November 27, 2013
The ‘Like Dreamers’ Exchange, Part 2: ‘We Israelis Must Understand Our Self-Destructive Tendencies’
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'.
This exchange focuses on his new critically acclaimed book Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (Harper, 2013).
(Part one can be found right here.)
So here's my second question: we Israelis - especially those of us who travel a lot and get to meet people from other countries and read the newspapers they read- often complain about the way Israel is painted and perceived by foreigners.
I once wrote an article about Israel's image problem, in which I explained that: "For many Israelis, if the world doesn’t see how wonderful this country is, there must be a problem with its vision". But there it is - the world mostly looks at Israel as the land of the never-ending conflict.
Enter your book - and proves the world right, doesn't it? Reading the story of Israel over the last forty years through the lenses you offer, is reading a story about a place that is mostly about, well, "the conflict".
So: Do you think that the "conflict" is the only thing that truly matters? Or maybe you just had to pick one story-line out of many and that's the one you picked? Are you at all troubled by the possibility that the many readers of your book will yet again be convinced to look at Israel not as "start up nation" but rather as "left vs. right", "Israeli vs. Arab", "settler vs. Peace Now" nation?
Looking forward to reading your answer,
I worried about that question too.
But I wrote this book because we don’t have a narrative of what happened to us as a people as a result of the Six-Day War. We have a leftwing narrative and a rightwing narrative but not yet an Israeli narrative. So this is an attempt to write a unified Israeli narrative of the last four decades that includes left and right.
I don’t see this as a book about the Arab-Israeli conflict so much as it is about our internal Israeli struggle to define ourselves. Some reviewers have criticized the book because it lacks Palestinian voices. I told one interviewer that I would welcome a Palestinian author writing a book that traces Palestinian history through the lives of seven Palestinian fighters – and if such a book appeared, I doubt whether reviewers would complain that there aren’t any Zionist characters in the story.
Every people has the right – the need – to turn inward and try to understand itself on its own terms. The story I tell is about how the Arab-Israeli conflict affected seven soldiers and, by extension, the psyche of Israel. This is an internal Israeli conversation – I think of it as a Hebrew book that happens to be written in English.
The argument of the book is that Israel today is far more nuanced and mature politically – and culturally too – than it was during its formative years. The Israel that was divided between the two ideological camps of left and right has yielded to a more modest, less certain society. The winner of the left-right divide turned out to be the center – those of us who have in effect internalized the arguments of both left and right. We centrists agree with the left about the dangers of indefinite occupation, and agree with the right about the dangers of a false peace. We are graduates of the first intifada, when the dream of greater Israel ended, and of the second intifada, when the dream of Peace Now ended.
And so this story is more history than current reality. It is a story of heroism and vitality – how men who fight one war after another together go on, in the intervals between wars, to in effect fight each other over the future of the Jewish state.
But it is also a story about a kind of self-willed blindness to those aspects of Israeli reality that contradicted ideological certainties. These men argued past each other for decades, not listening to each other’s warnings. In that sense it is a cautionary tale. We might have been spared some of our wrong decisions if our two ideological camps had listened to each other’s prescient insights.
It is astonishing to me when Ehud Olmert, who supported greater Israel for decades, suddenly wakes up and says, What about the demographic problem? Well if you, Mr. Olmert, had been listening to your leftwing opponents whom you so cleverly debated on talk shows all those years, you might have realized that there were those who were warning about demography and occupation beginning in the summer of 1967. The same for all those leftists who are now so disillusioned with the Palestinians: Why didn’t you listen to what the right was saying about Arafat instead of acting as his defense lawyer, explaining away his calls for Israel’s destruction – during the Oslo process! – as mere political maneuvering?
So this is, I feel, an urgent story to tell. Along with celebrating our astonishing successes, we need to confront and internalize the failures of the last decades. We need to understand our self-destructive tendencies. How did we squander so much energy on what turned out to be a futile debate between two utopian notions – of the wholeness of the land, of peace now?
In the end the real divide in this book isn’t left-right, settler-kibbutz, but between those men who evolved, who tested their ideas against a changing Israeli reality and adapted , as against those men of left and right who remained more or less unchanged, who refused to allow reality to interfere with their ideological purity. The heroes of this book are those who force themselves to grow.
That is not a story about “the conflict” but a deeply human story about our internal conflicts with our own limitations.