Of Prophets and Tradesmen

By Jordan Chandler HirschNovember 19, 2013

Of Prophets and Tradesmen

Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi

AS YOEL BIN-NUN HIKED with his seminary students along the Samarian hills overlooking the Mediterranean, he told them about the Israelite tribes of the mountain and the coast. The tribes of the mountain, he said, were prophets and preachers, ascending the peaks in search of God. The tribes of the coast, meanwhile, were mercantilists and materialists, stretching toward the sea in search of the world. Their conflict, Bin-Nun implied, represented a clash of utopias at the heart of the Jewish experience.

That clash dissolved alongside the last vestiges of Jewish sovereignty 1900 years ago.

But in May 1967, under the thin shade of citrus orchards near Lod Airport, the tribes met again. There, mountain and coast converged in the form of mystical Zionists, like Bin-Nun, and worldly kibbutz pioneers — all members of the 55th Paratrooper Reserve Brigade. From that middle ground, the tribes saved their state from a promised Arab invasion. But as Yossi Klein Halevi shows in Like Dreamers, they also set the stage for the resurrection of their ancient struggle. In following the journey of seven soldiers through the next four decades of their lives, Halevi’s saga is, in a sense, the intimate biography of a nation in miniature, just as it is a sweeping biography of dreams — an Aeneid of modern Israel.

Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, begins his story with the coastal tribe: the kibbutzniks. Kibbutzim, or “gatherings” in Hebrew, sprouted up across Palestine in the early 1900s as pioneering outposts of Jewish communist collectivism. Kibbutzniks were Israel’s socialist cowboys, bucking religion for floppy farm hats and the red flag. They were Zionism’s physical and spiritual avant-garde — at once its generals, poets, and politicians. According to Halevi, their movement envisioned Israel as an egalitarian haven that would cure anti-Semitism by transferring Jews from statelessness to statehood, the shtetl to the land.

To the kibbutzniks, religious Zionists — Israel’s other spiritual elite — seemed like retrograde knockoffs. Israel’s secular pioneers dismissed the religious Zionists’ attempts to join the ideological and military front, viewing them as “more suited to becoming accountants than farmers or fighters.” Undeterred by their unrequited admiration for the kibbutzniks, religious Zionists brewed their own Zionist messianism. Under the tutelage of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, religious Zionists saw Israel as nothing less than the stage for Jewish and world redemption. They revered the kibbutz movement as a cure to the quietist religious Jews of old — one that would, paradoxically, pave the way for a holy Jewish state.

In many ways, these camps lived separate lives during Israel’s first 20 years — the kibbutzniks, a fringe vanguard, while the religious Zionists, a fringe rearguard. But for all their differences, Halevi notes, the movements shared a Marxist-tinged understanding of history as an irrevocable progression to utopia. Despite their radically divergent aspirations, Israel’s later-day tribes agreed that the Jewish return home was “an event of such shattering force that something grand — world transformative — must result.” And each movement craved to be at the center of it.

The soldiers of Halevi’s epic sensed that the moment of transformation had come when they met under the citrus orchards outside of Lod. Like dreams merging in the night, the kibbutzniks and Kookians joined forces on the brink of destruction and salvation. From the kibbutz movement came Arik Achmon, chief intelligence officer and the embodiment of hard-nosed kibbutz can-do-ism; Avital Geva, a company commander with an artist’s streak; Udi Adiv, a radical leftist, deeply skeptical of Israel’s impending war; and Meir Ariel, a budding bard out of place on the battlefield. Alongside them were Yoel Bin-Nun, a promising pupil of Rabbi Kook; Hanan Porat, another Kookian and a refugee from Kfar Eztion, conquered by the Jordanians in 1948; and Yisrael Harel, a Holocaust survivor, ever wary of the next calamity to befall the Jews. Several, such as Bin-Nun and Harel, had grown up together, and many had known each other for years.

On June 5, 1967, mountain and coast moved together toward the barbed-wire border of Jerusalem. Halevi recounts the attack on the Old City, like the rest of the book, through the eyes of his seven subjects, based on a decade of hundreds of interviews with friends, family, colleagues, and the men themselves. He infuses the oft-told story with a tenderness that, much as the rest of Like Dreamers, bypasses the haze of facts and data to reach the soul of the moment — its heady uncertainty.

Israeli soldiers moved forward under the smoke of mortar fire. Geva was hit, one among many casualties before the paratroopers even crossed. Achmon directed the battle with the brigade commander, Motta Gur, while Bin-Nun linked battalions together for the charge across no-man’s land. Across the breach, Jordanian soldiers ambushed Israeli units pushing blindly in the wrong direction. Adiv, unwilling to fight, returned fire without aiming, hoping not to hurt anyone; Ariel, traumatized by the battle, began writing the lyrics to “Jerusalem of Iron” in the conquered Rockefeller Museum. The next morning, Gur and Achmon stormed into the Old City on a lone half-track, exposed to fire that would never come — the Jordanians had fled in the night. “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” Gur declared, as Achmon planted an Israeli flag on the crescent of the Dome of the Rock.

