Hirbet Hizah (Arabic, meaning "the
ruined village of Hizah," more correctly, Hirbet Hizeh) is a famous short story by Israeli author Samech Yizhar (pseudonym of Yizhar Smilansky) about the expulsion of
Arabs from a fictitious village in the 1948 Arab Israel War (or Israel War of Independence).
The story was also made into a film.
Anita Schapira's essay on Hirbet Hizah discusses the
content of this Israeli literary classic, which became part of the Israeli school curriculum, and also explores the
political controversy that it has generated since it was written:
For several years now, I have regularly shown sections of the television film version of that story to classes of
university students as an opener for a discussion on the varied narratives currently in debate among historians
regarding the War of Independence. When the film ends, there is invariably profound silence. The students are shocked by
the power of the tale but in particular by their head-on personal encounter with the story of the expulsion of the
inhabitants of an Arab village in the 1948 war. That reaction is surprising; after all, "The Story of Hirbet Hizah" is
one of the few fictions on the history of the War of Independence that has been incorporated into the scholastic canon
of Hebrew literature.
Since 1964 it has been a regular part of the high school literature syllabus and is even a selected work in the final
secondary school bagrut matriculation exam. In 1978, a protracted and heated public debate erupted after the film
version of "Hirbet Hizah" was premiered on Israeli national television. Nonetheless, nearly a decade later, when Benny
Morris published The Birth of the Problem of the Palestinian Refugees, 1947-1949 in English (and a Hebrew version
several years later),2 he
announced himself as the man who had laid bare the original sin of the State of Israel. Meanwhile, the broad public
reacted with indignation--as though this was the first time that the problem of the Palestinian refugees and Israel's
role in its creation had been exposed. Is public memory so short-lived? The surprise and distress expressed by the
students who view the film raises again questions about awareness: after all, many years have passed since Morris's book
was published, and it has been the focus of intense debate. The media papered over the issue, which surfaced once again
in the 1998 television documentary series "Tekumah" (Revival).3
Yet, despite all this exposure, many Israelis still react as if the topic were nonexistent, unknown--or at least better
left undiscussed. I argue here that the relation of the Israeli public to the tale of "Hirbet Hizah" over the years can
serve as a kind of literary litmus for the vagaries of remembrance and forgetting that accompany the formation of public
"Hirbet Hizah" was not the name of an actual village but sprang from Yizhar's imagination. Does this tale describe an
isolated incident, singular and unique? Or is it meant as an emblem for the entire situation in the wake of the 1948
war, when the land was emptied of its Arab inhabitants--some who left by choice, out of fear of the encroaching war,
others who fled in the face of the violence of battle, and still others forcibly evicted by IDF soldiers? A hint can be
found in Yizhar's description of the empty villages in their mute cry, "the song of objects stripped of their soul, of
human actions returned to their inchoate rudiment and turned wild again; the song of tidings of unforeseen cataclysm,
coagulating, remaining as a kind of curse unspoken... those empty villages... is there really somebody who's guilty
here--or what?!" (41). If Hirbet Hizah indeed stands for all those emptied villages and towns, then the cry of the
narrator--"Hirbet Hizah isn't ours!"--has implications far beyond this chance village and is relevant to all of
Palestine, every town and hamlet conquered by the Jews in the course of the war.
Yizhar did not and never has repudiated Zionism. All his life he has believed with a perfect faith (even tinged with
a bit of naivete) in the right of the Jewish people to return to their land. The very same month he wrote the tale that
portrays the Israeli as conqueror and expeller, he also wrote the tale "Midnight Convoy" in praise of the Zionist
enterprise and the Israeli person. There the war is transformed from the bloodbath so hated by the author into something
positive: the convoy's breakthrough into the expanses of the Negev desert, bringing rescue for the embattled and
besieged Jews. This is a war whose path is peace, "a war in which you just open a new road in the land--something
Until the state was established, there was no need to put those values to the practical test. The double standard
toward Jews and Arabs necessarily awakened associations with the Jewish fate in the Diaspora, arousing pangs of
conscience. As time passed, it became more difficult to tackle the key questions: how to educate the young in patriotism
and a recognition of the intrinsic value of the Jewish state as an expression of the independence of the Jewish people
for the first time in almost 2,000 years--and yet to acknowledge the high cost independence had exacted, both to the
Jews and the Arabs? As the less pleasant sides of the War of Independence became wrapped in forgetfulness, the sense of
guilt grew. What was left undiscussed became, as Amos Oz put it, like a skeleton in the national closet. The concession
that some of Palestine's Arabs had been expelled by the IDF in the War of Independence seemed to subvert the self-image
of a state grounded on universal moral foundations.
The expulsion has never been a secret. There were times when discussion about it was more open, and other times when
discourse turned more complacent and self-righteous. But a society, like Israel's, that has included "The Story of
Hirbet Hizah" in its high school syllabi for several decades cannot be accused of trying to jettison and submerge the
traumas of 1948--at least, not on the level of conscious recognition. On a more subliminal level, however, collective
memory did not "assimilate" the messages conveyed by "Hirbet Hizah." The remembrance of the expulsion continues to hover
in the twilight zone between the conscious and unconscious, between repression and recognition. We prefer not to
remember, just as we discard those same objectionable bits of reality we find oppressive or that unsettle our own
self-image. Hirbet Hizah has remained just such a lingering "unpleasant memory."
A factor that Shapira fails to take into account is context. In the early years of the state, and even in 1964, the
context of Hirbet Hizeh as viewed by Israelis - the war as a war for survival - was self-evident to the Israeli audience
and needed no explanation. It was assumed by audiences that the actions took place against a background of "ein breirah"
- there is no choice - the expulsion of civilians, like killing people in a war, was a necessary if regrettable act.
Moreover, many of the people reading the story or their parents, had participated in such acts, and were reflecting on
their own deeds or those of friends and family members. They had equally been direct or hearsay witnesses to Arab
atrocities in places like Gush Etzion.
For foreign or anti-Israel audiences, and for new generations of Israelis, this background was absent. Likewise, a major
novelty of the new historians like Benny Morris is that they told only of the expulsions and massacres, not with the aim
of providing "edifying Zionist history." Morris himself eventually seems to have changed his mind, and has attempted to
reinsert context and explain and excuse the actions.
Synonyms and alternate spellings: