Sanitizing the Nakba, in ‘The New York Times Book Review’

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Dexter Filkins opens his review of S. Yizhar’s novel, Khirbet Khizeh (“Whose Village?” New York Times February 22, 2015), arguing that the novel is a “landmark of Israeli literature,” and that it “has been part of the formation of the curriculum of Israel’s schools.”  If I hadn’t read David Shulman’s Afterword in the book, I might have believed Filkins’s assertion that the book is essential to the curriculum.  Shulman, a professor of Sanskrit and other Indian languages at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, tells otherwise.  The book is indeed “a canonical text,” Shulman writes, but is “in theory, still an optional part of the standard curriculum in Israeli high schools.”  This is an important distinction because Filkins’s assertion implies that Yizhar’s book is a current part of Israel’s consciousness.  If Israel, as Shulman states, “had the confidence to look at itself in the mirror,” then perhaps things would be very different today regarding awareness of the Nakba.

Since Shulman wrote the afterword in 2007, I was curious how he might reflect on it today, in 2015.  I asked him this question a few weeks ago.  Not surprisingly, he said that when he wrote the afterword “seven years ago, I myself felt somehow more hopeful.”  Shulman talked about the small victories on the ground that he has witnessed, but “the situation in south Hebron has hardened, and the reality is even more grim than before. I think things are even worse in the northern West Bank, where there’s virtually no continuous presence of Israeli activists.”  Shulman also added that “Yizhar’s story is even more relevant today than it was seven years ago, and the glimmers of hope I wrote about in the Afterword are still not much more than glimmers.”  On the final pages of  Khirbet Khizeh, Yizhar writes, “How does it end?”  We know that it hasn’t.

This was just one of the many inaccuracies in Filkins’s review (though it is important to recognize that others have pointed out the significance of having a book review in the New York Times about the Nakba).  Yousef Munayyer and Donald Johnson also point out of many of the errors.  No Palestinian point of view about the Nakba nor that of Israeli historians besides Benny Morris, are mentioned in the review.  Filkins’s omissions and errors sanitize the novel–and thus the Nakba–and get lost in the review.  Filkins also missed a great opportunity to show how the book is relevant to the situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine today (Shulman does this in his Afterword).

The book, published in 1949, is about an intelligence officer who witnessed and participated in the ethnic cleansing of a Palestinian village in 1948.  Yizhar uses a pen name (his real name is Yizhar Smilanksi) and gives the village the mythical name, Khirbet Khizeh.  It is a lyrical, painful tale reminiscent of other canonical anti-war novels like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  The book captures how war haunts the young men who have become oppressors and killers in the name of doing good for their country, and in Yizhar’s case, for “the great Jewish soul.”  Yizhar writes that he was “astonished at how easy it had been to be seduced, to be knowingly led astray and join the great general mass of liars.”  Indeed, the opening lines of the novel tell us that his witnessing of and participation in the ethnic cleansing of a Palestinian village “has haunted me ever since.”

It is true, as Filkins reminds us, that Palestinian “women, children and old people were rounded up, herded into trucks and sent across the border.”  But Filkins’s review tends to avoid the devastating reality that their expulsion was a meticulously planned effort to ethnically cleanse the village (and hundreds more)–efforts that still continue today.   As in many anti-war novels, Yizhar shows the emotional distance the soldiers feel from their military actions on the ground.  It’s not until two-thirds into the book–when the ethnic cleansing is underway–that one of the soldiers asks what the name of the village is: “What’s this place called anyway?”  They don’t even know the name of the home they were taking from the indigenous Palestinians.  Despite their detachment, the soldiers also feel the enthusiasm that comes with being the oppressor at war: “We were getting excited.  The thrill of the hunt that lurks inside every man had taken firm hold of us.”  Filkins might have mentioned, too, the trajectory of feelings that Yizhar goes through, questioning the war and all that these soldiers have done.  Yizhar has become so haunted that half-way into the novel he speaks out the phrase made famous in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The horror.  The horror!”

