Yossi Klein Halevi is an American immigrant to Israel and the author of a new and powerful book, “Like Dreamers,” in which he adds an important dimension to the story of Israel from the euphoria of the 1967 Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent 40 years.
Halevi’s work as a journalist and analyst in Jerusalem for 30 years is evident in this evocative narrative, which focuses on seven men who served in the paratroop brigade that conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. The seven took distinct paths, a few becoming settler leaders, others active on the left and in the arts and music. One sought common cause with Palestinian revolutionaries and, after a trip to Damascus, ended up in an Israeli prison for 12 years. By accompanying these men across the decades readers gain a close understanding of many of the country’s internal debates.
Halevi will be in Baltimore on Tuesday, Dec. 24, to serve as the keynote speaker at the 14th anniversary event of Shalom USA Radio. The Baltimore Jewish Times caught up with Halevi ahead of his talk.
JT: Why did you choose to write “Like Dreamers” and why now?
Halevi: I began writing the book in 2002, which was at the height of the second intifada. The question I asked myself as an Israeli and as a writer is, “How did we get to this point of despair?” The first time I visited Israel as an American boy was the summer of ‘67, and that was a summer of euphoria. I wanted to know, how do we get from that summer of euphoria to this time of despair? I sought out the paratroopers who stormed Jerusalem in 1967 because, in some way, I felt they had been responsible for bringing it [the euphoria] to Israel. I wanted to know how ‘67 to 2002 had played out for them. The story I set out to tell was the transformation of Israel as a result of the Six-Day War through this group of paratroopers.
Why the title “The Dreamers”?
The title comes from Psalm 126, “When God restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like dreamers.” … We brought home these utopian dreams and imposed them on this little traumatized strip of plains. Look at the kibbutz movement, it was a socialist utopian [dream]; the settlement movement, a religious dream of Messianic redemption; Shimon Peres’ New Middle East from the 1990s — what happened to the Oslo peace process? Those are the three main utopian dreams that animated Israeli society. So the book looks at what happened to those dreams — and hence the title.
Talk about the utopia post-’67 and what we have today. We messed up? Something changed?
The story of this century is what happens when you join utopian impulse with politics. At the very least, the result is disappointment — and often much worse than that. We in Israel successively tried to impel utopian dreams through politics, and it cannot work. Utopianism is a longing for the way the world should be. Politics is dealing with the world as it is. Utopian dreams belong within our spiritual lives. … All of our utopian dreams were doomed because they were being played out in the wrong framework.
The people of Israel — and this is clear from your book — are good and beautiful people. But parts of Israel, it seems, are ugly and tragic. Can you talk about that dichotomy?
Israel is a real place, and American Jews never really paid close attention to Israel and tended to idealize Israel, and no country should be idealized. My generation of American Jews fell in love with an Israel it didn’t understand, the Israel of the kibbutz or of the labor Zionists. It was an amazing place in many ways, but it was also a very rough frontier society overwhelmed with Jewish refugees from the traumas of the century. … It was a very messy society, as it had to be. American Jews didn’t want to pay close attention. So they fell in love with an Israel they didn’t understand.
Today, my sense is that many American Jews are falling out of love with an Israel they don’t understand. Israel is far more democratic and culturally pluralistic than labor-Zionist Israel, which was quasi Bolshevik. … [At that time] Israel was a forced melting pot, where the standard was Ashkenazi, secular socialist, and if you didn’t conform to that vision, you weren’t a real Israeli. …
I feel many American Jews, especially on the left, are seeing Israel through the opposite stereotype. Instead of an Israel that can do no wrong, it is an Israel that can do no right.
You are Orthodox, but you don’t come across as someone who looks at all of this from a purely religious standpoint. Explain who you are, what you are.
I don’t define myself denominationally or tribally. I am a religious Jew and a klal Yisrael [focused on Jewish community] Jew. My Jewish identity is broad and fairly all encompassing.
So do you believe the people are more important than the land?
Well, the character I end the book with is Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, and his entire struggle through the pages of this book is over that question. He resolves that struggle by affirming the significance of people over the land. And he speaks for me.
Talk about peace in terms of life and death.
I think if it is a real peace, then Israel will have security and, most importantly, legitimacy. [For this] the majority of Israelis would pay almost any price in terms of territory. The question here is legitimacy even more than peace. Peace is a vague term. Legitimacy means Israel exists and would be accepted by the Middle East, that Jews returning home would be as an expression of an indigenous people re-rooting itself in part of its land that it shares with another
people. That is what peace means. And we are very far from that.
Is it the extremists? Talk about extremism and zealotry — on both sides. Do we need it? What does it mean? What do we do about it?
The roots of extremism in Israel go back to the left, as well as the right. What tends to happen, certainly in the Israeli context … is that extremism on one side incites extremism on the other and justifies extremist reactions. There is an energizing force to extremism; there is no question about it. And there is a thin line between idealism and extremism. I would characterize the kibbutz movement as more idealistic that extremist; there would have been no Israeli army, no Israel, without the kibbutz movement. The settlement movement tried to take its place — and succeeded to some extent. Today, the [IDF] officers’ corps is composed heavily of religious Zionist kids, and this is in large part due to the energizing impact of the settlement movement, which, as a whole, is not extreme, though it has extremist elements.
One really needs to be careful about painting entire movements as extremist while at the same time being clear eyed about extremist temptations in ideological movements.
After writing the book, are you more or less optimistic about the Jewish state?
This little country that has only been around for 65 years. … It is an astonishing experience going through the history of the state over these last years and realizing just how relentless and intense it has always been. There was never a let-up in the story. … We are on a history fast-forward. It is as if we are trying to compensate for 2,000 years of missing sovereignty and make all the mistakes that other countries have had centuries to make and to experience all the highs and lows of national life that other countries experience in a much longer time frame.
What makes me an optimist is Israelis have this extraordinary capacity to cope with an overwhelming concentration of intensity that I think would throw just about any other people out of balance. … The whole thing could have unraveled. It didn’t. It didn’t unravel after [Yitzchak] Rabin’s assassination, not with the first intifada or second intifada, not with so many traumatic events. If anything, I think Israeli society is more cohesive than it was in the past. Without minimalizing the daunting dilemmas we face both domestically and externally, I believe deeply in the capacity of Israelis to cope with just about anything.
You don’t seem to draw a strong conclusion at the end of the book — you leave that to the reader. Have you drawn a conclusion, and if so, what is it? What is that main message?
If you look at the final chapter, the decision to end there, with the emergence of the center [centrist perspective] … you will get an indication of where my own politics are. The emergence of the center is one of the greatest achievements of common-sense Israelis. My book documents a 40-year schism, a schism which claimed the life of a prime minister, which involved dismantling settlements in Sinai and then in Gaza — a tremendously hard story. At the end of all of this argument, the majority of Israelis concluded that the left and the right are both a little bit right and a little bit wrong.
The settlement movement said it would make Israel safer. That turned out not to be true. The peace movement said territorial concessions would bring us peace. That was false. Most Israelis today are the children of true disappointment. … [This is] the emergence of the center.
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Maayan Jaffe is former JT editor-in-chief