Song of Ascent

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation

By Yossi Klein Halevi
Harper, 608 pages

When the 18th World Zionist Congress met in Prague in August 1933, delegates were asked to choose an official anthem for the Jewish national movement.

The two main contenders were Naftali Herz Imber’s Hatikvah (“The Hope”) and Shir Hama’alot (“Song of Ascents”), an adaptation of Psalm 126: “When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers.” Hatikvah’s secular yearning for freedom was favored over the psalm’s more overtly religious dream of divine intervention, but the latter retained a cherished place in religious Zionism for its promise of return and redemption.

It is apt that Yossi Klein Halevi should draw on the psalm of return for the title of his astonishing new book. Like Dreamers tells the improbable but true story of seven Israelis from very different backgrounds who, as reservists in the 55th Paratroopers Brigade during the Six-Day War, liberated the Western Wall and reunited Jerusalem, returning the Jewish people to its holiest sites. All the more remarkable is what happened after the war: Half of the paratroopers became settlers in the West Bank while the other half led the movement for the demolition of the settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state.

These seven young men, from Israel’s rival kibbutz and settlement movements, were all dreamers, either of secular or religious dreams. One kibbutznik is a conceptual artist and studied outsider; a second is an aviation entrepreneur and free-market evangelist; a third is a musician dubbed “the Singing Paratrooper” for his war ballads; a fourth is an angry young Marxist who eventually betrays his country. Yoel Bin-Nun is the most fascinating of the three religious soldiers, spearheading the settler movement before becoming a critic of its excesses. The others are a journalist and founder of the settlers’ Yesha Council, and the first settler elected to the Knesset.

But before any of them became the men they would become, they had to pull off the victory that made their country what it is today. Halevi’s narrative finds them on the eve of hostilities in June 1967, with Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces amassed on Israel’s borders and Gamal Abdel Nasser promising the impending destruction of the Jewish state. Then, something remarkable happens. The tiny Jewish state launches a surprise attack, pre-empting its would-be assassins and devastating their armies. The war comes to be known by its duration—the Six-Day War—but the territorial victory is no less breathtaking. At the outbreak of war, Israel was at its narrowest point nine miles wide. By the cessation of hostilities, Israel holds the Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. The crowning achievement is the capture by the paratroopers of the Jordanian-held Old City of Jerusalem and with it the Western Wall and Temple Mount, the site of the Second Temple whose destruction marked the beginning of Jewish exile from the Land of Israel. Jerusalem, center of Jewish history and culture, was reunited and back in Jewish hands.

When the war ends, the men of the 55th Brigade attack peacetime Israel in radically different ways. Businessman Arik Achmon fights government bureaucracy and labor obstructionism in his mission to turn socialist Israel capitalist. Musician Meir Ariel struggles to find fame with a series of accomplished but commercially unviable albums before turning idiosyncratically to religious faith. Udi Adiv makes headlines for a different reason. The paratrooper who helped liberate Jerusalem shocks Israel by joining a Palestinian terror cell, betraying his country, and passing military information to Syria. (Later, Adiv made the somewhat less shocking move into academia.)

Like Dreamers is a historical portrait of the changes Israel underwent in the years that followed the Six-Day War, and how the men who helped secure that victory came to embody those shifts, or, as Halevi puts it, “how the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” The socialist dreamers who settled Palestine pursued the dream of a collectivist utopia, embodied by the kibbutz:

The kibbutz was the symbol of Israel in the world, and that seemed natural. The very existence of a sovereign Jewish state after two thousand years of homelessness defied the natural order, and so did the kibbutz. One utopian dream symbolized the other.

