Reviewed by Yitzchak Etshalom
Anyone who can remember a pre-1967 Israel will testify to the implausible impact that those magical six days had on his or her life. Many credit that miraculous victory with the push that impelled a Jewish renaissance—manifested in ethnic pride, a refocus on community and the seeds of the “teshuvah” phenomenon. Indeed, the Jewish world has never been the same. Much has been written about the 1967 war, from a military, geopolitical, geographical and even eschatological perspective. In parallel, monographs and books have been authored detailing the various ways in which Israeli society has grown since that halcyon summer of ’67, warts and all, and how the body politic strains ever tighter against its own unity. No one, however, thought (or dared) to chronicle those changes through the eyes, experience and perception of the most storied heroes of that epic war— no one, that is, until Yossi Klein Halevi unveiled this masterful and compelling work, following the paratroopers of the famed 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade from the days leading up to the June war until the present day. Those same youthful faces which adorn the iconic photo of the war as they stand in awe before the Kotel now belong to older men who took their ideals, politics and spirituality into the hell of war again and again (1970, 1973 and 1982) and came out, each time, with a few more answers—and some of them, with more questions.
Klein Halevi’s ambitious and weighty tome follows the dramatic changes which have shaped—and continue to reshape—the Israeli national conscience, through the eyes of the members of that battalion and, to a lesser but significant degree, through the words of their spouses, coworkers, family members and neighbors. If there is one flaw in this chronicle, it is the author’s overweening sympathy and near-adulation of his subjects. Even Udi Adiv, an unrepentant terrorist sympathizer, emerges as more of a starry-eyed idealist gone wrong than the mentally unstable ex-soldier that is easy to discern between the lines of the narrative.
Like Dreamers, although involving a cast of thousands, focuses on four central characters: Arik Achmon, the kibbutznik-turned-capitalist who introduced privatization into Israel’s air travel industry; Meir Ariel, the songwriter who penned “Jerusalem of Iron” in response to Naomi Shemer’s classic anthem; Rav Yoel Bin-Nun, the die-hard Bnei Akivanik who played a central role in the settlement movement and Avital Geva, the kibbutznik artist. The author draws an illuminating sketch of each one’s youth and gives us insight into the baggage each soldier brought with him into the war as well as the idealism that lifted each to the heights of heroism. Each of them was shaped by the moment of Jerusalem’s liberation—but in very different ways. They continued to meet, at ceremonies honoring their bravery as well as on the battlefield, in 1973 and again in 1982.
One note of caution: The description of the battle for Jerusalem in 1967 is, perhaps deliberately, somewhat confusing and leaves far too much to the imagination. This is not a war journal—such books have already been expertly composed and published. The confusion actually assists the reader in adopting a particular view—that of the paratroopers themselves. One almost feels the terror of the unknown, the sniper behind the wall and the wrong turn in front of the eastern wall of the city. To that end, the zig-zag of the narrative succeeds where a conventional battle journal would fail.
The two central protagonists of this book are Bin-Nun and Achmon. The irony of Achmon, an arch-Kibbutznik, raised on one of the more ideologically “die-hard” kibbutzim, being the one to introduce privatization to Israel’s nascent air-travel industry is neither lost nor buried in the story. Klein Halevi makes much of it, especially in recorded conversations between Achmon and his fellow kibbutz ideologues. Achmon’s deep disappointment at the way he is ultimately treated by the board of Arkia [an Israeli airline]—a board that he helped nurture and develop—overshadows his reactions to the great upheavals taking place in Israeli society around him.
All that said, Bin-Nun is undoubtedly and clearly the author’s “hero.” His unflagging belief in the “sanctity of the moment” and the unprecedented opportunities for geulah (redemption) afforded Am Yisrael at this historic moment, his unwavering commitment to settling all of Israel without allowing a wall to separate the religious from the secular and his close personal relationship with Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook and Rav Yehuda Amital, zichronam levrachah—all of this takes a back seat to his remarkable ideological flexibility. This is not to say that Bin-Nun’s ideology changed, was disrupted or even threatened by the events of 1967 through 2005; rather, his core ideals are so firmly anchored that the political winds that shift determine a new and (perhaps) unchartered ideological position. The firebrand who settled Sebastia in Chanukah of 1975 interpreted his emunah and hashkafah very differently in the summer of 2005 during the painful withdrawal from Gaza. (Full disclosure: this writer is a friend and student of Rav Bin-Nun.)
The deep fissures in Israeli society that have developed and widened since 1967 are all felt in this book. The paratroopers are national icons whose personal battles (and demons) are more than emblematic of the challenges facing Israeli society; they almost personify the different directions in which our society and our State are pulled.
Bin-Nun has set the tone in his teachings and in his life for how a fully committed Jew will need to navigate the twenty-first century. It is not only the ideological flexibility mentioned above that is so vital in our miraculous and somewhat chaotic times. It is also the sociological flexibility that allows Rav Yaakov Medan, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, to leave his yeshivah for Shavuot and participate in a community-wide night of study in Tel Aviv, where he annually impresses young intelligent secular Israelis with his lessons. It is the pragmatic flexibility that, since the 1980s, drove a small number of ideologues from Gush Emunim to refocus “settlement” into the inner city of Lod and Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah District, and the political flexibility that allowed a number of leading Religious Zionist thinkers to work with secularists to develop an “amanah chevratit” (social covenant) as a template for a modus vivendi between all factions in Israel. All of these are part of the vital vision of prizing Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael and working for its welfare, a vision exemplified by the hero of this most worthwhile volume.
Thank you, Yossi Klein Halevi, for allowing us to remember how to dream and to reconnect with the vision that remains vital—a sovereign nation in its land, with the shining example of visionaries who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get the job done.
Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is a prolific Internet educator, the author of Between the Lines of the Bible: Genesis (Yashar Books, 2006) and Between the Lines of the Bible: Exodus (OU Press/Urim Publications, 2012). He also serves as scholar-in-residence in numerous OU synagogues throughout North America.