Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation
Yossi Klein Halevi
What can we learn about a complex structure of nature when we examine only a partial fractal? Indeed, as scientists will attest, apparently, a great deal. Although, they will also caution, not necessarily the entire story. The examination itself, however, can be exhilarating, eye-opening and provocative, yielding dazzling new perspectives about accepted beliefs and assumptions.
The device of science that has proven to be so helpful in matters pertaining to physics, geology and geography for example, has now, thanks to Yossi Klein Halevi, also proven its worth in social and political commentary.
Through the brilliant use – as a diagnostic fractal – of the lives of seven Israeli men, Klein Halevi examines and reports upon the political, cultural, economic, social and other incendiary eruptions of life we know as Israeli society.
But these are not simply any men. They were all paratroopers who served with the storied 55th Paratroopers Brigade that achieved the reunification of Jerusalem in the Six Day War.
No singular outcome from those memorably fraught six days stirred the souls of the Jewish people—in Israel and around the world—more than the bringing down of the concrete and barbed wire barriers that had divided Jerusalem. When Jewish soldiers in June 1967 stood upon the Temple Mount and at the Western Wall, they restored Jewish sovereignty to the eternal city from which Jews had been forcibly displaced some 2,000 years ago.
Klein Halevi chose this seminal event as his starting point. He also deliberately chose men who were idealists and dreamers. Each in his own way strove to build a utopian place that would be an example of human possibility, social justice and existential purpose for the benefit of the entire world.
Four of the paratroopers are secular kibbutzniks. Three are religious Zionists. “Among the religious Zionists portrayed here,” Klein Halevi tells us, “one founded the first West Bank settlement, while another became the settlement movement’s great heretic.” The third became the movement’s public voice.
“Among the kibbutzniks, one helped found Peace Now and then abandoned the movement. Improbably, one former kibbutznik became a pioneer in the transition from a state-run economy to free-enterprise Israel. Another emerged as Israel’s leading poet-singer, a bohemian symbol who then became an observant Jew.” The fourth, a zealot of his own radical ideology, was charged and convicted of espionage against the state.
Klein Halevi chronicles the men’s interconnected lives from that transformative moment in 1967 until the early years of the second millennium. In the process, he also connects these individual intersections to the wider changes that occurred in Israel over that same period. As Klein Halevi observes, “these men not only helped define the political debate of post-’67 Israel but also its social and cultural transformations.”
Klein Halevi shines an illuminating light upon Israel’s history from 1967 to 2004 as refracted through the very different prisms of the lives of these paratroopers. He makes no claim to writing comprehensive or definitive history. That was not his purpose. Nor, he readily admits, are the individuals he chose for his journalistic enterprise representative of Israel society at large.
Rather, it was because these men in particular embodied two uniquely contending Israeli ideals—the kibbutz Zionist ideal and the yeshiva Zionist ideal—that Klein Halevi chose them. As the author explains, “this book tells the story, through the lives of the paratroopers, of Israel’s competing utopian dreams—and how the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.”
Klein Halevi writes each man’s story, often with surprisingly intimate detail, in a manner that conveys the full personal and professional trajectory of their lives. They clearly invited Klein Halevi into their innermost emotional and intellectual sanctums of thoughts, plans, aspirations, angers and doubts. And true to his purpose, Klein Halevi records them in a forthright, tight manner that lets the information finds its own way to the reader under its own literary weight without his having to steer it aggressively, without subtlety, to the front of the reader’s mind.
By the end of the story we feel we truly know the men and many other figures who play major roles in their lives.
Klein Halevi records the men’s private and public reactions to so many of the key historical events that took place during the 40 years chronicled by Like Dreamers. We see them respond to the four wars Israel fought during those years, Anwar Sadat’s dream-like visit to Jerusalem, the unilateral Israeli evacuation from the Sinai, the murder by a Jew of anti-war protester Emil Gruensweig, the intifadah of the late 1980s, the numerous acts of murder and terrorism directed at Israel’s citizens, the signing of the Oslo Accords and the assassination, again by a Jew, of Yitzhak Rabin.
More than 10 years in the making, Like Dreamers is a journalistic tour de force. With this work, Klein Halevi joins a select company of reporters such as Ben Hecht, John Steinbeck, Martha Gellhorn and Harry Bruce, to name but a few, who depicted current events as literary journalism.
The sheer volume of interview notes and research underlying the four-decade sweep of events must have been massive as well as substantively widely disparate. Yet Klein Halevi has crafted a moving and remarkable masterpiece with it all.
Like Dreamers is primarily about the ongoing struggle by Israelis – indeed, by all thoughtful individuals who care deeply about Israel’s future – to reconcile among themselves competing, though not necessarily conflicting, ideas about progress, societal advancement and human redemption.
Klein Halevi concludes that the “new dreams of Zion had each successively faltered.” But he does not write that they have failed. For the labour of fulfilling the dreams of a utopian society, of bringing the messiah to a better world, is ongoing. And like Klein Halevi and the paratroopers of whom he wrote, we have not yet lost our hope in doing so.
Like Dreamers is a profoundly engaging and thoughtful book.