Brooklyn-born Yossi Klein Halevi made aliya in 1982 — in one of Israel’s darker periods, amid the fallout from the Lebanon war, and with every sign that Israel was plunging into an internal, ethnic war as well. He’s worked here ever since as a journalist, and written two elegant, powerful books: A tale of his youth, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” which appeared just as Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, and was widely and entirely erroneously perceived as some kind of rightist tract; and “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” his account of building connections with tolerant Christian and Muslim leaders in the Holy Land, which was published on the very day of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Hopefully, the timing of his new book will prove more propitious.

That book, “Like Dreamers: The story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” is also appearing at a perilous moment, with tiny, remarkably stable Israel buffeted by drastic and unpredictable forces of change everywhere in the neighborhood. It’s a book Klein Halevi, 60, has spent the past 11 years working on — a very lengthy labor of intensive passion and rigor.

The effort, to this reader (Full disclosure: I have worked with and been friends with Klein Halevi for most of our 30 years in Israel.), emphatically pays off: “Like Dreamers” is almost poetic in much of its writing, and its story is nothing less than the narrative of our country since the heady days of the Six Day War, when Israel quadrupled the territory it controlled, and in the process complicated, far more than four times over, some of the most fundamental dilemmas of its revived incarnation.

like dreamers

Ever since that week of improbable victory, the Jewish state has struggled to reconcile its claims to Biblical territory with the demands of a modern democracy, struggled to choose, or at least find a balance, between the dreams of those in what Klein Halevi calls the two Utopian camps within Zionism: the religious Zionists who pioneered the settlement enterprise, and the secular kibbutzniks.

Klein Halevi tells the post-’67 story through the lives of seven paratroopers from the brigade that fought in the battle for Jerusalem, and who — peace activists and settler trailblazers, kibbutz ideologues, entrepreneurs, and one much-missed musician — went on to play significant roles in the forging of Israel’s identity, even as they continued to fight to protect the country as IDF reservists.

That writing this book has finally transformed its author into a true Israeli, rather than the slightly out-of-water veteran immigrant so many of even the most integrated arrivals often remain, counts as a hard-earned side effect of Klein Halevi’s immersion in his craft. The prime beneficiaries are the wide audience that one can anticipate, with reasonable confidence, will be affected by this book — a nuanced, unusually insightful account of heart-lifting, soul-destroying, hard and rewarding Israel as it has developed these past decades, as told through the winding lives of a septet of its many remarkable sons.

What follows here is an edited transcript of a conversation I had with Klein Halevi in his office at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, piled with the paper testimony of his research, shortly before the October 1 publication of “Like Dreamers.”

Yossi Klein Halevi (photo credit: Frederic Brenner)

Yossi Klein Halevi (photo credit: Frederic Brenner)

Let’s start really at the beginning: your choice of title.

“Like Dreamers” comes from the Psalms, from Shir Hamaalot, hayinu k’cholmim, When the Lord returned the exiles to Zion, we were like dreamers, and that’s the opening epigraph.

The significance for me of the title is that this is really the story about the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams – the vast dreams that we brought back with us, and that we imposed on this little strip of land filled with traumatized refugees from the century’s worst nightmares. The disparity between the reality that we’ve had to deal with, and the power of the utopian and messianic dreams that we brought home with us, is really in some sense what this book is about.

The seven paratroopers whom I chose come from the two utopian camps within Zionism – either the religious Zionists or the secular kibbutzniks. Both of these movements saw Zionism as being much more than about the creation of a safe refuge for the Jewish people. The return to Zion would be exactly what Jews believed it would be, which would be the transformative moment in world history, for all of humanity — either through the literal coming of the Messiah, which was the scenario of the Kookian school of religious Zionism, or, more metaphorically, through the creation of a Socialist laboratory in the kibbutzim which would become a model for a new man, a new humanity.

You can argue with me, of course, but I think the book’s a tragedy — and that’s a terrible thing to say — because of the breadth of the utopian dream and the sense that after ’67, at the very least, that our destiny was in our hands, that we had defeated our enemies and now we were free to take this enterprise wherever we could take it. And I feel we haven’t done ourselves justice in this country; we’re so riven. And that is so clear from the book.  It ends just before 2004 pretty much, right?

Just before the disengagement.

I don’t think there are huge pieces missing since then, in terms of that process of the state. We’re this riven country that first of all has not negated its enemies; they’re still out there in new guises, in old guises. And we have not come to terms with ourselves and we have not reconciled our divides. There’s the bloody but astounding achievement of ’67. And then it’s a saga of dissent and divide and violence and shattered dreams. It’s a terrible story you tell — with some beautiful people and some noble goals.

