This is the sort of region that periodically forces us to ask ourselves probing questions about our condition and how things got to be the way that they did. Did we intend to get where we are? In what direction would we now head if we were wise? Is change necessary? Is it still possible?
It is those sorts of questions that lie at the heart of Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who United Jerusalem and Divided a Nation. Klein Halevi, long among Israel’s most thoughtful, penetrating, honest and compassionate writers, has now written his magnum opus. Many books in one, Like Dreamers is, on the surface, the story of seven paratroopers who liberated the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967. But as told through the lives and eyes of these seven men – before the war, during the battles and long after the guns have been silenced – Like Dreamers is also a social history and, no less, the story of the internal Israeli conflict about the settlement project, from its very inception and for decades following.
Like Dreamers is, of course, not the first book to cover the issue of the settlements. Gershom Gorenberg’s Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977 is a very thorough and largely accurate history of the origins of the settler movement. The differences between the books, though, are legion. Gorenberg’s is a story of a blundering national policy, “crafted” almost by accident, while Klein Halevi’s book is the story of people. The men who fought to liberate Jerusalem had come to that battle from very different social and political backgrounds; they went on, in some cases, to found Gush Emunim and in other cases, to become the mainstays of the peace camp. Seeing the two sides through the loves and losses, the triumphs and failures of those who were at the core of these movements affords us a three dimensional understanding of what has unfolded here in a way that no other book, of which I’m aware, ever has before.
An infinitely more important difference, however, is that books like Gorenberg’s (and like Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, among others) drip with venom and anger. To people like Gorenberg, Beinart and Jeremy Ben-Ami, the settlement project is so foolishly immoral, so callously disregarding of the Palestinians and so corrosive of Israel’s international standing that their books are at the end of the day just broadside attacks on both the policy of settlement building and on the men and women who were at its core.
Klein Halevi is by no means oblivious to the problems of the settlements. When Arik Achmon (a central character in Like Dreamers) is exposed to the worldview of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Klein Halevi writes for Achmon, “A foreign spirit, antithetical to Zionism, was stirring.”
Throughout its 500+ pages, Like Dreamers shows time and again some of the dangerous impulses at the heart of the settlement movement.
But – and here is where Klein Halevi’s genius truly shines – the book shows equally compellingly the powerful moral and Zionist commitments of both the settlers and the peace camp. On the most divisive issue faced by a highly divided state, Yossi Klein Halevi gets us to admire, perhaps even to love, the leaders of both. In prose so compelling that it reads like a novel, Like Dreamers makes clear that the real settlement story is not good guys versus bad, Zionists versus non-Zionists, or colonialists versus territorial minimalists. It’s something much more complex and infinitely more nuanced.
Like Dreamers is almost talmudic in its holding up of conflicting positions for each side to critique and defend. On the one hand, profound Israeli leaders, committed Zionists – from Ben-Gurion to Yeshayahu Leibowitz – said almost the minute the war was over that Israel ought to give most of the territory back; Israel would callous its soul by ruling over so many Palestinians (though interestingly, none of Klein Halevi’s characters ever really speak for the Palestinians, so their positions remain only assumed, their voices the ones we end up wishing we’d heard more of).
But other Jews – motivated not by hatred or disregard of Arabs, but by love of Israel – disagreed. The Jewish state had always been a story of acquiring land and then building on it. That was the story of Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva. It was the story of Karmiel, built on land captured in the War of Independence. Why then should the land taken in 1967 be any different, especially in places that Jews had lived in as late as the 1930s and 1940s until rabid Arab violence forced them to flee?
Could Israel have stymied the impulse to return to those places in 1968 without smothering the most passionate Zionist impulses still remaining? Can it do so now?
What Israel should do now is a question that Like Dreamers wisely never addresses directly. But there are hints. Of the seven paratroopers Klein Halevi follows, he seems most spiritually connected to Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun. And in an article in Nekudah, the settler’s publication, Bin-Nun had advocated a policy of “no annexation and no withdrawal,” and instead, dividing the West Bank into Jewish and Arab cantons. The Jewish areas would vote in Israeli elections, and the Arab cantons in Jordanian. Even Bin-Nun acknowledged that this was a far from perfect solution, but as Klein Halevi then writes for Bin-Nun, “there [is] no perfect justice in this world.”
Does Klein Halevi mean to endorse something along the canton approach? He never says. His purpose in this book is entirely other: He aims to teach us a complex and fascinating history, and to introduce us to seven fascinating, frustrating, passionate men who reflect the wide diversity of Israel’s complex society.
But there is one lesson he definitely does want to teach. In May 1996, with the peace process seemingly marching forward and the future of the settlements very much in doubt, a young man asks Bin-Nun “What went wrong?” The rabbi’s response was chilling: “We didn’t listen to the moral arguments of the Left,” he replied.
If there is any line in the book in which a character speaks for Klein Halevi, that is the one. More important to him than the position we take is his hope that we might come to realize that there are powerful moral, Zionist and strategic insights on both sides of this painful divide. If Bin-Nun believes that the settlers’ greatest failure was not hearing the moral insights of the left, Klein Halevi insists that what ails our entire country is our inability to listen to the other and to learn.
In Like Dreamers, we have a history. We have great yarn, brilliantly told. And we are exposed to Klein Halevi as a teacher of great moral weight, begging us to realize that if we truly wish to preserve this little state of ours, there is nothing we can do more important than beginning to hear and to grow from those whose views are most challenging to our own.