In his majestic, lyrical, and insightful new book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, my friend and Shalom Hartman Institute colleague, Yossi Klein Halevi, quotes one paratrooper, Yoel Bin-Nun who rejected Israel’s post-Yom Kippur War defeatism. “We recovered much faster than other countries would have in our place,” said Bin-Nun, one of those 55th Brigade’s superheroes who liberated Jerusalem in 1967 – then crossed the Suez Canal in 1973. “All of France collapsed before the Germans in three weeks. It took five years to liberate it. We revived in less than three weeks and won. We should declare a day of thanksgiving!”
Bin-Nun’s remarks counter all the gloomy fortieth anniversary assessments. True, this horrific war caused 2,688 Israeli and 19,000 Arab deaths. And, as Halevi writes, “in Israel, no trauma was ever really forgotten, only displaced by new trauma, so that the country’s emotional life resembled one of its archaeological sites, an accumulation of disrupted layers.” Nevertheless, his monumental book repudiates this simplistic scoreboard history. Understanding both 1967 and 1973 should push us beyond tallying up complex historical events as wins or losses.
The Yom Kippur War marked the last combined Arab military assault trying to wipe out Israel – and triggered the peace process resulting in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The resulting stability helped Israel flourish. Meanwhile, the Six Day War miracle multiplied the numbers of Palestinian refugees and helped frame the conflict in Palestinian terms, with much of the world condemning Israel as Goliath.
Halevi’s book examines Israel internally, tracking how Gush Emunim and the settlement movement, led by visionary optimists like Bin-Nun, catapulted ahead after 1973, tapping into the utopian idealism that fueled the kibbutz movement. In vividly recounting the lives of seven of these paratroopers who split politically, with some settling the territories and others seeking to return them, the book brings alive “Israel’s competing utopian dreams—and how the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.”
Meticulously researched, providing dazzling you-are-there detail that makes you imagine you are sniffing the fresh orange groves of a northern kibbutz or the acrid battle smells in Jerusalem, the book describes a society of idealists tempered with a necessary pragmatism. It shows how the kibbutz movement lost its groove and how the settlers transformed Zionism’s secular utopianism into religious utopianism. This is the best book I have read about modern Israeli culture, society and politics, while providing the richest, least polemical, assessment of the settlement movement too.
Like Dreamers explains the settlement movement’s logic and justice in returning to destroyed Jewish settlements like Kfar Etzion – while recognizing the extremists among them and the intractability of the problem they helped create. The alluring can-do Israeli spirit that pulses through the book clashes with a depressing heaviness about the impossibility of reconciling Jewish and Palestinian claims to the same small land, reflecting “the manic depression of a nation on the edge of salvation or destruction.”
As a group biography of soldiers who followed different political paths not a policy tract or a polemic, the book proposes no solutions. It simply captures the conundrum: “The left had been correct about the dangers of occupation, but the right had been correct about the chances for peace.” An article recently published in “Open Zion” by two Israeli progressives, Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon, suggests a way forward.
Dismissing this new, trendy “partition skepticism” doubting the Two State solution’s viability, the authors note that apocalyptic pessimism is native to the Middle East. They debunk the libel that Israel has overrun the West Bank with “settlers” -- 85 percent of Jews there live in “settlement blocs,” covering “less than 6 percent” of the territory. Most Jewish communities outside those areas average less than 2,000 residents.
However, they complain, justifiably, that despite Yair Lapid’s budget cutbacks, the Israeli government – bullied by a settler minority -- pumps millions into bankrolling settlements. Living in “national priority areas” many of the settlers enjoy housing, transportation and education discounts.
When vegetable purchases are taxed -- in the latest assault on Israel’s founding egalitarian spirit -- such spending is unconscionable. These subsidies undermine Israel’s credibility internationally while failing to prepare for any future rapprochement with millions of Palestinians.
Israel bribed settlers to live in Yamit, Gaza, Northern Samaria, then bribed them to leave. Why not strangle some of the most marginal settlements slowly, or at least stop propping them up extravagantly?
This economic shift could be part of a broader rhetorical shift, which stops treating “THE settlements” as monolithic. Security settlements are not restored communities, which are not ideological outposts. If Zionists don’t make distinctions, the world certainly won’t.
Yossi Klein Halevi writes: “The very existence of a sovereign Jewish state after two thousand years of homelessness defied the natural order, and so did the kibbutz.” So did the Six Day War Victory, the Yom Kippur comeback, and many other Israeli triumphs. For all my fury at Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism, for all my sympathy with the Jews who returned to the Biblical lands, I still believe Israel can produce more miracles – including some kind of peace, or at least, a more stable and equitable situation whereby millions of Palestinians control their own destinies.
Like Dreamers gets you thinking about what Israel was – and what Israel and the Middle East could be. Forty years ago, devastated by the Arab surprise attack, it seemed inconceivable that peace with Egypt was just six years away. Today, Israel is stronger – and could pull off another stunner.
Abandoning scoreboard history can propel us beyond zero-sum politics, mixing idealism and pragmatism to maximize positive outcomes for as many as possible, rather than polarizing the region between winners and losers.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was recently published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!