Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Khirbet Khizeh" (1949) and the Guilt of Origins

I am in the midst this weekend of reading Yizhar Smilansky's 1949 novella Khirbet Khizeh-- by all accounts a classic of Israeli literature. This short and vivid work-- 109 pages in the version I own; an afternoon's read, to people not cruelly interrupting themselves with blog posts -- has a reputation for controversy: it was the first book really to lay bare, they say, the ugly realities of the 1948 war that created the State of Israel.

Given the novel's political element, I wasn't sure what to expect. "Savage indictments" of this and that often don't make for suave reading, even -- or perhaps especially -- when the indictment is a fair one. Besides, what could a novel tell us about the injustices of the 1948 war that could not better be learned from, say, Benny Morris? It's hard for a work of literature to serve as an exposé of anything, when it doesn't pretend from the start to be a narrative of true historical events. I couldn't think what it could possibly prove to fill a novel with factitious atrocity stories and admit that they are invented.

But as I read on, I realized just how off-base these fears were. Because exactly the thing that works about this novel is that it does not rely on atrocity accounts. This is not primarily a story of mass graves and bones scattered in the desert. It is true that the young Israeli soldiers in the book behave callously toward the Arab people they encounter -- leaving two old women to die in the hot sun who had been abandoned by their family, shoving an old man who is trying to make friendly overtures, denying to another fleeing villager the camel on which he is trying to haul away his family's meager possessions. Despite the coldness and cynicism of their attitudes, however, the soldiers do not engage in orgies of violence. They mostly follow their orders, if grudgingly, and keep to their rules of engagement. This might be the very thing that proves most haunting about the book. It does not look at what soldiers may or may not have done in excess of the rules, but at what those rules were that they were being asked to follow.

What the soldiers have been asked to do to Khirbet Khizeh, the Arab village of the book's title, is to evacuate all its inhabitants, to load these remaining villagers onto transports and cart them across the Israeli border, and to burn or otherwise destroy all remaining structures in the town. They do all of this through following orders, not by violating them. The narrator mordantly describes himself and his comrades in the novel's opening pages as those who have been engaged to "burn blow up imprison load and convey with such courtesy and a restraint born of true culture[.]" (De Lange and Dweck translation throughout). This is a basically true and accurate description of what they do in the course of the story. This fact -- the fact that the violence is done calmly and with "restraint," precisely as it is meant to be done--  poses a much more deeply probing question about the justice of the '48 war than any accounts of renegade massacres ever could.

Smilansky might have focused his book on incidents from the war still under historical dispute, in which case the novel, purporting as it does to be fiction, could have made little contribution to the debate. Instead, he writes about events that all sides more or less acknowledge to have taken place -- events which even liberal Zionists in Israel still portray as justified or necessary. Rather than "exposing" new events, therefore, he forces us to regard familiar ones, but without the protective veneer of cliché. Thus, the most haunting passages are precisely those that refer to events most universally acknowledged to be true.

The novel takes place in a slightly nebulous aftermath period of the 1948 conflict (even the narrator does not seem sure if the war has truly ended). By this point in history, 700,000 Palestinians had been displaced in the fighting, by one means or another, and had found themselves on the "wrong" side of Israel's newly proclaimed borders. Their legal rights to their former lands and property, much of which had been abandoned in the flight from war, were terminated by the new state; and they were denied all access to their former homes.

The fictional village Khirbet Khizeh is located on lands claimed by the new State of Israel, which makes all of the Arab people living there "infiltrators" in the eyes of the military; even though most of them had simply returned from across the border to their own abandoned houses. The book's narrator -- a not entirely sympathetic character, who seems pulled in two directions at once by the contemptuous pity he bears the Arabs --makes clear the historical situation. Though the orders he is handed label the villagers in Khirbet Khizeh "infiltrators," they are in fact simply the original inhabitants who had been briefly displaced by conflict, and are now "sneaking back to eke out their miserable existence in their godforsaken villages," as he coldly describes it.

