By Yossi Klein Halevi
Published by Harper Collins (New York 2013) pp.584
Everyone’s life is interesting. Excerpts can easily be turned into a soap or a tabloid saga. Like Dreamers follows the lives of several paratroopers, belonging to the 55th Reserve Brigade, who participated in the conquest of Jerusalem during the Six Day war. But the summer of 1967 which brought them together dispersed them like autumn leaves in the decades that followed.
The story of Meir Ariel, the womaniser and wide-eyed hippy, the ‘Israeli Dylan’, opens the book with a line from his poem: ‘Sky-diving without a parachute/Open to all directions’. Instead of adulation like his friend, the singer-songwriter, Shalom Hanoch, he cannot find real success. Instead he eventually finds God and contentment. Arik Achmon, the Brigade’s chief intelligence officer, hails from a kibbutz, bursting with unrequited love for the Soviet Union. Once the old socialism had been ditched in the 1980s, he fervently embraces the new capitalism and takes over the management of Arkia, the Israeli airline. Another kibbutznik, Avital Geva, becomes a conceptual artist and his educational greenhouse, teaching ecological principles to young people, is Israel’s entry at the 1993 Venice Biennale.
Udi Adiv was a favourite son of Gan Shmuel, a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, whose ideological intensity was inadequate so he joined the anti-Zionist groupuscule, Matzpen – an offshoot of the staid Israel Communist party. He didn’t grieve over the Munich massacre, but ‘understood’ the Palestinians’ taking of hostages. Joining an underground network which he hoped would allow him to make contact with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Adiv visits Damascus under a false name only to discover that his minders ask some very pointed questions about military locations. Only under arrest in Israel, does he realise that he had been duped by Syrian intelligence despite his disdain for the Baathist regime. Loathed by many in Israel, he was regarded as an ‘erev soteh’, an errant weed growing in the Hashomer garden. Sentenced to seventeen years, the long years in prison caused the shades to drop from his eyes but his belief in Marxist theory remained entrenched.
Yoel Bin-Nun, Yisrael Harel and Hanan Porat – all religious Zionists in 1967 – became leaders of the settler movement on the West Bank. As a child, Hanan Porat survived the capture of Kfar Etzion, overrun by the Jordanians in 1948. Its eighty defendants formally surrendered – and were systematically slaughtered by Palestinian Arab irregulars. Porat returned to rebuild Kfar Etzion after the Six Day war and founded Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful) in 1974. Porat’s efforts, initially assisted by Shimon Peres, developed into a cluster of new settlements.
Yisrael Harel was involved with the poet, Natan Alterman and the maximalist Land of Israel movement after 1967. He became a respected journalist at Ma’ariv which decided to dispense with talents once he decided to live in the new settlement of Ofra, some 25 kilometres east of the Green Line. Harel instead became the editor of Nekudot, the settlers’ periodical and the head of Yesha (the Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza).
Yoel Bin-Nun was well-known as a West Bank rabbi, but his comments often evoked furious condemnation from other settlers. He strongly opposed those who fuelled the path to fratricide – and tried to bring together Jews of all views. He was aghast when one of his followers, Yehuda Etzion unsuccessfully tried to blow up the Temple Mount and was active as a fully paid-up member of the Jewish underground, keen on maiming and killing leading Palestinians. In the 1990s Bin-Nun developed a private dialogue with Yitzhak Rabin. He was subsequently unequivocal in fingering those rabbis who had laid the theoretical foundations for the labelling of the Prime Minister as a ‘rodef’ – an assailant who was not fit to live.
While Rabbi Moshe Levinger, one of the first settlers on the West Bank, was providing halachic justification for the killers who constituted the Jewish underground, his wife, Miriam exclaimed:
We always have to think of being moral! I’ve never heard anybody, any politician, Jew or Arab, say the Arabs must be moral.
The author unusually intervenes to comment: ‘This, from an orthodox Jew who routinely recited prayers affirming Jewish chosenness’.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a good storyteller – and many familiar figures have walk-on parts. But is it history? Stories have to be reductionist but history is complex. Halevi tries hard to overcome this basic contradiction, but sometimes the facts awkwardly intervene. Menachem Begin, for example, was no Revisionist, but only an adherent of ‘the Jabotinsky movement’. Moreover he achieved power in 1977 not through ‘a revolt of all those who saw themselves as Jews first’, but through a split in the Labour party which was regarded as corrupt and indolent.
The strength of the book lies in tracing the paths taken by young people with ideals. How some maintain them and others come to reject them due to a perceived change in the political reality. In prison Udi Adiv discovered Freud – and began to abandon ‘the fantasy of revolution’. Personal circumstances also change and this also affects how ‘the other’ is perceived.
Perhaps the weakness of the book is that it suggests that the dramatis personae are all ‘good guys’ deep down, likeable and dedicated to the Jewish people. Unfortunately you can be vehemently opposed to decent people with different views and allied to gangsters who share your own. Even so, this is a good read.
Jewish Renaissance January 2014