be disabused of this notion, but most get going "as soon as they heard the first cry, in an orderly, compact, obedient crowd without any protest," or, elsewhere, like a "flock of sheep," suspecting "that they were all being led to the slaughter."

No blood is shed that day, only the dignity of normal, day-to-day behavior. The soldiers, pumped with self-righteousness ("What are we doing to them? We're taking them to their side… It's very decent of us"), do their job, but it is clear that they would rather be killing and getting killed, anything but facing these villagers. Throughout the novella their bravura is questioned and challenged by the landscape, the ever-silent witness, and by the villagers who "went past saying nothing and not looking at us, and their appearance made us feel like worthless idlers and mischievous hoodlums."

When they have a minute of respite, as when they break for lunch, they instantly revert to jokes and banter and talk about girls; it's better not to think about the task at hand, because "when the thoughts came, troubles began." They're not callous by nature, but by circumstance. They're tired and bored, they hate themselves and their surroundings, and toward the end of the day, and the novella, their job done, "Somebody started to talk about supper."

Khirbet is a work of dualities and contradictions; reader and narrator are pulled this way, that way, and then this way as well. Yizhar himself fought in the war, he was a Zionist, he believed in the right of the Jews to the land, and yet—and yet. In Khirbet, he is a man at war with himself, as he tries to reconcile the rights of the Jews with the rights of the Palestinian villagers, the landscape as it is now, and which he loves (Yizhar, David Shulman notes in his fine Afterword, is "perhaps the greatest poet of Palestinian landscape in modern Hebrew"), and the way the landscape will change once the Jews take over and build it up: "We'd open a cooperative store, establish a school, maybe even a synagogue." It is also a work of parallels, as the language Yizhar deploys to depict the Palestinian villagers is unmistakably the language one connotes with the Holocaust (sheep led to the slaughter), and people who had lived in exile for two thousand years, who had become "peddlers of exile," were now sending others into exile, as the narrator suddenly realizes: "This was exile. This was what exile looked like."

The narrator, watching a mother and her boy in the procession of the new exiles, strikes a prophetic note: "…we could also see how something was happening in the heart of the boy, something that, when he grew up, could only become a viper inside him, the same thing that was now the weeping of a helpless child."

There's no false note, no generic anti-war rhetoric in Khirbet, and as long as we continue to kill one another, in the Middle East or elsewhere, Khirbet will retain its poetic relevance, and we can only thank Nicholas de Lange (who has translated Yizhar's Preliminaries, reviewed on this site last year) and Yaacob Dweck for their lucid translation, and Ibis Editions for bringing this novella to print, nearly sixty years after it was first published.

Tsipi Keller is a novelist and translator. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Award and of CAPS and NYFA awards in fiction, and the author, most recently, of Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry (SUNY Press), and The Hymns of Job and Other Poems, a collection of translated poems by the Israeli poet Maya Bejerano (BOA Editions).