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Israel: The Writers’ Writer

Midnight Convoy and Other Stories

by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Misha Louvish and others, with an introduction by Dan Miron
Toby Press, 283 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Preliminaries

by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange, with an introduction by Dan Miron
Toby Press, 305 pp., $24.95

Khirbet Khizeh

by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck, with an afterword by David Shulman
Jerusalem: Ibis, 131 pp., $16.95 (paper)

A story used to circulate among members of the Russian intelligentsia: boxing contests in Hamburg, it was said, were rigged so that the popular boxers would win, thus pleasing the public. Yet the boxers were keen to know who the real champion was, and once a year they used to meet in a secret cellar for a serious match, to which only the professionals were invited. Similarly, in an avant-garde secret poetry contest, the story had it, Velimir Khlebnikov was the champion, not the more popular Vladimir Mayakovsky. He was the true choice of the poets: the poets’ poet.

S. Yizhar, a native Israeli writer (1916–2006), is the native Israeli writers’ writer, the champion of the literary cellars of Israel, even though writers more popular than he are much better known to the public. With the appearance of some remarkable translations of his works into English, there is a chance for him to be more widely known not only as a powerful writer but also as an incarnation of the spirit of Israel’s birth sixty years ago—an event that Israeli Jews celebrate and Palestinian Arabs lament.

S. Yizhar is the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky, the name he used to publish his precocious first short novel, Ephraim Goes Back to Alfalfa, in 1938. At the time, no one suspected that the novel was written by a young man of twenty-two. But all of Yizhar’s distinctive characteristics were there—a vast Hebrew vocabulary, rich with references to flora and fauna, an unhurried, expansive syntax, powerful descriptions of open landscapes, long inner dialogues, and the ever-present theme of the individual vs. the collective, in which young members of the Labor Zionist aristocracy were the main characters.

There is not much plot in this novel, or in any that followed. It is about a kibbutz meeting that deals with the request of a longtime member, Ephraim, to switch from working in the alfalfa fields to working in the orange grove. The kibbutz turns him down.

And why is the orange grove better than the alfalfa?” asks Nehama, the woman with whom Ephraim is in love and who is supposed to be sympathetic to him. (“Nehama” in Hebrew means comfort, consolation, even redemption.)

Well, Nehama, what can I say? I don’t know, whether it’s better or not, but all the same…”

…But all the same, the sun again stood high in the sky, glowing with a luster dimmed by the heat, and the ends of the fields quivered by themselves.

It may very well be because of the sun that Ephraim wants to switch to the shade of the orange grove. “Orange grove” in Hebrew is pardes, and from it, the word “paradise” derives. Yizhar’s great-uncle, Moshe Smilansky, a well-known writer, was also an agricultural entrepreneur who owned large orange groves in Palestine. Yizhar’s childhood, in the little colony of Rehovot, was spent in the shade of his uncle’s trees. Orange groves were Yizhar’s childhood Eden, from which he was expelled as he became an adult. For Ephraim, being assigned to cultivate alfalfa is to be told that there is no return to the lost paradise of childhood.

Yizhar believed with Rousseau that corrupt society grinds down and betrays the individual, yet in his story society is not corrupt but one of the most virtuous communities imaginable—the kibbutz. But Ephraim finds himself diminished there. His request to switch jobs causes tumult at the meeting, and his friends respond with condescension:

Short, sharp comments were being tossed from every side…. Quite a few were talking with great seriousness and deep sincerity about some “heroic enterprise” in which they were engaged.

Rousseau was among the originators of the idea of the intensely subjective “beautiful soul.” Ephraim torments himself for being yefe nefesh: a Hebrew expression whose literal meaning is “of beautiful soul.” The English translation renders it “fine fellow”: a possible rendering of the Hebrew, since it captures Ephraim’s fear of being seen as fastidious and haughtily aloof in a fanatically egalitarian community. But the beautiful soul is a recurrent theme in Yizhar’s writings and seems to me a better translation. It is not the general conflict between the individual and the collective that is at the center of Yizhar’s concerns but rather the more specific clash between the beautiful soul stirred by aesthetic and moral impulses and the demands of the egalitarian community for complete adherence to its rules.

Several themes stand out in Yizhar’s writings about Zionist revolution in the life of the Jews: the revival of the Hebrew language; the landscape as part of the new geography created by the Zionists; and the fate of the beautiful soul in the conflict with the Arabs.