Smilansky's novelistic depiction of who the people targeted by these kinds of operations actually were, and of what motivated them, accords with the judgment of historians. Avi Shlaim, in a review of a book by Benny Morris, writes that
"Many of the infiltrators were Palestinian refugees whose reasons for crossing the border included looking for relatives, returning to their homes, recovering possessions, tending their fields, harvesting, and, occasionally, exacting revenge."
In order to clear the village of such "infiltrators," the narrator and his troop are bid to machine-gun the town outskirts and take potshots at those who flee immediately; then they are expected to gather up the rest of the townspeople and convey them across the border; and meanwhile they will burn whatever "huts" can be burned in the village and dynamite what's left.

These are of course the same events described in the military jargon that Smilansky sardonically quotes at the beginning of his novel, when the narrator is first given his marching orders. They are the same events that Avi Shlaim still appears to regard as justified, however plainly he sympathizes with the motives of the Palestinian refugees, and however much he deplores the way such operations were carried out. He writes in the same essay quoted above:
"There was [...] a threat that the infiltrators would try to re-establish themselves in their former homes inside Israel. Infiltration [...] posed a danger not only to the country's day-to-day security but also to its territorial integrity. To cope with this threat Israel established new settlements along the borders and razed abandoned Arab villages. [...] The 'free-fire' policy towards infiltrators was adopted. [....] Intermittently, the soldiers who carried out these operations committed acts of brutality[.]"
But as I say, Smilansky's novel is less concerned with those lone "acts of brutality," intermittent or otherwise. It is concerned with the actions that Shlaim appears to regard as licit, even necessary. It dwells on the details of what it actually means to "raze" an "abandoned Arab village" -- one that is of course not abandoned at all, from any view outside the closed tautologies of legal fictions -- one that is, rather, filled with the same people who have been occupying it for years, but who now have been labeled "infiltrators" by a distant and unrecognized new authority.

Smilansky's book asks us to pause, likewise, over what it actually means to have your efforts to "re-establish" yourself in your "former home" to be regarded as a "threat" to the state that now claims control over your land. In one passage of the novel, the narrator reflects on the generations of accumulated human activity that went into the building of each condemned home in the village -- and how the result of so many centuries of purposeful effort is now to be annihilated in a single act of fiery destruction. In another, he passes through an evacuated kitchen and is suddenly made aware of the fact that the abandoned possessions there, the utensils and plates and furniture, once meant something to someone, to a whole family-- "ornaments that hung on the walls, testifying to a loving care whose foundations had now been eradicated [...] an order intelligible to someone." (p. 37).

It all arouses pity in the narrator, but mixed with it a kind of violence -- a desire to destroy the source of this new and discomfiting self-doubt:
"Massive shadows of things whose death yesterday was still unimaginable [...] some kind of question that posed itself of its own accord, or a kind of aside [...] something about something that was not this, like this but not it, that left an unpleasant sourness, like pity for a beggar or a revolting cripple, which merely irritated and pestered the soul, and the best thing to do was to rid oneself of it, assume a furious glance and fix it upon that very village [...] and to translate the glance into an out-and-out curse."
Khirbet Khizeh is thus a book about the human realities that lie behind the official story of Israeli origins and the "thought-terminating clichés" (Robert Lifton's term) that inform it -- clichés so embedded and familiar (including to people in the United States) that even a person like Avi Shlaim, who has devoted much of his career to pressing for Palestinian human rights, cannot wholly seem to be rid of them.


It is easy to perceive such clichés as the paltry self-exonerations they are, when one is standing outside the society that gave birth to them. It even seems a mystery why any intelligent and humane person could find them convincing.