I am not writing this to suggest that Yizhar is somehow an oppressor-turned-victim because he develops a conscience in times of war.  He is no victim.  Filkins writes that Yizhar indeed “is tormented by his own actions,” and this is contrasted with the “group of soldiers who are mostly untroubled.”  But his shame and regret at taking part in the ethnic cleansing and his move toward greater consciousness of his actions is an important part of what is missing in Israel’s collective consciousness today.  Shulman writes in the Afterword that “unfortunately, it’s not at all clear that young Israelis who read this tale of what is, for them, a very distant past are likely to connect it in any meaningful way to their lives today.”  Filkins’s review sanitizes just how distraught Yizhar has become, and this, in turn, contributes to the sanitizing of the Nakba–typical of mainstream media like the New York Times, who when they report on Palestinian lives at all, tend to marginalize them or keep them as background.  Yizhar is devastated at what his comrades and he have done.  His further alienation shows as he starts to ask questions to the other soldiers who quickly shut him down:

‘We have no right, Moishe, to kick them out of here!’  I didn’t want my voice to tremble.

And Moishe said to me: ‘You’re starting with that again!’

And I realized that nothing would come of it.

In his afterword, Shulman writes that Yizhar “was the first major writer to describe in credible, unforgettable detail one emblematic example of the expulsion of Palestinian villages from their homes by Israeli soldiers, acting under orders, in the last months of the 1948-49 war.”

Yizhar sees and feels deeply about what has happened with horrific clarity.  Though Filkins does make this clear, he still uses words like herded, roundup, evacuate, left, fled, deport, leave, among others, to describe the expulsion of the Palestinians.  These words wash over the devastating reality of the Nakba.  As though raising his shoulders in a shrug, Filkins writes towards the end of the review, “whatever the reasons for the flight of the Palestinians, the government of Israel has not permitted them to come back.”  This might be Filkins’s attempt to bring the book into the present-day situation, but it stops there.  Gaza, for instance, is not mentioned at all in the review.  Filkins does use the word “expel,” to describe the orders the soldiers receive: “Under orders from above, a unit of Israel soldiers expels the Palestinian inhabitants.”  Filkins might have mentioned Yizhar’s epiphany, when he realizes what he and his comrades have done is indeed exile:

Something struck me like lightening.  All at once everything seemed to mean something different, more precisely: exile.  This was exile.  This was what exile was like.  This was what exile looked like.

Yizhar has juxtaposed the detachment of the soldiers, while showing the deep attachment the Palestinians have to their own land.  Filkins’s review misses the nuances of Yizhar’s portrayal.

Yizhar Smilansky, who wrote under the name S. Yizhar
Yizhar Smilansky, who wrote under the name S. Yizhar

Yizhar sees with painful clarity the Palestinians as native, indigenous inhabitants of the land that they have cultivated and taken care of.  He looks out at their harvested hills and fields, and this reflection on the land further illustrates the impending devastation of the Nakba:

Some plots were left fallow, and others were sown, by design, everything was carefully thought out, they had looked at the clouds and observed the wind, and they might also have foreseen drought, flooding, mildew, and even field mice; they had also calculated the implications of rising and falling prices, so that if you were beset by a loss in one sector you’d be saved by a gain in another, and if you lost on grain, the onions might come to the rescue, apart, of course, from the one calculation that they had failed to make, and that was the one stalking around, here and now, descending into their spacious fields in order to dispossess them.

Though Filkins does say that the West Bank is currently home to Israeli settlers, he misses the opportunity to describe the devastation that Yizhar feels when he finally understands–too late–the deep connection the Palestinians have to their land.

Further sanitizing of the Nakba comes through when Filkins writes that Israeli historians like Benny Morris “have painstakingly documented the exodus of the Palestinians and, more problematically, the causes of their flight,” but he does not mention Palestinian writers who have done the same thing, or even other Israeli writers like Ilan Pappe who documented the 1948 Nakba in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.  Filkins argues that “most historians who have examined the mass departure have found no formal Israeli plan to remove the Palestinians; the expulsions, it seems, grew out of the exigencies of the moment.”  Not only is this plan evident in Yizhar’s book, but it’s also made clear in the introduction to Ilan Pappe’s book.  Pappe states that the “expulsions” were organized with exact precision:

On a cold Wednesday afternoon, 10 March 1948, a group of eleven men, veteran Zionist leaders together with young military officers, put the final touches to a plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.  That same evening, military orders were dispatched to the units on the ground to prepare for the systematic expulsion of the Palestinian from vast areas of the country.