Hebrew, as a written language, was never dead. Jewish culture has been centered on Hebrew and Aramaic religious texts throughout its history.1 But spoken Hebrew was almost a dead language, which the Zionist revolution indeed succeeded in resurrecting and reviving. For a very long time—just how long is not clear—there was no continuous use of spoken Hebrew among Jews (though there was already in the sixteenth century a tiny Hebrew-speaking community in Jerusalem). Zionism created in Palestine, and later in the State of Israel, a community of native speakers of Hebrew. When S. Yizhar’s father first landed in Palestine in 1891 at the age of eighteen, he found that Hebrew was spoken badly in the first Zionist settlements (called the Yishuv). As he put it at the time:

Even the few fanatics, who devoted themselves with excitement to the revival of Hebrew speech in the new Yishuv, were mostly stammering and speaking with utmost effort…. Their talk was not natural and fluent, and often, in the middle of a sentence, with lips still moving, one had to stop to think and find the proper word, or it was altogether lost in the speaker’s memory.2

This was not true of Yizhar’s own family. His father and all his uncles and great-uncles were among the small number of Zionists who wrote and spoke Hebrew.

In creating a community of Hebrew speakers in Palestine, the Zionists changed a “holy tongue” into the workable and expressive language of a modern secular society. When Yizhar was a child, only 20 percent of Jews in Palestine had mastered Hebrew. When he wrote his first novel in 1938, some 70 percent of the Jews surveyed in the census of the British mandate said that they primarily spoke Hebrew. For many Jews this creation of a community of Hebrew speakers was as marvelous as the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, and Yizhar conveys a sense of wonder that so rich a language has become alive.

As for the landscape, Zionism was based on the idea of a return to the historical land of the Jewish people—a claim that presented problems for Zionist geography. The Bible tells the story of the Israelites arriving in the land of the Canaanites from the east and settling mostly on the Judean and Samarian mountain ridge, which is closer to the Jordan River than to the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean is called in the Bible the Sea of the Philistines (Exodus 23:31), and the seashore and the adjoining plateau were predominantly populated by the Philistines on the southern shore and by the Phoenicians on the northern shore. The Philistines, unlike the Israelites, arrived from the west—perhaps from Greece. The Bible of course promises the whole land to the Israelites, but the biblical story is one of an unfulfilled promise. The Israelites hardly ever lived on the Mediterranean shore of Palestine.

The Zionist immigrants to Palestine were mainly from the west, and they settled largely in the land of the Philistines. Even in the Israel of today, almost 70 percent of the Jewish population resides along the Mediterranean shore. Yet the Zionist settlers felt they were close enough to the ancient land of Israel.

There were many reasons why this peculiar idea of a “return” to the historical land did not entail actually settling in it. Chief among them was that immigration to Eretz Israel, as Palestine is traditionally called by Jews, was thought by the early settlers to be not just a return to the historical land, but a process of national rebirth, creating a new Jewish society very different from the communities of Jews in the Diaspora. This in effect meant avoiding the historic “holy towns” like Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias, in which there were already ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that the largely secular Zionists shunned. The idea, in short, was to settle in an “Old-New Land” (or Altneuland, as Theodor Herzl called his Zionist Utopia).

Thus Tel Aviv, the first all-Jewish city—fourteen miles from the town of Rehovot, where Yizhar was raised—was built on the sands of the coastal central plain, and it, not Jerusalem, became the visible symbol of the Zionist settlements. “Tel Aviv” is indeed an ingenious Hebrew translation of the German Altneuland, since tel in Hebrew is an ancient mound, and aviv is spring: hence, the old land and the new.

All of this changed utterly after 1967. The good judgment of the Old Zionists who chose not to live within the ancient lands themselves, which were populated by Arabs, but rather near them, was overwhelmed by a crazed wave of Zionist fundamentalists settling at the heart of the ancient homeland. This was the move that created the most explosive friction with the Palestinian population, epitomized as it was by the aggressive behavior toward Arabs of the Jewish settlement inside Hebron.

Many Zionists were, and still often are, caught in “landscape schizophrenia”; they have a strong symbolic bond to the land, and very little concrete attachment to it. When Israelis use such terms as “eternal” and “indivisible” about Jerusalem they have the heavenly city in mind, thus making sure that no political solution for the earthly Jerusalem will be possible.