One can look at this story in lots of different ways. Tragedy is one way, and astonishing perseverance is another. What moved me, going through this history for the last decade, and really just immersing in the story of Israel — it was astonishing for me, first of all, to rediscover the vitality of Israelis. One of my favorite lines in this book – and I didn’t realize how often I repeated it until I started going through the galleys — is: “He had a plan.” (Laughs.) Every one of these guys, over and over again – they always had a plan. It doesn’t matter what the situation was. There was always a way out. There was always a way to get Israel from here to the next stage. Part of the difficulty of Israel, and this is in a way what the book is also about, is that they all had competing plans. Their plans were all rubbing against the plans of the other group, and one way to read the Israeli story is of the competing dreams and fears that keep clashing against each other.

The left got it right in terms of what do we do about the demographics, what do we do about the occupation. The right got it right about the illusion of peace with a Palestinian national movement that doesn’t accept our legitimacy

If you think of it that way, that’s an inevitable consequence of the ingathering of the Jews from all of our different wanderings, all of the different lessons we learned in our history. Those lessons are often contradictory. What you and I learned in our western experience is the opposite of what Soviet Jews learned in their experience. And then just multiply that. And now we’re all back together and we’re facing this brutal situation, and we’re all reaching different conclusions, partly based on what we brought with us from our diasporas. The fact that we’re still an intact society is an amazing achievement.

So the experience of writing this book has left you optimistic about Israel?

This country could have disintegrated at any moment. Look, I made aliyah in 1982. The conventional wisdom then was that we were heading toward an ethnic civil war. Not between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis. Between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. We had just come through a violent, brutal election campaign of 1981 and that was the assumption.

Emil Grunzweig (fourth from left) at the peace rally in 1983 at which he was killed by a hand-grenade.  (Photo  credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Emil Grunzweig (fourth from left) at the peace rally in 1983 at which he was killed by a hand-grenade. (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

In the book I write about the grenade attack against the Peace Now demonstration where Emil Grunzweig was killed. I was there. That report is an eyewitness account. I came right after the grenade was thrown. I was there as a journalist and if you were to ask me at that moment, six months in the country, what’s going to happen here – well, we’re already in a civil war, and that was not just left and right, that was Ashkenazi-Sephardi. And when they found out afterwards that it was a Sephardi who had thrown the grenade, it had lots of overtones, the left-right divide. Today, who talks about an ethnic civil war?

What did the country look like on November 5, 1995 (the day after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin)? Where were we heading? We had fallen into the abyss. I remember going on a bus in Tel Aviv wearing a kippa and feeling like I was the enemy. That’s the way people were looking at me. And then six months later, Netanyahu is elected. Now, the left saw that as a betrayal.

What happened there was that the evil of the Palestinians was so unavoidable that we had to put aside the internal divide. The only reason we’re not still ripping ourselves apart over the Palestinian issue is because there’s a consensus in Israel that, with the best will in the world, there’s no accommodation to be found. But I’m not convinced that the essential divides in the Jewish-Israel, post-Rabin assassination, have disappeared.

They haven’t disappeared. But what’s emerged as a result of the first intifada and the second intifada is a new consensus which includes probably up to 70 percent of Israelis, which is that the left was correct about the occupation and if we could end it, we would do it. But the right was correct about the peace, and we can’t do it. That means that a majority of Israelis are doves in principle. They want to be doves, but are hawks in practice. That’s a consensus of sorts.

If we ever reach the point where we find a reasonable negotiating partner on the other side, there will be a majority, maybe even a large majority, for a deal. And that doesn’t mean that we may not have a civil war here, but it’s not going to be one half of Israel against another. It’s going to be a minority against a majority.

And I think that’s true with all of our schisms. For example, it’s not religious versus secular. It’s the haredi community or parts of the haredi community against the Israeli mainstream. And other parts of the haredi community do not want to be in a schism with mainstream Israel.

I call the last chapter of the book “Careening Toward the Center,” because that’s how we operate in this society: We move to the abyss and then we pull back and figure out a reasonable way of living together. So, in that sense, I’m hopeful about Israel, but really, it’s always fasten-your-seatbelt time.

Tell me some of the choices that you made in formulating the book the way that you did, in adopting the voices in the way you did. You’re the omniscient narrator who knows everything and you’re here, there, everywhere, including places where you plainly were not. You chose to end it at a certain point. You chose, I would say, not to plunge into great conclusion-drawing sections. You told the story and you allowed us to draw our own conclusions. This combination of omniscient narrator who on the other hand keeps himself out of it, that’s quite an achievement. I don’t think the reader knows your stance at the end of the book, which is quite something for a great big book with lots of stances…

For many years — and this book has been going on for many years (laughs) — I didn’t know the voice of the book. I didn’t hear it. It was acutely painful, because I was investing most of my time in this and I didn’t feel there was a voice, which means the book wasn’t alive. And then, just in the last four or five years, I suddenly heard the voice and I realized that the voice of the book is each of the characters speaking in turn.

