How Israel’s Voice Became His Own

Yossi Klein Halevi tells the story of the war heroes who reunited Jerusalem and divided the nation.

Tue, 09/17/2013
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

With “Like Dreamers,” due out Oct. 1, Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born writer and journalist living in Jerusalem, has written a powerful and haunting book about the soul of modern Israel, focusing on the lives of seven Israelis, members of the famed 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade. These men helped reunite Jerusalem in the 1967 war and went on to become exemplars of the social, religious, political and cultural impulses that divided the country, from Peace Now to Gush Emunim, from Torah scholars to kibbutz leaders to a revered musician, Israel’s Bob Dylan.

I leave it to others to analyze and review this major work, with its remarkably deep reporting and insights into the conflicting forces of cohesion and strife that are Israel today, personified by ordinary men and women living extraordinary lives.

But this is about the 11-year struggle endured by Yossi, a colleague and friend, in an effort to do justice to a story that at times overwhelmed him. And it’s about how his attempt to explore the Israeli psyche helped him better understand his own, a coming together of personal and national struggles between left and right and between dreams of normalization and redemption.

The spark for “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” (Harper) came about a dozen years ago when, after having written two very personal books whose titles speak volumes about his life — “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” about his infatuation as a teenager in Brooklyn and later break in Israel with Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League, and “At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land” — Yossi was considering what to write next. His close friend Michael Oren, then a colleague at the Shalem Center, a think tank in Jerusalem, and now outgoing Israeli ambassador to the U.S., challenged him to write a book that wasn’t personal, Yossi recalled during an interview the other day.

“But the irony is that it’s completely about me,” he said with a laugh. “My voice is in all of the characters.

‘The Happy-Ever-After Summer’

During the dark days of the second intifada, which began 13 years ago at this season, Yossi was looking for a way to understand and tell the story of how Israel had gone from the high of the Six-Day War victory in 1967 to this frightening low point, when Palestinian suicide bombers were striking at the heart of the Jewish state on what felt like a daily basis.

He had first encountered Israel only weeks after the euphoric June 1967 victory, traveling at the age of 14 from Brooklyn with his father, a survivor from Europe so moved by the Israeli army’s success that “he forgave God for the Holocaust,” his son recalled.

“It was the happy-ever-after summer,” Yossi said. “There was a sense of ‘it’s over, we won, this is the happy end of Jewish history, this is how Jews always thought the story would end.’”

But it didn’t, of course. Only six years later came the Yom Kippur War, a brush with extinction that left the nation depressed and shaken despite a remarkable military comeback. That war was followed by years of increasing political and societal division over dealing with the “matzav,” or situation, as Arab unrest from within and outside of Israel came to be known among Israelis. The result was failed peace talks and two intifadas as the war zone moved from distant battlefields to neighborhood markets and restaurants, and Israelis felt increasingly vulnerable to attack from their neighbors and isolated by the international community.

A far cry from the summer of ’67 when Yossi fell in love with the country and the powerful feeling of Jewish unity that prevailed — physically with the reunification of Jerusalem, and socially with a nation brought together first by fear of extinction and then by the joy of a swift, miracle-like victory against four Arab armies. There was also the spiritual dimension, the dreams of peace and messianic stirrings from Jerusalem, the heart of a newly united city and country.

Yossi didn’t want to leave; he felt at home. But he didn’t return for real until he was 29, in 1982, when he made aliyah with his wife Sarah. It was a deeply painful time for Israel, the nation divided over the objectives and extent of its first offensive war, in Lebanon. It had begun with a limited effort to stop Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization from attacking the Israeli north but turned into a major thrust to root out the PLO and help create a more stable government in Beirut. That failed, and instead Israel was blamed for the Sabra and Shatila massacres of many hundreds of Palestinians at the hands of Lebanese Christians, allies of the Israel Defense Forces.

Even as the war went on hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to call for its end.

“It was a brutal time,” says Yossi, “and I was trying to understand whose side I was on in the internal Israeli divide. I didn’t know what to think.”

As a new immigrant struggling to understand the national debate, he did what he does best: observe and report.

“My absorption came about through being a journalist,” he says, “and my notebook was my passport.” He says he interviewed countless people and listened to as many points of view as possible as he wrote for The New Republic and several Israeli newspapers and magazines. At some point he realized “part of me responded to almost all sides, including Israeli Arabs,” and he became a self-defined centrist, “taking pieces from the different camps — and that’s what I tried to do in this book.”

The Heroes Of All Israel

The decision to concentrate the book on the Israeli paratroopers came in part from his youthful memory of them as the heroes of all Israel in 1967, and from an article he had read and “mentally filed” about the men who had liberated the Old City and Western Wall, written on the 30th anniversary of the war.

After all, “they [the paratroopers] brought me to Israel, metaphorically,” he says. And when he decided to write a book that empathized with all sides of Israel, one that American Jews could understand, he chose to focus on members of the 55th Brigade who had since gone into different political directions that helped shape Israeli society.

Yossi spent several years researching the book, interviewing dozens of members of the 55th, but struggling mightily with how best to present the information. Even once he had a book contract and was devoting almost all of his time to writing, he felt inadequate to the task as an American-born Jew who had been a spectator, not a participant.

“Who was I to tell of these mythic times,” of the 1967 and 1973 wars, through the eyes of the men who lived them and who he came to know so well, who opened up their innermost thoughts to him?

The key element of finding the voice of the book was the hardest for Yossi. “For most of the years I was writing, the book was mute,” he says, “and it drove me crazy. I didn’t hear the voice. The topic felt bigger than my capabilities. It nearly destroyed me.”

Deadlines passed from year to year. He believed the book was a failure and felt guilt about all of those who helped support his efforts. He was consumed with the fear that he was letting them down, especially the men and their families he had grown so close to and came to deeply admire.

His friends encouraged him to keep at it, especially Michael Oren, who recalled that Yossi’s effort “required a double leap, first as a journalist who had to also become an historian, and then to be writing about others when he’d been used to writing memoirs. It was an ordeal.”

In the end there was no moment of epiphany, Yossi says. In the last two years he just began hearing the voice that was probably there all along, in his head. It was about allowing each of the characters to speak for themselves, he says, “while at the same time preserving my own prerogative to choose what to include or omit, and when to intervene when I couldn’t resist including my own opinion, though rarely.”

He says once he realized the characters represented not only Israel’s personality but also his own, “it made it easier for me to let them speak for themselves, and in a sense for me.”

No one who reads the book will forget these three-dimensional characters, and Yossi’s ability to humanize, contextualize and personalize the last 45 years of Israel’s history.

“In a way I was writing the book for myself,” Yossi says, “for the person I would have become if I hadn’t made aliyah, someone obsessed by Israel vicariously and knowing the general story but not understanding what it was really like from the inside.”

I guess I fit that description. Maybe that’s why I was so enthralled by the book and feel in Yossi’s debt for his having written it.

Gary@jewishweek.org

Yossi Klein Halevi, who is teaching this semester at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Ambassador Michael Oren will discuss Halevi’s book, and the events it describes, at a Jewish Week Forum Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m., at Park Avenue Synagogue. For tickets: wwwthejewishweek.com/oren-halevi-event

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Thank you for your introduction to Yossi Klein Halevi. People like that always remind us of the magicians who argued with Moses on the eve of the First Passover. ("Jasper and Jambres," according to legend.)

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