Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation is among the most beautiful and tragic books written about the history of Israel. It follows the lives of the young reservist paratroopers of the 55th Brigade, who conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War–and spent the rest of their lives wrestling, in different ways, with what that moment meant.
The characters are compelling. They include soldiers who went on to become founders of the new settlements in the West Bank, and soldiers who went on to become peace activists. One, amazingly, tried to join a Palestinian terrorist group. Though the main ideological divide is over war and peace, there are cross-currents: the kibbutznik who led the drive to privatize the Israeli economy, the hippie who became a religious figure.
The depth of biographical and historical research is breathtaking, and reveals Halevi’s love not only for the men of the 55th, whose iconic pose at the Western Wall inspired his own Zionism, but also his love for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, in all their contradictions. The story deals with the nagging question of Palestinian nationalism, but does so, unabashedly, entirely from an Israeli perspective–and is the richer for it.
Halevi is not just trying to tell a story, but to explain an argument, to provide a unique window into the torment of the Israeli soul, collective and individual, as the nation faces the cruel irony of its greatest military victory. For many of the kibbutzniks who formed Israel’s early political and military elite, there is also the difficulty of facing the reality of the Soviet Union’s betrayal of their ideals, and the failure of their economic model.
The theme of post-1967 decline in Israel is not new–neither in history nor biography. Indeed, it is a staple of the self-critical, revisionist histories that once fueled the Israeli left and that are now, ironically, the canonical works to which western academia turns in studying Israel. But Halevi is not writing in that mould: he is responding to it, showing how the illusion of peace was shattered just as surely as the illusion of Greater Israel.
In a book replete with compelling personalities, two stand out. One is Arik Achmon, the kibbutznik-turned-capitalist, who accompanied the IDF’s future chief of staff into Jerusalem and helped seize the “African” bank of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War. Not only did he pry Israel loose from its socialist inertia, but later led the push for unilateral withdrawal from the territories–a soldier’s answer to an intractable problem.
If Achmon is the character Halevi admires most, Yoel Bin-Nun is the one with whom he seems to identify most closely. Bin-Nun, a religious Zionist, helped found the settlement movement and later recoiled from its excesses. He supported Yitzchak Rabin’s election in 1992, then wrote him agonizing letters as Rabin ceded more land to Yasser Arafat. His path parallels Halevi’s own path from the far-right to the tormented mainstream.
The book’s only weakness is that the story ends in 2004, ten years ago, before the Gaza disengagement and the subsequent wars that seemed to resolve, at great cost, some of Israel’s internal dilemmas: yes, the country was willing to uproot settlements, and no, the Palestinians were not serious about peace. But Halevi is less interested in finding answers than chronicling, and celebrating, the journey. A literary masterpiece.