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Hirbet Hizah

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Hirbet Hizah

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 memory.


"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 completely different."6...

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.  

Ami Isseroff

September, 2008

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Hirbet Hizeh