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.
Halevi sees these two movements as parallel forces. “The founders of the kibbutz movement in the early years of the twentieth century envisioned the future Jewish state as a laboratory for democratic egalitarianism,” he writes. “Many religious Zionists believed that the creation of a Jewish state would be the catalyst for the messianic era.” “Like Dreamers” — whose title is taken from Psalm 126, about the return of “the exiles of Zion” — is therefore “a story about the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams.”
At one ideological extreme is Udi Aviv, a reluctant paratrooper who traveled to Damascus in 1972 “to help create an anti-Zionist terrorist underground.” Arrested by authorities, Aviv became a notorious traitor and served 12 years in prison, emerging chastened, emotionally distant, and a student of political science rather than an activist.
Aviv, though, is an exception to Halevi’s mostly admirable cast of characters. Among the religious Zionists, Halevi focuses most intensely on Yoel Bin-Nun, a founder of the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlement movement. Bin-Nun would become an unlikely ally and prod to Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And he would turn critical of his fellow settlers after Rabin’s 1995 assassination by an Orthodox Jewish nationalist.
Among veterans of the kibbutz movement are Achmon, an entrepreneur with a capitalist bent; Meir, who would first win notice with his Six Day War ballad, “Jerusalem of Iron”; and Geva, who would become a Peace Now activist.
Like a novelist who inhabits all his characters, Halevi doesn’t openly declare his allegiances. But he comes across as an apostle of moderation, and an empathetic observer of the various warring camps. He holds out hope that the divisions between left and right, and between secular and religious Jews, can be fluid — that, at least at the level of the individual, change and compromise are possible.
In the end, Halevi glosses Israel’s possibilities through the political evolution of Bin-Nun, who realizes that “the new dreams of Zion — socialist perfection, the wholeness of the land, even the seemingly modest dream of normalizing the Jews as a nation among nations — had each successively faltered.” And through his protagonist, he suggests this modestly hopeful response: “Weren’t the dreams that had been fulfilled in some sense enough?”
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein