Cleanser to Cleansed

Gabriel Piterberg

Yizhar Smilansky, who wrote under the pen-name of S. Yizhar, was the best of the Israeli prose writers for whom Hebrew is a first language, as distinct from those who emigrated to Palestine from Eastern Europe. Though he was never a celebrity, either in Israel or internationally, his death in 2006 occasioned a handful of translations of his work into English.

Yizhar was born in 1916 in Rehovot, a moshava or ‘ethnic plantation’ (as the sociologist Gershon Shafir calls them), founded by the first wave of Zionist immigrants. His parents were settlers from Eastern Europe and he later described himself as assuming a position ‘between two founding uncles’. Moshe Smilansky, who came to Palestine during the First Aliya (the first wave of Zionist immigration in the 1880s and 1890s), was by the standards of the time a man of the right – that is, he was on the non-Labour side of the early settler community, the Yishuv. He was a wealthy orchard owner, who employed both Arabs and Jews but paid the latter higher wages, a member of Brit Shalom and a consistent advocate of the binational solution.[*] Yizhar’s maternal uncle, Yosef Weitz, who arrived during the Second Aliya (1904-14), was on the left: he belonged to the Labour Zionist party, Hapoel ha-Tza’ir and, later, to Mapai. He was also a great ‘redeemer of land’ from the Arabs, the director of the Jewish National Fund’s land department and a formidable ethnic cleanser in the 1948 war and during the 1950s.

Oscillating between the political views of his two uncles, Yizhar has produced a richly ironic yet wholly committed account of the 20th century’s most successful settler project. It is in every sense a complex account, and in some places it is impossible to assess the distance between narrator and author or distinguish irony from plain speaking.

Yizhar’s work can be divided into three periods: the first, from the appearance of his earliest story, ‘Ephraim Goes Back to Alfalfa’, in 1938 to the end of the British Mandate; the second, from the writings that followed the 1948 war – Yizhar served as an intelligence officer – to Stories of the Plain, a collection of stories published in the early 1960s, after which he wrote nothing for three decades; and finally, the creative burst of the 1990s, which began when he was in his mid-seventies.

These books translate work from all three periods. ‘Midnight Convoy’ and Other Stories adds four stories to a volume that appeared in book form in 1969 along with an essay by the critic Dan Miron. The stories originally included ‘Ephraim Goes Back to Alfalfa’, ‘Habakuk’, which was written in 1963, a wonderful short story and, as Miron observes, an aesthetic turning point in Yizhar’s writing; and the 1959 novella ‘Midnight Convoy’. The new translation adds an early war story, ‘The Prisoner’; ‘The Runaway’ of 1963; and two stories from the 1990s, ‘Whoso Breaketh a Hedge a Snake Shall Bite Him’ (Yael Lotan’s translation is especially attentive to Yizhar’s manner) and ‘Harlamov’. Miron questions the usual description of Yizhar as the quintessential writer of the ’48 generation who laid the foundations of Israeli literature. In fact he did not come up through the Labour youth movements; he did not serve in the Palmach; he was older than the ’48 generation; his cultural and political sensibilities were different; so, crucially, was his experience as a settler. To adopt the language of settler colonialism, Yizhar was formed not in the kibbutz, the pure colonies of settlement that excluded the indigenous population, but in the moshava.

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[*] Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) was founded in 1925 in Jerusalem by Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Ernst Simon. It rejected the Zionist movement’s efforts to establish an ethnic Jewish state at the expense of Palestine’s Arabs, espousing instead the creation of a binational state based on Arab-Jewish co-operation. In the eyes of Brit Shalom’s founders, coexistence was not merely a moral imperative, but the only arrangement that would ensure a lasting peace. The Jewish people, Buber argued, ought to declare ‘its desire to live in peace and brotherhood with the Arab people and to develop the common homeland into a republic in which both peoples will have the possibility of free development’.