Yossi Klein Halevi, Kibbutz Degania, September 1967 (photo credit: Courtesy Yossi Klein Halevi)

Yossi Klein Halevi, Kibbutz Degania, September 1967 (photo credit: Courtesy Yossi Klein Halevi)

That is, in fact, my voice, because to one extent or another, each of them is speaking for me. Those are all voices that have been fighting inside of me from the day I landed here, which was two weeks before the Sabra and Shatila massacre in the middle of the Lebanon War, which was the first war to divide us, and I felt torn apart. The first time I came to Israel was the summer of ’67, which was the peak moment of our unity, and then I make aliyah at the low point of our national unity, at least until then. We’ve managed to reach lower points. What I realized about this voice is that by allowing all of these characters to speak fully — even one or two characters who were appalling to me, in terms of what they believed and what they actually did — by letting go and letting them speak, I was able to own the book as a writer and to own the Israeli story.

At what point did you decide, oh, the seven guys who are my heroes, I’ll call them by their first names and all the other characters we identify by their surnames.That’s critical to the tone of the book. These are our fighters, these are our fellow travelers. Did you do that from the start?

Yeah, I mean I thought of those seven guys always by their first names, so I suppose so. But you know, the book was, from the start, a totally different story. It took me two years before I knew who my characters were. There were 2,000 men who fought in Brigade 55 in Jerusalem in ’67. And I didn’t have a clue when I started out which categories I was interested in. So I was going from one guy to the next. Then I realized that the two groups had to be religious Zionists and kibbutzniks – had to be these two utopian groups – because the book begins with our most utopian mythic moment, that big bang of June 7, 1967. Through that lens I decided to tell the story of the fate of the kibbutz and the settlements and the fate of our big dreams. So, those first couple of years, I was just groping. It was a delightful groping because I was learning… I’ll give you an example:

When I went to speak with Arik Achmon for the first time – Arik Achmon was the chief intelligence officer of the brigade in ’67; he then led the crossing of the Suez Canal in ’73 with Sharon, which won the war – and I said, ‘Tell me something about yourself.’ And he tells me about Jerusalem and then he says, ‘And I led the crossing of the canal. I planned it and I was the senior officer across the canal on the night of October 16, 1973.’

And I said, ‘Really? You mean the paratroopers of Jerusalem were the same guys who crossed the canal with Sharon and won the Yom Kippur War?’

And he just looked at me, like I was the most pathetic person, and he said, ‘You came to me, and you didn’t know that, and you’re planning to write a book?’ (Laughs.) And he told me later – we developed a very close relationship – that it took him about two years after that before he realized that he could trust me with the story.

It’s a huge deal, that people were willing to trust you. You’ve written this poetic English saga of a Hebrew-speaking nation. You did all your interviews in Hebrew, you spoke to everyone in Hebrew, and now they’re seeing the result in English, and most of them are struggling, wading through…

Half of them will be able, I think, to read it in English.

You got over that terrible language barrier that all of us olim grapple with.

I came to see this book as a Hebrew book that happened to be written in English. And in fact, there were phrases that my editor took out because they were just blatantly Hebrew phrases that I thought I could slip into English but it didn’t work. When I did the interviews, I don’t know if you do this – but when I interview someone in Hebrew, I simultaneously translate it into English, so my notes are mostly in English with little bits of Hebrew mixed in. So I don’t even have a Hebrew record of those conversations.

In a way I think that this is a book that reflects how we immigrants from English-speaking countries, who have become journalists – how we have experienced Israel for the last 30 years, which is that we have been simultaneous translators.

The Jerusalem ’67 battle scenes were incredibly resonant. How did you do that, practically speaking? I don’t imagine you walked across the Suez Canal for the ’73 material? But you must have walked around Jerusalem for ’67. Did you walk around Jerusalem with the people who were telling you the story?

First of all, my knowledge begins and ends, to a large extent, with Arik Achmon, who really became the historian of Brigade 55, the historian of ’67 and ’73. In the IDF archives, Achmon is among those few who have the last word. Arik, after a while, when he realized he could trust me, adopted this book as virtually a full-time project, at times, of his life. He was retiring and saw this as one of his last major projects. He just celebrated his 80th birthday. So Arik took me along the routes of battle, in very, very detailed form.

I did the walk with Yoel Bin-Nun, several times. I joined his trek every eve of Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the unification. He takes a group of students, all night, through the battleground and I joined him on those treks. It got to the point where, after being involved in this book seven, eight, nine years, he would ask me, ‘So, what is it that actually happened here?’ And there were times when I almost felt as if I’d been there. I felt like I should really be an honorary paratrooper. (Laughs) And I have to keep restraining myself from saying ‘we.’

Mordechai Gur (seated, with black curly hair) and his troops survey the Old City before launching their attack, May, 1967. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons BY-CC-SA/Mazel123)

Mordechai ‘Motta’ Gur (seated, with black curly hair) and his troops survey the Old City before launching their attack, May 1967. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA/Mazel123)

That was one piece, but there are some wonderful accounts that have been written about the battle for Jerusalem. The definitive account was written by Motta Gur, the paratrooper commander in Jerusalem. That book is called “Har Habayit Beyadenu,” The Temple Mount is in our hands. Parts of it were translated into English and Arik Achmon helped write the book. His reports of the summer of ’67, about the battle, formed the basis of that book, so I couldn’t have had a better guide.

There were a number of other books. The paratroopers themselves put out a fantastic narrative history of the battle of Jerusalem and then they did the same thing for Yom Kippur and it’s a collection of interviews with the fighters – diary excerpts, letters that were saved.There’s so much rich material, all within those two volumes. That was very useful. Yisrael Harel edited both of them.

Then there was Abraham Rabinovich, who wrote very important accounts of both ’67 and ’73. And a number of other books that have come out recently, especially on the Yom Kippur War. One of the reasons that this book took so long is that there’s such a wealth of material and one has to read through different accounts, and of course the accounts don’t always confirm each other. Sometimes when you’re interviewing somebody, you get contradictory reports, and then you have to decide which are you inclined to go with.

I’m not a historian by training or profession. I’m a journalist. This is the first time that I’ve ever done anything like this and hopefully the last time as well, because I think a professional historian would have been able to do this in a much shorter time. I had to learn on the job – how you really work with archives, how do you make these assessments on getting these opposing perspectives – not just perspectives, but facts, from so many different people. And so, the plethora of material was both blessing and obstacle.

Let’s talk about some of the characters. You mentioned Motta Gur, whose death emerges as, in your mind, a terrible loss. You actually say that toward the end that he could have been this unifying political figure.

He could have been a unifying prime minister.

And you say this on the basis of what other people said about him?

The love that was expressed for Motta from across the political spectrum from the people who knew him and were ready to trust him. The settlers who were very close to him — Motta was their channel in the Labor government during the Oslo years — could hear a justification for the peace process from Motta that they couldn’t hear from anywhere else. Not that he convinced them, but there was a softer tone in the conversation because Motta really loved the settlers. He loved their sacrifice, their heroism, their love for the land. Motta managed to convey to the settlers the sense of haval, sorrowful pity, I really wish it could have worked out the way that you were trying to do.

I think, personally, that Rabin felt that way to some extent as well. That comes out in the private conversations between Rabin and Yoel Bin-Nun, which to me were one of the revelations of this project. Yoel Bin-Nun shared with me the faxes that he had kept that he had sent to Rabin and his accounts of those meetings, which I thought were just extraordinary. What emerges is the private Rabin versus the public Rabin. One of the tragedies of Rabin is that he wasn’t able to convey that warmth and empathy in public that he was to some extent able to do in private. It’s also an expression of Rabin’s greatness that he reflected his generation’s reticence, his generation’s suspicion of emotionalism in public and of manipulating emotions through politics. But there was a terrible result of that. Rabin had a big share in deepening the schism.

You discuss those Bin-Nun-Rabin exchanges. You don’t give proof, to my mind, of a reciprocal conversation there. You make this claim of hours and hours of Rabin’s time and you show us all the things that Yoel Bin-Nun sends to him. Why and how do you know that Rabin was deeply invested in the conversation as well?

Eitan Haber (photo credit: Shalom Bartal/Wikipedia Commons)

Eitan Haber (photo credit: Shalom Bartal/Wikipedia Commons)

From Eitan Haber, in particular, who was Rabin’s right hand. Haber said in an interview that Rabin loved Yoel. As the relationship deepened, Haber went from including Yoel’s faxes in Rabin’s Shabbat reading to bringing him faxes immediately and putting them on the table. Haber said that whenever Yoel called and asked for a meeting, he had access – sometimes immediately. Yoel was Rabin’s sounding board. Obviously, there are three people here who know – Yoel, Haber and Rabin. So I heard from two out of the three.

You talk about Arik Achmon as probably being the person who facilitated the book. Yoel Bin-Nun is certainly one of the other key characters.

Definitely. Those two are the two key characters.

I would argue that you let him off too easy.

Who, Yoel?

Yeah, here’s this guy who has this insistence on trying to suggest that this is why God’s done this to us at every stage, and trying to understand: Why has the Creator of all things done this? How are we supposed to understand that? How ’67, how ’73, how the Yamit evacuation… And also at the very end, when Bin-Nun publicly raised the specter of rabbis having approved Rabin’s assassination, you assert that by doing so he’d somehow enabled this post-Rabin-assassination healing process.

I think you could read Yoel Bin-Nun as one of the villains of this story, with his Messianist, arrogant sense that he can understand God’s will, and he’s directing swathes of the population and contradicting other swathes of the population. I could argue that he is the engine of all the grief. And you certainly don’t make that argument. You give us all the information, but you’re so forgiving of this guy. You know, he legitimizes Yehuda Etzion…

How do you know all that?

Because you told me.

Exactly.

But I think you’re very forgiving of him, ultimately.

Yoel Bin-Nun, 2013 (photo credit: Frederic Brenner)

Yoel Bin-Nun, 2013 (photo credit: Frederic Brenner)

Apparently, though (smiles), one can read this book and reach your conclusion, which is a totally legitimate reading of this book. And if you want to talk about what I think…

Yes, let’s talk about you. As an Orthodox Jew? What are you?