Zeev Sternhell, for instance. He is -- like Avi Shlaim -- a Zionist of a sincerely left-liberal cast. He is a true democrat if ever one walked the Earth, a passionate advocate for Palestinian human rights in Israel's modern politics, and an erudite scholar, who has specialized throughout his career in the analysis and debunking of closed and self-justifying ideologies of various kinds. Yet his defense of the Israeli position in the '48 war fails to result in a position that is morally or intellectually consistent. As he writes in reference to Khirbet Khizeh in an article in the New Left Review-- where I first learned of the book:
"Smilansky’s work represents both aspects of the reality: on the one hand, the barbarism of the [1948] war and the endless calamities it generated; and on the other, the heroism it gave rise to, which in turn enabled the establishment of the Jewish State. Similarly, from the beginning the two peoples were, and still are, within their rights. The Jews had, and still have, the right to a patch of soil of their own. The Palestinians had the right to resist, and still have the right to freedom, independence and compensation."
Can these two aspects be reconciled to one another? Can both partake equally of reality? Can it be morally right at one and the same time both to fight and to be fought by a people? Maybe, but I'm not convinced.

It has to be made very clear at this point that neither Sternhell nor Shlaim is writing in defense of any forcible expulsion of Palestinians from the new state that took place during the war, i.e. before the borders were drawn. Sternhell for one describes any such violence as "indefensible." He merely wishes to emphasize that such forced displacement was not carried through on a massive scale via any centralized means. Guilt for it, therefore, cannot be attributed to the Israeli military as a whole. He writes:
"[T]he assassinations and expulsions which sowed panic among the Arab population were local initiatives [.... T]here was never a policy of organized expulsion. Most Arabs, especially in the north of the country, did not move, and today Israeli Arabs constitute 20 per cent of the population."
I don't know nearly enough about the subject to judge the accuracy of these statements (apart from that of the obviously true final one). I don't know how widely guilty or innocent the Israeli military may have been in forcibly expelling Palestinians before the borders were drawn.

But Khirbet Khizeh is not, after all, a novel about this phase of the war-- it takes place after the fighting has ended and the State of Israel has gained its borders. It takes place in a historical context the details of which cannot be and are not denied by any observer.

No one, including Sternhell, denies that for one reason or another, 700,000 Palestinians found themselves outside the borders of the new State of Israel, at the conclusion of the 1948 war. No one denies, moreover, that once the borders were drawn and these 700,000 people found themselves on the "wrong" side of them, they were not allowed back in. Suddenly these people, who had been living for years inside the boundaries of present-day Israel, were denied access and legal rights to their own lands and property and villages. Any attempt they made to retrieve these things labeled them "infiltrators," and left them open to military expulsion and the destruction of their former homes, as described in Khirbet Khizeh.

That is the injustice at the heart of Israel's founding, and the reality of it is not really open to question. The outrage that Smilansky's novel chronicles is not that of some lone "indefensible action" carried out by hired thugs or disobedient teenage soldiers looking for action-- it is the nominally legal act of boundary-drawing itself that followed the war, and which retroactively excluded more than half a million people from their homes. One passage reads:
"'The devil take them,' said Gaby, 'what beautiful places they have.'
"'Had,' answered the operator. 'It's already ours.'"
If this bare assertion is true-- and it seems incontestably to be so-- if it is true that what the Palestinians had cherished was taken from them by legal fiction and passed over to the Israelis-- then the basic and irremediable guilt of Israel's founding has already been shown, whether there were violent forced expulsions during the war or not.

As I say, it's easy to feel baffled, from a vantage point outside Israeli society, by the fact that Sternhell does not see this. But it is really not so surprising. Sternhell served in Israel's armed forces in the 1948 war, let us recall. It is very difficult for anyone -- even a brilliant and humanitarian soul -- to have such a personal stake in something and still to repudiate it. Israel in general, meanwhile, is a society with compulsory universal military service and an official ethnic and religious identity. It should surprise us that it has as many dissidents as it does (such as Sternhell), not that it has so few!

More important than this is the fact that it is really a lot harder than it seems from the outside to question the basic justice of the founding of one's own society. I as an American, for instance, find it quite emotionally and intellectually challenging to dwell at any length on the immense cruelties toward indigenous peoples that our own society's creation entailed. The same could be said of most other of this country's inhabitants. In part we fear that acknowledging the guilt of our origins will mean we have to undo everything-- pull up our stakes and return to Europe. Many Israeli intellectuals seem to feel likewise that acknowledging that the creation of the State of Israel was basically unjust will lead to that state's destruction.

