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

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.

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.” ...

Read entire article at Mondoweiss