Yizhar is the greatest landscape artist to write in modern Hebrew. It was, however, the paradoxical Zionist geography that he depicted, the geography of “the land of the Philistines”—not the dramatic Judean Mountains but the leveled landscape of the coastal plain and the low hills of the inner plateau. Here Yizhar describes a desert settlement where he spent some years as a child:

Here at the edge of this plot in this field, in the shade of the trunk of the ancient carob tree, one of the solitary survivors standing spherical even if harried by dust, all the other carobs having just been planted, still clinging precariously to the lumpy soil, with the form of the irrigation dish still visible at their base, for the tender sapling to be watered once, maybe twice, as there is not enough water for more, besides the fact that it has to be carried from the bottom of the hill, from that bottomless well with a rope and a bucket, in which, for all its dark, secretive depth, the leeches are not slow to swarm and squirm, disgusting and obscene, so that it is impossible to drink without first straining the water through a piece of cloth on which there always remain some tatters of slimy moss from the depths, lying there as though in a state of utter prostration, or maybe like fish spewed up on dry land, in this patch of land that is no more than a few dunams, on the dividing line between the land that is gradually being ploughed up and that which has been hardened by time immemorial….

By making landscape the central presence in his writings, Yizhar gave tangible form to the return to nature of a people so removed from it for so long.

Yizhar was aware of the irony of locating Zionism in the land of the Philistines. His monumental epic of over a thousand pages, Days of Ziklag (not yet translated), tells the story of a platoon of Israeli soldiers defending an outpost in the Negev during the 1948 war. In the Bible, the village of Ziklag, in the midst of the Philistine land, was given by the Philistine King Achish to his vassal David—later King David—who betrayed his own people by joining the Philistines in their war against the Israelites (1 Samuel 27:6).

Days of Ziklag was a cult book for some of my generation, who served in the army around the time that it came out. We felt that we intimately understood what happened at that outpost: the fear and comradeship and quarrels among the young men and their baffled awareness of the Arabs about to attack them. The book had a mixed reception, however, and the leading Israeli literary critic at the time, Baruch Kurzweil, who had welcomed Yizhar’s earlier writings, wrote a wounding review of it. Kurzweil, like Georg Lukács, basically believed that only the tensions within a class society should inspire an epic novel—not a group of adolescent, self-styled “godless existentialists” fighting on a god-forsaken hill.

Kurzweil’s criticism did not make an impression on us, but it made a devastating impression on Yizhar. It paralyzed him for over thirty years. Thin-skinned, patrician, he stopped writing fiction. Instead, he wrote a rather tedious Ph.D. dissertation about how to read literature.

But then something remarkable happened. After thirty years of being blocked, S. Yizhar started writing fiction again, producing brilliant work. Among the later novels is Preliminaries, an autobiographical account of Yizhar’s childhood, now available in English, splendidly translated by Nicholas de Lange.

The most enchanting part of Preliminaries is to be found in the opening story of the infant Yizhar, based on “stories that have become family legends.” Yizhar’s father, in charge of the infant that day, is plowing a virgin field, a cultic Tolstoyan-Zionist act: “that tiny theater in which the greatest show on earth is being performed, the spectacle of the birth of the new Jew in the New Land.” In this bitterly ironic scene, the father accidentally puts the infant down on a nest of hornets. The infant Yizhar is badly stung, and we read the father’s inner monologue of distress:

What did he do to them that they suddenly, all against him? How can a father have sat a baby down on a wasps’ nest? Aren’t there always wasps near a carob tree, isn’t it dangerous, isn’t it, God, their nest in a hole in the ground, and when one of them stings they all attack, and who, curse them, who, what has he done to you, what, who on earth sits a baby down on a wasps’ nest, you criminal, they beset me, yea they surrounded me, they beset me like bees, why, why, my boy, in the name of the Lord I cut them off, they beset me and surrounded me, what’s happening now, run, to Mummy, what now, hurry to the doctor quick, quick as we can, get the cart ready, quick it’s three hours to the doctor, what is it my boy, so red so swollen fainting so sobbing so, he’s suffocating, oh no, God, I cut them off, they encompassed me, yea they encompassed me….

Here the father’s thoughts echo Psalm 118:

They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched like a fire of thorns: for in the name of the God I will destroy them.

He is a rationalist, but in his plight the biblical text takes over his mind; whereas the mother expresses her distress in Yiddish, mein teyere Kind —my precious child.