When of course we know that neither of these follow-- that people gain rights to exist in a given place simply by having done so for a long time, etc. But the fear is there. We are all, perhaps, a bit like the narrator of Khirbet Khizeh. The self-doubt hurts, it "irritates and pesters the soul." Oftentimes it pierces so deeply that we want to destroy whatever source it may have had. Pity, guilt, and hatred are thus more closely intertwined feelings than we like to admit. The narrator of Nathaneal West's Miss Lonelyhearts recalls something from his past that reveals a disturbing human truth: "years before [...] he had accidentally stepped on a small frog [.... It] had filled him with pity, but when its suffering had become real to his senses, his pity had turned to rage and he had beaten it frantically until it was dead."

So maybe such stabbing guilt is not the thing we need more of, if we are to approach a more just future --one that makes some kind of amends for the past. But what other ways of thinking about the past are available to us?

In the United States, like in Israel, disputes about the justice of our founding are often fruitlessly polarized around questions that -- while important -- do not really scratch the moral center of things. Some scholars will regard the indigenous population as the victims of an organized ethnic cleansing. Our country had no end of its own "Khirbet Khizehs," after all-- George Washington's own military  campaigns burned dozens of Indian villages to the ground. Others attribute frontier atrocities against Indians mostly to the actions of lone individuals or volunteer militias, operating without central direction. They also remind us that both sides in frontier conflicts committed what we would now consider to be war crimes.

But such disputes, of course, miss the real point, which is that places that had served people throughout their lives as homelands were taken from them, and handed to someone else. It is not possible to look at American history without accepting that this is true. The ultimate result of this process therefore remains manifestly unjust, even after one acknowledges that horrible violence was exchanged on both sides.

So too, recognizing that a great injustice was inflicted against the Palestinians does not have to involve -- and ought not to involve-- casting them in the unappealing role of the primly virtuous and the unilaterally victimized. The Arab population certainly committed atrocities against Jewish settlers prior to the creation of the State of Israel. Arthur Koestler recalls in his memoirs some of the stories of persecution that Jewish kibbutzim suffered in this period, and which provoked his indignation enough to make him an ardent Zionist for a period. At this point in history, at least in Koestler's eyes, it was not at all clear that one of these two populations in Palestine was the "hegemonic" one and the other the "oppressed." Neither enjoyed privileged access to the state, after all; both in fact regarded themselves as the victims of British imperialism.

 The point is simply that the ultimate dispossession that resulted from these conflicts was a terrible injustice, and that many of the descendants of those first dispossessed are today still harmed by the legacy of these same historic events, despite the fact that they were not even alive at the time they occurred. How could that possibly be fair?

But then, neither was I alive at the time the United States completed its Westward colonization. Neither were most Jewish people in Israel alive or living there when that state was created and its borders drawn, such that they excluded 700,000 Palestinians. It wouldn't be any fairer to non-Native Americans or to present-day Israelis to take away our homes, the only ones we have ever known, than it is to continue to inflict dispossession and poverty on the descendants of the indigenous populations of both societies.

In both cases, therefore, a means must be found whereby acknowledging the truth does not make us fear for our present safety. Perhaps the place to start is by the simple recognition that all of us  -- descendants of indigenous peoples or descendants of later migrants or colonizers -- are individuals with our own conscience and moral agency. We had no choice in inflicting the crimes of the past. Nor can we undo them now. No tears can expunge what the moving finger has writ, as the poem says. To talk about such crimes, therefore, is not to impute guilt or shame to any of us.

It does provide, however, a chance to think about the crimes of the present, which are so often made possible, even determined, by those of the past. In whether or not we will collaborate in these crimes, or help to rectify them, each of us does have a choice. And to know what these crimes are, we have to know about our origins. And we have to know about the guilt of those origins, even if it is not our guilt to bear.

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