Jerusalem — The summer of 1967 in Israel is recalled universally as a time of euphoria and romance for a country in the afterglow of a stunning military victory.
But for Yossi Klein Halevi, at the time a 14-year-old Orthodox kid from New York visiting his relatives for the first time, the war also inspired him and a cousin to mark the Ninth of Av fast by eating a falafel.
"Enough with all of your wailing and moaning. The Kotel is in our hands and it’s over," said Klein Halevi, recalling his cousin’s announcement of the theological rebellion to family elders.
"That was a religious response to the uniting of Jerusalem. We unilaterally decided … to claim an end to Tisha b’Av. That was an indication of just how deeply the war affected religious sensibilities."
Forty years later, the author and journalist still finds himself immersed in the aftermath of the ’67 watershed, researching a book that examines the social and political movements on Israel’s left and right set in motion from the Six-Day War.
Tentatively titled, "The Paratroopers Wept," it’s an ambitious project in which Klein Halevi will tell the stories of eight paratroopers from the brigade that liberated the Old City. Half his soldiers came from kibbutzim and continued on as activists in the Israeli peace movement, and half came from Modern Orthodox yeshivas and moved to the newly conquered territories to lead the first postwar settlements.
Among Klein Halevi’s paratrooper heroes are Hanan Porat, founder of Kfar Etzion, the first postwar settlement; Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, a rabbi dedicated to rebuilding the Jewish Holy Temple of 2,000 years ago; Avital Geva, a founder of Peace Now; and Udi Adiv, a member of the anti-Zionist left jailed for visiting Syria.
It was those moments of dread, redemption and jubilation that convinced all eight that their idealized visions for their country were possible, Klein Halevi says. In following the former soldiers, Klein Halevi hopes to chronicle both the aspirations and failures of the Israeli right and left. The story departs from a moment that seemed like the happy ending of Jewish history, and continues on to document the failed utopian dreams of Israel’s ideologues.
"You can call this book a biography of the Israeli dream," said Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. "The Six-Day War transformed every one of these people, and set them off on their lifelong political destiny. The Six-Day War was the moment when everything seemed possible; it was the moment of Zionist wish fulfillment … These men sought to try to remake Israel in the image of their dream. And to some extent, for better or for worse we live in their dreams and the consequences of their dreams."
Those dreams fired the imaginations not only of Israelis, but of American Jews like Klein Halevi. The summer of 1967 was Klein Halevi’s first visit to Israel, and he fell under the spell of the triumphant Zionist project.
Klein Halevi argues that both sides of the left-right divide of modern Israeli politics were an inevitable and justified reaction to the Six-Day War. The group of Jews who would seek to reclaim the all of the biblical Land of Israel for the Jewish people and those who would insist on peace with the Arab world were both loyal to the lessons of Jewish history, he said.
But ultimately, Klein Halevi argues, both movements failed, and laid the groundwork for the sentiment of unprecedented mutual alienation among Israel’s diverse subgroups.
"The paradox of the Six-Day War is that on the one hand it restored, for a moment, a cohesive Jewish people to an extent that we hadn’t known perhaps since the thriving days of the Temple," he said. "And on the other hand, it created the conditions for the fragmenting of the Jewish people to the extent we haven’t known since the worst days of the end of the Second Temple."
By culling narratives of the eight paratroopers, Klein Halevi has uncovered many of the forgotten anecdotes that illustrate the changes wrought by the war.
There is the Independence Day speech of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in the weeks before the war in which the heir to the founder of messianic Zionism surprised yeshiva pupils by lamenting the failure of the State of Israel to include the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria. What initially perplexed the students became understood after the war as a flash of prophecy.
By settling those regions, the paratrooper students hoped to fulfill the teachings of their spiritual mentor, and in the process transformed religious Zionism from a movement known for moderation and pragmatism (religious Zionist politicians had second thoughts when the prospect of conquering the Old City was suggested during the war, Klein Halevi said) into a political force that became the ideological standard bearer of Israeli’s nationalist camp and ultra-nationalist camp.
Then there is the story of the September 1967 return to Kfar Etzion, a settlement whose founders were orphaned 19 years earlier in the war for independence when their parents were massacred defending their kibbutz from Arabs..
"The fact that I stand in awe at the creation of Kfar Etzion, does not in any way lessen my ability to coldly analyze the consequences of the settlement movement both domestically and internationally," he said. "Nevertheless, I am engaged with the poetry of this story."
On the other side of the political spectrum, Klein Halevi has immersed himself in the decline of the kibbutz movement that was accelerated by the war. After years fancying themselves at the vanguard of Israeli society — kibbutzniks accounted for 50 percent of the paratroop brigade and 70 percent of the officers — many soldiers from the Marxist HaShomer HaTsair movement came back from the battlefield disillusioned from having faced down the brunt of Soviet war machinery.
"They come back from the war full of rage at their parents for supporting the Soviet Union, which had just tried to destroy Israel and was responsible for the deaths of their friends," he said. "HaShomer HaTsair then shifts ideological gears … but by then it’s too late. They lost their self confidence, and they become ashamed of themselves. They’re not ashamed of socialism, but they are ashamed at their stupidity."
Already at work on the book for three years, Klein Halevi said he expects to take another two to finish writing the story of Israel’s utopian paratroopers and the destructive consequences for the country. But for Klein Halevi, the book is more than an intellectual question about Israel’s political utopianism: it is a search for the romantic, idealistic visions of a 14-year-old boy.
"Israel in the summer of ‘67 was like a beautiful lover, who inevitably got older and less beautiful. But you don’t forget your first love. Lots of Jews did. In a way, part of me is still looking for that beautiful woman that we glimpsed in the summer of ’67."
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