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This is a well-known novel in the Israeli canon of literature. It is historical fiction written just following Israel’s War of Independence. The edition I read was published in English in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux based on the 2008 translation by Ibis Editions.

Although heralded for the quality of its prose, for me it seemed as if much was lost in translation from the Hebrew. This is illustrated by the Afterword by David Shulman written in 2007. The Biblical connotations seem as if they would be more apparent in Hebrew than as translated.

The author was an intelligence officer in 1948, so the story may reflect actual experience. The plot is simple. A unit of Jewish soldiers are charged with a mop up action at the end of the war. They are to take the village of Khirbet Khizeh and to have its existing Arab residents relocated. The soldiers do not seem well-trained, as many were outgrowth of gangs or had little military experience. The village is almost completely deserted and offers no resistance. The soldiers are bored. They are poor shots, which accounts for few escaping residents being wounded or killed. They just want to go home and all but one are indifferent to the Arabs who they are evicting. The evicted would be replaced by Jewish refugees from Europe and elsewhere.

The heart of the novel is the ongoing question about occupation and conquerors.

” I felt that I was on the verge of slipping. I managed to pull myself together. My guts cried out. Colonizers they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue … our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out- that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were the masters now.”

The question is not unique to Israel. It is the history of all peoples and all nations. The vanquished become conquerors and the conquerors become the vanquished. Is what is won an occupation or is what is lost, just lost? All nations exist on occupied land. No one people are immune from being occupiers. The only issue is whether the cycle of violence continues or there is a reconciliation between winners and losers with each compromising. Some conflicts are so localized that they are effectively family feuds passed from one generation to the next. This has been the case in the Balkans and is the case between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The book for me only shows a slice of the conflict. It is told only from the Jewish soldier’s perception. It is one that is sympathetic to the villagers, but ignores what the Arab perception would be toward a Jewish village. In all likelihood, the sympathetic soldier would be in the minority if the shoe were on the other foot.

The morality of this novel is weakened for me because in the scheme of war there was little violence done. Loss of home should never be ignored, but here there was going to be a eviction for refugees who had suffered far worse. Was it a necessary eviction- probably not. Was it an eviction merely because of power- partially so, but incompletely.