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.

The moshavas of Yizhar’s youth – Ekron, Rehovot, Dagon, Gedera – lay to the south-east of Tel Aviv, where he also lived for a few years as a child. But the Arab villages in this area – Zarnuga, Qubeibeh, Yibneh, Abu Shusha, Mansoura, Naana, Qastina, all erased in 1948 – were also an integral part of his environment. His memories of this porous, messy world underlie his regret at its passing and his resentment of the project that destroyed it. Interviewing him for Haaretz in 2005, Meron Rapoport asked: ‘Why were you the only member of your generation who saw the catastrophe that befell the Arabs?’ He replied: ‘The others were attentive only to relationships with other people, among themselves. I looked at the landscape, the landscape was a central part of my personality, and that’s why I saw the Arabs. The landscape was the paper on which everything was written, and afterwards it gets torn and nobody looks at the paper.’

And yet, with the possible exception of two novels by Moshe Shamir, no work of literature has done as much as Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag (1958) to mythologise the ’48 generation as the young heroes who delivered a state to the Jewish people. The carefully researched novel is set during a ferocious see-saw battle that catches the essence of the strategic war between Egyptian forces and the Palmach over the Negev desert in the autumn of 1948. For the political class that dominated Israel until 1977, Days of Ziklag was a sacrosanct text. Yizhar wrote it at the height of his commitment as an intellectual in the full Gramscian sense to Ben-Gurion’s version of statism, known as Mamlakhtiyyut. Yizhar could never be a true critic of Zionist ideology, Yitzhak Laor argues. ‘Days of Ziklag,’ he writes, ‘is a monument to the 1948 war’ which includes ‘protest against the war’ but also ‘resignation to it’. Above all, Laor says, it is ‘a narrative memorial’ to the Palmach warriors, the first offspring of the pre-1948 Zionist colony: born in Palestine, they fought and won the war, cleansed the land of Arabs and then lamented the disappearance of rural Arab Palestine, which, in their eyes, so strongly evoked the biblical land of Israel.

Days of Ziklag was the result of ten years’ reflection: a story, ‘The Prisoner’, and a novella, Khirbet Khizeh, were written in the war’s immediate aftermath. Khirbet Khizeh became a set book in Israeli secondary schools in 1964 and, in the late 1970s, was made into a television play. The play caused a great stir and its screening on Israel’s only national channel was initially banned. The story, which deals with the cleansing of rural Arab Palestine as Yizhar experienced it, goes to the heart of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict and has given rise to great unease, even evasiveness, among liberal commentators in Israel. David Shulman’s afterword to this edition is an impressive exception.

Khirbet Khizeh is an Arab village, which is captured – more or less without a fight – by a detachment of Israeli soldiers in the 1948 war. (The word khirbah in Arabic, like the Hebrew hurbah, means ‘ruin’.) Many of the villagers are already hiding in the surrounding hills when the soldiers, obeying orders, raid the village, blowing up the houses and evicting the remaining inhabitants, most of them elderly or women or children. The descriptions of the village and its surroundings before the ‘battle’ are idealised – this is precisely the landscape that would soon be regretted by the 1948 generation. Yizhar, as Shulman notes, ‘is perhaps the greatest poet of Palestinian landscape in modern Hebrew’. He is also a historian of destruction and expulsion. In the closing pages of the story, watching the humiliated Palestinians huddling in Israeli lorries, Yizhar’s narrator has an epiphany:

Something struck me like lightning. 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 … I had never been in the Diaspora – I said to myself – I had never known what it was like … but people had spoken to me, told me, taught me, and repeatedly recited to me, from every direction, in books and newspapers, everywhere: exile. They had played on all my nerves. Our nation’s protest to the world: exile! It had entered me, apparently, with my mother’s milk. What, in fact, had we perpetrated here today?

There follows a strange, elegiac farewell delivered by the cleanser to the cleansed:

I passed among them all, among those weeping aloud, among those silently grinding their teeth, those feeling sorry for themselves and for what they were leaving behind, those who railed at their destiny and those who quietly submitted to it, those ashamed of themselves and their disgrace, those already making plans to sort themselves out somehow, those weeping for the fields that would be desolate, and those silenced by exhaustion, eaten away by hunger and fear. I wanted to discover if among all these people there was a single Jeremiah mourning and burning, forging a mouth of fury in his heart, crying out in stifled tones to the old God in Heaven, atop the trucks of exile.

In one of the best-known passages, the narrator’s distress is sensed by his comrade, Moishe, who ‘reassures’ him: ‘Immigrants of ours will come to this Khirbet what’s-its-name, you hear me, and they’ll take this land and work it and it’ll be beautiful here!’ Another epiphany:

Of course. Absolutely. Why hadn’t I realised it from the outset? Our very own Khirbet Khizeh. Questions of housing, and problems of absorption. And hooray, we’d house and absorb – and how! We’d open a co-operative store, establish a school, maybe even a synagogue. There would be political parties here. They’d debate all sorts of things. They would plough fields, and sow, and reap, and do great things. Long live Hebrew Khizeh! Who, then, would ever imagine that once there had been some Khirbet Khizeh that we emptied out and took for ourselves. We came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile.