I’m a traditional Jew. I’m a Clal Yisrael Jew who loves Judaism, is deeply attached to Judaism, and doesn’t belong to any particular denomination or camp. Refuses to. Maybe that’s why I was able to write this book, because what’s true for me to some extent politically, is true for me as well religiously. I find deep wisdom and truth in our various political, religious camps and I also find maddening limitations and I refuse to identify myself in any way other than a Jew. That’s enough.

That’s fine. So now, as to the conclusions you draw from your story…

Look, it’s a very tricky business writing a book where the author does not want to be heavy-handed with conclusions. But I certainly give hints about what my own inclinations are, and you do that in the choices you make in terms of emphases, the stories you tell, the stories you leave out. There were so many stories that I had to leave out. This book was originally 900 pages. I really thought it was going to be that. I couldn’t imagine cutting it, so, that’s why one has editors, as you know from our past. (Laughs) This is, by the way, the book that I wanted to write when I was at The Jerusalem Report with you, all those years ago, and I wanted to do it through all those articles that I kept trying to make longer. Finally I was given unlimited time and seemingly unlimited space to write the story. And it still wasn’t enough.

Mass protests against the disengagement plan in 2005 (photo credit: Flash90)

Mass protests against the disengagement plan in 2005 (photo credit: Flash90)

I choose to end the book with ‘Careening Toward the Center,’ which is in fact what I believe has happened here, but someone else handling this material might have ended it in a very different way, might have ended with the disengagement in Gaza. That’s quite a moment to end with. Beginning to dismantle Yesha – Yehuda-Shomron-Aza (– Judea-Samaria-Gaza). I deliberately ended just before the disengagement, because for me the place where this ends is where most of the main characters, not all, begin to realize that the other side was right about certain essential points. That the left really got it right in terms of what do we do about the demographics, what do we do about the occupation. The right got it right about the illusion of peace with a Palestinian national movement that doesn’t accept our legitimacy. That’s the moment where I chose to end it, because it also happens to be where I am, after 30-plus years of being engaged in our internal conflict. That’s the conclusion that I’ve reached.

So, yes, on the one hand, I’m reluctant to impose conclusions. On the other hand, there are conclusions to the book. There is a point of view. I allow all of the characters to speak their piece. When you are reading either about a settler or a kibbutznik or a peace activist, you are in that person’s state of consciousness. You are experiencing Anwar Sadat’s coming to Jerusalem either through Hanan Porat’s lens or through Avital Geva’s lens. That in fact is part of how I have lived in this country, being torn apart. So I do feel that this book is, to go back to your earlier question about a voice, to a large extent, a reflection of my voice. In that sense it’s a very personal book, even though this is the first book I’ve written which is not about me.

And yet, coming back to my question about Bin-Nun and my earlier question about whether this story of Israel you tell is tragedy or not: The conviction that this is God’s will, as expressed by some of your characters in the settler enterprise, you don’t think that is ultimately prevailing over the center? You said civil war but minor civil war, if we were able to reach an accommodation.

If this conflict continues for another generation, maybe. I don’t think we’re there yet.

But I want to go back to your hard and fair question about Yoel Bin-Nun. He is, unequivocally, one of the heroes of this book, maybe the hero, in the sense that he went farther in challenging the limitations of his own camp and paid a higher price than anyone else in this book. And that’s powerful. That’s something I deeply respect.

I do allow myself one or two editorial moments, maybe a few more, and when I wrote about Yoel Bin-Nun after the Rabin assassination, as helping heal Israel, I’m ready to defend that claim. For mainstream Israel, the symbol of Israeli brokenness and rage after the assassination was a rabbi from Ofra. When Israelis would talk about their anger at the settlers or at the religious Zionist community generally, in those weeks, they would always have to say, ‘Well, of course there’s Yoel Bin-Nun.’ Most of his colleagues hated him for that. He made himself the ‘good’ settler.

But the fact that there was a ‘good’ settler and the fact that there was someone who understood that this moment required more than the kind of defensive, ‘yes, but’ approach that the religious Zionist community adopted after the assassination, that there needed to be a cry of grief, an ancient cry of mourning going back to the fast of Gedaliah. That’s what Yoel Bin-Nun carried into the Israeli discourse. The fact that he gave religious expression to the grief over Rabin made it impossible in the long term — not immediately — but in the long term for secular Israel to hold onto that us vs. them. That’s my feeling.

Meeting of Gush Emunim settlement leaders, July 1987. Hanan Porat is at far left, with Yoel Bin-Nun next to him. (photo credit: Shmuel Rabmani)

Meeting of Gush Emunim settlement leaders, July 1987. Hanan Porat is at far left, with Yoel Bin-Nun next to him. (photo credit: Shmuel Rabmani)

One of the gifts that I received, unknowingly, was that immediately after the assassination, I got an assignment from an American magazine, to write about the settlers in the aftermath of Rabin. And the story that I chose, which the magazine approved, was a profile of Yoel Bin-Nun. So I spent two or three months, from around early December 1995 through March, and then periodically checking in with him, till the elections of that May, focusing on Yoel Bin-Nun. Those incidents that I describe with Yoel after the assassination, those are from my notes. I was there when he spoke after the assassination to a hundred Hashomer Hatzair teenagers. With Avital Geva, another one of my main characters, in the audience at the time, though of course I didn’t know who Avital Geva was. And then going back to my notes after realizing that he’s one of my characters and thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I think I was there then when he had his reunion with Yoel Bin-Nun.’

