When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion,
we were like dreamers. Psalm 126
And so begins Like Dreamers, Yossi Klein Halevi’s intricate weaving of the disparate stories of seven heroes from the Six Day War into a whole cloth, into one people, Am Yisrael. Halevi has given to those of us connected to Israel, to the land, to the history, the people, a gift. He has brought the stories of those who touched The Wall in 1967 and brought Jerusalem back home-whole, undivided, holy, to us.
Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Mr. Halevi in Toronto at an event I think of as “listen and learn” about Israel.
The aftermath of the Six Day War left an unabashed glow. Israel had defeated multiple enemies. Glory days. Halevi manages to bring these men from the 55th Paratrooper Reserve Brigade into clear focus. I came to know each of them, and many of their friends and family, intimately.
Halevi educates us in the complexities of life in Israel through the ebb and flow of the relationships amongst the soldiers and deftly, gently brings us into the mind, heart and soul of each of these seven men. I saw, felt, heard, experienced their lives, their love for Israel, their fears and hopes. I understood their stories, their individual uniquely different perceptions. I came away believing that each dream each man had for Israel was right in some way, except Udi.
I now carry those multiple stories within.
The story of Israel is multi-sided, a take on the old joke; two Jews: three opinions. And the participants in the reunification of East and West Jerusalem in 1967 ultimately represent and reflect the multiple political, social and religious views at play in Israel, today. We travel with them from the mountain top of victory to the psychological blow brought by the Yom Kippur War, a mere six years later.
From Like Dreamers:
“The world had never seemed to Israelis a more hostile place than it did in late October 1973. The Arab oil boycott which punished pro-Israel countries with a suspension of oil deliveries, pressured Third World countries to sever relations with the Jewish state, while panicked European governments suddenly discovered the Palestinian cause…The whole world is against us…This fatalism …was a negation of Zionism, which had aimed to restore the Jews not only to Zion but to the community of nations. ..The war that began on Yom Kippur threatened the secular Zionist dream of a normal Jewish state, a nation among nations and seemed to return Israel back to Jewish fate.”
I was working in public health when the Yom Kippur war took place. I sat with educated people who said, not knowing I was Jewish, “To hell with Israel. We need the oil.” Sold out for thirty pieces of silver? I was sickened by that statement. Disheartened. But living comfortably in the Diaspora, I was unaware of all the emotions roiling in Israel. From the dread of pre-67 Israel to the euphoria of victory, to dismay, even despair in 1973. What went wrong? Halevi asked:Was it arrogance? Was it complacency? An abuse of power?
Those questions and that insecurity are still with all of us, all of Am Yisrael, today. With the knowledge we now have from the papers of Golda Meir, we know that Israel was well aware of the coming war but unlike 1967, chose not to initiate a pre-emptive air strike. The leaders of Israel decided to absorb the first blow. Their eyes were on the United States. Would that super power, Israel’s friend, turn on her if she fired first?
Today, the lessons of ’67 and ’73 weigh heavily on Israel, on all of us as we all stand together concerned about the actions of Iran, the United Nations and the USA. There is even talk of dividing Jerusalem.
Perhaps now is a good time to listen to the words of Motta Gur, Commander of the 55th Brigade in the battle for Jerusalem to the veterans of the brigade.
“And if someone will come who will try to take away Jerusalem, he will not, because you will not allow it. You will not allow it because it is ours by right, because there is no justice in giving it away…Jerusalem is ours-forever.”
Halevi gives clarity to the many divisions in Israel from the kibbutz movement and its connection to the religious Zionists and the push for living in Judea and Samaria to the birth of Peace Now. He tracks the storyline from settling in Gaza to the wrenching withdrawal in 2005. We follow the economic upheaval moving from the more socialist kibbutz to free market enterprise. We experience religious and secular lives.
I can’t think of a better work of art than this book for those of us old enough to have lived through those intoxicating days and the years of anxiety, to those who are now finding their own voice. Halevi gives us the opportunity to blunt the sharp edges of extreme right and left positions. Soften our anger towards one another’s differing opinions. Develop more empathy for one another.
Halevi, through Yoel Bin-Nun, paratrooper and leader of religious Zionists who taught the meaning of Israel and love for Eretz Israel from our foundational book,The Torah, reminds us of what I, too, consider the greatest threat to Israel.
“The greatest threat, Yoel knew, came from within. Only the Jews could defeat the Jews. Yoel had learned, through repeated trauma, that the Jews needed to accommodate each other’s conflicting dream and fears. Right, left, Orthodox, secular: all would have to live together again as a people in its land.”
Will Durant wrote in 1927 in The Story of Philosophy, “history can become philosophy only by being not analytic but synthetic: not shredded history, but wedded history, history in which all phases of life in a given period shall be studied in their correlation in their common response to similar conditions …That would be the picture of an age…”
Yossi Klein Halevi has given us that picture in glorious prose, in all its diversity and he accomplishes this feat by getting out of the way of the story, of history. He invites us into the lives of those who fought to keep the dream of Israel alive.
This poem from “The Snake’s Shed Skin” by Meir Ariel, the greatest Hebrew poet-singer of his generation and a member of the 55th Paratrooper Reserve Brigade, at the beginning of Like Dreamers, eloquently speaks to the conflict within each of us individually and as Am Yisrael:
“Sky-diving without a parachute,
Open to all direction,
And longing for each direction is destroying me.”
Am Yisrael Chai