By STEVEN BAYME
American Jews aged 60 and over likely recall precisely where they were the morning of June 5, 1967. Following a month of daily Arab threats of annihilation, Israel launched a successful preemptive strike against Egypt. After Jordan rejected Israeli appeals to refrain from hostilities, Israel captured the West Bank and reunited Jerusalem. American Jewish ties with Israel in turn intensified greatly. The month-long experience of rhetorical echoes of the Holocaust preceding the war followed by Israel’s demonstrated capacity to defend itself evoked Jewish pride and cemented bonds of peoplehood.
Few, if any, however, predicted how the 1967 war would profoundly alter Israeli society. Yossi Klein Halevi, a leading Israeli journalist of American origin, has written a remarkable volume of historical reporting, tracing the evolution of Israel through the postwar experiences of seven paratroopers, all veterans of the brigade that reunited Jerusalem. A work of non-fiction that reads like a riveting novel, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who United Jerusalem and Divided a Country” (Harper Collins) contains a fascinating cast of characters that entered Israeli public life and marked the transformations and fissures within it. Their postwar pathways collectively illustrate the diverse faces of Israel and her critical challenges. Brilliantly, Klein Halevi interweaves personal narratives with Israeli history, skillfully introducing the complicated interactions between his subjects and Israel’s political, intellectual and religious landscape.
The cast of characters and their stories make for compelling reading. The journalist who abandoned a promising career in media to establish the Yesha Council of West Bank settlements; the secular songwriter who found religion; the socialist who discovered the virtues of capitalism; the yeshiva student who became an inspirational leader to the settlers; the war protestor who turned traitor; the pro-Soviet kibbutznik who sought artistic expression; and the Bible scholar who helped establish and subsequently broke with the settlers’ movement — collectively they illuminate post-’67 Israel.
Parallel to his individual portraits and narratives, Klein Halevi contextualizes the reactions of his subjects to the major upheavals of Israel’s recent past, including the Sinai withdrawal, the revelations of a Jewish terrorist underground, the intifada, the Oslo process and the Rabin assassination. Moreover, many readers will be surprised to learn that in 1956 the mayor of Haifa’s private militia physically assaulted religious youths extolling the idea of Shabbat as the day of spiritual enrichment. Conversely, few will recall that Menachem Begin’s first official act as prime minister was awarding refuge to 66 Vietnamese boat people, all of whom had been denied entry elsewhere.
Yet the most sobering aspect of this book is how deeply the Israeli climate of opinion has been polarized and civil society fractured. Extremism on both right and left has relegated the euphoria of the summer of ’67 to a distant and dim memory.
Most disturbing in this light is the collapse of a pan-Jewish consensus. Secular and religious Israelis often occupy completely different planes of existence. The theological messianism of Hanan Porat, whose charismatic leadership molded the ideological settlers’ movement known as Gush Emunim, initially gained considerable support from secular Israelis, including President Zalman Shazar. But after the 1982 Lebanon War and the Baruch Goldstein Hebron massacre in 1994, Porat was ridiculed and reviled. His redemptive theology and politics contrasted sharply with Arik Achmon, a kibbutznik who hoped to lead the Israeli economy into the new world of globalization. Similarly, the much-heralded “Soldiers’ Talk” — a volume of soldiers reflecting on their wartime experiences (published in English as “The Seventh Day”) lacks the critical discussion among Mercaz Yeshiva students, who perceived the war entirely as one of redeeming the Holy Land and displayed no ambivalence about the violence inherent in realizing that goal.
To be sure, there were voices within the settlers’ movement who did reconsider their position. Thus, Rabbi Yehuda Amital of Yeshivat Har Etzion became convinced that Gush Emunim had placed the unity of the land of Israel over the well being of its people. Others, particularly Yoel Bin-Nun, arguably Klein Halevi’s favorite persona, and ex-ideologue of Gush Emunim, became skeptical both of the Left’s hopes for peace and the Right’s illusions of permanent sovereignty over millions of Palestinians. In turn, during the Oslo period, Bin-Nun undertook a private dialogue with Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Bin-Nun understood the ambiguity of military victory and despaired at the lost opportunity to bring together the spiritual elites of the kibbutz movement and the yeshivot. Although responsive to Bin-Nun personally, Rabin likely erred in marginalizing the settlers and fell victim to the hysteria concerning the Oslo process so prevalent on the West Bank during the weeks and months preceding his assassination.
Halevi clearly prefers the politics of the center. He empathizes with Bin-Nun, who respected the authority of the state and the rule of law, and who saw Rabin as the one figure capable of uniting Israeli society. Similarly, he identifies with Gen. Motta Gur, commander of the paratroopers, who both supported Oslo and loved the settlers. For Klein Halevi, personalities like Bin-Nun and Arik Achmon, whose politics differed greatly, constitute bridge figures within Israeli society; they share the conviction that to be an Israeli in the 21st century connotes a profound blessing of Jewish history.
Klein-Halevi’s writing is so gripping that one wishes he would never stop. He concludes with the failure of Camp David in 2000 and the outbreak of the second intifada. Subsequently, Prime Minsters Arik Sharon and Ehud Olmert modified their positions; but did similar evolutions occur as well among the ex-paratroopers? Did left-leading paratroopers — Avital Geva and Arik Achmon, to say nothing of Udi Adiv, who became an unwitting spy for Syria — modify their positions in light of the Hamas takeover in Gaza and Palestinian rejection of Olmert’s far-reaching peace proposals? Conversely, how did the late Hanan Porat and settler leader Yisrael Harel respond to the Gaza disengagement and to Israel’s continuing demographic dilemma?
One leaves “Like Dreamers” with the understanding that the narrative of Israel continues and its most exciting chapters lie ahead. Notwithstanding his concerns about Jewish divisiveness, Klein Halevi identifies with a people determined to prosper in an imperfect world. Medieval British philosopher Roger Bacon once noted that some books were to be tasted, others to be digested and still others to be cast aside. “Like Dreamers” merits repeated digestion.
Steven Bayme is director of the Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations at the American Jewish Committee.