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by John Farber, July 4, 2014

LIKE DREAMERS: The story of the Israeli Paratroopers who united Jerusalem and divided a nation by Yossi Klein Halevi, 2012, Harper-Collins.


Reviewed by John Farber – June 2014


Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is a noted commentator on Israeli and Mideast issues. He is the author of several books on the Mideast and writes for several major periodicals.


Like Dreamers traces the lives of 4 kibbutzniks and 3 religious Zionist paratroopers who were part of the elite 55th Paratrooper Brigade that reunited the City of Jerusalem at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967. They also fought in the Sinai in 1973 (Yom Kippur War) and in Lebanon in 1982 (First Lebanon War).


The 538 pages book is composed of five parts and 29 chapters. Each chapter has several short subsections; generally reflecting a change from one person's story to another. The five parts are organized by time; May-June, 1967 (the Six Day War); 1967-1973; 1973-1982 (the Yom Kippur War); 1982-1992 (the Lebanon War); and 1992-2004.


History is not always an easy read, but Halevi presents history by following the fascinating lives of these 7 men. The content of the book is derived from over 200 extensive taped/transcribed interviews and many documents, periodicals and publications. The stories flow and are fascinating to follow.


The book begins with a section entitled Who's Who. It includes 35 people and gives a short 2-5 sentence introduction to them. This includes the 7 main protagonists, the paratroopers, some of whom were kibbutzniks and others religious Zionists.


The kibbutzniks are Arik Achmon, who later in life became a leader in Israeli aviation industry; Uri Adiv, a revolutionary, who after 1967 went on to create an anti-Israel underground; Meir Ariel, who inadvertently became an Israeli music icon; and Avital Geva who became a famous conceptual artist and eventually active in Peace Now.


The religious Zionists are Yoel Ben-Nun, founder of three settlements, follower of Rabbi Kook and a biblical teacher; Yisrael Harel, a leader in the Bnei Akiva Zionists youth movement and founder of the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization for settlements in Judea and Samaria (aka West Bank); and Hanan Porat, founder of two West Bank settlements and the first settler elected to the Knesset.


The book includes a short Introduction. Halevi sets the stage for his book. He describes his making of Aliyah in 1982 and what led him, as a journalist, to write the book. He notes the book is not about the paratroopers per se, but rather about “... Israel's competing utopian dreams – and how the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.”  


Part One, The Lions' Gate, begins just days before the '67 War and covers the events leading up to and just following the historic reunification of Jerusalem. It reveals the challenges facing these men as they made their way through the narrow and harrowing streets of Jerusalem and into the Old City on June 6-7, 1967. On that June day sometime after 10:12 a.m., Motta Gur, commander of the 55th Brigade, uttered those now famous words, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”


It introduces the main characters and the large contingent of others who play significant roles in the lives of these paratroopers; wives, friends, rabbis, associates and others. It goes into stunning detail about their private thoughts, relationships and personal struggles. Most telling is the relationship challenges between decidedly secular Israelis from the kibbutz and their religious Zionist compatriots, a theme carried on throughout the book.  


Part Two, The Seventh Day, signals a period of rest and reflection. It follows these men between June 1967, after the War and through 1973. It begins on Shavuot, 1967 and describes the throngs of people working their way towards liberated Jerusalem; the first mass pilgrimage since Titus burned the Second Temple 1900 years earlier.


Halevi notes, “To be an Israeli in the summer of 1967 was to be a hero.”  Everyone shared in the victory. It was also the time for settlement building, sometimes with government approval and other times with the turning of a blind eye. Talk of annexation abound, but did not occur in the hope the remaining land could be used for future negotiations. Differences between secular and religious largely dissipated with the excitement and enthusiasm of the War's success.


Personal stories are expanded in this section; personal achievements, changes, tragedies, and betrayals. It describes the formation of various organizations; some supportive others detracting. The section ends revealing major conflict between groups within Israel.  


Part Three, Atonement, covers the nine years from 1973-1982. This is the period from the Yom Kippur War, through the development of settlements in the Sinai and the signing of the peace agreement with Egypt.


It begins describing Yom Kippur in 1973. The day began as a typical Day of Atonement.  By the afternoon, the solemnity of the day was shattered by the sounds of planes flying overhead. Chaos and trepidation seized the nation as war again was breaking out – this time in Sinai. Calls began arriving at the paratroopers’ home ordering them to report to their bases. Sirens began to wail – the fifth war in 25 years had begun. Israelis thought this one would be even shorter than the Six-Day War. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. While aware of rumblings in the Sinai, Israel was largely unprepared and scrambled to gain control. Even with ample warning of an impending confrontation, military intelligence misread the warning signs.


This section clearly demonstrates the profound devotion and dedication of both kibbutzniks and religious Zionists to Israel and its future, though through different perspective and tactics.


Part Four, Middle Age, referring the age of the paratroopers, runs from 1982 – 1992. Part Four begins with the incursion into southern Lebanon to jubilant Shites and Christians welcoming the IDF as liberators from the hated PLO.  The members of the 55th Paratroopers were now reaching middle age, and this would likely be their last war. Halevi describes, through the protagonists, Israeli ambivalence to this war as it grew longer and penetrated further and further into Lebanon.


The section ends just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Countries that had previously cut ties with Israel were returning, embassies were re-opening. Rabin, who lead the IDF in the Six-Day War, was elected Prime Minister and it appeared major change was in the offing.  Hopes were high.


The final section, Part Five, End of the Six-Day War covers the period 1992 – 2004. The section begins with a letter from Yoel Bin-Nun to PM Yitzhak Rabin imploring him to reconsider his position and support settlement development and education. Avital Geva, the conceptual artist is offered an opportunity to show at the upcoming Venice Biennale, an international art event. The magnitude of the project is surprising. Arik Achmon, hoping to return to the airline industry, is asked by the government to participate in the development of the new Ben Gurion airport. Meir Ariel, kibbutznik and inadvertent musician, discovers a longing to understand Judaism as his social network tries to adapt to his change.  


This is the period of the Oslo Accords. Yisrael Harel and the settlement of Ofra hear that a deal has been struck. He wonders, “Could it be that the ultra-Orthodox were right? That the secular Zionist were doomed to fail because they had excised the soul of the Jewish people, its religious faith, creating an identity too thin to transmit?”  Harel goes on to say, “'I used to say that if I had to be confined to a desert island, I would prefer to be with my kibbutznik friends from the paratroopers. But I can't trust them with the Jewish future anymore.'”


Oslo divided the country. Many supported the Accords as a step towards peace, while others began to speak with contempt for the Government. The issues of today (2014) are echoes of the issues back in 1993; security, return rights, division of Jerusalem, withdrawal, and so on. Personal relationships became strained.


In this section, unexpected personal transformations become clear. The years of war and experience moved several of the paratroopers to reconsider and re-prioritize their lives.


The book is based largely on personal accounts. Each chapter has several references and are not referenced within the text.  This is not a great technique, as the reader often forgets there might be valuable supplemental information in the Notes Section and cannot relate a reference to a specific point – a minor annoyance. There are a handful of maps and a few pictures of the paratroopers. In some cases, the maps could have had more detail and more pictures would have enhanced the connection between the paratroopers and the reader; what was included was adequate.


Haveli takes an interesting approach. Rather than simply recounting historical events, he weaves the personal stories and experiences of the seven paratroopers into the story of Israel during these times; political, social, psychological, economic, relationships, conflicts. etc. The relationships between these men seem to reflect the state of the country at the time.


Halevi is careful not to impose his personal bias into the stories and conveys the stories as told to him. One would be hard-pressed to identify Halevi's political position. Not imposing his political views or editorializing adds to the enjoyment of reading this book – one does not feel they are being lead to one position or another. 


The depth of detail is surprising given that the interviews took place years after the actual events and include verbatim conversations. The paratroopers' memories are remarkable. Assuming their veracity, the book gives the reader clear insight into the multitude of challenges Israel faced then and sadly, now as well.


The lives of these seven men lead to the formation of settlements by the religious Zionist and the peace movement by the Kibbutzniks. While they hold vastly different visions for Israel they remained friends throughout the years, met annually as part of their reserve duty, and shared in each other’s personal successes and tragedies; they had a special respect for each other. Despite their differences, whether divine/messianic or secular/democratic, all believed Israel was more than simply a refuge for Jews. Both groups saw the return of Jews as a defining and transformative moment in Jewish history. As Halevi notes in the Introduction, “It was a story about the fate of Israel's utopian dreams, the vast hopes imposed on this besieged, embattled strip of land crowded with traumatized Jewish refugees”.


This group of paratroopers became Israeli leaders, CEO of Arkia Airlines, founder of the Yesha Council (association of settlements),  a famous conceptual artist, founder of a (revolutionary) peace movement, and a famous poet-singer. Each personal story is fascinating in and of itself, but the larger story of the conflicts, differences, challenges and sacrifices makes this a compelling read (especially by those who are not hard-core history buffs). Perhaps more than anything, this book gives the reader a unique insight into how Israel got to where it is today and as the French say how the more things change the more they stay the same. It gives valuable understanding to today's challenges.


The complexities of Israel and Israelis are often hard for Westerners to understand; a tenuous balancing act between internal and external forces. Halevi does a good job describing and explaining these often competing forces, helping the reader to understand the extraordinary challenges faced by Israel and individual Israelis. For example, in The Middle Age Section in discussing the First Lebanon War Halevi describes, through Avital Geva, the use (and need) of deception for achieving military goals and how the rise in antiwar activism imposed serious limitations on achieving those goals, supposedly to Israel's detriment.


This is a well-written, informative, and insightful book. It is especially good for us Westerners as we grapple to fully understand the Israeli psyche, the competing pressures and how they affect Israelis; a recommended read.


P.S. Thank you to Marty Greenfeld for recommending this book and Marvin Samphir and Shlomit Perry for reviewing and commenting on this review.  

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