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Friday, June 20, 2014

• The Jewish Press • Page B3

A Tale Of Love In The Face Of Darkness Speaking with Yossi Klein Halevi By Joseph Offenbacher Within days of Israeli settlers establishing an outpost on the hillside of Sebastia in the fall of 1975, as recalled by Yossi Klein Halevi in Like Dreamers, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin consulted Mordechai Gur, then chief of the general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, about the efficacy of utilizing the military to carry out the government’s policy of opposing settlement in Judea and Samaria. Although he was already a legend in the annals of Jewish history, Gur did not have the conventional appearance of a modern Jewish military hero, and with his sweet face and less than imposing stature, he was better known by his Yiddishized nickname, Motta. Always temperate, Gur, whose loyalty to the will of the civilian government rested at the heart of the state’s democracy, explained to Rabin that the military was not designed to be an instrument for setting social policy and that other avenues should be considered. Rabin pressed further, but Gur remained resolutely opposed to sending in the military, finally telling Rabin that these men, the leaders of the conclave at Sebastia, are “my soldiers.” As the leader of the IDF’s 55th reserve paratroop brigade, the unit that served at the vanguard of both the Battle of Jerusalem in 1967 and the Battle of Suez in 1973, Gur was fortunate to be in command of some of the army’s finest soldiers. They were a diverse and exceptionally gifted group of men, and as leaders in their own right, many would emerge from their military experiences to spearhead some of the country’s most influential and varied social and political movements. In particular, as founders of both the left-wing Peace Now movement and the right-wing settler movement, the men of the 55th brigade, “Motta’s Men,” spent the majority of their lives outside the context of the army – as ardent rivals. Gur, however, was the ideal leader for such a group. Deeply humble and appreciative for the service of every single one of his men, Gur was able to sublimate his own views in order to best serve every soldier under his command. This not only enabled Gur to bring out the best in his soldiers, it also reinforced a nearly universal sentiment throughout the 55th’s ranks that encouraged diversity of opinion while simultaneously strengthening the brotherhood and camaraderie between the soldiers. I recently sat down to speak with Yossi Klein Halevi about the genesis of his highly acclaimed book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (Harper), and his personal connection to the history of the land. In the summer of 1967, Halevi, now a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, made his first trip to Israel at “the height of the country’s unity,” in the wake of the Six-Day War. For Halevi, however, the soldiers of the 55th were not only at the forefront of national triumph, but also became the flesh and blood manifestation of his love for the country and his desire to make the Land of Israel his home. His love for the men of the 55th ultimately led to Halevi’s aliyah in August 1982. By then, the national unity that pervaded every aspect of Halevi’s first trip to Israel had morphed into extreme divisiveness and bitter antipathy. In less than two decades, Israel’s polity had become sharply divided and constantly on the brink of extreme civil unrest. Worst of all for Halevi was that the men of the 55th, “the guys who brought me to Israel and gave me the Israel that I fell in love with,” now stood at opposite ends of this seemingly unbridgeable chasm. At first, it seemed that he would have to pick a side but, like Gur, the men of the 55th were Halevi’s heroes and he could not choose between them. So in the summer of 1982, Halevi decided that a different approach was needed. Rather than plunging head long into the debate, Halevi said that he decided

to put the nation of Israel through a klitah (absorption program), just like he and other recent immigrants were expected to do. While undertaking his own immersion into the country, Halevi began to slowly absorb all the different, and often antagonistic, voices that encompassed the people of Israel. For Halevi, this was the truest manifestation of ahavat Yisrael; it is very easy to say I love all Jews who agree with me, he explained, but the real test is whether I can consider the views of those Jews with whom I bitterly and existentially disagree. Eleven years ago, Halevi’s dissertation in love and listening evolved into a personal quest to find the men of the 55th, the men whose bravery and heroism inspired his love for the country and fueled his desire to make aliyah. By then they were well ensconced as the leaders of deeply oppositional socio-political movements. Each

jump up and cheer, the rest of the time he will struggle through every page while trying to reconcile views that are fundamentally different from his own. But once emerging from the “orchard,” he will find himself cleaving to a new appreciation for the entirety of the Jewish people, and develop a true love for those Jews that sacrificed to give the people of Israel everything – whether he agrees with their views or not. On one page you meet Avital Geva, a captain in the 55th, who went on to lead the Peace Now movement; on the next, Yoel Bin-Nun, a corporal and yeshiva scholar who would emerge as one of the principal leaders of the settlement bloc. You will not be surprised to find that they were bitter political rivals, but you may find it reassuring to know that in private they were the closest of friends, the most loyal of compatriots and the truest of

Photo courtesy of Ilir Bajraktari/The Tower

believed that the future of the state, and indeed the Jewish people, was at stake, and each maintained that they held the objective, ethical high ground. For years Halevi listened to these men, painstakingly collecting and organizing the voices of the heroes who had sacrificed to enable Israel’s greatest victory and its fundamental existence. It seemed, initially, that effectively writing about the men of the 55th, and the movements they went on to lead, would require the author to take sides. This, however, was an approach that Halevi was not willing to accept. Each of these men was a hero; each deserved to have his voice heard. Like Gur, Halevi would not choose, and ultimately would go as far as to sublimate his own, even expert, opinions in order to present the views of his diverse array of characters in their purest form. What emerged was a narrative that was a little like a work of history, and a lot like no other history you have ever read. Instead of a traditional thesis, Halevi presents this challenge to his readers: in place of an ordinary historical narrative, Halevi weaves in and out of a novel-like account of the lives of seven extraordinary Israeli heroes who fought together to give the nation its life and battled each other to shape its future destiny. When Halevi first arrived in Israel, he challenged himself to listen to all of the country’s many voices. In rising to that challenge, he enabled himself to gain as broad a view of Israel as any had ever done before. His gift to the reader is that same challenge: I will present you with the arguments; you now summon the courage to listen to them. Half the time the reader will want to

brothers. In all, Halevi introduces us to seven soldiers of the 55th, each a hero, a leader, and a role model in their own right. Their words are virtually untouched by the author’s personal views. He instead honors the men who gave him his love for Israel by leaving his characters’ views and words intact. Halevi is the master behind the curtain. His presence is always palpable – but never interferes with voices of the 55th. Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers, the 2013 recipient of the National Jewish Book Award, is widely considered one of the most significant works on modern Israeli history. Its majesty is in the nuance that, while often overlooked, lies at the heart of Israel’s national identity and discourse. The discussion that Halevi chronicles took decades, and reflects progression from unity to division and then from radical acrimony to current perceptions of tolerated diversity and an overall acceptance of more moderate views among the leaders of both the Israeli right and left. Halevi shows us that deep down in the ideological divide lives a true and unshakable love among the men of the 55th that ultimately enabled them to travel the divergent paths that would eventually lead to national progress. We are left with a narrative of immense significance, both as we look back and consider the schisms of old, and, even more importantly, as we consider our approaches to the new divisions that have emerged – divisions that will continue to emerge within the immensely diverse polity that comprises the Jewish state. Joseph Offenbacher is a medical student and writer living in Brooklyn.

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