With his new book, Like Dreamers, Yossi Klein Halevi has given us a very special gift, a new perspective on Israel and its history that I eagerly awaited, giddily received as a gift, and read twice, because it deserves and I daresay requires a second go-around to really understand and remember the characters.
Its story is that of the lives and journeys of the men of 55th Paratrooper Brigade from their liberation of Jerusalem in 1967 to the Second Intifada of the early 2000s. This particular group of soldiers, a mélange of leftist kibbutzniks and rightist religious Zionists, reclaimed the Old City, returned to the Western Wall, and were immortalized in the timeless photo that graces the cover of the book. The photograph, you have seen. Some of their names, you know. The song that galvanized the nation in the weeks before the war, you can sing. Their story is foundational and critical to Israel’s national identity.
In a nation of citizen-soldiers, their participation in one of the signature moments in the State of Israel’s brief history was a coincidence of time and circumstances. This book is the story of how their lives, over the past four decades, took them in vastly different directions. Some became career military men, others captains of industry. Some became the founders of Peace Now, while others created Gush Emunim. One became a left-wing revolutionary and was imprisoned for conspiring with Syrian and Palestinian terrorists, another was arrested for hatching a plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock.
As Israel divided along a Left/Right spectrum in the years following the Six Day, so did these men. Not that it is not their fault, per se, that they ended up being the national heroes that they were made out to be, and nor would they have asked to become representative examples of this schism, but the forces of history can be callous. I daresay some of them came to regret it.
But, as HaLevi points out, the book is about much more than just the Left and the Right. It is “a story about the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams… and how the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” And that is a BIG idea.
A claim like that needs to be carefully considered.
For better or worse, it may be true. The blue-and-white dreaminess of Israel in its first thirty-odd years, embodied by the kibbutz, has become a lot more sepia-toned as the photographs and colors slowly fade over time. The decline of the kibbutz movement over the past thirty years, in contrast to the growth of the settler population, is a fact that cannot be argued, and as a result, Israel is not the darling child of the world, the David to the Arab world’s Goliath. Despite the cries of Start-Up Nation and Democracy, Israel has been recast in the mold of settlements and occupation, colored in military green and gunmetal matte.
What that has meant to these men, and how they have experienced, created, or fought against that new image (dream?) of Israel, is the real narrative of this book. Melancholy isn’t the right word to describe it, nor is tragic. While your heart will be moved by the story of these men’s journeys, Halevi is not writing so that you can pity them, just understand them, and their place on that continuum.
But as I leave this book, I do feel melancholy, and sad, and frustrated. And, in the classical dilemma of the American Zionist, I wonder if I even have the right to. It’s not my utopian dream about Israel that matters, I didn’t serve in the IDF, live on a kibbutz, or move to Gush Etzion. But somehow, it matters to me.
The good news? When you’re sad and melancholy, it’s time to dream. And that’s precisely the task at hand for everyone who has a stake in the future of the Jewish state. Somewhere beyond the kibbutz, beyond the settlements, and beyond the conflict, is a new vision for the Jewish people in their land.
I don’t know what it is, but I hope we can create it, and shape it. And I hope the world will let us.
One can always dream.
Yossi Klein Halevi
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