Yizhar’s finest work is the autobiographical novel Preliminaries, which he completed in the summer of 1991, when he was 75. The book describes the memories and experiences of an excruciatingly thin, socially marginal, lonely and troubled child – troubled about himself, about his family and about his community. It is set between 1918 and 1928, when the child reaches the age of 12, and takes place first in the agricultural landscape of the moshavas to the south-east of Tel Aviv, shifting to the city itself (expanding fast in the 1920s) before returning at last to the countryside. Miron identifies ‘two vital tasks’, one literary and one political, which the book performs. The first is to supply ‘a key of sorts’ to Yizhar’s ‘fictional world’. The second is to deepen and expand his role as an observer and critic of the unfolding Zionist saga. In the process, we come to see that the question the novel asks – what is it like to be the child of a settler? – could be asked not only about Palestine, but about almost any colonial situation.

As Miron observes, ‘the future is already included in the depiction of the past.’ Towards the beginning of the novel, for instance, when the protagonist is still a toddler, he is rushed to the doctor by his parents after being attacked by hornets under a carob tree. Their route takes them through the Arab village of Mansoura, where the narrator interrupts the father’s interior monologue to add: ‘Today there is no Mansoura and you won’t find it, it has been wiped out, it no longer exists, and in its place there is just a road, eucalyptus trees, and some stone ruins.’

During the ‘Arab riots’ of 1921, when the boy and his family take refuge in a courtyard in Tel Aviv, the account is for the most part confined to the child’s immediate experiences. But when the father announces that the writer Y.H. Brenner has been killed by Arab assailants in an isolated house a few miles away (Brenner’s body was discovered on the second day of the uprising), there is a short, impassioned gloss on the settler mentality which would be difficult to ascribe to the boy, even though, in narrative terms, there is no alternative:

Recklessness. The whole idea of a Jewish neighbourhood next to Arab Jaffa … the enlightened, the clean, the cultured, the builders of the Land on this side and the natives, the backward, the filthy, who have caused the desolation of the land on that side. Not just Jews (Daddy calls them ‘our brethren’) against Muslims (whom Daddy calls ‘Mohammedans’), not just immigrants against indigenous people, not just the progressive against the primitive, Europeans against Asiatics, but as if it were as simple as that, as if they could sort out their differences peacefully here of their own accord, without a wall between them, without iron gates between them, without weapons for the day of reckoning – what is this: naivety, folly or criminal behaviour?

After the abortive uprising the family moves further north into Tel Aviv – their various relocations track the city’s growth after the First World War. ‘Here is Nahalat Binyamin Street and here is Montefiore Street, the second building from the corner, three floors, the first floor.’ The boy begins to feel more comfortable. The family then moves again to the expanding neighbourhood of Tel Nordau (named after Max Nordau). They now live in ‘Mendele Mokher Sefarim Street, number 22, the second house along from Sirkin Street’. The boy is given a nickname inspired by a neighbour’s dog:

Mikhaela has a dog, a thin greyhound, lean and tall, with drooping ears and a pointed, wet nose, all aquiver with excitement, and above all he is thin, thin, thin, and the dog’s name is Tsi … and it’s not surprising that Mikhaela, and the others after her, started calling him Tsi … and Mikhaela has two plaits down her back and she is interested in all the boys except him, and at school she talks to all of the others but not to him, because he is Tsi.

In fact he revels in the new name as he revels in Tel Nordau: his descriptions of the neighbourhood give a strong sense of the Yishuv’s political sociology. The depiction of his friends’ families amounts to a group portrait of the middle-class professionals – teachers, civil servants and writers – who would become the backbone of Mapai from the 1930s on, in many ways a much more important component of the party hegemony than the co-operative settlements. Yizhar satirises the messianic pretensions of Labour Zionism with a string of names derived from the root-form gal, denoting ‘redemption’.

The economic crisis of the late 1920s puts an abrupt end to Tsi’s happy existence in Tel Nordau, on the receding sand dunes beside the Mediterranean. His father loses his job with the council and the family home goes to his creditors. The boy dislikes Dagon, his new destination in the countryside, and his new nickname, also Dagon, because it is so unimaginative, like the people who use it, and because he would have liked to remain in Tel Nordau as Tsi. Here, at the novel’s end, Yizhar delivers his final verdict on the Zionist project. The child is haunted less by the possibility that Zionism in the shape of a powerful, durable settler nation-state might not succeed than by the certainty that its realisation would erase the landscape of pre-1948 rural Palestine. In the final scene the boy is sent to collect baskets of grapes from a nearby vineyard, and realises that ‘soon … none of this will remain, neither this vineyard nor this sandy path … because everything here is provisional,’ destined to give way to orange groves and settler housing – at which point even the boundary ‘between the settled land and the threatening silence of the dangerous mystery beyond the boundary will not remain’. He thinks of the extinction of the villages and the fate of their inhabitants: ‘These Arabs will not remain … Zarnuga will not remain and Qubeibeh will not remain and Yibneh will not remain, they will all go away and start to live in Gaza.’

[*] 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’.