The paradoxes of Zionism have recently gripped the Israeli imagination. In a new introduction to the republished edition of his Letters to an American Jewish Friend (Gefen), Hillel Halkin writes: “Zionism is at once the greatest repudiation of the Jewish past and the greatest affirmation of it.” That insight had framed his appeal to American Jews to make aliyah to the only place where a Jewish “community of faith” might have a chance to survive. Without American aliyah, Halkin had feared, Israel might confront the demographic imperative that would cause its withering as a Jewish state.
Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers (Harper) explores the lives of seven Israeli paratroopers in the Six-Day War who, his subtitle suggests, “Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation.” It offers a fascinating variation on the theme of Israel at a fateful crossroads, in search of itself, following the wondrously unifying moment at the Western Wall in June 1967 when Jewish national sovereignty in Jerusalem was restored for the first time in nineteen centuries.
Halevi narrates the postwar lives of a leader of the settlement movement, an advocate of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, a diehard socialist kibbutznik who became a Peace Now activist, and the leader of an anti-Zionist terrorist underground cell in Damascus, among others. Sharply divided over the fate of biblical Judea and Samaria –whether settlements represented the fulfillment or betrayal of Zionism – some became settlers while others were appalled that kibbutzniks, “the children of utopia,” had suddenly become “occupiers.”
Writ large, that wrenching conflict has divided Israel ever since 1967, as “the Israel symbolized by the kibbutz became the Israel symbolized by the settlement.” Yet few Israelis, and fewer outsiders, have grasped how passionately kibbutzniks and settlers shared the Zionist dream: to settle the Land of Israel and restore national sovereignty there. In 1967, Halevi suggests, Israel had become an “occupier.” But how could Jews become occupiers of their own ancient promised homeland?
Both Halkin and Halevi were American Jews from New York whose first visits to Israel came as impressionable teenagers. Arriving as an eighteen-year-old in 1957, Halkin discovered “a community of faith.” Returning a decade later after the Six-Day War, he entered a “dreamlike” world: “To suddenly walk through the gates of the Old City…to walk in the streets of Hebron, Jericho, Bethlehem of Judea,” brought him to the crossroads of his life: “Either I would return to Israel to live, or I would never return there; either I would live as a Jew there, or I would not live as one at all.” Three years later he and his wife made aliyah.
Halevi arrived in Israel shortly after the Six-Day War as a fourteen-year-old Brooklyn boy with his father, a Holocaust survivor. “That summer everyone in Israel felt like family” as the Jewish state “celebrated its existence, life itself. We had done it…. Not merely survived but reversed annihilation into a kind of redemption, awakened from our worst nightmare into our most extravagant dream.” After that visit, “I resolved to return one day and become an Israeli…. The great Jewish adventure was happening in my lifetime; how could I keep away?” Fifteen years later, during the first Lebanon war, he made aliyah and confronted “the agonizing complexity of Israel’s dilemmas.”
* * * * *
Now it is the turn of an Israeli sabra, Haaretz correspondent Ari Shavit, to identify, confront, and lament those dilemmas. Born in Rechovot in 1957, he grew up with the fear of annihilation: “My beloved homeland will crumble as enormous Arab masses or mighty Islamic forces overcome its defenses and eradicate its existence.” But a decade later, following the Six-Day War, “The Jewish state was now triumphant and proud and drunk with a heady sense of power.”