… The paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem in 1967 and restored Jewish sovereignty to the Holy City fulfilled a dream of two millennia. They changed the history of Israel and of the Middle East. They also changed my life.
In late June 1967, a few weeks after the end of the Six-Day War, I flew to Israel with my father. 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.
Every evening, in the weeks leading up to the war, we would watch the news together.
Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, threatened to erase Israel from the map, as Arab armies massed along Israel’s borders and demonstrators in the streets of Cairo and Damascus chanted “Death to Israel.” Yet the international community seemed indifferent. Even the United States, caught in an increasingly hopeless war in Vietnam, offered little more than sympathy. My father and I shared the same unspoken thought: Again. Barely two decades after the Holocaust, the Jews were facing destruction again. Once again, we were alone.
And then, in six days, Israel reversed threat into unimagined victory. The Israeli army destroyed the Egyptian army and conquered the Sinai Desert, three times the size of the state of Israel, seized the Golan Heights from Syria, and routed the Jordanian army in the West Bank—the biblical Judea and Samaria, birthplace of the Jewish people. And the paratroopers reunited a divided Jerusalem.
A photograph taken of paratroopers at the Western Wall became the instant symbol of the war. In the photograph three young men stand, with the wall behind them, gazing into the distance. One holds his helmet in his hands. Their expressions are a combination of exhaustion, tenderness, and awe. At their moment of triumph they seem not like conquerors but like pilgrims at the end of a long journey.
The Israel I encountered that summer belonged to the paratroopers. The photograph of the three paratroopers at the wall was everywhere. The radio played a song sung by a paratrooper named Meir Ariel, about “Jerusalem of iron, of lead and of blackness,” an attempt to remind a euphoric nation of the price of victory.
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.
I met my father’s two brothers who had survived the Holocaust, along with distant relatives whose relationship to us was too complicated to follow, post-Holocaust approximations of family. That summer everyone in Israel felt like family. Cars would stop and offer lifts to hikers who weren’t hitching. In a farming community on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, which had suffered for years under Syrian guns and whose children had grown up in air raid shelters, my father hugged and kissed a teenage girl walking by, and no one thought it untoward.
Israel celebrated its existence, life itself. 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.
That summer Israel was possessed by messianic dreams of wholeness. There were those who believed that peace had finally come, and with it the end of the Jews’ exile from humanity. (Perhaps only Jews could conceive of a normal national life in messianic terms.) There were those whose longing for wholeness was soothed by the reunification of the divided land and the divided city, which some saw as precursor of the imminence of the messianic era, ending the fragmentation of humanity itself.
For my father the dream of wholeness was fulfilled by Jewish unity. Perhaps not since the revelation at Mount Sinai—when the people of Israel were camped “as one body with one heart,” as a famous rabbinic commentary put it—had the Jews been as united as we were in those terrible, exhilarating weeks of late spring 1967. The great weakness of the Jews, my father believed, was the temptation of schism, even in the face of catastrophe. But when we were united, he reassured me, no enemy could destroy us.
The ultimate expression of the Israeli dream of wholeness was the kibbutz, or agrarian commune. Several hundred were spread throughout the country, especially along the old borders. The kibbutz was an attempt to transcend human nature, replace selfishness with cooperation. Decisions were voted on by members, positions of authority rotated. Children were raised in communal homes away from parents and encouraged to run their own affairs. Many of Israel’s political leaders, and many of its leading soldiers, had been kibbutzniks. The Jewish state was the first democratic country to have been founded in large part by egalitarian collectives, and whose key institutions—trade unions, health clinics, bus cooperatives, even the army—were created by radical socialists.
Though the secular kibbutzim had no use for religion, they claimed its messianic vision of restoring the Jews to the land and creating a just society, a light to the nations. The kibbutz was the symbol of Israel in the world, and that seemed natural. The very existence of a sovereign Jewish state after two thousand years of homelessness defied the natural order, and so did the kibbutz. One utopian dream symbolized the other.
That summer I resolved to return one day and become an Israeli. Perhaps I would move to a kibbutz. The great Jewish adventure was happening in my lifetime; how could I keep away?
IN THE SUMMER of 1982, at age twenty-nine, I moved to Israel as an immigrant. Israel had just invaded Lebanon, to end the threat of terrorist attacks on the Galilee (and, more grandiosely, to create a “new Middle East”). Instead of uniting Israelis, as it had in 1967, war now divided them. For the first time there were antigovernment demonstrations, even as soldiers were fighting at the front. The euphoria of the summer of ’67, the delusion of a happy ending to Jewish history, had been replaced by an awareness of the agonizing complexity of Israel’s dilemmas.
