Open Zion

10.08.13

Halevi's 'Like Dreamers' Is the Big Book On Israel We've Been Waiting For

Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation is both a saga and an extraordinarily intimate story. Like Dreamers chronicles today’s Israel, the Israel that was created by the Six Day War and the capture of East Jerusalem, the Sinai, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It details the surge of the settlement movement from deep inside, and plots the parallel collapse of the kibbutz ethos and the kibbutz elite. It is a big book, perhaps the big book on Israel we have been waiting for.

The uniqueness of Halevi’s masterpiece is in the telling. Halevi tracks the lives of seven of the Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Western Wall during the Six Day War, starting before the war and continuing past the Rabin assassination. Halevi channels his protagonists, probing deeply into their individual psyches, their families, their meeting halls and their bedrooms. Through the insanely divergent personal journeys of these men, Halevi illuminates the transformation of Israel from a pioneering state led by kibbutz collectivist idealists, to a capitalist mini-power marked by individualism and isolated social camps, everywhere subjugated to the settlement enterprise. The kibbutz elite was replaced by several new elites, but the settlers were the first to claim the mantle as heirs.

Halevi vividly recreates the settlement movement’s evolution from a fringe phenomenon to the force that has dominated Israeli politics and divided Israeli society. He is sympathetic to the passion that drove the settlers, the frenzy of their energy and vision, and yet manages to be critical of their enormous blindspots and self-centeredness.

Love of the land provided a link between the early post-1967 settlers and the kibbutz-bred national leadership. Halevi details the misguided nostalgia that repeatedly led government ministers to submit to settler demands, feeling as if they were reliving their own youths or the settlement days of their parents’ generation. Unlike the huge settlements to follow—with their tax incentives, single family homes and bypass roads—the first encampments were never about material “quality of life,” and there existed a mutual admiration between politicians and settlers which muffled the critics who early on damned the settlement movement as a corruption of the Zionist dream.

Three of Halevi’s paratroopers became leaders of the settlement movement: Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, Yisrael Harel and Hanan Porat. Halevi crawls inside Bin-Nun’s head. Tortured souls evoke Halevi’s greatest authorial empathy and descriptive powers, and Bin-Nun comes as close as anyone to being the hero of this grand narrative. We live Bin-Nun’s crises of conscience, his passages to Gush Ezion, Ofra, Yamit, and back to Gush Etzion, his enchantment and eventual disillusionment with the spiritual father of the settlement movement, Merkaz Harav’s Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. In Halevi’s account, Bin-Nun always put national unity alongside or above the settlement agenda, and it tore him up that settlers would defy government decisions or oppose the IDF.

As settlers sanctified their vision and disregarded Jewish opposition, they divided the nation. We follow Bin-Nun’s ever more desperate attempts to bridge the national schism, trying unsuccessfully to re-forge the link of shared values between the settlers and the Zionist and largely secular left. Most poignantly, we follow his misery over the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, with whom Bin-Nun had created a private backchannel.

On the flip side of his meta-narrative, Halevi details the disintegration of the kibbutz ethos, a culture which had imprinted the Jewish state for its first 30 years with the principles of self denial, physical labor, working the land, modest living, and sacrifice; fully one quarter of Israel’s dead in the Six Day War were kibbutz members. The reader feels the personal cataclysm of four kibbutznik paratroopers as their universe falls from grace.

Meir Ariel darted to fame when his inversion of Naomi Shemer’s Six Day War anthem, which he penned during the days of battle and called Jerusalem of Iron, challenged the pervasive mood of patriotic ecstasy. Throughout Ariel’s anguished personal life and career he continued to pen subversive lyrics and follow his idiosyncratic muse, developing a cult following and intermittent popularity. Installation artist Avital Geva, another kibbutznik, wounded during the war, became the bad boy of the Israeli art scene, until his experimental Greenhouse, a living laboratory for agricultural experiments, “art” and young people, represented Israel at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Udi Adiv, a Marxist kibbutznik, became so disillusioned by his wartime experiences that he flew to Syria to meet what he thought were PLO activists (he was deceived by Syrian intelligence agents). Although the information he passed on was of no real strategic value, Adiv was arrested and served 12 years in an Israeli prison for treason.

Arik Achmon is the second hero of the book, an upbeat and positive figure in Halevi’s telling, who imbibed the can-do mentality of his home kibbutz but felt suffocated by its social conformity, and perhaps ironically became a pioneer in privatization in Israel’s embryonic business world. Achmon was General Motta Gur’s right-hand man during the Six Day War, and then revived Arkia Airlines and took on the Histadrut, reforming labor practices to give small- and medium-sized businesses a fighting chance.

Achmon is a harbinger of the business entrepreneurs who became the other new elite to supplant the old kibbutz hegemony. They would create an Israeli hi-tech economy capable of surviving global fiscal firestorms, but one dominated by a moneyed elite and suffering massive income gaps that are anathema to Israel’s founding vision.

Through it all, the fraternity of paratroopers holds fast. These men knew each other as comrades in arms, and are members of a brotherhood that includes movers and shakers. They can always pick up the phone to a fellow paratrooper to cut through procedures, to order support or exceptions to policies; this holds true for establishing settlements and illegal outposts, business negotiations, and supply lines in battle.

Anchoring himself in the biographies of seven specific men gives Halevi’s opus its focus. The level of detail is immense—the narrative skips between seven simultaneous biographies—and yet the pace is break-neck. Like Dreamers is a remarkable feat of reporting, thrilling, painful, and brilliantly recounted, and an unparalleled portrait of Israel’s last five decades.