November 12, 2013
The ‘Like Dreamers’ Exchange, Part 1: On Jewish Zealots
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor of the New Republic. An internationally respected commentator on Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs, he writes regularly for leading American publications, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs. He is author of 'At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land' and 'Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist'.
The following exchange will focus on his new critically acclaimed book Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (Harper, 2013).
I must start by coming clean and telling our readers that-
1. I know you and we have already discussed your book a couple of times.
2. I read it many months before publication in a longer version.
3. My sister worked as your assistant and is the Hebrew translator of your book.
4. Hence - some bias is to be expected and to be taken into account.
Now since the reviewers were all very kind with your book, and since a lot has already been written about its content, I'll try to focus more on questions that are not about the intricacies of the story. Since this is a written exchange and not an interview, I'd like to make it about ideas.
So I guess my question would be: was it hard for you not to be annoyed by your heroes? Did you have to suppress an impulse to judge them, or did you feel that the virtues and advantages of us having such heroes were so great that you never felt the need to judge their ideology and character?
I'm looking forward to reading your first answer.
I have a complicated personal relationship to zealotry. I grew up on the right – first in the Betar Zionist youth movement, and then in Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, during its Soviet Jewry phase. (I described my eventual break with Jewish militancy in my first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist.) Growing up as the son of an angry Holocaust survivor, Jewish militancy was a way to empower me against an overwhelming family and historical trauma.
By the time I moved to Israel in 1982 at age 29, I was pretty much cured of my youthful zealotry as an ideology, though I still had a soft spot for those who spoke in the name of twentieth-century Jewish rage. That emotional tie to Jewish extremism ended for me in 1983, when a grenade was thrown by a far-right Jew into a Peace Now rally in Jerusalem and Emil Gruensweig – a reservist in the paratroopers – was killed. As soon as I heard the news on the radio I rushed over to the Prime Minister’s office, where the grenade had been thrown, to write a report. When I arrived there was still blood on the pavement. That was a turning point for me, the moment when I began to embrace the center as the ground to keep our mutually exclusive Jewish passions from destroying us.
One of the characters in the book is Udi Adiv, who turned so far left after the Six-Day War that he went to Damascus and tried to create a joint Arab-Jewish anti-Zionist terror underground. When I went to see Udi I told him that my politics are the opposite of his, but that we shared a similar past —the need to take our dedication “to the end.” When I was 19 I led a group of JDL members in a sit-in in the Moscow emigration office, OVIR, to demand that Soviet Jews be allowed to come to Israel. I wrote about it in my first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist. I called that chapter “Crossing the Border.” That’s the same name I gave to the chapter in my new book about Udi Adiv going to Damascus. It’s a kind of wink to myself. I don’t of course compare the two events in substance – Udi and I fought for opposite goals – but in terms of this need to go to the limit, I felt a strange closeness to him.
As for your question about whether it was hard to refrain from judging the ideologues in my book: I made a decision sometime in the middle of the writing process to let each character more or less speak for himself. (There are times I can’t refrain from commenting, as I do when Udi is in Damascus and meets the local rabbi and marvels at how free and happy the Jews of Syria are.) But for the most part I felt the need to let them tell their stories – partly because I wanted that contradiction of voices, to show how complicated our reality is. Also because what I love about this story is that all these radically different men belong to the same story. I wanted to write a unified narrative of left and right, metaphorically- and in some cases literally- sharing the same tent. When I started researching the 55th Paratroopers Reservist Brigade and realized that the founders of the settlement movement, along with some prominent figures in the peace camp, all came out of the same experience, I felt I’d been given a gift as a writer and also as an Israeli. Who would imagine placing Meir Ariel, our great bohemian singer, the Israeli Bob Dylan, together with Hanan Porat, founder of the first West Bank settlement? But there they are, together in Jerusalem and then in the Yom Kippur War.
Finally: Was I annoyed? Constantly. I was annoyed by the rigidity of some of my characters, by their absolute certainties, by the way they had divided Israel for decades between two fantasies – the complete land of Israel and Peace Now. I divide my characters into two groups – beyond left and right, religious and secular, settler and kibbutznik, they are divided between those whose ideas evolved over time and those who basically remained the same as they were as young people. I consider the former to be the real heroes of this story.