The messy, complex story of a country united and divided

Too many books about Israel try to tell us what to think or feel. Whether from the left or right, it seems that the subject of Israel brings out the emotional partisan in many of us. We feel strongly one way or the other, so we like to read books or articles that support our opinions.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong or surprising about that — it’s just that it usually doesn’t make for fascinating reading.

In his new, magisterial book about Israel, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” my friend Yossi Klein Halevi has taken a different approach.

He’s written a book not of opinions, but of stories and dreams. By following the lives of seven soldiers bonded by a seminal event, and recounting their divergent narratives, he’s captured the complexity of Israel in human terms.

Yossi’s own dreaming began after a miraculous Israeli victory during one unforgettable summer.

“In late June 1967, a few weeks after the end of the Six-Day War, I flew to Israel with my father,” he writes. “I was a fourteen-year-old boy from Brooklyn, and my father, a Holocaust survivor, had decided that he couldn’t keep away any longer.”

These paratroopers didn’t just change the history of Israel and the Middle East, he writes, they also changed his life.

“At the Wall, I watched my father become a believing Jew. He had lost his faith in the Holocaust; but now, he said, he forgave God. The protector of Israel had regained His will. It was possible for Jews to pray again.”

That summer, he writes, “everyone in Israel felt like family … We had done it: survived the twentieth century. Not merely survived but reversed annihilation into a kind of redemption, awakened from our worst nightmare into our most extravagant dream.”

The young Yossi dreamed of returning one day to become an Israeli. He made aliyah in the summer of 1982, but was hardly prepared for the messy adventure that awaited him. Israel had just invaded Lebanon in response to terror attacks on the Galilee — and the offensive divided Israelis.

“The euphoria of the summer of ’67 … had been replaced by an awareness of the agonizing complexity of Israel’s dilemmas,” he writes.

Making sense of this agonizing complexity would come to define Yossi’s next 30 years.

This wasn’t exactly the dream shaped by his idealized view of Israel in 1967. This was a grown-up type of dream, where the test of love would be trying to understand all sides and not rush to judgment.

I’ve known Yossi since the summer of 2000, when I knew only about his reputation as one of Israel’s most astute political analysts. I later learned he was also deeply spiritual and meditated every morning.

These two sides — the spiritualist and the realist — have melded together in “Like Dreamers.” He has married the heartfelt sensitivity of spirituality with the hard-nosed demands of reality.

“I tried to listen to the conflicting certainties that divided those who saw the results of 1967 as blessing from those who saw it as curse,” he writes. “Much of my career became focused on explaining the unraveling of the Israeli consensus.”

Yossi Klein Halevi

Not satisfied with producing only the piercing essays for which he is well known, in 2002 Yossi embarked on a decade-long journey to better understand the country he loves and to write about it.

The result is a poignant and deeply human portrait of a little nation navigating existential rapids through four tumultuous decades.

His masterstroke was to tell this story through the lives of the seven ’67 paratroopers. He wondered: “How had the war changed their lives? What role did they play in trying to influence the political outcome of their military victory?”

It took hundreds of interviews, years of research and more than a little soul searching to get at those answers.

In his journey, Yossi discovered a group of Israeli soldiers who grew to become remarkably diverse — kibbutznik, religious Zionist, artist, peace activist, settler leader, capitalist, even an anti-Zionist.

The group came to represent some of the major schisms within Israeli society. Each of the paratroopers has a powerful story, but what truly distinguishes the book is how Yossi tells these stories.

By infiltrating their lives, by observing and faithfully recounting their distinct and often-clashing narratives, by showing empathy even when it was difficult and by weaving in his insightful commentary, Yossi has delivered an Israel that dares to be authentic.

An Israel that humanizes the flawed heroes and dreamers of the Jewish nation, including, yes, even the much-maligned settlers.

An Israel that can be both united and divided. “Secular kibbutzniks and religious Zionists disagreed about God and faith and the place of religion in Jewish identity and the life of the state,” he writes. “Yet for all their differences, religious Zionism and the secular kibbutz movement agreed that the goal of Jewish statehood must be more than the mere creation of a safe refuge for the Jewish people.”  

It is this unifying and aspirational idea that fuels the book. It’s a story, above all, of complexity.

Maybe the hidden message in “Like Dreamers” is that the absence of one bottom line is the bottom line.

And maybe the broader message is that if you had to pick one bottom line, it would be having the very freedom to follow one’s dreams.

That may well be Israel’s least-noticed and most notable achievement — how an embattled Jewish nation surrounded by enemies managed to create a society where its “traumatized refugees” felt free to follow their dreams, even when those dreams threatened to tear the country apart.

David Suissa is president of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

“Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” by Yossi Klein Halevi (608 pages, Harper, $30)