Intoxicated with destiny, kibbutzniks and religious Zionists alike stumbled toward the Old City. A lightheaded Bin-Nun felt unable to pray because, as Halevi writes, it “seemed inadequate.” Porat waved his arms in delirium when he saw a jeep pass by carrying Tzvi Yehudah Kook and the Nazir, a rabbi who had vowed not to cut his hair or drink wine until Jerusalem was in Jewish hands; they were on their way to being the first civilians to stand on the Temple Mount. Even as they arrived, standing erect against the weight of the moment, Ariel raced down to the Western Wall expecting that the fulfillment of the Jewish people’s long-awaited return to the Temple would hit him. But as he saw it, he felt nothing: “No longing, no exultation. Nothing.”

Their contrasting reaction to Jerusalem is where Halevi’s real story begins. In the days after the war, the juxtaposition of life and death — 20th-century Jewish history lived in six daysleft the paratroopers and the rest of the country in a bleary haze of joy. “The Israel I encountered that summer,” Halevi recalls, “belonged to the paratroopers.” It also belonged to Mercaz HaRav, Tzvi Yehudah’s seminary. The president of Israel and other luminaries graced Mercaz, acknowledging a fellow Zionist elite, equally “ethical and sacrificial” for the Jewish cause. The Kookians were confused, then, when the kibbutzniks signaled hesitancy, if not doubt, about the expanded Israel. When the kibbutz literary magazine’s editors, among them a budding Amos Oz, came to interview the religious Zionists about their experience in the war, they spoke “as human being(s) facing life and death,” ambivalent and questioning. The Kookians, on the other hand, “could only respond in national terms,” insisting that Jews should be proud of their newfound power.

The interview revealed the true nature of the 1967 unity. The coastal tribes recognized their mountain brethren as equals, but the two sides would now do battle for the fate of their nation. Jewish history, which had seemed at an end, now resumed — and the religious Zionists seized the narrative.

With the government’s blessing, Porat returned to Kfar Etzion, establishing the first West Bank settlement. Armed with sputtering power generators and rusty chicken coups, their settlement became the new kibbutz, inheritor of the pioneering ethos. Bin-Nun, who became a staff member of the settlement’s seminary, began his hikes in the Samarian hills. But among the kibbutzniks, a creeping disillusionment spread. Adiv drifted so far into left radicalism that Syrian intelligence lured him to Damascus — a visit that would land him in Israeli prison. The man who recruited him to the 55th, Geva, tried to resuscitate his spiritually stagnating kibbutz. Touring the Egyptian front along the Suez River, Achmon wondered why the Israel Defense Forces, famous for its daring, had constructed a later-day Maginot Line.

When Egyptian soldiers crossed that line on Yom Kippur in 1973, they shattered Israel’s moral and physical defenses. Israel’s elites reconvened under the 55th in search not of their respective salvations but of common survival. Despite a military and political echelon in total disarray, the brigade turned the tide of the war. Achmon spearheaded a surprise crossing of the Suez Canal alongside Bin-Nun, Porat, and Harel. Geva, languishing on patrol duty in Gaza, cut his battalion through a mass traffic jam of Israeli vehicles in Sinai to join his compatriots. Together, they established a beachhead in Africa that came within nearly 20 miles of Cairo. It was a stunning victory, but as Halevi notes, “the people of Israel felt defeated.” For all the dreaming that Israel had done in the last six years, it had lost its imagination of reality: that the Arabs would dare strike again.

That failure only deepened the wedge between the utopian streams of the kibbutzniks and religious Zionists. The collapse in October 1973 was not just political but also ideological. Besieged by Arab militaries and oil boycotts, Israelis bitterly turned their back on the kibbutznik yearning “to outwit the curse of Jewish history,” to become a “nation among nations.” If inimical to Kookian messianism, citizens such as Achmon and Geva were willing to discard their socialist leaders and allow the mountain tribes to rule.

The religious Zionists moved to the vanguard while the kibbutzniks retreated to the rear. In one of the many stories in Like Dreamers that seem too fitting to be true, from the apartment in which the fateful interview between the kibbutzniks and religious Zionists took place six years earlier, Porat announced the manifesto of Gush Emunim, or Bloc of the Faithful. This new movement, he declared, would mobilize settlement of the West Bank to reverse Israel’s malaise — a religious reboot of 1948. The frenetic urgency of the group, which saw their redemptive efforts as beating back the apocalypse, became a mass movement, a way for Israelis of all stripes to rebel against the siege. Its relentless surge badgered the teetering socialist leadership into submission. In May 1977, Israelis swept the kibbutzniks out of office, replacing them with Menachem Begin, who, upon winning, went straight to the Western Wall. “The commander of History has spoken,” Bin-Nun declared, convinced alongside his fellow Kookians that the religious Zionist utopia would soon prevail.

Yet, as Halevi emphasizes throughout the book, history does not evolve so easily. Egypt surprised Israel with a genuine offer of peace that Begin seized, draping the old kibbutznik dream in hawkish garb and leaving settlement construction by the wayside. Watching Israelis abandon the redemptive mission for their sworn enemies dismayed Porat, Bin-Nun, and Harel, whose only answer was to defy the Zionist government that their movement so revered through stealth settlement and subterfuge. There to meet them was Geva, who helped found Peace Now to arrest the spread of Gush Emunim outposts and support peace with Egypt.

