A personal journey to understand the soul of Israel

Yossi Klein Halevi says the summer of 1967 left him with a deep thirst for knowledge about Israel and Israelis.

Gush Emunim leader Hanan Porat carried by followers, 1975 (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Gush Emunim leader Hanan Porat carried by followers, 1975
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
The first time Yossi Klein Halevi visited Israel, the country was awash with euphoria.
It was the summer of 1967, just three weeks after Israel had turned bloodcurdling threats by Arab leaders “to deal Israel a mortal blow of annihilation” (in the words of Cairo Radio) into the country’s greatest military victory.
The mass graves that had been prepared in Tel Aviv parks remained empty. Instead, thousands of Israelis celebrated the Shavuot holiday at the Western Wall for the first time in 19 years, just a week after paratroopers liberated the Old City from Jordanian occupation.
For the 14-year-old Klein (he added the name Halevi later), the encounter with a vibrant, optimistic, exuberant Jewish country was a sharp contrast to the sober messages he had internalized from his Holocaust-survivor father back home in Brooklyn – be wary of the non-Jewish world, and never be the type of “exile Jews” who had gone like lambs to the slaughter countless times during the 2,000 year exile.
Even more, the redemption of the Biblical heartland – Hebron, Bethlehem, Beit El, Shilo, and above all the Old City of Jerusalem – felt almost like Israel had crossed the finish line of history. Just 22 years after the fires of Auschwitz had been extinguished, the Jews had returned home, with an IDF that provided teeth to back up the slogan “Never Again!” After 20 centuries, the Jewish people could finally put the traumas of exile behind them; the prevailing mood was an intoxicating, almost messianic, affirmation of life itself.
In hindsight, Yossi Klein Halevi, a former reporter for The Jerusalem Report, said the summer of 1967 left him with a deep thirst for knowledge about Israel and Israelis, and created within him a deep desire to become part of its rich society.
“I didn’t feel like a conqueror, but a liberator,” Klein Halevi wrote in his 1995 autobiography “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” adding that “I returned to Brooklyn in the fall, vigorous and tanned. Almost an Israeli, a renovated Jew… I knew my separation from Israel would be temporary, that nothing in America could hold me.”
And yet, that summer also left a seed of discontent in the adolescent Klein Halevi. Free to roam the newly liberated Eretz Yisrael, Klein Halevi also encountered Arab boys with shaven heads and makeshift United Nations Relief and Works Agency clothing peddling trinkets, including kippot, menorahs and postcards featuring legendary Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan, “mementos of their defeat. Obviously, I couldn’t regret their defeat. But neither could I despise them. I didn’t want to think of them and wished they’d go away,” Klein Halevi wrote of his teenage self.
Forty-five years after that encounter, the Six Day War is still a defining moment for Klein Halevi. At 60, the author has lost none of his passion for Israel, or his thirst to understand the complex human tapestry that defines his adopted country. He is at once fiercely proudof Israel’s accomplishments and painfully aware of the country’s shortcomings. As he did as a teenager, he takes the issues facing the country extremely personally, viewing Israeli history almost as an extension of his own development and growth.
But the thrill of victory is only part of the story of the Six Day War. Many Israelis feel the resultant hubris led directly to the cataclysmic failure of the Yom Kippur War just six years later. Politically, the surprise attack of the Syrian and Egyptian armies led to Israel’s first mass protest movement and, ultimately, to the downfall of the Labor Party in May 1977.
Socially, too, the aftermath of the Six Day War created several rifts within Israel. Some Orthodox circles, particularly those associated with Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav yeshiva, saw the liberation of Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem as a clear sign that the messianic era was at hand, and viewed it as their religious duty to prepare the way for it (not all parts of the religious Zionist world supported the messianic view; however, it is interesting to note that during the war itself, one of the strongest voices against capturing the Old City was the National Religious Party).
