In 1967, soon after the end of the Six Day War, a magazine named Shdemot decided to publish a collection of interviews with kibbutznik veterans of the war. They put up notices in kibbutz dining halls and asked for contributions. “To the shock of the young editors, the book sold nearly 100,000 copies, a massive best-seller.”
The soldiers’ views were introspective.
One spoke of never wanting to return to the recently united Jerusalem because it was there he had killed a man.
“Here was self-doubt that the nation had rarely heard before from its soldiers.” But as author Yossi Klein Halevi tells it in Like Dreamers, the collection of interviews left out voices from the religious kibbutz movement, primarily those the editors had consulted at Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav Yeshiva.
The editors had been “horrified” when they saw how the religious Zionist youth responded to the war. Among them there was no soul-searching, no feelings of immorality about going to the conquered parts of the holy city.
“Among Mercaz students… there was bewilderment and contempt. What was happening to the [secular] kibbutzniks?”
This was a seminal clash – and a turning point in the nation’s history. As Halevi beautifully describes, a silent tragedy was taking place. The kibbutz members who had pioneered the agricultural settlement of Ottoman and British Palestine, and played a key leadership role after the War of Independence, were having doubts about the Jewish state. At the very same time, a new generation of young, motivated religious elites, from the same educated, European Ashkenazi background, was strutting in and embracing the new Israel with the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai and Golan Heights.
Like Dreamers sets out to retell the story of the 1967 war through a new lens; the eyes of several soldiers from the same paratrooper unit that fought to liberate Jerusalem, and who subsequently went on to diverse political, business and musical careers. Their life trajectories were forged in the heat of battle, and because of them the country would never be the same.
AT AGE 60, having made aliya at 29, Halevi is perfectly positioned to provide us with a portrait of this generation. Growing up in Borough Park, New York, he served in the army in the first intifada and has written several acclaimed books about his life and Israel. He sat down withThe Jerusalem Post to discuss why the story of the paratroopers is key to understanding the present State of Israel.
“A writer always asks himself: ‘who is your ideal reader?’ I realized my ideal reader is me, if I hadn’t made aliya; someone living vicariously through Israel who felt this deep and overwhelming attachment to this faraway story, and would periodically check in to see what is happening – but missed the texture and nuance because of distance.”
For Halevi, it is about a rediscovery – not only for himself but for the audience.
He describes learning, through his interviews for the book, which took place throughout the past decade, of how it must have been to be with the first Jews who returned to the hills of Samaria, at the old railway station of Sebastia, where they confronted Israel’s authorities and demanded the right to settle the land.
“When you go back and you experience the origins of these movements, there is something thrilling about discovering the details, and suddenly you feel the Israeli story in a different way,” he says.
To write the book, Halevi interviewed hundreds of people, some 60 to 70 of whom participated in the liberation of Jerusalem. Out of these, the book examines the lives of seven participants: Arik Achmon from Kibbutz Givat Brenner, who played a leading role in Israel’s aviation industry; Udi Adiv, a kibbutznik who became so pro-Palestinian he traveled to Damascus to “help create an anti- Zionist underground”; Meir Ariel, a great Hebrew poet and singer who Halevi compares to Bob Dylan; and Avital Geva, a conceptual artist.
In addition, there are the religious kibbutz paratroopers; Yoel Bin-Nun, a founder of Gush Emunim, a core part of the settlement movement; Yisrael Harel, who founded the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, a political organ of the settlers; and the late Hanan Porat, who was a founder of Kfar Etzion in the West Bank.
The characters are very political, from the far Right to the far Left, and it was important for the author to keep his own political views out of the story.
“When I realized these characters were each expressing another aspect of my Israeliness, then it became a conscious decision to let them keep talking and to keep myself [from becoming too involved] – because implicitly, I was very much in there [already] through their arguments.”
HALEVI CONTENDS that the current state of affairs in Israel is truly wrapped up in the lives of these individuals.
“The story I wanted to tell was how we got from the euphoria of June 1967 to the despair of September 2000 [the outbreak of the second intifada].”
To explore the issue, he began with the famous photo by David Rubinger of the paratroopers at the Western Wall.
