‘I am an illegal alien on my own land’

David Shulman writes: In 1949, shortly after Israel’s War of Independence, S. Yizhar—the doyen of modern Hebrew prose writers—published a story that became an instant classic. “Khirbet Khizeh” is a fictionalized account of the destruction of a Palestinian village and the expulsion of all its inhabitants by Israeli soldiers in the course of the war. The narrator, a soldier in the unit that carries out the order, is sickened by what is being done to the innocent villagers. Here he is in Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck’s translation (Ibis Publications, 2008):

I felt a terrifying collapse inside me. I had a single, set idea, like a hammered nail, that I could never be reconciled to anything, so long as the tears of a weeping child still glistened as he walked along with his mother, who furiously fought back her soundless tears, on his way into exile, bearing with him a roar of injustice and such a scream that—it was impossible that no one in the world would gather that scream in when the moment came….

Still, the narrator goes along with the expulsion without overt protest. Yizhar himself was an intelligence officer during the war; he describes events he may well have seen himself: “We came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile. What in God’s name were we doing in this place?”

Somewhat surprisingly, this story was taught for many years in Israeli secondary schools as part of the modern Hebrew canon; even today it is still on the books as an optional text for the matriculation exam (unless the Netanyahu government has secretly removed it). The story embodies the conscience of Israel at the moment of the state’s formation. It also gives voice to a much older Jewish tradition of moral protest and the struggle for social justice. When I was growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s and 1960s, I mistakenly thought that this tradition was at the core of what it meant to be Jewish.

Sixty-three years have passed since Yizhar wrote “Khirbet Khizeh.” I wish I could say that what he described was an ugly exception and that such actions don’t happen any more. It is not, and they do. This week I find myself in Susya, in the South Hebron hills, near the southern corner of the West Bank. Like their counterparts in many other Palestinian villages, Susya’s approximately 300 inhabitants are impoverished, badly scarred, terrified, and defenseless. The week before last the officers of the Civil Administration, that is, the Israeli occupation authority, turned up with new demolition orders in their hands; these orders apply to nearly all the standing structures in the village — mostly tents, ramshackle huts, sheep-pens, latrines, and the wind-and-sun-powered turbine that Israeli activists put up some three years back to generate electricity on this stony, thirsty hilltop in the desert. If the orders are carried out — this could happen at any moment — then it means the nearly complete destruction of an entire village and the violent expulsion of its people. They will be, quite literally, cast into the desert. [Continue reading…]

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