Yossi Klein Halevi: I Am Looking for the Vanished Israel

The journalist discusses the decade-long process of writing his new book, 'Like Dreamers,' a history of modern Israel told through the lives of 1967 Paratroopers.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

Yossi Klein Halevi hasn’t always had the best timing.

His first book, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” was an account of growing up in the insular Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn as the son of a Holocaust survivor, and of his teenage dalliance with Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League. It was published in November 1995, a few days after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when potential readers were not especially open to hearing about Jewish extremism, even if, as in his case, the tale was one of redemption.

Klein Halevi, a Jerusalemite since 1982, was in New York at the time, all geared up for a publicity tour. At the suggestion of his literary agent, he decided to start by dropping in at some bookstores to introduce himself and his book.

At one shop on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, he presented himself to the manager, who said, “I know that book – and that title will never appear in this store.” Klein Halevi tried to explain, he recalled recently, that “it’s actually a book against Jewish extremism,” but the manager responded, “I don’t care what it is, I’m not taking that book.”

“Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist” did not become a best-seller.

His next book, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land,” was, as its name suggests, a personal, ecumenically minded reminiscence of his encounters with Palestinians of other religious faiths in Israel and the territories. Klein Halevi was also in New York the day of its official launch – September 11, 2001.

The author was having breakfast with his editor at HarperCollins that morning, when they got word of the attacks downtown at the World Trade Center. A short time later, the two of them were joined, he says, by the company’s president. “He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I’m sorry.’”

What's more, interest in that book wasn’t helped by the fact that Israel was then one year into the second intifada, and audiences weren’t particularly looking for tales about reconciliation between Jews and Arabs.

Now, after spending most of the past dozen years – as deadline after deadline from his editor came and went – working on his new book, “Like Dreamers” (HarperCollins), Klein Halevi can only hope that he won’t be sidelined again by the headlines. The ambitious, 660-plus-page book is a social, political and military history of modern Israel told through the life stories of seven paratroopers who were involved in the conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967.

The author was born Yossi Klein in 1953. Educated at Jewish schools in Brooklyn, he was active in Betar, the then-militant Zionist youth movement, before becoming involved in the struggle to gain freedom for Soviet Jews. Because the Jewish Defense League seemed to be taking action on behalf of the oppressed Jews of the USSR – planting smoke bombs in Soviet missions in the U.S., attacking American performances of Russian dance troupes - he became involved in the organization. In “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” he describes how he outgrew the JDL and immigrated to Israel.

Klein moved to Israel in 1982 with his then-girlfriend, Lynn Rintoul, a non-Jew from Westport, Connecticut, whom he had met in a writing class in New York. In Israel, Rintoul converted and, in keeping with conversion tradition, took the name “Sarah” for herself. The couple adopted the surname of “Klein Halevi.”

A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Yossi Klein Halevi founded a short-lived but highly regarded monthly called New Jewish Times in 1980. (Full disclosure: I contributed a single article to the paper, which Yossi completely rewrote just minutes before our press deadline.) It published its last issue in April 1981. Once in Israel, Klein Halevi contributed to the Village Voice before becoming a senior writer at The Jerusalem Report magazine. Following that, he was a fellow at what was then the Shalem Center (now Shalem College) in Jerusalem, and is currently a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is also the Israel correspondent for The New Republic.

I spoke with Yossi Klein Halevi by phone from New York, where he is spending the fall semester teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Soon after we spoke, he began the publicity tour for “Like Dreamers.” So far, the tour has gone smoothly.

Q: How did you end up writing this book?

A: It must have been in 1997, which was the 30th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, that I read an article in one of the Israeli papers about a reunion among the paratroopers. The article noted, that, isn’t it interesting that leaders of both the peace and the settlement movements emerged from Brigade 55, which fought the battle in Jerusalem.

I mentally filed that away, and said that someday I’d like to write an article about that. I knew that the next book that I wanted to write was about “us.” Not about ecumenical outreach, but looking inward and trying to understand what had happened to Israel as a result of the Six-Day War. And how we went from the euphoria of the summer of ‘67 to the despair of the second intifada. I began writing this book at the height of the second intifada. I began to seek out veterans of Brigade 55, to find out what happened to them as a result of ’67.

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Meir Ariel on leave, 1983.Credit: Tirza Ariel
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Meir Ariel and Shalom Hanoch.Credit: Tirza Ariel
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Paratroopers with flag at the Rockefeller Museum.Credit: eli Landau

Even though the book is not written from a personal perspective, it’s a very personal story for me because, in a certain way, the paratroopers brought me to Israel.

The first time I visited Israel was in 1967. I was 14 years old, and I fell in love with what seemed then to be the happy ending of Jewish history. Getting to know the paratroopers and learning how the war had affected them was a way of closing that circle for me.

I grew up in the right. I grew up in Betar in the mid-1960s in America. I went through the Soviet Jewry movement, and had my teenage infatuation with Meir Kahane. But I lost my right-wing politics very early on after my aliyah.