Within a year of the war, Orthodox groups led by Hanan Porat and Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, two members of the 55th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade that had fought in Jerusalem, began a campaign to create new Jewish communities throughout the liberated territory.
Ironically, their messianic fervor grew during the traumatic aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. While much of the country mourned the deaths of nearly 3,000 soldiers via public mourning sessions, Bin Nun and other settler leaders preached a different message: Don’t lose faith. The messianic process may be filled with ups-and-downs, but have no doubt – we have returned home for good. Ultimately, the settlements became one of the most divisive issues facing Israeli society.
At the same time, other members of the brigade were beginning to have doubts about the meaning of the lightning victory. After learning that Israel had ignored suggestions by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat that his country might be willing to consider a land-forpeace deal in the early 1970s, some reservists helped form Peace Now in 1978. The group was the first major Israeli group to advocate land for peace and called on prime minister Menachem Begin to offer to withdraw from Judea and Samaria in exchange for peace with the Arab world.
That schism is the subject of Klein Halevi’s new book, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.” The book follows the lives of seven veterans of the 55th Reserve Brigade who liberated the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, tracing their lives leading up to the Six Day War, their heroism during the fighting and, especially, their experiences in the decades after the war.
Klein Halevi tells The Report that the book has its origins in the despair most Israelis felt on September 29, 2000, when the Palestinians responded to an Israeli peace offer by thenprime minister Ehud Barak with riots on the Temple Mount, which soon developed into a concentrated terror campaign against civilian targets in the hearts of Israeli cities.
“When the al-Aqsa intifada broke out in September 2000, Israeli society was deeply traumatized. So many Israelis tried so hard during the 1990s to believe that peace was imminent, and the collapse of the Oslo process and the explosion that came with it was one of the lowest moments in history for Israeli society.
I tried to think about a way I could relate to that feeling in a compelling way, and I decided to trace the developments that led from the ‘high’ of June 1967, all the way to the low of September 2000. Once I realized that many of the leaders of both Peace Now and of Gush Emunim came out of the paratroopers unit that was at the Western Wall on June 7, 1967, I decided to use their story as a platform to talk about the development of Israeli society over that period of time,” Klein Halevi says.
The result is a book Klein Halevi accurately describes as a “biography of Israel. The protagonists represent a broad cross-section of Israeli society, and their stories provide an intensely personal window into the development of Israel, both politically and socially.
For example, the book features romantic descriptions of the austerity and intensity of life at such kibbutzim as Ein Shemer, near Afula, and Givat Brenner, south of Tel Aviv (the opening scene describes Ein Shemer member Avital Geva “barefoot and shirtless in the early-morning sun… frying eggs in a blackened pan”). Later, the reader is drawn into the fierce ideological debates on both kibbutzim surrounding the Soviet Union, Israel’s foreign policy and the merits of Josef Stalin.
“It was 1951, and Givat Brenner was torn over whether the new state of Israel should align with the Soviet Union or the West. Givat Brenner’s Marxists declared the Soviet Union under Stalin as the hope for world redemption, and demanded that progressive, egalitarian Israel choose the right side of history.
Opposing the Marxists was Mapai, the pro- Western social democratic party headed by prime minister David Ben-Gurion... Three years earlier the comrades had been prepared to die together defending their commune from the Egyptian army; now Mapainiks and Stalinists couldn’t even share a table in the communal dining room.”
During the same period of time, Klein Halevi introduces us to a young Yoel Bin Nun, an Orthodox teenager who dreams about Biblical prophecies of redemption but who is frustrated growing up religious in “red” Haifa at a time of rampant secular coercion.
Similarly, we encounter the sorrow and outrage at the fall of the Etzion settlement bloc in 1948 and the slaughter by Jordanian soldiers of the final members of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion during the War of Independence. Klein Halevi describes the generation of fatherless children in the years following the massacre, and the optimistic drive by one of those children – Hanan Porat – to rebuild the community following the Six Day War as a first step towards a full-scale settlement project throughout Judea and Samaria.