Pappe points out the flaws in Morris’s research, explaining that “Morris took the Israeli military reports he found in the archives at face value or even as absolute truth,” and that “he also kept insisting–wrongly–that before 15 May 1948 there had been no forced evictions.”

Pappe writes that Palestinian sources show that even before May 15, 1948, “the Jewish forces had already succeeded in forcibly expelling almost a quarter of a million Palestinians.”  Had Morris and others used these other sources, Pappe argues, “they might have been able to get a better grasp of the systematic planning behind the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 and provide a more truthful description of the enormity of the crimes the Israeli soldiers committed.”  And what does Filkins say about the expulsions?  “Still, the actions were sometimes brutal.”  Like Ari Shavit, who states in his book My Promised Land that what happened to the Palestinians was a sad necessity of war, Filkins too, conveniently dismisses the significance of the 1948 Nakba and its ongoing reality today: “It’s not a pretty picture, but war never is.” He wraps up the realities of the Nakba as quickly as he wraps up the review. “The expulsion of the Palestinians,” he writes, “might have been an unavoidable consequence of the establishment of Israel, but it doesn’t make it any easier to bear.”

Shulman’s afterword, written in 2007, brings Khirbet Khizeh into the present-day situation in Israel and Palestine, as he writes about his experiences reading the book for the first time forty years ago and then, again, more recently, in Palestinian places, like Twaneh and south Hebron and other smaller villages, where Shulman comes to stand with the Palestinians and other peace activists in protest of the Israeli occupation.  Shulman writes that “Yizhar is perhaps the greatest poet of Palestinian landscape in modern Hebrew,” and emphasizes the haunted feelings that follow Yizhar throughout the book:

No sentence is innocent, no matter how preoccupied it may seem to be with the physical beauty of the fields, the sky, the season…The narrator takes in the sensual world around him, it fills his eyes and penetrates all his pores, at moments it seems to offer a desperately sought distraction, yet the intense beauty of this world ultimately intensifies an experience of emergent human evil.

This contrast, Shulman explains, “is something all Israeli peace workers know well.”  He also reminds us that the village of Khirbet Khizeh could be any of the other Palestinian villages that have been ethnically cleansed, and that today, for “a Palestinian experiencing daily life in the occupied territories,” Yizhar’s “trenchant text has uncanny relevance.”  Much of what is missing, for me at least, in Filkins’s review, is the relevance that Yizhar’s book has today.  Shulman asserts, “If you happen to live in Twaneh or Susa or Tuba or any of the hundred other villages, the threat of expulsion is very real.”

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Thanks for this excellent review of Filkin’s review of S. Yizhar’s novel, Khirbet Khizeh. It says a lot about both modern-day Israel and today’s New York Times.

Ms. Rose writes about S.Yizhar in the present tense. He passed away in 2006.
It should be noted that after writing “Khirbet Khizeh”, Yizhar pursued a political career, along with his literary pursuits, and was elected to the Knesset as a member of” Mapai”, and later “Rafi”, a staunch supporter of Ben Gurion.

Thanks for this review of Filkin’s ‘review’, Liz. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Here’s another piece that deserves wide distribution: “Israel has supplied 60.7 percent of the world’s drones since 1985, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. As a result, Israel is the single greatest source of drone proliferation in the world. In second place is the United States, which accounts for 23.9 percent of global drone exports, followed by… Read more »

Thank you Liz Rose for reminding me about S. Yizhar’s important novel, that I have been wanting to read in full, for some time now. So annoying that Filkin’s review was so wide of the mark, yet I can appreciate that to have the Nakba considered in the NYT book review is a step in the right direction. Over here in the UK, in spite of the fact that 1n 1947 towards the end of… Read more »

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