I moved here at the beginning of the Lebanon war, in August '82, a few weeks before the Sabra and Chatila massacre. And I came into an Israel that was the exact opposite of the summer of ’67. In 1967, war united this country – and united the Jewish people in a way that we probably had never been united before – at least not since Mount Sinai, 3,500 years ago.

The Lebanon war turned the security threat on its head. Now, external threats didn’t unite Israelis, but divided them.

Q: Your first two books were both written in first-person and were indeed very personal. They were about your journeys. Whereas in “Like Dreamers,” I don’t think that the word “I” appears once, other than in the introduction. Was it clear to you from the beginning that this wouldn’t be about you?

A: Not at all. This book took me 11 years to write. Initially, I saw myself very much part of the book, and what eventually became confined to the introduction was going to be really part of the entire narrative. My Israel, discovering Israel, moving to Israel. But eventually, I realized that I needed to step back and tell a story that was not personal. Of course, it’s all personal, because I’m so invested in the story. And each of these very different men are facets of my own personality.

The character that I least identify with politically in the book is Udi Adiv. I told Udi when we began this process that his politics are anathema to me, but I resonate deeply with his radical personality. I told him about my teenage attraction to Kahane, and that in 1973, when I was 19, I led a group of American Jewish activists in a demonstration in Moscow. And I felt this weird kind of affinity with Udi crossing the border and going to Damascus in 1972, for totally opposite reasons. I went to Moscow as a Zionist; he went to Damascus as an anti-Zionist. Yet I called the chapter about him, “Across the Border,” which I think is the same title that I gave the chapter in my first book, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” about going to Moscow. That was a little wink to myself and to Udi.

Q: I’ve always seen you as passionately ambivalent.

A: That’s a wonderful way to put it. What has preoccupied me as an Israeli citizen and a writer is the question of what does it mean to be a Jew living after the Shoah, and after the realization of the great Jewish fantasy of the return to Zion. What does it mean to be the generation after? How do we process that? I’ve been deeply mistrustful of those who have easy answers. Because our historical circumstances, our psychological circumstances and the complexity of the dilemmas we face all resist easy answers.

And I was attracted to write this story because I identify, to some extent, with arguments across the spectrum here. I’ve been voting for centrist parties for 20 years. I voted for the Third Way [in the ‘90s] and Meimad and other peripheral centrist parties that disappeared.

This book is an expression of the totality of my Israeli being. Trying to understand the left-right schism, and how it has led to emergence of the center.

To be an Israeli is not like being a centrist in any other political context. There is nothing wishy-washy about being an Israeli centrist. An Israeli centrist embraces two strong, diametrically opposed conclusions about the Palestinian problem. One is that a Palestinian state is an existential need for Israel, and the other is that a Palestinian state is an existential threat for Israel. That’s what it means to be an Israeli centrist.

It’s saying, there will be a Palestinian state, but that there won’t be peace. That’s the conceptual shift that happened within a large part of the left and the center. I say that at the end of the book, that the cruelty of Israel’s dilemma is that the choice was never between land and peace. Because, in the end, we’re not going to have the whole land, and we’re not going to have peace either. That’s the irony and the cruelty of Israel’s dilemma.

Q: Is this an optimistic book? Can you envision an end to the wars of the Jews?

A: I’m very optimistic about the long-term evolution of Israeli society. I see the emergence of a political center as an expression of Israeli maturity. A majority of Israelis were able to synthesize the essential insights of left and right, and combine those into a pragmatic centrist position.

The same process that has been happening over the past decade politically, is happening culturally. The old secular-Orthodox divide is gradually giving way to a new cultural center. And that cultural center is composed of post-secular Israelis who are seeking spiritual meaning in their lives and who are looking to Judaism for that meaning, but not to Orthodox Judaism. And on the other hand, of that part of the religious Zionist camp that wants to be part of modern Israel.

So, I see [the late signer-songwriter] Meir Ariel as a precursor of this moment. And I end with that, after his death, I write that Meir’s popularity across the cultural spectrum is an expression of what he himself lived. He was at once bohemian and a religious Jew. He combined, as no other cultural figure in Israel has, the ability to transcend our dichotomies, and combine them in his own being. It’s a fantastic story. He’s one of the heroes of this book for precisely that reason.

I am a passionate devotee of Israeli music. I think that Israel music is the great cultural achievement, along with the revival of Hebrew, of the Zionist revolution. And for many decades, Israeli music was the carrier of the secular Israeli ethos. In the last years, Israel music has become the carrier of the re-Judaization of Israeli culture.

In the last few months, two albums have come out based on the poems of [Abraham] ibn Ezra. Berry Sakharoff has produced a wonderful disc that’s just come out on the piyyutim [liturgical poems] of the Jews of Libya. Ehud Banai, Etti Ankri, Evyatar Banai – there’s so much wonderful Israeli music that is increasingly spiritual and increasingly Jewish. And the fact that this is happening through Israeli rock music is one of the great wonders of Israeli culture.

