Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, by Yossi Klein Halevi
HarperCollins, 608 pages, $35
It is an iconic picture: A small group of Israel Defense Forces paratroopers stand in awe before the Western Wall on day three of the Six-Day War, in June 1967. Exhausted, hollowed out by combat, but suddenly feeling they carry the hopes of an entire people, they are filled with a blend of humility, naiveté and self-assurance, as they fulfill a 2,000-year-old dream: With their own hands, they have restored Jewish sovereignty over the holiest part of the Holy City, and reunified Jerusalem.
The reunification of Jerusalem and restoration of Jewish access to the Western Wall and the Old City in general was a watershed moment not only for Israel but for the Jewish people as a whole. For some, Mordecai Gur’s announcement that “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” combined with the falling of the West Bank – the biblical Judea and Samaria – into Israel’s hands, was an act of divine providence, the next step in the journey toward messianic redemption begun by the state’s establishment in 1948.
Something was set in motion that day at the Wall that changed people’s expectations and lives. For those on the left, and not only, there was a certainty that the Arab world would now be ready to accept Israel, and that peace was around the corner. For many religious believers, especially the followers of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, leader of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, who interpreted the Six-Day War’s as divine intervention in history, it was the beginning of a redemption that could only be advanced by settlement of those parts of the Land of Israel that had been beyond the border during the 19 years that came before.
Whether any of them intended it or not, the paratroopers’ actions awoke faith in some, and persuaded others to make aliyah. They even convinced the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg to stop writing because, he told a reporter who found him at the Wall, no poetry could possess the power that the sight of Jewish paratroopers on the Temple Mount possessed.
So what did these men themselves do? These young men from the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade, on the seventh day, the day after the war?
When he began to seek out and meet veterans who participated in the liberation of Jerusalem, the American-born journalist Yossi Klein Halevi saw how much these men were made of the stuff of heroes. In 1973, for example, during the Yom Kippur War, the men of the 55th Brigade, seven of whom are the subjects of “Like Dreamers,” were among those who reconquered the eastern shore of the Suez Canal, and the following winter, were among the last IDF soldiers to withdraw from African soil into Sinai.
More surprising, he discovered that many of the soldiers of the 55th Brigade in 1967 belonged to one of two distinct groups: About half of them (and 70 percent of the officers), were kibbutzniks; a smaller portion were religious Zionists, whose influence in the army and in Israeli society generally was marginal back then. These were precisely the groups that would later clash – the peace movement, with its disproportionate number of kibbutzniks, versus the settlement movement organized by religious Zionists. It was a split that would lead Israel to the brink of chaos with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
However, in 1967, nothing about the soldiers of the 55th Brigade could have indicated that their action would later symbolize the society’s division to this degree, they, of whom Klein Halevi writes that, that June, they looked “not like conquerors but like pilgrims at the end of a long journey,” “dreamers awake” in the restored Jerusalem, in the words of Psalm 126 (“When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion/we were like dreamers”).
Klein Halevi was curious to find out whether they themselves had been divided according to the lines that split Israeli society, or whether they had been spared, if only because over the years they had remained, at least in their own eyes, the same brothers-in-arms or “hevreh” they had been on the day before their triumphal moment.
To demonstrate these dilemmas, the author chose to retrace the journeys taken over the four decades that followed the Six-Day War of seven paratroopers from the 55th Reserve Brigade. From the religious right, they were Hanan Porat, one of a handful who founded the settlement movement Gush Emunim and led its political cause in the Knesset; Yoel Bin-Nun, a charismatic and idealistic rabbi and teacher; and Yisrael Harel, a journalist and organizer who founded the Yesha Council of Settlements. From the secular left, he focused on poet and folk singer Meir Ariel (the only one whom Klein Halevi didn’t personally interview, as he died in 1999); Udi Adiv, a far-left, pro-Palestinian activist who spent a dozen years in prison for his activities; Arik Achmon, an aviation-industry pioneer; and Avital Geva, an internationally known plastic artist and visionary. They are emblematic figures, whose personalities clash and who present a kaleidoscopic view of the different faces of the State of Israel.
Over the course of nearly a decade, Klein Halevi conducted hundreds of interviews, perused books and periodicals and military histories, listened to and watched radio and TV broadcasts. He also had access to the private papers of Yoel Bin Nun, a founder of the veteran West Bank settlement Ofra, and of Udi Adiv, and he was permitted to read Meir Ariel’s Torah study diary.
Through the story, made up of short and intense chapters and sub-chapters that portray many slices of life, we see friendships - and loves as well - form and wither, as anecdotal private history merges with the big picture. The author is equally skilled at describing a harrowing battle scene, like that on Nablus Road in East Jerusalem in 1967, as he is, later in the book, portraying an Orthodox wedding at Kfar Etzion, the religious kibbutz that was evacuated during the 1948 war and was the first settlement in the West Bank to be (re-) established after the 1967 war. One might be surprised that he gives them equal place, but in this work, what makes up the course of a life has the same dimension as international events. The separation of a couple is described with the same seriousness and depth as an institutional crisis. Disputes between friends echo the debates going on within Israeli society as a whole, and the country’s economic evolution can be portrayed through the path taken by Arik Achmon, a kibbutznik who became an early pioneer of privatization in Israel with the part he took in the establishment of Arkia as a private airline.