“At first glance, it would appear that these two groups could hardly have less in common,” Klein Halevi tells The Report. “But, in fact, they both viewed themselves as carriers and guardians of the utopian Zionist dream.
That’s why the book is called “Like Dreamers” – it’s a quote from Psalms, and the story of this country is really about the fate of our grand dreams. Even for the secular left, the return to Zion was always about more than just ‘normalizing’ the Jewish people. So the struggle between the camp of the normalizers and camp of the messianists has been a real animating theme,” he said.
In man y ways, and in a vast variety of areas, the paratroopers in the book symbolize Israel’s social, political and economic development since the founding of the state.
Partly, this unfolded in predictable ways.
Secular kibbutznikim, such as Arik Achmon and Avital Geva, became leaders of the left-wing peace camp. Students of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva came to found the Gush Emunim movement and led the drive to settle the Whole Land of Israel.
And yet, their life trajectories were occasionally in stark contrast with what one would have expected given their pre-1967 backgrounds and politics.
Arik Achmon, Motta Gur’s communications liaison on that fateful June 7, a scion of Kibbutz Givat Brenner and a member of the founding group of Kibbutz Netzer Sereni, went on to serve as CEO of Arkia, Israel’s domestic airline, and battled the powerful Histadrut Labor Federation to begin the arduous process of privatizing Israel’s statist economy.
Likewise, Yoel Bin Nun is both a symbol of the ultra-messianic wing of the religious Zionist world, and yet also the settler rabbi who maintained close relations with prime minister Yitzchak Rabin during the turbulent Oslo years. Meir Ariel, whose songs, poems and very public ‘open’ marriage defined the local music scene for a generation of Israelis, came to find deep solace and inspiration in traditional Jewish sources and eventually came to embrace Jewish tradition in a way that deeply offended his secular friends and colleagues.
Ultimately, however, the book is a description of Klein Halevi’s personal journey, both to discover and to understand the soul of his adopted country, in order to find his place within the Israeli mosaic. He says his formative experience as an Israeli was the 1982 Peace Now demonstration during which Emil Grunzweig (who, coincidentally, also did military reserve duty with the 55th Brigade) was killed by a hand grenade thrown by a right-wing protester.
That attack sent shockwaves through Israeli society, but was particularly traumatic for Klein Halevi, who had grown up as a follower of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane and had been an active member of his Jewish Defense League. In the aftermath of the murder, Klein Halevi became a passionate, committed centrist, but also struggled to make peace with the internal contradictions that are inherent to the worldview of an Israeli centrist.
“The concept of ‘centrist’ works a bit differently in Israel than in other places,” he says.
“Here, ‘centrist’ means the ability to hold two diametrically opposed viewpoints simultaneously.
I deeply agree with the left that the occupation is a long-term existential threat to the State of Israel, and deeply agree with the right that a false peace process with the Palestinians is an immediate existential threat.”
Perhaps even more compelling, at least to Klein Halevi, is the irrepressible sense of optimism and commitment the paratroopers, and the Israeli story, represent for the modern Jew, and perhaps for all of humanity. Despite their sharp ideological differences, and despite repeated mistakes by Israeli policy makers that cost hundreds of Israeli lives in 1967 and 1973, he notes that figures such as Arik Achmon and Yoel Bin Nun continued to serve together and remained committed to trying to find constructive ways to shape Israeli society.
“To me, this book is above all a deeply human story, and discovering the vitality, the commitment, of these men was one of the high points of writing this book. They keep coming back to defend the country, and they keep devising plans to maximize the incredible potential of the human capital we have here. Regardless of their political views, the men I’ve written about maintain an irrepressible sense of optimism about the future.
“That’s an expression of the tremendous responsibility Israeli citizens feel for their country, and it’s an expression of the powerful driving force of Israel. That’s what drew me to Israel as a 14-year-old kid, and it is the reason I remain so enthralled with this country so many years later.”