The old dichotomies don’t work anymore. In the last generation, the great cultural argument was between “the Israelis” and “the Jews.” The Jews won -- in that Judaism is now the central question of Israeli culture, that question is: What kind of Judaism are we going to create in Israel? Will it be fundamentalism, will it be importing the ghetto into our sovereign reality? Or will we begin to take responsibility for creating a modern spiritual Judaism that takes into account the needs of Jews today?

Q: Will Israelis have an opportunity to read your book in Hebrew?

A: It’s being translated now, and I’m finalizing a contract with a publisher. For me, this is a Hebrew book that happens to have been written in English. And now at least it needs to be restored to its original Hebrew.

Q: Avital Geva, the conceptual artist from Kibbutz Ein Shemer, is one of your seven paratroopers. He’s a very appealing character, but his work is very hard to understand. Do you think he fully understands it himself, or is it possible he’s just working intuitively?

A: Avital is one of the most intuitive people I’ve ever met. In his being, he resists systemization, categorization. It’s a violation of his soul. And it was a tremendous challenge to try to understand who he is and what his work means.

Partly, it’s the necessary elusiveness of the artist. But it’s also integral to understanding Avital’s rejection and embrace of the kibbutz. He rejected the ideology of the kibbutz, especially of Hashomer Hatzair, as he saw in its rigid ideology a stranglehold on the spiritual vitality and spontaneity that the kibbutz should have been nurturing. But Avital was in revolt against the kibbutz in order to try and save what he believed was the essence of the kibbutz, which was the transformation of the human being.

It’s interesting, the old socialist-Zionist debate between Ber Borochov – founder of Marxist Zionism – and A.D. Gordon. Borochov believed that Zionism needed to transform the social and economic structure of the Jew. A.D. Gordon believed that it needed to transform the soul of the Jew. Avital was a direct heir of A.D. Gordon. And his struggle was that he grew up in a society that was formed by Ber Borochov.

What Avital was trying to do in the greenhouse was create a model of holistic universe. For Avital, the kibbutz is a holistic society. It’s a society where no one is extraneous. Everyone has his place. People are valued not for what they do, but for who they are.

And that is what he sees in the greenhouse. Nothing goes to waste in the greenhouse. Water is pumped from the fish tanks to feed the plants. The excess water then drips out from the plants back into the fish tank.

Avital is a deeply religious man, a mystic. I think that one of the tragedies of Hashomer Hatzair was that it was fundamentally a mystical movement that was hijacked by ideology.

And Avital represents that revolt, which succeeded for him in his own personal life, in his work, but failed in the kibbutz movement. Although it may be premature to say that. Maybe what we’re seeing is the necessary freeing of the kibbutz from its rigid ideology, in order to allow it to begin to confront its deep spirituality.

I need to say that the deeper level for me of the book is not left and right, but kibbutz and settlement – and these two messianic utopian strains of Zionism. Both rejected the notion of Zionism as the movement to create a safe refuge for the Jewish people, and said, no, Zionism has to be about world redemption. And in that sense the irony is that the settlers and the kibbutzniks are in the same cultural, or spiritual, camp, even though they express it in radically different ways.

What was moving for me was in, discovering the kibbutzim, that I fell in love with the kibbutz. There’s an old poem by Rachel [Bluwstein], “Hehayita, o halamti halom?” – “Was it real, or was I dreaming?” I found myself asking, did this really happen? Did Zionism really produce this mass movement of egalitarian communes? What a story. How have we allowed this movement to fade away, without at the very least saying thank you. We are a society of ingrates. We owe our existence to the kibbutzim. Now I’m speaking as a former Betaree. I was taught to see the kibbutz as the enemy of Revisionist Zionism.

I grew up learning the songs of the Etzel [the Irgun] and the Stern Group. When I was 14, I knew all the words to "Hayyalim Almonim," the hymn of the Etzel. I didn’t know the songs, let along the folk dances, of the kibbutz. Betar had an entirely different Zionist culture. Bnei Akiva and Hashomer Hatzair had much more in common than Betar did with Bnei Akiva.

So, when I began writing this book, and the foundation of these two movements is really Bnei Akiva and Hashomer Hatzair, I had to learn retroactively the songs of these movements. I have spent hundreds of hours plugged into my iPod listening to the songs of the halutzim. I’ve fallen in love with the Hebrew translations of the songs of the Red Army that Palmachniks sang in the 1940s: these wonderful, melancholy stirring songs. I have discovered a whole part of my Israeli being that I didn’t know existed. And I have fallen in love with the kibbutz - at precisely the moment that the kibbutz fell out of love with itself, lost its self-confidence. I feel bereft. I’m like this specter haunting Israel. I’m looking for the vanished Israel. And I did not expect that to happen to me, writing this book.

Paratroopers stand in awe after liberating the Western Wall in 1967.Credit: David Rubinger
The cover of 'Like Dreamers'.Credit: Courtesy
Yossi Klein Halevi.Credit: Wikicommons