The kibbutzniks dominated the political establishment and the IDF and came to see themselves as the guardians of pioneering Zionism. They comprised four percent of Israel’s population in 1967 but represented a quarter of fatalities in the Six-Day War. However, that conflict changed not only Israel’s borders but also its political and social landscape. A new generation of Israelis, observant and nationalist, grew restless with the National Religious Party’s habit of shoring up left-wing governments hostile to the aims and ambitions of religious Zionism. Led by paratroopers Yoel Bin-Nun, Yisrael Harel, and Hanan Porat, this vanguard set about uprooting assumptions about left and right, showing Orthodox Jews that their aspirations could be realized through the political process while forcing secular Israel to accommodate the religious as part of the Zionist national story.

Ground zero for Bin-Nun was the area the world called “the West Bank” but which he, a student of Torah, knew to be the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, the mountainous heart of Eretz Yisrael. Bin-Nun formed Gush Emunim, “Bloc of the Faithful”, a campaign to settle the territories and ensure they could never be ceded to Israel’s enemies. Soon, communities were springing up across Judea and Samaria, often by stealth and despite government objections, and Bin-Nun hoped the left would come to accept the security benefits, if not the spiritual bounties, of Israel’s expansive new borders.

His wartime comrades, however, were horrified to be ruling over a hostile Arab population. The paratroopers’ victory, Halevi notes, “had turned Israel into an occupier—true, history’s most improbable occupier, having gone to battle not to conquer but to survive. No one had intended this. But now kibbutzniks, the children of utopia, were suddenly occupiers.” Avital Geva, a peacenik paratrooper who had channeled his politics into abstruse modern art, turned serious and founded the Peace Now campaign to uproot the settlements and transfer Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians. Israel still lives in the shadows of these men and their actions; their war and its glories, their peace and its consequences continue to reverberate down the decades.

The book’s author is a fascinating figure in his own right. Halevi’s Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist recorded his youthful dalliance with the Jewish far right, led by Meir Kahane, and he now identifies with that most unloved of creatures, the Israeli political center. His background is probably why the settlers are portrayed here as more than the messianic fanatics of CNN reports and New York Times editorials, and, in a way, his own youthful radicalism might have helped him understand the lonely frustrations that drove Udi Adiv to commit treason.

Like Dreamers is not the sort of book one expects to read about Israeli soldiers. In Israel, most soldiers are not professional fighters but civilians in fatigues, “every mother’s son.” Natan Alterman, poet of Israel’s national rebirth, hymned them as stoic warriors who “stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death” and “fall back in shadows/And the rest will be told/In the chronicles of Israel.” The temptation, then, is to lionize the paratroopers. But Halevi avoids this trap, laying bare their character flaws, such as Ariel’s promiscuity, Achmon’s arrogance, and Adiv’s indignant self-righteousness. In Halevi’s chronicles, heroes do not stand like giants as events unfold around them; they are complex men who help shape events, whether scaling Ammunition Hill in East Jerusalem in 1967, pinned down by Egyptian tanks in the Sinai in 1973, or going to war in civilian life to realize their vision of Israel. They are not men made for history but they make history nonetheless.

Like Dreamers is a majestic study of love and death, war and dreams, the evolution of Israel and the meaning of Zionism. There is no special pleading and no caricatures of plucky little Israel against the world. The soldiers and the men who command them are allowed to be human; Israel gets to make mistakes and do ugly things without undermining the justice of its existence and its entitlement to peace and security. Although never emotive, Halevi’s rich prose captures the emotional morality of Zionism.

The novelistic style allows us to witness Israeli history through the eyes of the paratroopers: intelligence officer Achmon’s pre-war preparations ready us for the Six-Day War, we see the Yom Kippur War from Bin-Nun’s foxhole-sukkah in the Sinai sand, and it is through Bin-Nun’s correspondence with him that we learn of Yitzhak Rabin’s final days, the settler having struck up an unlikely friendship with the signer of the Oslo Accords. Like Dreamers has depth and expanse but most of all it has insight. In writing one of the most sparkling histories of the Jewish state, Halevi has also written the Great Israeli Novel, made all the greater because it’s true.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © צילום:ד”ר אבישי טייכר by Creative Commons 2.5.

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