By Saul Golubcow
Review of: Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, by Yossi Klein Halevi
I was a very young child when I fell in love with Israel. At the end of a very hard work day, my father, a Holocaust survivor and new to America, would sit at the kitchen table reading aloud from the Tag-Morgen Zhurnal, a Jewish language daily, and I would sit on his lap following his fingers tracing the words as he narrated awe and reverence for the establishment of the State of Israel, anxiety for its safety as it struggled to survive, and joyful pride in Israel’s embrace of uprooted Jews from around the world. Thus, I came to love Israel simply, completely, and fiercely, and like the lover in Song of Songs, I thought of Israel as “all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.”
I’ve probably loved this way for over 60 years, but now in reading Yossi Klein Halevi’s book, Like Dreamers, I have fallen in love with Israel all over again as an adult who understands that for any love relationship to be meaningfully enduring, one must progress over the vagaries and erosions of time from first infatuation to accepted transformations, from apotheosis and idealization to the recognition that the appearance of “spots” are inevitable and can be part of the wholeness of the beloved, on the surface, within the heart, and even reflections of the soul.
On June 6, 1967, the 55th paratrooper brigade of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) captured the Jordanian sector of Jerusalem including the Western Wall and Temple Mount. Thus, Halevi posits, Israel achieved a two-millennium dream of a united Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish state, but in doing so, the victory put in motion forces that have led to divisions in national thought and policy lasting to the present. To make those dynamics understandable, Halevi has selected seven of the 55th brigade paratroopers, and through years of interviews, reading of memoirs and journal entries, media coverage, and exchanges of communications, he tells their stories from 1967 to 2004. One becomes the leading Israeli avant garde artist of the late 20th century; one a renowned poet and song writer; one the architect for revamping Israel’s stagnant socialist economy; three become leaders of the settlements movement, but each with his own nuanced perspective and approach; and one becomes a traitor and jailed for naively trying to provide information to the Syrians. These personal stories (and to an extent interactions and intersections) become Halevi’s historiography for examining the religious, cultural, political, and economic factors that inform both the challenges, paradoxes, tensions, contributions, and successes of Israel’s last 50 years.
How then has this “history” recalibrated my love for Israel? A few seminal events may explain. When the Six-Day war broke out, I listened first in fear of Israel’s annihilation and then in triumph when the news of victory arrived. I saw the now iconic picture of the Israeli troops looking with awe at the Wall and believed in the end of wars for Israel. I may have known of the losses the 55th brigade took in capturing Jerusalem, but I skimmed over that news, joyful of the end result. Halevi taught me that while Naomi Shemer’s Jerusalem of Gold was sung throughout Israel and by Jews across the world, as the battle raged, Meier Ariel, the songwriter, jots Jerusalem of Iron depicting the blood, pain, and sorrow of war. We then knew little of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and as the seven return home, Halevi shares with us the unraveling and re-knitting of their psyches, a foreshadowing of what the nation as a whole will go through. My admiration for the Six-Day War victory partly frayed yet also re-knitted.
In writing about the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Halevi conveys a further sense of both the unraveling and coalescence of personal and national self-identifications and spirit. For me the Israel I anxiously worried about through the war’s three weeks was in my mind the same Israel of my early childhood, of brave Ashkenazi, Sabra pioneers who had made the desert bloom and who had repeatedly repulsed and even conquered their surrounding enemies six years before. But as Halevi informs, the summer of ’67 euphoria had soon dissipated as the realities of a new, emergent Israel with its pains of change overspread the country.
The four Kibbutzniks, brought up on social justice and leveling and in the collective spirit of working the land to establish a Jewish state, look out at the “greater” Israel that now has absorbed Sephardi immigrants and, ominously, a seething population of Arabs that must somehow be governed. Avital Geva, the artist, Meier Ariel, the songwriter, and Arik Achmon, the business visionary struggle with their own place within the agrarian, labor-focused Kibbutz framework, both in what they want for themselves and for the country as a whole. Udi Adiv, his growth stunted from his Stalinist upbringing, bitterly resents what he sees of Israel as an imperialist force no better than the capitalist entities he was taught to despise.
And as for the three religious Zionist proponents of a “Greater Israel,” Yoel Bin-Nun sees the hand of God in the Six-Day war victory fulfilling a messianic hope for the enfolding of all Jews in their biblical homeland, Hanan Porat forges plans to re-populate the Jewish area from which his family was driven in 1948, and Yisrael Harel sees settlement of the territories as a natural extension of the Kibbutz movement and facts on the ground for retaining of the territories.
Halevi’s depiction of the Yom Kippur War through the eyes of the paratroopers is a traumatic encapsulation of Israel’s history. Every moment contains decisions and conflicts that can mean life or death. Yet with different personalities and sharp differences among them, religious and secular, the paratroopers (with the exception of Adiv) mobilize themselves as a cohesive, self-sacrificing force to stop the Egyptians in the Sinai and the Syrians on the Golan. We all know the outcome, but for me, the reader, I took in those pages as if I were viewing the lives of one’s children who had developed into complex, young adults. Viewing their everyday strivings may have caused worry, but now, at war, with life hanging in the balance, sheer agony ensues. The war ended, and with the “children” for the most part safe (Hanan Porat was critically injured but recovers), I experienced a relief that formed an even more intense level of bonding with Israel.
Each of the personal narratives in Like Dreamers is fascinating and could be told as a separate story. But they come together to create a dramatic history that challenges the readers to go beneath a possible surface understanding of Israel and confront the fullness of their relationship with the land much as the paratroopers do in questioning themselves and each other. For those of us, especially outside of Israel, who have lived through Israel’s history, we have held our opinions and reactions to the Camp David peace accords, the settlements in the territories, the Wars in Lebanon, the Baruch Goldstein massacre, the Oslo agreements, the Rabin assassination, and the Intifadahs. We often take a “side” and satisfied persevere with a point of view.
Like Dreamers challenges the comfort of our relationship with Israel. Avital Geva may have been a founder of Peace Now and held a strong conviction that the spirit of Israel did not allow for the occupation of a large Arab population, but ultimately comes to doubt that the Palestinians are willing peace partners; Meier Ariel, a pot smoking, womanizing, secular poet and songwriter seeks in the years before his sudden death at 57 a Jewish God and the joyfulness of traditional songs and liturgy; Yisrael Harel, tough-minded spokesperson for the Movement for the Complete Land of Israel holds secret talks with prominent Palestinians to exchange ideas for peace; and Yoel Bin-Nun, a Rabbi, founder, and spiritual leader of the religious Zionism Gush Emunim settlement bloc, had been an undisclosed confidante of Yitzchak Rabin before and after Oslo and breaks with the settler movement after Rabin’s assassination.
The epitaph on Meier Ariel’s tombstone reads from one of his songs, “I stepped out to breathe some wind.” As Halevi points out, the line is a word play as the Hebrew word ruach means both “wind” and “spirit.” In the end, Halevi’s book makes us breathe in the totality of Israel’s ruach as we take in the depth and breadth of the nation. We too then are dreamers sharing in the Zionist vision for a more perfect Jewish state. There may not be an end or even one favored culmination point for this hope, but as Halevi’s book allows us a fuller understanding of each other as fellow questers, we establish a stronger connection to and love of Israel.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.