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Hirbet Hizah: Between Remembrance and Forgetting
Woe to the generation constrained to commit the deeds of Hizah
but which escapes the pain in their recounting.
The questions what, how, and when we remember remain a source of fascination for scholars. They remain among the most elusive and complex to define. Collective memory is situated at the divide between the conscious and the subliminal, between acknowledgment and denial, between history and psychology. Currently in vogue is the conception of the "usable past": collective memory as a construct, a product of national-cultural manipulation that seeks to entrench in memory those portions of the past useful for invigorating the imagery of the society's self-identity and fostering its vital current interests and agendas. That conception repudiates the notion that there are spontaneous, unintentional processes at work as collective memory crystallizes. If we attach conscious intent in shaping memory and its construction, then who are its agents? What are their tools? Moreover, in democratic states--and, arguably, in other states too-- there is never one single source of inspiration and guidance. How does the open arena of conflicting interests affect memory's configuration? When is a particular event stamped, indelibly or temporarily, in memory? What processes catalyze its fixing, what forces act to submerge its recollection? If the "usable past" ministers to interests in the present, then what is the fate of those segments of the past that do not serve the [End Page 1] society's current agendas? Are they doomed to oblivion? Or is there a constant dynamic reciprocity between the past and the present, manifested in memory's transformations, not necessarily due to some template imposed from above--but rather to changing circumstances as they affect public consciousness?
Memory confounds historical consciousness: at times we know all too well--but do not remember. The nebulous area between consciousness and memory is especially evident when it comes to topics we find hard to face in the bright light of day, such as the departure/flight/ removal/expulsion of Arabs in the Israeli War of Independence. The present article deals with the changing representations of the past and the reciprocal relations between memory and reality. This is explored by examining attitudes over time in the Israeli public toward a classic tale in Israeli literature, S. Yizhar's "The Story of Hirbet Hizah." 1
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...