A Look at the History of Israeli Paratroopers (INTERVIEW)
JNS.org – The following is a full transcript of an interview with Yossi Klein Halevi, research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, on his new book “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.” Read Rosen’s review of Klein Halevi’s book here.
Q. You write in the introduction that this book was inspired in part by “a newspaper article [you] came across about a reunion of the paratroopers.” Can you elaborate on this, when you remember reading the article, where it appeared, and how the seed for this book germinated over the years before you decided to write the book?
A. I don’t remember exactly when it was. My guess is it would have been on the 30th anniversary of the Six Day War, because every 10 years, the paratroopers have a big event. They had one for the 40th, about five years ago, and then there’s a big newspaper, or big media attention that’s being paid, so my sense is it would have been in 1997, in one of the Hebrew papers, Yediot or Maariv. The article focused on the veterans of the 55th Brigade who had helped shape Israel’s political culture both Left and Right. I remember being struck by that and thought this would make an interesting article someday. And it turned into an 11-year article.
Q. The book took you about 11 years to write. It was clearly both a labor of love and a Herculean task for you. Can you describe what it was like to dedicate essentially a decade of your life to this effort?
A. It was a labor of love and a labor. It really was. It was a combination of intense frustration and occasional exhilaration. Really, the frustration was a nagging feeling that I’m not doing this story justice, and the chutzpah of the book is that it deals with the mythic elements of Israel. The kibbutz, settlements, ’67, ’73, and Meir Ariel who’s become a myth in his own right. It deals with the DNA of Israelis, and the chutzpah of the whole thing is that I’m an outsider. I’ve been in is for more than 30 years but I’m still in some way an outsider. I didn’t fight in those wars, my military service was pretty ordinary. I wasn’t part of mythic Israel. And one of the characters in the book, and the one I’m closest with today, Arik Achmon who today is 80 years old and really one of the great unsung heroes of Israel (and parenthetically one of the aspects of this book that brings me great joy is that the name Arik Achmon will hopefully be known). Arik used to call me a yeled chutz, which is a kibbutz term meaning “outsider child.” It’s a cruel term. It was used for immigrant children whose parents sent them to kibbutz. Children basically who grew up on kibbutz without parents, and they were always regarded as outsides. And what I told Arik is, “you’re right, I am a yeled chutz, but what you kibbutzniks never got was that we were observing you all the time, and we learned to know you in ways that perhaps you didn’t know yourself. And so I came to peace with this project by realizing that maybe only a yeled chutz could have written this book. Because it’s an attempt to create a unified narrative of the last 45 years that embraces Left and Right in the same story. For me on the most significant aspects of the book is that it brings together Hanan Porat and Meir Ariel in the same story, to say nothing of Udi Adiv. This is the Israeli story, this is the story of the generation that was born with the State, that grew up with the State. And it’s an attempt to tell that story. Maybe only a yeled chutz could do it because I didn’t grow up with those antagonisms and I’m not carrying sixty years of Zionist grudges and memory in the way that native-born Israelis are.
Q. How receptive were your protagonists to being interviewed? What challenges did you encounter along the way dealing with them?
A. It’s a great question. One of the reasons this book took so long, in addition to being a yeled chutz and having to learn the material, was a deep reluctance on the part of some of the key personalities to truly open up. It took several years for Arik Achmon to realize he could trust me with his story. At least he told me that. With one or two cases, the full trust was never developed, and I think that those characters who emerge less than fully developed reflect that gap in my ability to get them to really open up. Others took many years, but the patience I feel was worth it because we did get to a point of deep trust, and I think there’s a fullness in their histories as told in the book. It’s an interesting question because it’s really a cultural and generational issue. I grew up in the US in the ’60’s where we were encouraged to look inward, to reflect, to express emotion. The people I was interviewing grew up in exactly the opposite sensibility. For them, self-reflection was in some sense a sin, a sin against the collective. These were people who grew up in the youth movement, kibbutzim. The word “I” was suspect. And so, in the first years, before we really got into a habit of trust, they used to speak about “We.” I’ve already lapsed into this—I say “they” used to speak about “we.” They were so much a collective, and they resisted self-reflection, deeply resisted [it]. There was a sense of “why do you want to know these stories? They’re just my own personal stories!” It took me years to explain to some of them that “you seven are emblematic of a generation. And the only way I feel I can bring this story to life is if I bring each of you to life.” Now some of them got that fairly early on, and others maybe to this day didn’t fully get it.
Q. How have they reacted to reading the book in print?
A. The only person who’s read it so far is Arik Achmon, and his response was so warm and affirming that I felt that whatever else happens with the book, it’s already a success. [For] the others, the books are on their way to them now, and they should be getting it over the next week or so. I’m bracing myself. It’s a deeply revealing group and individual portrait, and I’m curious and a bit nervous to know how it was received.
Q. You treat your protagonists with great depth and care, for instance by referring to them consistently by their first names. Do you feel a personal attachment to them?
A. To every one of them, absolutely. I feel that they have admitted me into the inner sanctum of Israeliness, and this project has helped me become Israeli in the fullest sense of the word. I feel I’ve gotten an Israeli DNA infusion, and really this was an immersion into Israeliness. I have deep reverence and love for each of them, maybe not always to the same extent, but what I find remarkable about all of them, regardless of their political orientation, is that they all express the extraordinary vitality of Israel. I mean, think about this: You have men who fight one war after another. Arik Achmon fought in five wars. And between wars, they’re fighting often with each other to help shape the character and the destiny of Israel. This inexhaustible commitment and energy is something that I think must be unique to Israel. I can’t think of any other society that has this quality of citizenry. Now, the problem is that so much of this vitality is turned against ourselves, because these men really do struggle with each other with their competing visions. And so on the one hand, this vitality impels us forward, but it also is often the cause of our stalemate against ourselves.
