Usually one disregards the puffs on dust jackets written by the author’s friends, who have often neglected to read the book in question. In the case of Like Dreamers, however, one of the blurb writers, former Israeli ambassador (and very fine historian) Michael Oren, has it right: “Yossi Klein Halevi has written the Israeli epic.”
An epic is a heroic tale, written in an elevated style, that covers an extended struggle and, very often, a journey. Halevi’s heroes, or at least his subjects, are seven Israeli paratroopers who fought to liberate the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. Some were in the thick of the fight; others were wounded as they crossed the line of departure; and some never saw much combat at all. They took very different paths in life, ranging from zealous settlement on the West Bank to treason. Some were atheists and others profound believers. Some were staunch Marxists, others became right-wing politicians. Some were dreamers, aesthetes, and near- (not quite) pacifists; some were hardheaded pragmatists. Halevi, an American immigrant of longstanding to Israel, has the great gift of empathy as he carries their individual stories from the years just before the Six-Day War to the present.
Along the way, he chronicles real wars—June 1967, the Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon war—and the politics of an Israel whose factions are almost as fierce toward one another as they are toward the country’s Arab enemies. It is a measure of Halevi’s gifts as a writer that he can narrate combat, political intrigue, and the prosaic challenges of making a living in the Tel Aviv art scene with equal skill.
Like Dreamers is a tale of two elites: the largely secular kibbutzniks and the modern Orthodox religious nationalists. As Halevi admits, his story therefore leaves out large swaths of the Israeli public, such as the Sephardic population that Menachem Begin tapped to build a new majority and new politics in Israel from the 1970s on, and the mass of refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe who arrived in the years just before and just after World War II and who were, to some extent, comparably sidelined in favor of the old socialist elites of the first decades of the 20th century and the native-born sabras thereafter.
But Halevi’s choice is not arbitrary. In the 1960s, kibbutzniks, though amounting to only a small percentage of the population, dominated the elite ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, including the paratroops. They represented, in large measure, the leftist (sometimes very leftist) idealism of the founding generation. The modern religious, usually identified by their knitted skullcaps, have assumed a similar role. They now are overrepresented almost as much as the kibbutzniks once were, and for similar reasons: They are willing to volunteer for the most dangerous and demanding assignments.
Halevi’s account follows not only the paratroopers but other political and military figures—Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, and, perhaps most interestingly, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, a pivotal figure in modern religious Zionism. Halevi focuses most of his attention, however, on two paratroopers. One is Arik Achmon, a mulishly independent secularist who leaves his kibbutz and becomes a businessman and entrepreneur; he is a relentless rationalist, a patriot, and a doer. The other is Yoel Bin-Nun, one of the founders of the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement that pioneered the settlement of the West Bank, beginning with the Gush Etzion bloc outside Jerusalem, which had been overrun by Palestinian irregulars and the Jordanian Army during Israel’s War of Independence. He, too, in a different way, breaks with his own world of settler politics.
Achmon and Bin-Nun are Halevi’s epic subjects, each with his faults and blindness, but ultimately with qualities of character—including self-sacrifice and compassion—that make them heroic in the author’s eyes and in our own. Each, in different ways, strives to accommodate fellow citizens and soldiers across the secular/religious divide. Each achieves positions of eminence and leadership only to be, in different ways, betrayed by subordinates and associates. Each is a man of integrity, whole in spirit, and just.
The Six-Day War helped consolidate, at home and abroad, a superficial, sometimes cartoonish, heroic image of Israel and its armed forces. It was a war of necessity, to be sure; but, like any war, it was filled with episodes of incompetence, cowardice, and horror. Halevi recounts the intelligence blunders and tactical errors that cost many of the paratroopers’ comrades their limbs, their eyesight, or their lives. Some of them saw, in the recovery of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, the fulfillment of a divine promise; others, more soberly, saw the costly accomplishment of a necessary military task.
Halevi does not conceal from readers the underside of Israeli military and political life—and both can be nasty indeed. This is a world that includes assassins and totalitarians, as well as the normal array of cheats, liars, dupes, and demagogues. But it is a measure of Halevi’s genius as an author that he can depict these realities without losing sight of the extraordinary nature of the Israeli accomplishment: the construction, with all its faults, of a liberal democratic state, a tolerant and humane Jewish homeland—all from the most unlikely collection of refugees and victims in the face of enmity and violence.
The Israel of 2013 remains endangered, but it also flourishes, economically and more profoundly as well. It has one of the highest birth rates in the modern world, and fecundity is, for a wealthy country (as Israel must now be counted), a measure of a population’s commitment to its own future. That it has navigated the perils of external enemies and internal conflict so well is a testament to its Arik Achmons and Yoel Bin-Nuns. To know Israel’s real strength, and to learn something of heroic achievement, one can do no better than to read this remarkable book.
Eliot A. Cohen is Robert E. Osgood professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.