The story recounts the family’s journey in search of a doctor. It is very different from the Christian version of the rescue of the newborn child through the flight to Egypt, or from Goethe’s pagan version in “Der Erlkönig” of the father riding through the forest to rescue his son. Yizhar uses the wasps as an allegory for the virgin land that rejects the settlers who try to disturb it. “As though you are suddenly seized by a realization that maybe it was a fundamental mistake. That maybe this land doesn’t want us at all, really. Because we came here to make changes that it doesn’t want.” Baby Yizhar is, unwittingly, an invader and as such not completely innocent. In eschatological dreams, as in Isaiah 11:8, quoted in the story, the “sucking child plays on the hole of the asp and the weaned child shall put his hand on the viper’s nest.” Yizhar’s Zionist myth of origin is not just a dream; it is also a nightmare.

The story is more than an allegory. It portrays what Hegel called “an unhappy consciousness,” which perceives, as part of the human condition, the inability to harmonize an objective, impersonal point of view of the world (a “God’s-eye view”) with the subjective experience of each person. Each one of us is constantly vacillating between these two points of view, unable to find a resting place, with unhappiness the inevitable result.

Thus, when Yizhar describes the cart in which the parents are trying to bring the child to the doctor, what is so important from the point of view of father, mother, and son is wholly unimportant in the larger order of things, as the father also senses:

A single cart is hurrying now, pointless and insignificant, and will hurry on to the end of all days, evenly, straight, on the plain, under the sun in the heart of the gigantic hugeness and only in that nothingness and all the time only in that nothingness.

The year 1881 was a turning point in the life of the Jews. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II brought about a wave of pogroms against Jews in the south of imperial Russia. The pogroms were largely aimed at Jewish property but nevertheless their effects were shocking. They accelerated greatly the huge wave of immigration out of the Pale settlements of Tsarist Russia, mostly to the US, but a tiny faction of Zionists made its way to Palestine. This wave of immigration (the First Aliyah, as the Zionists called it) brought the Smilanskys to Palestine.

There were three early waves of Zionist immigration to Palestine (between 1882 and 1903, 1904 and 1914, and 1919 and 1923). The second and the third waves—just before and just after World War I—were dominated by very young socialists; not so the first wave. Yizhar’s father Zeev, as well as his great-uncle Moshe, immigrated to Palestine twice, taking part in the second wave after returning to Russia. And so Yizhar is a crossbreed combining the characteristics of the first two waves: the landowners and the socialists.

In one of the stories of Preliminaries, “The Iron Bar,” Yizhar describes a childhood experience of a pogrom by Arabs in the new settlement in Palestine, and with it the rise of “The Arab Question.” He tells us that in his mother’s family, back in the Volhynian forest on the banks of the River Styr in western Ukraine, the idea of Arabs in the land of Israel never crossed their minds:

They, the Arabs, were never there, in any place or in argument, in any considerations and certainly not in any songs, they simply did not exist…. Mummy insisted, we just want to build the homeland, and what do they want from us, all those desert Arabs, what have we done to them, apart from bringing them medicine, enlightenment and a culture of cleanliness.

From his father Zeev and great-uncle Moshe, Yizhar—perhaps more than anyone else of his generation—knew that things were not so simple. In the story “Uncle Moshe’s Carriage,” my favorite Yizhar story, still untranslated, he writes about these men, who—each in his own way—were aware of the existence of Arabs and were sympathetic to them to the point of being suspected in the Yishuv as “Arab lovers”—great-uncle Moshe as a paternalistic, warmhearted settler and father Zeev as a Tolstoyan redeemer.

The Arab Question” was the term that was used before the 1948 War of Independence to designate the political and moral dilemmas that the Yishuv faced in dealing with the existence of Arabs in Palestine. For many in the Yishuv it was “the concealed question”3; not so for Yizhar.

In the 1948 war, Yizhar was an intelligence officer, at the relatively old age of thirty-two (Yitzhak Rabin, for example, who was a brigade commander, was twenty-six). This war, too, was a children’s crusade. Yizhar’s most famous novella and story, both now translated, are about it: Khirbet Khizeh and “The Prisoner.” Khirbet Khizeh tells the story of the expulsion of Arabs and the destruction of their village, describing, in a terrifying scene, bored soldiers wandering through the deserted village before Israelis blow it up and encountering two old women and a blind old man who did not, or could not, escape.

The narrator of the novella is morally tormented:

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.

To counter these haunting thoughts, the narrator thinks of all the terrible things that the Arabs are doing to the Jews. “I recited the names of Hebron, Safad, Be’er Tuvia, and Hulda,” names of places where Arab pogroms of Jews in Palestine took place. Indeed this psychological countermeasure reveals something important abut the conflict between Arabs and Jews: even with all the sophisticated discussion about it, with talk about high strategy, it is at bottom a tribal blood feud involving a constant and endless settling of scores.

