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From Khirbet Khizeh to Lod

Channah Ben-Eliezer


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S. Yizhar’s novel opens with an agony of conscience as the narrator recounts a single day spent expelling Palestinian villagers from Khirbet Khizeh, a fictional Palestinian village, in the 1948 war following Israel’s declaration of independence:

True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since. I sought to drown it out with the din of passing time, to diminish its value, to blunt its edge with the rush of daily life, and I even, occasionally, managed a sober shrug, managed to see that the whole thing had not been so bad after all.

First published in Hebrew in 1949, just a year after the war, Khirbet Khizeh is only one hundred pages long. Still, I had to return several times before I could finish it. It could be recounting my own father’s story: he too was an Israeli soldier in 1948, and was never able to forget the expulsions he took part in.

In the village, the narrator’s unit finds only women, children, and the old and infirm, who are forced into trucks and taken away. The village is then destroyed. Throughout the day the narrator experiences a rollercoaster of emotions from boredom to revulsion. Meanwhile, the narrative is interrupted by descriptions of the area’s natural beauty, a stark contrast to what is happening among the humans there. The book ends with echoes from Genesis:

All around silence was falling, and very soon it would close upon the last circle. And when silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness, which yearned noiselessly for what was beyond silence – then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.

Yizhar Smilansky (the author’s real name) went on to become a long-standing member of the Knesset, while Khirbet Khizeh, now a classic of Hebrew literature, has been studied by generations of Israeli high school students. Perhaps it is due to the difficulty of translating the masterful prose, ranging from slang to biblical idiom, that it took until 2008 for an English translation to be published, and then only abroad; the American edition appeared in 2014. It’s a beautiful translation, well worth waiting for. Still, I am sad it was not available sooner, as I would have liked to discuss it with my father, Josef Ben-Eliezer.

boys carrying Israeli flag Jewish survivors of Buchenwald arriving in Haifa in 1945. Photograph by Zoltan Kluger
Khirbet Khizeh book cover View book details

Now it is too late – he died two years ago.

My father’s account may not be as lyrical, but closely mirrors the events depicted by Yizhar:

At that time our unit was heavily involved in the capture of Lod, a town near Tel Aviv. . . . The entire Arab population was ordered to leave. I vividly remember the long lines of refugees – men, women, and children – fleeing toward an uncertain future.

At one point, my unit was searching those who were being evacuated for weapons and valuables. The atmosphere was tense, and some of my comrades mistreated civilians. Not surprisingly, my mind flashed back to my own experiences as a ten-year-old boy fleeing our home in Poland. But here the roles were reversed. When one of our men struck a Palestinian with his bayonet, I was stung by the memory of my father being struck the same way by a German soldier. It shook me to the depths: what is it that makes people treat each other like this? (My Search, page 73)

I don’t know how my father would have responded to Khirbet Khizeh, but it struck me that his autobiography, My Search, reads as a sequel to the novel. It portrays a young man insatiably seeking an answer to the questions raised by experiencing, and then participating in, violence. “I long to once experience in my life, in my heart, the answer to the deepest need of humankind,” he wrote at the time. “Even if I can experience the answer for only one minute, that will be enough for me.”

My father’s refusal to simply move on after the war cautions me to read Khirbet Khizeh not only as a literary masterpiece, but as a challenge. His search challenges me not to drown out the pain it portrays and the questions it raises, but to live in response to them.

My Search English View book details
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Contributed By Channah Ben-Eliezer

Channah Ben-Eliezer, a Bruderhof member, lives in Ulster Park, New York.