The larger point here is that I saw the healing effect that he had, on the one hand, and I saw the price that he paid, on the other. Some of the theological issues that you have with him, I have with him too. That’s not my theology — to be able to look at an historical event and speak with that kind of certainty about God’s intentions – that’s not where I am. But I don’t have to identify with all of the beliefs or actions of my heroes.

An awful lot of the narrative ought to be familiar to everybody, all of the facts – and yet they’re really not. You’ve taken history and you’ve put it into the readable, Everyman’s context. You went to Arik Achmon and didn’t know the first thing about ’73? Do you think I knew, do you think anybody really knows, all those aspects of the story? That it was a lot of the same people from ’67 who saved the day in ’73? I didn’t know that Kfar Etzion was the first settlement…

When I speak to Israeli groups, I say, what’s the first settlement? Knowledgeable groups. They say Hebron, Sebastia.

And isn’t it extraordinary that Levi Eshkol legitimized initial settlement? That Baruch Goldstein was at Yamit, my goodness.

I found that and I got chills.

And other things there. The Bin-Nun-Rabin exchange.

Nobody knew that.

That the National Religious Party in 1967 opposed taking Jerusalem.

Michael Oren wrote it in ‘Six Days of War.’ What’s interesting though, David, is that what I realized going through this material is that I thought I knew the story and I didn’t. At a certain point, you know, you ask yourself who you’re writing this book for. Who is your ideal reader? And I realized that my ideal reader was me — if I hadn’t made aliyah, and had been so engaged emotionally with Israel all these years, and knew the outlines of the story, but didn’t know the texture. What did it actually feel like?

A revelation for me was Sebastia. The fact that it was pouring rain when thousands of people were walking through the mud. They left their vehicles at army roadblocks and walked a full day, slept through the night in this pouring rain on the hilltops. You realize the enormous force, the emotional force of the settlement movement, and why it was so unstoppable.

Another revelation for me was the relationship between Sebastia and the Zionism-Racism resolution, something that maybe I knew at the time but forgot and then suddenly realized it’s the key to the whole Sebastia story. Three weeks before the settlers break through the opposition of the Rabin government, the UN gives them a gift, which is Zionism/Racism. And Israelis are so enraged at the UN that they adopt Gush Emunim as the response. Ehud Olmert, who was a young Likud Knesset member, says that this is the Zionist answer to the UN. Suddenly you realize: of course. And what’s the lesson of that? That the more the international community pushes Israelis into a corner, the harder Israeli society responds. We don’t respond well to pressure.

Sadat’s genius was to understand that the only pressure Israelis can’t resist is the pressure of an embrace

I wrote, when Sadat came to Jerusalem, that his genius was to understand that the only pressure Israelis can’t resist is the pressure of an embrace. If you compare Sadat to Sebastia, that’s the story in some sense of the last 45 years, in terms of our relationship with the international community.

Yeah, I think you could see that in a very trivial way in the Obama visit, just now. You take off your jacket at the airport, we love you…That’s all he had to do.

That’s right.

Another thing that’s true is that Yoel Bin-Nun birthed Yehuda Etzion. That he birthed the Jewish terrorist underground (the machteret), which is probably why all those years later he had the reaction he did to the Rabin assassination…

To some extent that’s correct. There were some other incidents in the book that I deal with that aren’t known and that are very hard and that I think explain how certain people later…

Another, less original hero and not a central character, is Arik Sharon, of whom Arik Achmon says that he’d basically saved all their lives by rejecting a plan by…

Gorodish, who wants to send them to the Chinese Farm.

There was very little Sharon in the book, but the few bits are great. When Sadat greets him in 1977?

(Laughs)

Where did that come from?

Yehuda Avner, I think, wrote it. There was a book that came out, kind of a semi-official book – about the peace.

What did Sadat say? ‘Ah, Mr. Sharon…

He said, ‘Oh, here you are. Here you are. I chased you in the desert.’

‘And then Sharon said, ‘No need for that now. I’m the agriculture minister.’

The way you tell it is gorgeous.

Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon shaking hands with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at a summit meeting held in Sharm e-Sheikh, June 4, 1981 (photo credit: GPO/Moshe Milner)

Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon shaking hands with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at a summit meeting held in Sharm e-Sheikh, June 4, 1981 (photo credit: GPO/Moshe Milner)

It’s amazing to me that you set out to do a book on the paratroopers who liberated Jerusalem without realizing how central they were in ’73. Right?

Yes.

And Arik Achmon in Lebanon in ’82, I don’t know how central? How much do we make of him getting past this convoy, getting everybody out of the way, just a minor…?

