A biblical cry from 1949


By Simon Rocker
October 17, 2013
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This week’s sidrah of Vayera is one of the most memorable in the Torah, containing among other things the seminal episode of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s bold challenge to God to spare the doomed cities, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”

There is in this action-packed portion a remarkable verse which I confess to having overlooked before. When God ponders the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, He resolves to “go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it” – the cries of their victims suggest a level of wickedness so great that God takes the extraordinary step of descending from heaven to see if it is true.

The image is significant, too, because it is alluded to it in the closing sentence of an early classic of Israeli literature, Khirbet Khizeh, the 1949 novella by S.Yizhar (the pen-name of Yizhar Smilansky, who died in 2006). Set in Israel’s War of Independence, it is the story of a group of Israeli soldiers ordered to expel the inhabitants of an Arab village.

When the mission is over and the Arabs have been put on trucks that will carry them into exile, the troubled narrator records that calm returns to the valley. But the tranquillity is an illusion. “When silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness…” he ends, “then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.” The biblical echo suggests a fateful tear in the moral fabric with enormous repercussions.

I had been unaware of the book until a Limmud conference some years ago, when an extract was presented by a United Synagogue rabbi. But I did not read it until after the first English translation appeared in 2011. For those of us weaned on the idea of the War of Independence as a heroic endeavour, Khirbet Khizeh is a disturbing counterpoint. Even just wars can have their dark side.

The question is, how does one respond? Firstly, to acknowledge the truth of what lay behind Yizhar’s experience. The Palestinian exodus during the War of Independence was due to a number of causes, as historians such as Benny Morris have shown. But some Palestinians were driven out at gunpoint. It is perhaps too easy to shelter behind the argument that if the Arabs had accepted the United Partition plan of 1947, the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe, would never have happened. Yizhar would have been all too aware of the reality of Israel’s life and death struggle, yet he could not suppress his cry of conscience.

Secondly, to try to engage in some act of tikkun, repair. And one way to do that is to support the efforts of those Israelis and Palestinians who, against the odds and despite the burden of history, are striving for mutual understanding and reconciliation.

COMMENTS

happygoldfish

Thu, 10/17/2013 - 13:46

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Simon Rocker: The image is significant, too, because it is alluded to it in the closing sentence of an early classic of Israeli literature, Khirbet Khizeh, the 1949 novella by S.Yizhar (the pen-name of Yizhar Smilansky, who died in 2006). Set in Israel’s War of Independence, it is the story of a group of Israeli soldiers ordered to expel the inhabitants of an Arab village.

For those of us weaned on the idea of the War of Independence as a heroic endeavour, Khirbet Khizeh is a disturbing counterpoint. Even just wars can have their dark side.

khirbet khizeh is of course an imaginary village, see eg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khirbet_Khizeh

we must be careful not to encourage anti-israelis to treat it as an actual event

from professor shapira's review of yizhar's book (http://archive.is/WAd9S) …

Yet in a newspaper interview at the same time, he refused to disclose the true name of the village involved, stating it was fiction, not reportage--which is why he wanted it to remain, in Yizhar's words, "abstract." He totally rejects the idea that Hirbet Hizah is some purported metaphor for the Land of Israel:

There's no duty or necessity whatsoever for a story about some specific events to have to symbolize something more general. Nor is there any obligation for a story about one specific set of happenings to represent the totality of events in a particular era. And what you find in a given tale is not necessarily a model for everything that happened in the history of a people or country at a particular time.

the book has been on the israeli school curriculum since 1964


Chaim Pesach

Thu, 10/17/2013 - 15:26

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Khirbet Khizeh is an amalgam of several Palestinian villages that the Israelis razed and whose inhabitants they either killed or expelled. No getting away from it. So it doesn't matter what this group or that says.

And anyway, why would anyone who believes in democracy and free speech want to stop talking about this?

S Yizhar was writing about his own experiences in the war, as he was part of the Palmah. He fought around Rehovot, whe he lived until he died, probably removing the residents of Qubeibeh and Zarnouga, nearby villages.

I'm not sure Khirbet Khizeh is still part of the school curriculum, since Israel's Indoctrination (sorry, education) ministry has been in the hands of right-wing extremists for the past decade.


happygoldfish

Thu, 10/17/2013 - 16:55

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Chaim Pesach: And anyway, why would anyone who believes in democracy and free speech want to stop talking about this?

i never suggested we shouldn't talk about it

i even drew attention to its presence on the israeli school curriculum!

i only said we should be careful not to encourage the sort of people who talk about israel's "indoctrination ministry" to treat it as an actual event


Chaim Pesach

Thu, 10/17/2013 - 18:30

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It's probably an amalgam of several actual events that S Yitzhar (Smilanski) witnessed. And if it's out there in the public domain, then those you describe as anti-Israel


Rich Armbach

Mon, 11/04/2013 - 10:49

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Fascinating. The parable of the parrot and the canary

http://hurryupharriet.wordpress.com/an-amusing-tale-of-blah-blah-and-sub...


Rich Armbach

Mon, 11/11/2013 - 17:13

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