A review of Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, by Yossi Klein Halevi
In Israel, where military service is compulsory and near-universal, the army serves as a melting pot in which religious, cultural, and political differences are fused.
Nowhere was this truer than among the 55th Paratrooper Brigade, which fought valiantly in Israel's 1967 Six Day War to stave off extermination by surrounding Arab armies; to expand the Jewish State's boundaries immensely (and improbably); and, as retold in Yossi Klein Halevi's remarkable new book Like Dreamers, to re-establish Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem and its holy sites for the first time in millennia.
The book shadows the personal and professional arcs of seven veterans of the 55th Brigade: the chief intelligence officer who built Israel's domestic aviation market, Arik Achmon; a rabbi who helped found a settlement and seminary in the Judean Hills, Yoel Bin-Nun; a prominent poet-singer; a leading conceptual artist and environmentalist; two religious Zionists who spearheaded the Gush Emunim settlement movement; and even a disillusioned Leftist who made common cause with Israel's enemies.
Their sometimes overlapping, often diverging stories track the cultural, political, and spiritual fault lines that have cleaved Israeli society since its inception and that, paradoxically, render the Jewish State the vibrant, diverse, crazy-quilt dynamo of a country that it's become during the first hundred-plus years of the Zionist experiment.
A senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and columnist for the New Republic, Klein Halevi begins the narrative with the background of many of his protagonists but quickly turns to an enthralling description of the paratroopers' triumphant, brief, bloody battle for Jerusalem that represents the book's dramatic, thematic climax.
It includes a gripping first-hand account of the paratroopers' arrival at the Dome of the Rock—the Islamic shrine adorning the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site—where Achmon and Motta Gur, his brigade commander, scaled the outside of the hemisphere and draped, for a few brief moments, an Israeli flag from its pinnacle. (Israel would later promptly, and controversially, return control of the contested sacred site to Islamic authorities.)
The Six Day War was a turning point for the Jewish people. The victorious Israel's expanded borders encompassed not only the ancient, holy cities of Hebron, Bethlehem, and (all of) Jerusalem, but now also included millions of Palestinian Arabs. In the war's wake a chasm opened up between those Israelis who sought to annex and settle the new land immediately and others who expressed profound ambivalence over governing a hostile, if defeated, populace.
And here, Klein Halevi does a masterly job tracing the trajectory of this struggle over "the territories," from its early days when Israel's secular cognoscenti—notably, leading poet Natan Alterman and Nobel laureate novelist Shai Agnon—flocked to the settlement cause, to the post-1973 period when religious activists, including Bin-Nun and other veterans of the 55th, coopted the movement—the "Zionism of normalization" giving way to the "Zionism of destiny."
Like Dreamers also artfully explores the development of Israel's peace movement, as well as genesis of several rounds of Palestinian uprisings, both of which posed direct threats to the settlement movement.
* * *
Klein Halevi also recounts the tale of Israel's economic evolution from collectivist basket-case to free-market sensation—from kibbutz to villa—a development spurred largely by technological change, but also by the painful recognition by most Israelis that an economy, be it micro or macro, governed by rules of common ownership simply cannot flourish.
Achmon's experience embodies this shift. Shortly after the war, he assumed the helm of a startup aviation company but quickly discovered that "government control would continue to thwart initiative." After he merged his startup with the lethargic Arkia, Israel's second-largest aviation concern, Achmon struggled against labor unions and a statist ideology to transport the company from the brink of bankruptcy to profitability—the Zionist economic enterprise in microcosm.
Like Dreamers is a splendid, sweeping effort that skillfully interweaves personal accounts with sociopolitical analysis. The book, as its author writes in his introduction, encapsulates "a much bigger story about Israel than merely its left-right divide." It's a tale "about the fate of Israel's utopian dreams, the vast hopes imposed upon this besieged, embattled strip of land"—a tension, on the one hand, between Israel's competing messianic visions of socialism and religion, and on the other hand between bothof those visions and the desire of everyday Israelis to lead ordinary lives. It's an epic with chapters yet to be written, but with many well told in this impressive book.