His central roles were in ’67 and ’73. For him personally, being commander of a brigade was the high point of his military career. I’m expecting a lot of the people who lived through this, especially the paratroopers, to be very critical: ‘Why did you put…?’ That’s a perfect case in point: ‘Arik Achmon, in ’82 you give five pages to [him in Lebanon] but there were so many more important incidents.’ But it’s not a history of the paratroopers. It’s the story of these seven guys and how they experienced the changes of Israel and how they helped Israel change.

What I realized after a while about these seven characters is that together they tell an amazing story about how Israel evolved — not just politically, not just how we moved from kibbutz Israel to settlement Israel. The kibbutz was the symbol of Israel in the world just as the settlement is a symbol now. But also how we moved from the Hebrew music of the 50s and 60s to the Hebrew rock of today. Meir Ariel, one of my main characters tells that story. How we moved from agrarian, industrial Israel to post-Socialist hi-tech Israel. Arik Achmon tells that story.

There are so many stories within the left-right kibbutz-settlement story that its characters tell, and it was very hard for me to let go. I think that’s one of the reasons that the book took so long: I kept learning. I learned so much. I became an Israeli through this book.

Arik Achmon used to call me ‘yeled hutz.’ ‘Yeled hutz’ is a very specific concept in the kibbutz.’ Yeled hutz’ is an immigrant boy whose parents sent him to the kibbutz because they can’t handle him or he comes from a broken family. There’s a whole stigmatized category in the old kibbutz of ‘yeled hutz’ and Arik used to call me ‘yeled hutz.’ And he meant it as kind of a way of reminding me that, ‘Don’t think that you can really understand what happened here.’ I said to him, you know, that’s true. I am a ‘yeled hutz.’ But what you don’t understand and all of you kibbutznikim didn’t understand about the ‘yaldei hutz’ who lived among you, was that they were all spies, because they were watching you all the time. And they understood things about you that you didn’t understand about yourselves. It was precisely because they came from the outside that they were able to understand who you were. It became kind of a running joke between us, the ‘Yeled Hutz.’ And at some point close to the end of this process, Arik said to me in his commander’s tone, ‘Yossi, you’re not a yeled hutz anymore,’ and that was kind of like getting a medal. (Laughs.)

The late Meir Ariel, how did you got into his head? Through who?

Mostly through Tirza, his wife, who was fantastic, really. She gave me unlimited access. And Meir, more than any of these guys, left behind an incredibly rich body of interviews. Most of them in print. I went through the archives, going back to the summer of ’67. I have great interviews with him as ‘the singing paratrooper,’ because he came to prominence immediately after the Six Day War with his song, ‘Jerusalem of Iron,’ which was a response to ‘Jerusalem of Gold’. It was the fighter’s response to the prettification of ‘Jerusalem of Gold.’

Meir Ariel, on leave from Lebanon, 1983 (photo credit: Courtesy of Tirza Ariel)

Meir Ariel, on leave from Lebanon, 1983 (photo credit: Courtesy of Tirza Ariel)

Meir Ariel, in the summer of ’67 was a media celebrity with fantastic interviews. Meir Ariel is in the books about ’67. He was interviewed. I have him at one point – he’s approaching the Wall – June 7, 1967 – and suddenly he freezes and he doesn’t go up to the Wall. And he’s saying, ‘why don’t I feel anything? What kind of a Jew am I?’ That’s straight out of an account that was published in 1968 – very close after the war, based on an interview with Meir Ariel. So Meir left tremendous footprints.

Also, great recorded interviews. Some of them are on YouTube. I have a great interview with him with Yair Lapid, which I just quote verbatim. A wonderful radio interview with Yoav Kutner. I have the transcript of that. There was so much material. Where I get into his head, a lot of that material is based on the interviews. So I am able to speak about his state of mind with authority because he said it. It’s as if he said it to me in an interview. And of course his friends. I had tremendous access to the Israeli rock community. Shalom Hanoch, who very rarely gives interviews, gave me a wonderful three-hour interview. Because it was about Meir…

And he wanted to be sure you did him justice…

Yeah. And I got him early enough after Meir’s death. I don’t know if he would have done it now. I also had help from Nissim Calderon, who is a professor of Hebrew literature, and is doing a full-fledged biography of Meir. He and I also had a very fruitful and generous sharing. We both are passionate lovers of Meir Ariel.

You were not before you started this project?

I didn’t really know his music. I remember reading that Meir Ariel died and I was vaguely aware of a couple of songs. Most Israelis knew Meir – we knew him by the songs that made it on the radio, which weren’t even necessarily his most important work. Today, posthumously, in that cruel way of this society, Meir Ariel is celebrated as the great poet/balladeer of the last generation. And regarded universally by his peers, by Israeli musicians, as the great Israeli composer of popular song. In our generation nobody comes close to him, in terms of the quality of the Hebrew, the complexity, the courage of the themes that he took on.

So, of your seven, he was dead when you started work on this.

He died in 1999. I started this in 2002. And the other six were all alive. And are alive, except for Hanan Porat, who died two years ago.

