Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation is an extraordinary accomplishment, a historically and humanly informed chronicle of both the ideological Left and Right in Israel over the tumultuous four decades since the Six Day War.  In its clear-eyed and sympathetic openness to the personalities and ideals of both sides, it is a book that perhaps no native-born Israeli could have written.

Halevi’s book ultimately describes the waning of two utopian dreams—the abandonment of the messianisms of the Left and the Right (and Halevi does us the service of seeing messianism clearly as being just as much a phenomenon of the Left as it is of the Right, as available for secular programs of tikkun olam and world-repair as for conventionally religious yearnings).  In the wake of the failure of socialist dreams of a transformed humanity, of religious dreams of the imminent redemption of Israel, of leftist dreams of peace in the Middle East, Israeli society has in recent years gone “careening toward the center,” as Klein titles the book’s final chapter.

Whether we call this maturity or disillusionment, Israelis have cooled on these utopian programs.  Yet it bears remembering that radical dreams and messianic visions are still alive and well in the Middle East.  Finishing Halevi’s book, I thought of the Iraqi writer Najm Wali’s characterization, in his Israeli travelogue Journey Into the Heart of the Enemy (written in Arabic, I read it in Hebrew and wish it would appear in English), of the role of Palestine in so much of the Arab world:

Palestine is the central subject in Arabic-speaking societies, a topic that has become a kind of myth, the essence of a lost Arab dream, the utopia for which the “downtrodden” Arabs strive, so that they might be able to live in peace in the lost land stolen by the Zionist gangsters, as the radio broadcasts, official newspapers, and textbooks say.  These slogans, that there can be no life without Palestine and no peace until every inch of it is returned, no peace until after the liberation of the Dome of the Rock from the hands of the “Zionist scum,” that it does not matter how many people must be sacrificed, even if it is more than the number the Israeli army uprooted from their ancestral villages, that ultimately the main thing is to fulfill the dream.

One can only hope that this messianic dream too will cool one day.

Halevi tells a story that is distinctively Israeli, yet various American parallels come to mind while reading it, and the book’s decidedly Israeli drama intertwines with cultural forces that played out globally during this period.  Indeed, Like Dreamers is partly the story of Israel’s soixante-huitards, or soixante-septards in this case.  The figure of Udi Aviv, a son of unrepentant Stalinist parents and the organizer of an anti-Zionist terrorist underground, is, for instance, both a contemporary and an ideological cousin of those red diaper babies in America, many of them Jewish, who would spearhead the New Left and move on to domestic terrorism in the Weather Underground.  The sense of crushing defeat that pervaded Israeli society following the Yom Kippur War—even though, from a military standpoint, the war was perhaps Israel’s most successful—resembles American attitudes towards Vietnam after the surprise attack of the Tet Offensive.  Gush Emunim and the settler movement also have similarities to American developments—sometimes in what we take to be the Religious Right in the U.S. (there was much idealistic ferment among young Evangelical Christians during the 1960s and 70s), and more broadly in the American counterculture and its spiritual quests, searches for meaning, and movements back to the land.  (Some products of that American counterculture would wind up moving to the Israeli settlements, some to the kibbutzim.)

Like Dreamers has been justly called a modern Israeli epic, which is not the same thing as being the epic of modern Israel (if such a thing were even possible).  There is simply far too much in that nation and its people that is not contained in this tale of the kibbutznik Left and the settlement Right, though these have been pivotal forces driving the country’s politics and no book offers as much perspective into them as this one.  Like Dreamers is also an often sobering study of human character, outlook and temperament, and how stonily resistant they are to change of any sort.

It will not be the least of the virtues of Like Dreamers if it brings renewed attention to Halevi’s two earlier books, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist: An American Story and At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, in many ways the sequel to the first.  While I don’t want to seem to offer faint praise to Halevi’s current blockbuster by lauding his earlier books, it’s worth saying that they constitute not one but two of the most important, moving, riveting, and wise pieces of writing by an American Jew (I think I can still call Halevi an American Jew).  The welcome news that another book by an American immigrant to Israel, Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic, is back in print makes me hopeful that the same treatment will be accorded to Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist.  I can think of many other superb memoirs by American Israelis, but Halevi’s first two books stand at the head of that line.