Halevi’s tale of their struggle through the 1980s captures the increasing impatience of the paratroopers and their tribes to see their post-’67 visions fulfilled. That impatience led them to try to remake the world around them. In 1981, Porat, Bin-Nun, and Harel flooded Sinai along with their followers, hoping in vain that their bodies would stand athwart an inevitable Israeli withdrawal, and risking civil war along the way. A year later, Israel invaded Lebanon, its first attempt “to transform the political reality of a neighboring country.” While Porat praised the recapturing of ancient tribal territory, Achmon and Ariel watched Israeli tanks burn in Lebanese valleys; Geva protested in Tel Aviv in the wake of the slaughter at Sabra and Shatila. Eager to hasten the next phase of history, a splinter faction of settlers launched a series of terrorist attacks against Arab targets in the West Bank. One of Bin-Nun’s most prized students was arrested for planning to bomb the Dome of the Rock.

If the Dome plot was the last gory gasp of a corrupted religious Zionist vision, the Oslo peace process, Halevi shows, represented a similarly desperate heave past reality. The first intifada and the awakening of mass Palestinian struggle vindicated Peace Now’s argument: the settlers had ignored the immorality and demographic death sentence of settling among millions of Arabs. As he does throughout Like Dreamers, Halevi eloquently channels the zeitgeist of the moment through the impressions of his protagonists. Israelis felt an overwhelming exhaustion at the end of the intifada; they were so eager to unload the burden of the occupation that they put their faith, one last time, in the dying throes of the kibbutznik utopia. Achmon watched Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shake Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House Lawn and thought that the old kibbutz vision of normalization had finally materialized. Harel, meanwhile, saw madness — how could Israelis trust this archterrorist? How could they so quickly abandon the pioneers of the settlements? Rabin did little to assuage these anxieties, shutting the settler bloc out of his coalition and implying that terrorist attacks against settlers were more acceptable than those against Israelis behind the Green Line. In reaction to his thinly masked contempt and a wave of unanswered suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians, the settlers retreated in an ever more poisonous stew of resentment and extremism.

And then, these two clashing dreams became one nightmare. The assassination of Rabin in November 1995 represented the nadir of Israel’s utopian struggles — in Halevi’s view, a total loss of perspective, of any capacity for doubt. Israelis abandoned the peace camp in disillusionment after the Palestinians launched their second, far bloodier intifada. The first uprising compelled Israelis to confront the realities of occupation; the second compelled them to confront the realities of peacemaking. In their rush to stave off apocalypse, coast and mountain had collapsed. For the first time in Israeli history, Israel was without a utopia.

But even as Like Dreamers appears to reach a stalemate in this last stage of the story, throughout the book Halevi subtly guides his readers to his own vision of a new utopia: not normalization or salvation, but equilibrium. The narrative structure of the book encourages this message; by weaving between the paratroopers within the chapters, it forces the reader to touch all of the streams, no matter how far apart they flow. Halevi’s book carefully avoids using these men as ideological props by focusing on their families and their learning, their love and their music — an implicit call for empathy.

The characters themselves begin to embrace that ethos when Bin-Nun, alone among the Mercaz students, expressed ambivalence about the ’67 war to the Kibbutz literary magazine interviewers later that summer. The other soldiers followed. Achmon, whose father-in-law led the kibbutz movement, shook off socialist inefficiencies and led the charge to modernize Israel’s economy. The secular bohemian Ariel, meanwhile, used his Dylan-esque lyrics to tease out a modern, Israeli form of Judaism that reclaimed tradition from orthodoxy, intuiting “a future healing of Israel’s cultural divide.” Harel initiated meetings with Palestinian leaders to build bridges between the two communities. These men, in Halevi’s view, understood that both of their camps had proven to be fantasists, but that each “had expressed something essential about Jewish aspirations.” Fused together by the ever-pioneering paratroopers, these insights formed, for the first time, a true national consensus.

At the end of Like Dreamers, Yoel Bin-Nun is again hiking with students, this time in the waning days of the second intifada, leading them on a tour of the battle for Jerusalem. As they reach the entrance to the Western Wall, he describes how he felt when he reached the Temple Mount in 1967 — that it was “the end of exile.” “I admit I was naïve,” he says. “Redemption is a process; it’s complicated.”

Like Dreamers is, in many ways, the first chronicle of that process. It is an epic that, nearly alone among books about modern Israel, distills the true essence of the state: not merely a safe haven nor a homeland, but a stage for the struggle between the long-dormant utopias of its pioneers, secular and religious, kibbutznik and settler. Israel, in Halevi’s mind, has always followed its paratrooper heroes. After an arduous journey between mountain and coast, it has returned to the orchards outside of Lod, converging on consensus, ready to embark on its next dream.


Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a JD candidate at Yale Law School and a former staff editor at Foreign Affairs.

LARB Contributor

Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a JD candidate at Yale Law School and a former staff editor at Foreign Affairs.


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