“I met the guy in the middle, Isack Ifat, a gynecologist in Rishon Lezion. We met in the least mythic possible setting – at his gym. And then I took it from there, one led me to the next…. The narrative that began to take shape is that there were two ideological groups, distinct groups, within the brigade in 1967. The much larger and more dominant group were secular kibbutzniks, and the second, smaller, more peripheral group were religious Zionists,” Halevi says.
While these two movements both saw themselves as pioneers and both “had in common the belief that the return to Zion was nothing less than a utopian transformation of humanity,” they each believed in a different solution.
One advocated a form of pure communism, the other a form of redemption.
They related to the Jewish people in Israel in a different way as well.
“The kibbutz movement was guilty of astonishing blindness, in its relationship to whole parts of the people of Israel who were outside of their ideological orbit. That was true in its scandalous relationship to Jewish migrants from Arab countries, and also true in its relationship to Holocaust survivors, who were not necessarily welcomed into these closed communities.”
By contrast, the initial attempts to build Jewish communities in the West Bank, as narrated in the book, show that there was a dispute about whether to keep them small and insular, as the kibbutzim remained, or to let them grow.
Late in the book is the story of the growth of Ofra: “With nearly 3,000 residents, Ofra was thriving. There were three elementary schools, three synagogues, the girls’ high school founded by Bin-Nun, a field school and even a center for cave studies.”
Meanwhile, the kibbutzim mentioned in the book remained small, largely keeping out new members, and struggled financially.
Ariel, from Kibbutz Mishmarot, illustrated the strange insularity of some of these kibbutz members in an interview he gave in 1998. “Russian migrants,” he declared, “should be denied the vote until they’ve learned Israeli reality.”
ADIV’S STORY story stands out in his increasing alienation not only from Israeli society, but from his own kibbutz environment. After the war, he urged his friends to “confront the truth about ‘Zionist imperialism.’”
He became consumed with the fate of Palestinians who had fled from villages near the kibbutz, “especially the fate of Cherkas. Near the cotton fields of Gan Shmuel were the ruins of an Arab village… as a child, Udi and his friends had gone there to pick mulberries… no one in Gan Shmuel talked about Cherkas. But now Udi found that silence unbearable.”
Adiv met radical pro-Palestinians and through them he traveled to Greece, where he obtained a Syrian passport issued under the name George Houri. He went to Damascus with his Palestinian colleagues, and as Halevi relates, “they visited the Jewish Quarter. Only a few thousand terrorized Jews remained of a once-thriving ancient community.” But Adiv didn’t see them that way.
“What a model Jewish community,” he wrote. “Here was an alternative to the Judaism of power and conquest, proof that Jews didn’t need a state to be safe.”
But the book does raise some questions as to the issue of human transformation.
If 1967 was such a crucible, why didn’t these men truly change their political beliefs?
Those from the kibbutz movement remained on the Left, and those from the religious Zionist movement remained on the Right. Halevi responds: “For me, the book raises the powerful question of to what extent a human being can transcend his or her background. I would divide the characters into two groups. Those who imposed ideology on reality and, as a result, were left unchanged by a changing reality; and those who were more flexible and paid attention to new circumstances, and as a result… personally and ideologically evolved.
“I would cite, for example, Bin-Nun as the most courageous among the book’s characters, in regard to his personal evolution and risks he took in breaking the consensus of his own camp – even though in his own mind he remained entirely loyal to the ideology with which he was raised.”
For Halevi, the main purpose of the book is to inspire us with the story of Israel.
“I see the evolution of Israel, with all the mistakes we have made, as an expression of extraordinary vitality.”
THE MEN Halevi highlights – and the main characters are all male – served in one war after another. Achmon’s first war was in 1948, and he was still serving in 1982 in Lebanon.
“I kept stopping and saying ‘what an amazing story,’” said Halevi. “We take this vitality for granted, but show me another country in the world where you have such a committed citizenry of people who don’t stop thinking about the nature of their country and trying to influence it.”
Halevi regards both 1967 and the past decade as important points in Israeli and Jewish history. In 1967 Israel was united for the first time since Sinai, and today, “after 40 years of Left vs Right, a majority of Israelis [have come] to the conclusion that both camps were right about certain key insights and both were wrong about certain key insights. The result is that a majority of Israelis today are centrists. That is an expression of the political maturation of the people of Israel, and I see a similar process happening culturally and religiously.”