The reception of Yizhar’s two novels among Israelis when they first appeared in the 1950s and early 1960s was surprisingly benign, perhaps because by then the Arab refugees were safely on the other side of the border, out of sight. In contrast, the reception of the movie based on Khirbet Khizeh in 1978 was hostile. This was after the 1967 war, which brought the Palestinian refugees very much within view of the Israelis.

Yizhar’s narrator is torn by the dilemma of the soldier with “dirty hands” who is aware of the lost possibility of retaining a beautiful soul. The narrator is not at all sure that in the case of Khirbet Khizeh dirty hands are necessary. “Why do we need to expel them,” he asks. “What harm could they possibly do?” To the answer, “They can, and how. When they start laying mines on the roads…,” he retorts in disbelief, “These people?” He reflects,

If someone had to get filthy, let others soil their hands. I couldn’t. Absolutely not. But immediately another voice started up inside me singing this song: bleeding heart, bleeding heart, bleeding heart.

Once again the English translation avoids the literal “beautiful soul,” or an expression based on it, and misleadingly uses the expression “bleeding heart” instead.

A beautiful soul by temperament, Yizhar was by no means a sentimental bleeding heart. He was deeply troubled, however, by the possibility that he would keep his moral purity intact by insisting on keeping his hands clean of violence and asking the world of Israel to accept him nevertheless. His way of soiling his hands was by involving himself in Israeli politics as a young man. He became a member of parliament and served five successive terms, as a member of David Ben-Gurion’s wing of the Labor party; he left the Labor party along with Ben-Gurion and joined his new splinter party in 1965. Yizhar admired Ben-Gurion’s decisiveness and his willingness to dirty his hands when necessary.

Yizhar’s loyalty to Ben-Gurion made him vote, in 1963, to maintain the indefensible military administration over the Arab citizens of Israel—a harsh and highly restrictive system, put in place after the 1948 war (and not abolished until 1966). Four motions to abolish it were put before the Knesset by parties as diverse as the Communist Party on the left and Menachem Begin’s Herut (“Liberty”) party on the right. The motions were defeated by a margin of two votes, one of which was Yizhar’s. He did it under pressure from Ben-Gurion and against his better judgment; his hands became dirty indeed.

The relationship between David Ben-Gurion and S. Yizhar was somewhat similar to that between General De Gaulle and André Malraux: both leaders needed distinguished writers on their side to counter the Marxist intelligentsia in the opposition. Yizhar, however, lacked Malraux’s theatrical cockiness, his sense of grandeur, and his moral frivolity. A much better comparison is that between Yizhar and Albert Camus. Yizhar’s story “The Prisoner” (1949) was written before Camus’s “The Guest” (“L’Hôte,” 1957). In both stories, beautiful souls face the moral dilemma of what to do with an Arab prisoner entrusted to them.

Both Yizhar and Camus are masters at depicting the bad moral luck of being born within foreign communities that are both threatening to and threatened by their neighbors. Bad moral luck brings with it ambiguities and leaves no room for moral virtuosi who always know what the right thing to do is, and do it. Like Camus, Yizhar was a beautiful soul and a great writer but not a moral paragon.

In Yizhar’s story “Midnight Convoy,” about the last military convoy to break through Egyptian lines to bring in supplies to Jewish settlers in the Negev in the 1948 war, we see the other side of the war: not the injury to the Arabs but the birth of the State of Israel. As the critic Dan Miron, perhaps Yizhar’s best reader, writes in his introduction to the book, the convoy of supplies saved the besieged settlers of the Negev “and together with them, the Negev itself as part of the Jewish state.” Yizhar’s beautiful soul stays with this metaphorical convoy. His writings make it clear that the birth of Israel was not by immaculate conception, as its apologists advocate, nor was it by an original sin, as its detractors charge.

The novella Khirbet Khizeh describes the expulsions of the Arabs, which ended in 1948. In an afterword to Khirbet Khizeh, David Shulman makes the valid point that what

began in 1948 under different circumstances continues today, and there is at the moment no war to provide even the semblance of a rationalization.

We should hope for times in which Yizhar will be regarded solely as a great writer. Until then, Israel desperately needs him as a moral guide—the needle in the moral compass, though he himself is not the North.

  1. 1

    The first evidence we have is the Gezer calendar of the tenth century BC.

  2. 2

    Benjamin Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution (University of California Press, 1993), p. 108.

  3. 3

    It was so called by Yitzchak Epstein, one of the first to recognize the question (1907).

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