— by Hannah Lee
The miracle of Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967 united a nation, and Jews all over the world celebrated its victory. That members of the 55th Brigade of paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem then led lives that split its small nation politically as well as religiously is the heartbreaking saga on how we have not merited the Messianic age of global peace, Olam HaBa.
After 11 years of interviews and research on seven of these paratroopers, Yossi Klein Halevi has brought forth his newest book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, to justified acclaim. Born in Brooklyn, he first visited Israel that June of 1967 with his Holocaust-survivor father (who finally forgave God and re-gained his faith with Israel’s success) and he has lived in Israel for over 30 years. The book’s title comes from Psalm 126: “When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were like dreamers.”
More after the jump.
While writing this labor of love, Halevi was troubled by the singular lack of voice; he thought it meant the book wasn’t speaking to him. Then in an epiphany, he realized that the cacophony of voices from his interview subjects was what defined himself as an Israeli Jew, one with conflicting views. He then constructed his book with alternating voices, allowing each central character to express his thoughts and views as they evolved over time. He spoke on Sunday before a standing-room audience at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr.
His cast of characters include the kibbutznik paratroopers and the religious Zionist paratroopers. They served together and they exhibited a tremendous level of tolerance and cooperation. One protagonist, the secular commander Arik Achmon, noted how the religious reservists, whom he’d ridiculed as dosim (religious nerds), were keen on proving their worth and how they rose a half hour earlier each day to pray. Once when his soldiers were sent on leave but it was close to sundown that Friday, they chose to stay in camp rather than risk traveling on Shabbat. He noticed approvingly that they didn’t ask to be let out early. He then showed his respect by enforcing the kosher laws in the army kitchens (despite the paratroopers’ sense of being a law unto themselves), so that any soldier under his command would not feel uncomfortable.
The love was reciprocated: when a friend spoke about “religious paratroopers,” another central character, Yoel Bin-Nun, who taught Bible as a way to understand contemporary Israel, rebuked him, saying, “There are no religious paratroopers or secular paratroopers. Only Israeli paratroopers.” In another incident, when he was challenged by a kibbutznik, that if Bin-Nun could convince him that God exists and that there is a divine hand guiding the world, he was ready to become religious. But if he succeeded in convincing the rabbi that it’s all nonsense, the rabbi would become secular. “You’re asking me to give up my deepest beliefs,” Bin-Nun replied, with a smile. “Let each person observe and interpret in his way, but the Torah belongs to every Jew. Shabbat belongs as much to you as it does to me.”
The disastrous Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israel was caught ill-prepared and lost over 2,500 men and over 7,000 were wounded, sobered the nation. Some realized that Israel’s survival required moral renewal. Two divergent paths emerged, formed by those for whom annexing the territories of Judea and Samaria (captured from Jordan in 1967) was a part of the redemption process and those for whom withdrawing from the territories, termed by them the West Bank, was the hope for peace. The liberators of Jerusalem were among the founders of the settler movement and the Peace Now movement. Another of them, Udi Adiv, became so disenchanted with Zionism that he traveled to Damascus in 1972 to create an anti-Zionist terrorist underground. He served 12 years in an Israeli prison. Their narratives will in time coalesce into hardened political positions.
Halevi spoke of the two promises of Zionism: normalcy to end anti-Antisemitism and transcendence to serve as a light unto the world. He sees the most interesting divide as the one from normalcy to utopia. Thus, both the kibbutzniks and the settlers (who wish to populate the whole of Judea and Samaria) are in the same camp as Utopians.
He then addressed the three failed dreams of Israel: the kibbutz movement, the settler movement, and the Oslo peace accords. Now Israel is bereft of a Utopian dream. Can it sustain itself without one? My rabbi recently spoke about the Torah portion of parshat Vayeshev, in which Joseph is asked to interpret the dreams of his fellow prisoners, the baker and the wine steward. The wine steward whose crime was a fly in the wine being served to the pharaoh was reinstated to his post, while the baker whose bread had a small stone was executed. While a fly might be disgusting, it is not life-threatening, but a pebble would prove a choking hazard. The lesson was that a threat from within could be greater than without. A great challenge for Israelis now is to build unity from among their brethren. When they respected each other and were united in their goals in 1967, they achieved miraculous results. May Am Israel re-gain its sense of purpose and harmony and see peace in our times.
Chag Urim sameach.