Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation
By Yossi Klein Halevi
HarperCollins Publishers, 608 pages, $35
Israel’s Six Day War, in 1967, was its greatest military victory, but in the end, a costly one. The territorial gains that resulted became both flash points for conflict and bargaining chips for peace. The war’s most meaningful and widely celebrated triumph was the reunification of Jerusalem, which returned the sacred Old City sites of the Temple Mount and Western Wall to Israeli control.
Forward contributing editor Yossi Klein Halevi’s masterful narrative history, “Like Dreamers,” concentrates on seven members of the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade involved in that emotionally fraught battle. But his painstaking reconstruction of their mission is only the beginning of the story, which ends with the celebration of Jerusalem Day in 2004.
In an astounding feat of reporting, he tracks these citizen soldiers, men of clashing beliefs and temperaments, through almost four decades — through war and peace, marriage and divorce, career setbacks and successes, political evolution and religious awakening.
We see, for example, how the aggressively self-confident Arik Achmon, chief intelligence officer of the 55th Brigade helps to transform Israel’s aviation industry. The Holocaust survivor Yisrael Harel becomes an important spokesman for West Bank settlers. The conceptual artist Avital Geva represents Israel at the 1993 Venice Biennale, and the singer-songwriter Meir Ariel annexes biblical metaphors and struggles for recognition. All spoke candidly to Halevi, except for Ariel, who died too soon to be interviewed And Ariel’s widow, Tirza, was perhaps the most candid of all, describing their sometimes shaky open marriage.
The level of detail in “Like Dreamers,” along with Halevi’s skill in immersing readers in his characters’ psyches, gives the book novelistic flair. And Halevi is an often elegant stylist. But the work as whole is not without flaws. A good novel — indeed, a better history — would be more ruthlessly shaped and pruned. Halevi’s very ambition undermines him. Cutting cinematically, sometimes frenetically, between characters and incidents, his storyline sacrifices emotional impact; comprehensiveness comes at the expense of literary delight.
Still, “Like Dreamers” is a major achievement — a valuable introduction to the schisms and challenges bedeviling modern Israel. A Brooklyn native and a contributing editor at The New Republic, Halevi visited Israel with his family after the Six Day War and immigrated there in 1982, and he is adept at interpreting his adopted country for an American audience.
Halevi’s subjects represent two powerful strains of idealism: the left-leaning kibbutz movement and right-leaning religious Zionism, whose adherents founded the West Bank settlement movement. Kibbutzniks would become integral to Peace Now, a group opposing the settlers and agitating for rapprochement with the Palestinians.