The Palestine-Israel in Perspective Series: An Addendum


Nakba Image

A Review of Khirbet Khizeh……A series in the Arts and Ideas program, Palestine-Israel in Perspective, is devoted to helping Lewis students understand the past and current situation in the region. A panel featuring faculty from Lewis and the University of St. Francis helped to establish some sense of the ongoing conflict. Three films will help to demonstrate the nature and price of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, now almost 50 years old. Occupation 101 and The Gatekeepers are documentaries which examine the means by which Israel keeps its Palestine populations, both in Israel and in the West Bank under control by restrictions on mobility, searches and confiscation of property, and economic tactics. The Gatekeepers features six former directors of Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the FBI, who almost uniformly comment on the futility and counter-productivity of these tactics of domination. Lemon Tree is a fictional film about a proud Palestinian women whose life is turned upside down when a high ranking Israeli official moves into the property next to hers. Also, attorney Tarek Khalil will speak on Palestinian rights and International Law. See for details.

This informative series put together by Dr. Salim Diab (Chemistry) and Gregory Harms (Philosophy).

Not surprisingly, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before the American Congress to urge maximum vigilance in the face of an Iranian nuclear threat, the word Palestine didn’t occur at all, this despite the fact that conditions in Gaza and the West Bank and a growing Arab population in Israel and the occupied territories present a more immediate threat than do non-existent Iranian missiles.

A neglect of a different kind is addressed in a just published-in-English 1949 novel Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar, the pen name for Yizhar Smilansky, one of the best known and most admired mid-century novelists writing in Hebrew. The publication of the novel in the immediate aftermath of the declaration of Israel nationhood created quite a controversy because it called into question the attitudes and tactics of the Israel Defense Forces that emptied out Palestinian farms and villages (like the fictional Khirbet Khizen), many of which were soon occupied by Israeli citizens. Yizhar’s novel then documents one episode in the nakba, the Palestinian term for the massive, tragic relocation of the Palestinian population. The continued encroachment of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank in the 21st century indicates that the Palestinian insistence on the “right of return” to their property is an impossible dream.

The narrator of Yizhar’s tale is an unnamed foot soldier. Over the course of this brief work, we witness the sensitive and eloquent narrator’s increasing disillusionment with the enterprise and his disavowal of the various myths that propel it. Aside from the various descriptions of indifference and cruelty toward the women and children of the village (most of the men of fighting age have fled to fight elsewhere), are beautiful descriptions of the Palestinian landscape. Part of the narrator’s awakening is his growing appreciation that the orderly, well-cultivated farms have been lovingly tended for multiple generations. The citizens are hardly nomads or opportunistic squatters. There’s a lengthy passage in which the narrator painstakingly describes a soldiers efforts to free an energetic horse from its hobble, only for the rebellious horse to spring away. It’s a scene that is not only a portrait of equine beauty and power but also a subtle metaphor for the futility of the larger project.

Few if any of his young companions share his disenchantment. Some just want to get the job done so that they might return to their homes. Many are indifferent to the task, choosing not to engage the townspeople on any level, preferring to see right through them. Moishe, the unit leader, embraces all of the stereotypes about the population: that they are inscrutable Others;  scum inferior to the Zionists; cowardly people without self-control; and ineffective caretakers of the soil and undeserving of ownership.  It’s the manifest destiny of the Israel to occupy the territory and to be unrepentant about the conquest. His companions believe that they have gone about the task as decently as possible, far better than other entitled conquerors would do.

Furthermore, as the justification goes, the war waged by Arabs from neighboring states resistant to Israeli statehood, calls for a powerful response. And when war is waged, morality takes a back seat. As soldier Yehuda asserts: “Nobody asked them [the Arabs] to start these wars…let them eat what they’ve cooked!” Israel’s fear that it is surrounded by hostile nations that desire its elimination pre-dates Netanyahu’s hyper-vigilance.

The narrator initially succumbs to the pressure to endorse the rational for and methods of the campaign, but finds himself eventually in an internal debate. He finally realizes that “we came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile.” In an intense moment of clarity and historical perspective, he sees the line of evacuees as comparable to ancient Israel’s forced march into Egypt and European Jews march into railroad cars that would take them to their extinction.  The colonizers have waged a filthy war, but the narrator is impotent to alter the course of history.

It’s no wonder that this fictional account of a young man’s growth in self-awareness was provocative to the new, idealistic nation.

Similar treatments of the nakba can be found in the “Lydda” chapter of Ari Shavet’s 2013 My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Modern Israel. Lydda, a real village near Ben Gurion airport, is a dark stain on Isreali history. There more than 100 people were killed in a removal far more dramatic than that described in Yizhar’s novel. Shavits broods about the fact that the modern, progressive Israel he loves was created out of violent episodes like this one.

One can find a more extended account of the repercussions of displacement in Sandy Tolan’s 2007 The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. [Tolan’s book should not be confused with Lemon Tree, the final film in the Palestine in Perspective series.] In Tolan’s book, an Israeli woman develops a long-term but cautions friendship with a man whose family was driven out of the home that her family occupied after 1948.]

We need to heed the illuminating lightning of these dissenting voices more than the fear-inducing thunder of Prime Minister Netanyahu.



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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