Hanan Porat in Sebastia, 1975 (photo credit: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office)

Hanan Porat in Sebastia, 1975 (photo credit: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office)

And whom you endeavor to somewhat rehabilitate regarding his ostensible happiness on Purim after the Goldstein massacre?

The portrait of Hanan Porat that emerges in relation to the Goldstein incident is very complicated. And it’s an example where I think people in both camps will not be happy – people who wanted unequivocal vindication of Hanan, which I do not believe my portrait does, or an unequivocal vilification. Hanan was treated unfairly by the media. And his response to Goldstein was distorted. But it wasn’t totally unfair because as his critics noted at the time – his more thoughtful critics – the problem wasn’t necessarily that he said Purim Sameah, Happy Purim – but that he said it with a smile, and that smile was misinterpreted. It wasn’t that he was happy about the Goldstein massacre, not at all, and that I truly believe was a deep distortion of Hanan’s position. On the other hand, it revealed that he didn’t internalize the severity of the massacre.

Maybe one last thing I want to ask you: This banal comment you cite from Rabbi Yehuda Amital — about the people taking precedence over the land — which is so obvious and which you worry is not sufficiently internalized. How tragic that Amital is an unusual, maverick figure, for holding to what surely ought to be the key principles of what Judaism’s about.

Yes. One of the mischievous moments of pleasure that I took in this research was finding an article in the settlers’ magazine, Nekudah, written by Yoel Bin-Nun, in response to Rav Amital when Amital first began breaking publicly with the settler community in 1982. Yoel Bin-Nun was arguing from a more conventional settler position, which of course is turned against him a decade later, and Yoel becomes the reviled maverick, which Amital never quite was to that extent.

That’s part of the story for me – it’s a story of evolution. Most of the characters are not static. The great pleasure that I took in being involved in this story was in trying to figure out those moments of change. How did these characters cope with a changing Israel? How do they help Israel evolve, and how does Israel help them evolve?

What’s so remarkable for me about these characters is that these are seven people who have no border between their own individual lives and the Israeli story. What’s happening to Israel is going right through them – the most important moments in their lives are: when I got married, and when I fought in this war, and when this political event happened, and when Begin came to power, and when this settlement was built, and when there was an evacuation. These are the defining moments of these peoples’ lives. To understand the Israeli story through the lives of seven people who gave themselves totally, not only as soldiers — think of how remarkable that is. These are people who fought a war every few years. And in the intervals between wars, they devoted themselves not just to their individual careers, but to entwining their careers with the destiny of Israel and being deeply involved with the political changes that are happening here. What remarkable people we have in this country.

There are lots of Israelis like that, aren’t there?

There really are.

The destiny of this country is everybody’s life and death issue.

What a gift. It’s also a problematic gift, because when you so totally invest yourself in your particular vision of Israel, then it can become a zero sum game against the other camp.

And the zealots are the relative villains…

Yes.

But without the zealotry, things don’t move?

That’s one of the open questions that I leave for readers. I frame it in the context of the utopian or messianic vision. One of the things that was clarified for me in the course of writing this book was how central the dream of redemption has been to Zionism — not just to find a secure place for the Jewish people, but the grand dream of transforming human reality. That dream was impelled, was carried by the Kibbutz movement, which was central to the Israeli story up until say the 1970s or the mid-1970s. And then the settler movement became one of the central engines for the direction that Israel moved in after that.

You can’t understand Israel without understanding the place of the messianic dream in our being. My question is — and really it’s an open question for me as well: Could we have achieved what we did without those grandiose dreams? And at the same time, what is the price that we paid for linking politics with messianism in its secular or religious form? Politics and messianism are opposite modes of being. Messianism is the dream of how the world should be, and politics is dealing with the world as it is. And yes, you tinker with it and you try to make the world a little bit better. Politics has to be incremental and messianism has to be transcendent. And when you link utopianism and messianism with politics, the result is at the very least disappointment and at the worst, catastrophe, which is part of the history of the twentieth century. It’s also part of our story. And that story isn’t over yet.

The messianic dream is inherent in the return to Zion. Jews, for two thousand years, carried the dream of return to Zion, inseparable from the dream of messianism. Because the return to Zion was such an improbable likelihood that only the Messiah could deliver. So it’s inevitable that we would come home and carry that messianic dream with us. I find the position of normalization, the secular Zionist dream, the non-kibbutz, utopian secular Zionist dream of normalization, deeply touching.

And utterly unrealistic.

They imagined taking a messianic dream, and translating it into secular terms, and bringing the Jews back to a land sacred to three competing religions, in the middle of the most unstable region in the world — here is where we’re going to normalize the Jewish people. It’s really moving and they really believed it. And we owe so much to that naïve faith in the possibility of normalizing the Jews.

I realized as this book was unfolding that it’s another one of those major themes: The clash between the dream to be a nation like all nations, and the dream to be a light to the nations.

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Read an exclusive excerpt from “Like Dreamers” here.

And here’s a blogger review of “Like Dreamers.”