Once Klein Halevi’s method is understood, scenes articulate themselves with a rhythm, in a very vivid style, as he mixes description and reconstituted dialogue, in a quasi-cinematographic tone, giving the work an epic dimension. While seeking to embrace the destinies of these paratroopers, the author reveals the extraordinary richness and paradoxical existence of an entire nation.
One comes across statesmen: Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin are described in flattering terms, while Shimon Peres singled out by Klein Halevi as the “unloved technocrat.” Also present are poets and writers, ranging from Natan Alterman to David Grossman, and even the actor Dudu Topaz, whose slur against Mizrahi voters helped push Begin’s Likud to electoral victory in the close election of 1981. To better apprehend societal changes, the author gives us a sense of the development of Israeli television, from black and white to color on the single state-run channel, and then the flourishing of dozens of commercial and cable channels, as everywhere else in the Western world.
With Meir Ariel’s popular songs, “Jerusalem of Iron,” a somber reworking, following the conquest of the Holy City, of Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold”; “Our Forces Passed a Quiet Night in Suez,” about the Yom Kippur War; or “End of the Orange Season,” a metaphor for the end of Zionist innocence, this quasi-cinematic epic by Klein Halevi even has its own soundtrack.
Meir Ariel is an especially important element to Klein Halevi’s story. His growing interest in religion reflects the evolution of the country from “Israeli” to “Jewish.” Yet, the message of his life may be that Judaism doesn’t belong only to the Orthodox, which is another theme of “Like Dreamers.”
Into the Damascus hills
A multifaceted book, in turns a military, then political and social chronicle, the work also has elements of a spy thriller, with the portrait of Udi Adiv, whom we follow into the Damascus hills, where he had been lured by Syrian intelligence with a promise of training with Palestinian resistance groups, before being arrested on his return home and spending 12 years in prison. (We also meet Adiv’s wife Sylvia and her father, Marcus Klingberg, the onetime director of the biological warfare research center in Nes Tziona who passed on top secret information to Moscow.) It was the conquest of Jerusalem, and his participation in it that pushed Adiv from passive left-wing beliefs to a naïve conviction that he had to something active for his “cause”: “People die, and for what? For some holy places?” he would tell Klein Halevi.
Even if some secular soldiers were surprised by the love they felt for Jerusalem when they liberated it, the majority of non-religious Zionists squarely rejected the vision that called for the building of a Third Temple, preferring to turn their backs on the past and to celebrate the kibbutz, youth and the future. But for so many other Israelis, the liberation of Jerusalem and the conquest of Judea-Samaria were seen as a signal of the beginning of redemption. “We are writing the next chapter of the Bible,” exclaimed Hanan Porat upon entering the Old City.
In compiling the history of these competing utopian dreams, and how the Israeli idealism symbolized by the kibbutz was displaced by the Israeli idealism symbolized by the settlements, Klein Halevi delivers a powerful work about the force of political engagement, on choices, doubts and also a lot about mistakes. Because in the end, didn’t everyone have some soul-searching to do? After the failure of the Oslo agreements and then the assassination of Rabin, both the right wing, with its dream of Greater Israel, and the left wing, with its demand for Peace Now, were largely disabused of their illusions.
A cruelty of history is that the paratroopers of the 55th Reserve Brigade who had fought side by side in Israel’s wars came to be in conflict with each other on the domestic scene. Trust had been broken.
In the early 1990s, Yisrael Harel, who now had a podium as a regular columnist – some said as the token right-wing publicist – for Haaretz, would call upon left-wingers such as “my friend Arik Achmon, the kibbutznik of North Tel Aviv,” as Klein Halevi puts it, not to abandon their pioneering ideals. But it was at this time that Harel confided to a journalist “I used to say that if I had to be confined to a desert island, I would prefer to be with my kibbutznik friends from the paratroopers. But I can’t trust them with the Jewish future anymore.”
A stimulating reflection on the “hevreh” – the gang, both a fraternity of arms, the essence of the kibbutz, the core of the religious community – Klein Halevi’s book is a profound work of introspection about the soul of a people and the internal dangers that may well undermine it even more than external threats. As the author’s own father would say, the true weakness of the Jews is their temptation for schism; when they are united, no enemy can destroy them.
Dr. Frédérique Schillo is a historian who specializes in Israel and international relations. She is the author of “French Policy Toward Israel, 1946-1959,” and coauthor of “The Yom Kippur War Will Not Take Place. How Israel Was Surprised,” both published in French by André Versaille Editeur.