Q. You end the book on a beautiful, upbeat note, with Yoel Bin-Nun leading an ecumenical group of secular and religious Israelis, right-wingers and lefties, on a re-enactment of the 1967 battle. Are you optimistic about Israel’s cultural, political, military, and religious future?
A. The answer is yes, with a sigh. The reason for that is it is going to be extremely difficult, but I deeply believe that we’re going to continue to pull through. Sometimes we’ll muddle through, sometimes we’ll surprise ourselves and be transcendent, and always with difficulty and often with suffering and struggle.
But yes, I try to keep myself out of the book as much as possible, but a writer obviously determines the narrative simply by the choices you make of what to emphasize. The fact that the last chapter of the book is about the emergence of the Israeli center is reflection of my own politics and certainly the sensibility in the book is what I believe to be true about Israeli society today. But after 45 years of vehement and often brutal disagreement between Left and Right, a majority of Israelis today are a little bit Left and a little bit Right at the same time. To be an Israeli centrist is very different from being a centrist in other political cultures. There’s nothing wishy-washy about being an Israeli centrist. Being a centrist in the Israeli context means you strongly embrace opposite principles. A centrist knows that the Left was right all these years in its warnings about the moral consequences of occupation and about the dangers of democracy. A centrist knows with equal passion that the Right was correct all these years concerning the illusion of trying to make peace with a national movement that doesn’t recognize our legitimacy. Those are key insights that are shouted past each other for decades because ideologues don’t listen to each other. But the good news about the basic health of Israeli society is that a majority of Israelis actually were paying attention all these years to the ideologues on the Left and the Right and were partly convinced by both sides. They’ve fashioned a new Israeli center which ironically enough the moderate wing of the Likud most represents. Sharon was the first one to understand the emergence of the Israeli center, and Netanyahu got it too. So what most Israelis want today in a prime minister is a pragmatic hawk: they want someone who deeply distrusts the other side but is ready, if [he] discerns a genuine opening there, to make the deal. That to me is what at least the leadership of the Likud has become. There are elements in Labor that understand this, but most of Labor still doesn’t quite get it. Yesh Atid gets it. Kadima almost got it, and then went too far Left.
If you look at the Israeli political map through this lens, then you’ll see who’s successful and who isn’t. Labor, which is still in some way enchanted with the Oslo process—and I use “enchanted” in its various meanings—will not be trusted with the leadership of the country until it frees itself from that illusion. In the same way that the Likud will only be trusted if it proves that it really is free from the illusion of the complete land of Israel.
To bring this back to your question, the emergence of a new political sobriety in Israel that encompasses a majority of the population points to the possibly of a new cultural majority as well, a cultural majority that wants more Judaism in Israeli public life, but not in government. We want more Judaism in our schools, and less Judaism in the courts. And my sense is that is a majority position.
Q. I want to ask you about the role of Israel’s two main cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Obviously the climactic scene of the book takes place in Jerusalem, the beating heart of the Jewish people. But in many ways, the book revolves more around Tel Aviv, including in one passage where you describe it as “infinitely malleable…the center of Israel’s emerging film industry, of music and theater. For Arik Achmon, it was the launching place for Israel’s market economy; for Udi Adiv, headquarters of the coming revolution. Here Avital Geva was exhibiting with his friends, disrupting the propriety of the Israeli art world. And here Meir Ariel might somehow become Meir Ariel.” So from a geographic perspective, in what ways is this a book about Jerusalem, and in what ways about Tel Aviv?
A. That’s so interesting because I haven’t thought about it, at least not consciously, but it’s a great insight. For me, what this book really is about is the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams. It’s not Left and Right so much as religious Zionism and the kibbutz movement, or the settlements and the kibbutz movement, the two utopian, messianic streams within Zionism that wanted more than just a safe refuge for the Jewish people. That’s what these two ideological rivals have in common. For me, they’re part of the same ideological camp within Zionism, which is the camp of the anti-normalizers.
For the sake of the argument, let’s use Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to represent visionary Israel versus normalized Israel. I think the book in some ways is fairly clear-eyed about the dangers of utopian politics. When you combine politics with utopianism, the result is usually not happy, for a very simple reason: politics is the art of the possible, it’s dealing with the world as it is, and utopianism is the aspiration for world the way it should be. The place for utopianism or messianism is in one’s spiritual life, one religious life, not in one’s political life. Where Israel repeatedly got into trouble, for both the Left and the Right, was by linking utopianism to politics.
The problem though, and this for me is an open dilemma, is that so much of the vitality that I’m describing about the Israeli story owes itself to these various competing utopian dreams that have erupted within Zionism. And my question is can we conceive of a future Israel without a utopian dream? Given the precariousness of our situation, given the extraordinary dedication that’s required in order to continue to protect this project, I don’t know if we can do it through normalization alone. On the other hand, I have a great love for normal Israel, I would even say a veneration for normal Israel, for the ability of ordinary Israelis to lead their ordinary lives in the middle of an impossible situation. And Zionism spoke out of two sides of its mouth. It promised to create a society that would be a light to the nations, and it promised to normalize the Jewish people. It turns out that two aspirations, which are deeply imbedded in the Jewish psyche going back to biblical times, don’t necessarily work together in harmony.
So Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I live in Jerusalem, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in Israel but when I need to get away I got to Tel Aviv. I’m passionate about Tel Aviv.
“Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” by Yossi Klein Halevi. October 2013. HarperCollins, 608 pages, $35.
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego. Reach him at [email protected].