I was now a journalist, writing for American publications, including the New York City newspaper, the Village Voice, and so I set about trying to understand my new home. Most urgently, that meant understanding Israel’s schisms. On the streets people were shouting at each other about Lebanon. I covered the founding of West Bank settlements and followed the antisettlement movement Peace Now. 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. Israel was losing the feeling of family that had drawn me there in the first place. Much of my career became focused on explaining the unraveling of the Israeli consensus.
From time to time I thought about interviewing veterans of the battle of Jerusalem. In a sense they were responsible for bringing me to Israel. How had the war changed their lives? What role did they play in trying to influence the political outcome of their military victory?
Those questions were partly answered in a newspaper article I came across about a reunion of the paratroopers, which noted that some of the most prominent leaders of the settlement movement, as well as prominent activists in the peace movement, had emerged from the 55th Brigade. The men who as civilians were dividing Israel would meet every year on reserve duty, sharing tents and periodically going to war together. Did their ideological antipathies undermine their cohesion as soldiers? Or did their shared army experience temper the ferocity of their political differences? Perhaps someday, I thought, I’ll write an article about them.
IN THE FALL of 2002, I began to seek them out. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the 1990s had collapsed, and suicide bombers were blowing up buses and cafés in my city, Jerusalem. The Israeli home front was now the battlefield. How, Israelis wondered, could it have come to this? Most Israelis believed that their country had tried to make peace, only to be rejected by the Palestinian leadership. Yet Israel was widely faulted around the world. Even many Israelis on the left were now wondering whether any amount of territorial concessions would gain Israel peace and legitimacy, whether the Jewish state would ever find its place in the Middle East and be accepted by the international community as a normal nation.
At that low point in Israel’s history, I turned to the men who had brought Israel its most transcendent moment. In recounting their lives, I intended to tell the story of how we had gone from the hope of those days to the shattering now, and how we might reclaim something of the optimism on which Israel had been built.
By the time I encountered them in 2002, the veterans of the 55th Brigade were middle-aged and older, no longer part of the reserves. I learned that in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, they had led the nighttime crossing of the Suez Canal onto the Egyptian mainland that turned the war in Israel’s favor, one of the most daring military initiatives in the country’s history. (They called their veterans’ group the Association of Paratroopers Who Liberated Jerusalem and Crossed the Canal.) The 55th, then, had been in those years the Israeli army’s elite combat force. I decided to write a narrative history of the post-’67 left-right schism, as experienced by leading personalities who had been paratroopers.
Probing deeper, I discovered an even more compelling aspect to this story. In 1967 perhaps half the soldiers of the 55th Brigade, and up to 70 percent of its officers, had been kibbutzniks. There was a second, if much smaller and militarily marginal, group within the brigade: religious Zionists, Orthodox Jews who celebrated the secular Jewish state as a divine miracle, and its founding as the beginning of the messianic era. After the Six-Day War religious Zionists, many of them convinced that redemption was imminent, initiated the West Bank settlement movement. In response, kibbutzniks helped found the peace movement that opposed the settlements.
Secular kibbutzniks and religious Zionists disagreed about God and faith and the place of religion in Jewish identity and in the life of the state. 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. Both movements saw the Jewish return home as an event of such shattering force that something grand—world transformative—must result. The founders of the kibbutz movement in the early years of the twentieth century envisioned the future Jewish state as a laboratory for democratic egalitarianism. Many religious Zionists believed that the creation of a Jewish state would be the catalyst for the messianic era.
Here, then, was a much bigger story about Israel than merely its left-right divide. It was a story about the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams, the vast hopes imposed on this besieged, embattled strip of land crowded with traumatized Jewish refugees.
The meeting between religious Zionists and secular kibbutziks in the 55th Brigade occurred at the most mythic moment in Israel’s history. The return to the Wall, to the Old City of Jerusalem and the biblical lands just beyond, brought Judaism to the center of Israeli identity, from which it had been largely marginalized by Israel’s secular founders…
Yossi Klein Halevi is an author, thinker and commentator on Jewish and Israeli affairs.
A frequent contributor to the op-ed pages of leading newspapers and magazines, he is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Yossi is active in reconciliation efforts between Muslims and Jews and serves as Chairman of Open House, an Arab-Jewish coexistence center in the town of Ramle, near Tel Aviv. His first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, was published in 1995. In 2001, he published, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.