Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers
Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation
by Yossi Klein Halevi
Harper Collins, 2013, 608 pp.
Growing up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Yossi Klein Halevi was a devotee of the ultra-rightist rabbi Meier Kahane, an experience he chronicled in an honest autobiography, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist. But after moving to Jerusalem in 1982, he broke from this hardcore and hateful ideology to become one of Israel’s most generous-minded journalists and analysts. Once a fellow at the right-wing, Sheldon Adelson-supported Shalem Center, he now resides at the more ecumenical Shalom Hartman Institute as part of a special unit that promotes deeper understanding of Israeli society to the Diaspora Jewish community.
Before Klein Halevi moved to Israel, he founded New Jewish Times, a newspaper that attempted the impossible task of publishing left and right wing writers. I wrote for that publication when I, like the author, was in my twenties (unlike him, I was an ideological left-Zionist). The newspaper didn’t succeed. But Klein Halevi has continued his politically uninhibited thinking about Israel’s past and how it impacts the present and future, and he still seeks a centrist position in the midst of ideologues of the left and right.
Like Dreamers, the product of twelve years of research and writing, is a testament to Klein Halevi’s extraordinary determination. The book tells the story of the members of the 55th Paratrooper Reserve Brigade and the pivotal role they played in securing Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. As it so happens, this group was not your typical team of soldiers. While they weren’t famous in the 1967 War, each of those profiled here rose above the crowd to have a significant impact on Israeli society, for good or for ill, depending on your vantage point. From leaders in the soon-to-be created Peace Now movement to the Gush Emunim settlers’ movement—both campaigns that emerged following the political schism of the 1967 War—to iconic arts figures like the folk musician Meir Ariel, considered Israel’s answer to Bob Dylan, and visual artist and political activist Avital Geva (who also helped found Peace Now from his base at Kibbutz Ein Shemer), the brigade was a microcosm of Israel’s most intense schisms and sentiments.
Motta Gur led the brigade in its capture of the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, and later became Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces. Among the most arresting sections of the book are descriptions of Gur’s wisdom in the ’67 War, along with his personal pain, which culminated in suicide when his body was riddled with cancer.
It would be two more decades before massive change arrived at the kibbutzim, but the antecedents can be found in 1967.
The life of Arik Achmon, a kibbutznik who served as the brigade’s chief intelligence officer, mirrored the transformation of the Israeli economy from socialist communalism and a centralized economy to privatized and semi-privatized enterprises. Achmon had deep ties to the kibbutz movement, since he married Yehudit Hazan, one of the daughters of Yaacov Hazan, the founder of the Kibbutz Artzi, the most left-wing of the kibbutz movements. Hazan is portrayed accurately and lovingly in this book as an ideologue who was true to his own beliefs in living a simple life. But as Klein Halevi also clearly chronicles, this lifestyle simply wouldn’t withstand the combination of global economic shifts and right-wing ideological shifts that Israel was beginning to undergo.
In his portrait of Achman, Klein Halevi brilliantly maps out the transformation that was to come for the entire kibbutz movement. It would be two more decades before massive change arrived at the kibbutzim, but the antecedents can be found in 1967—a loss of purpose, self-doubt, and horror at the Soviet Union’s support of the Arabs, as well as shifts in the Israeli economy. Halevi describes how the kibbutz lifestyle began to feel anachronistic:
Arik was proud of the kibbutz movement for setting the borders of Israel and creating a class of selfless servers. But his economic studies had confirmed what he knew from experience: that a centralized economy stifles initiative and rewards laziness. It was absurd. In the Middle East’s military superpower there was a two-year waiting list for a telephone…Why was Israel so efficient during war and so incompetent in peacetime? A modern nation was waiting to be born here, freed of the outmoded fantasy of an agrarian collectivist utopia…
The ideological energy was shifting to the right. The mantle of idealism, from 1967 onwards was passed to the ideological settler movement that expanded into the West Bank, where nearly 350,000 Jewish settlers live today. Klein Halevi documents how paratroopers from the 55th like Hanan Ben Porat, Yisrael Harel, and Yoel Bin-Nun helped found the settlement movement, creating new “facts on the ground” that shifted everything in Israeli life.
In an especially haunting scene, Klein Halevi recounts how former paratrooper Hanan Ben Porat, a rising leader in the Gush Emunim settlers’ movement, implored Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to allow an entourage of young people to camp out on the site of Kfar Etzion. One of the early settlements in the Yishuv (pre-state Israel), Kfar Etzion was ambushed by Arabs in 1947 and 127 people were killed, and fell outside the 1948 Armistice line. The request for the trip, which came from the children of the original founders, seemed innocent enough: “We very much want to pray in the place where our parents prayed.” But they were equipped with more than prayer books. “The young people unloaded a generator and spring cots and boxes of canned food, drew up schedules for kitchen duty and for guard duty. An army truck brought water…the first West Bank settlement…was created.”
As political winds shifted, this scene would be repeated numerous times, and the settlers’ movement became a force more influential in Israel than that of the leftists who founded the state.
Perhaps the most important legacy of the brigade was the ability of Israelis from the left and the right to maintain close friendships and dialogue throughout the most difficult of times. Yisrael Harel, the settler who is always open to dialogue, best exemplifies this. (I had my own dialogue with him in an exchange about Israel and America in 2004 at opendemocracy.net,) He went on to a career in journalism, even becoming the token right-wing columnist in Israel’s dovish daily Haaretz.
The legacy of the capture of the West Bank, the unification of Jerusalem, and the ascendancy of a messianic right and the decline of a secular left are all being played out daily in Israel.
But Klein Halevi doesn’t shrink from the starker divisions among the Israeli population at large. He documents the murder of Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig, killed in Jerusalem in 1983 when a settler activist threw an explosive into a crowd of peace demonstrators. He also writes about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing opponent of the Oslo Peace Process in 1995, usefully documenting the “shock and revulsion” among Israelis regarding the murder, including from dozens of rabbis who were settlers. Yisrael Harel wrote a lead editorial in the settlers’ journal, Nekuda, calling the murder a “repulsive act….that should shake the soul of every person created in God’s image….”
This chapter is titled “End of the Six Day War.” The truth, alas, is that the war has still not ended. As we wait and watch, with new negotiations being conducted in a secrecy that is uncharacteristic for Israel, it is evident that the Six Day War is still simmering. The legacy of the capture of the West Bank, the legacy of the unification of Jerusalem and the holy basin, and the legacy of the ascendancy of a messianic right and the decline of a secular left are all being played out daily in Israel.
Whether the middle ground that Klein Halevi has sought out for his entire career can become a reality is still the most pressing question at hand. Like Dreamers offers an excellent road map of the obstacles to ending the war that ignited a people and a region forty-six years ago.
Jo-Ann Mort, a member of Dissent’s editorial board, is the co-author (with Gary Brenner) of Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel? (Cornell University Press)