Like Dreamers

According to the information that came with my pre-publication review copy, Yossi Klein Halevi’s (YKH) new book will be released on October 1st.

Many Cross-Currents readers read the history of the founding of the State and its formative years (regardless of their attitude towards it) as Divine Providence made manifest. Books like O, Jerusalem and Six Days of War can be as chronicles of the unexpected Divine ninth-inning save – the classic deus ex machina without the machina. Perhaps this is reason enough to provide Cross-Currents readers with a treatment of this book written especially for them.

Of course, it will only be believers who will sense the hashgacha lurking in the margins of each page, and that is one of the themes of the book. Its subtitle is “The story of the Israeli paratroopers who reunited Jerusalem and divided a nation.” YKH follows individuals whose lives and ideologies branched off in sharply different directions after the heady days of seeming national unity after the June War. In particular, he shows the tension – suspended during the days of the battle, but lurking in the background even then – between the kibbutznikim in the IDF and the Religious Zionist soldiers.

I won’t call this essay a review, because I have not finished the book. Let’s call it a preview. Given the stack of reading on my night stand – much of it timely and important, and bound to show up on CC at some later date – I should not even have opened Like Dreamers, after receiving it through the efforts of a loyal CC reader who has worked with YKH for many years. I capitulated to curiosity, mostly because of my admiration for YKH, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for a while. (I believe that fellow Jerusalemite Jonathan Rosenblum has a closer relationship with him.) Many of our readers know him through his regular pieces in The New Republic, or through his earlier book. I know him for as a deep thinker with liberal sensibilities modified by the political realities of life in a country surrounded by savages. I have had occasion to call upon him to act as a foil to the glib mendacity of Palestinian propagandists, and he has responded with well-reasoned, non-hysterical arguments for the Israeli position. I can’t think of anyone I know who does it better. He is also an effective writer; I will be surprised if the book does not become a major success. With all these excuses in place, pushing Dreamers to the top of the pile became inevitable.

Without reading to the end and finding out if the butler did it or not, I was initially hesitant about heaping praise on a work that might come to some embarrassing conclusion about the religious sector. I know YKH to be an observant Jew, although likely not fitting the CC profile. I sought – and got – a bit of reassurance about where the book wound up. On that basis, I plunge ahead, and offer praise for what I have read so far. It has been fascinating and illuminating. I suspect that others will find some of these points as intriguing (and often depressing) as I did.

Descriptions of the kibbutz mentality solidified what I already knew.

For the founders of [kibbutz] Ein Shemer, physical labor was an act of devotion, virtually a religious ritual. Working the land of Israel became a substitute faith for the Jewish tradition they had abandoned; the socialist Zionist poet Avraham Shlonsky compared the roads being built by the pioneers to straps of phylacteries, and the houses to its black boxes. The kibbutz transformed holidays from religious events into celebrations of the agricultural cycle, just as they were in ancient Israel, except without G-d. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year but which lacked agricultural symbolism, was just another workday on Ein Shemer.

Many of us lump all the secular kibbutzniks together as apostates to godlessness. We gloss over the differences. YKH tells us about the Marxists who worshipped the Soviet god of world redemption and its prophet Stalin, and their conflict with Ben-Gurion’s pro-West Mapainiks. Tensions between these camps split kibbutzim.

For many in the Dati Leumi population, the astounding victory of the Six-Day War made sense only within the context of a hastening of national redemption. The beginnings of the settlement movement (as Jewish irredentism, rather than a security measure to keep a hostile Arab population in check) drew heavily on that assumption. According to YKH, the liberation of Yehuda and Shomron was prophetically foreseen (at least in the way some took it) by an unexplained outburst by R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook z”l on Yom Haatzmaut of 1967, a mere few weeks before the War. For two decades, R. Kook had encouraged his followers to completely embrace the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty, despite the secular preferences of the government. On that Independence Day, however, something was different. He decried the acquiescence of the government-to-be back in 1947 to the UN partition plan, ceding land to the Arabs.

Where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem – have we forgotten it? And where is our Jericho – have we forgotten it? And where is the other bank of the Jordan River? Where is every clod of earth? Every piece of G-d’s land? Do we have the right to cede even a centimeter of it? G-d forbid!

Nonetheless, the same R. Kook gently rebuffed Hanan Porat’s request right after the war that the seder limud now include the practical halachos of the avodah, in preparation for the further unfolding of the redemption. “Hanan, we will be learning the laws of war for many years to come.”

We read once more of the extraordinary metamorphosis of a country that had been divided against itself as the war progressed. “A religious soldier read aloud psalms extolling Jerusalem. When he paused, secular soldiers urged him to continue.” “A basement shelter crowded with ultra-Orthodox families became a first aid station. Old people brought blankets and water; modest women who never exposed their knees and elbows in public tore their dresses for bandages.” “Motta [Gur] was keenly aware that the battle for Jerusalem was different from other battles. He kept a detailed diary, recording not only military details but also poetic moments, like the anti-Zionist Hasid who helped evacuate wounded ‘Zionist’ soldiers.”

We read about how the spell began to dissipate, beginning with differences in the conduct of people in the immediate aftermath of the war. Some Jews looted Arab stores, while others prevented such looting at gunpoint. One soldier who had helped himself to some food in the midst of the battle sought out the store’s Arab owner after the cease-fire to repay him.

We watch as both kibbutzniks and religious soldiers reflect on the battles they recently waged, with the former expressing much uneasiness over their being compelled to kill and occupy, and the latter being more accepting of the moral persuasion of justified war. “Religious Zionists who proclaimed their belief in chosenness were, in effect, insisting on the right of the Jews to behave as any other nation, while secular Zionists who rejected chosenness were insisting that Jews be held to a higher standard.”

The differences between the groups would grow in the coming decades. From the ranks of the kibbutzniks who utterly rejected Jewish practice but retained some Jewish values in new forms, would arise leaders of the peace movement, and one black sheep who took up with Palestinian terrorists. (He first fell in with a tiny group of the most vigorous secular anti-Zionists, called Matzpen, “an uneasy coalition fo Maoists and Trotskyites and anarchists, united only by antipathy to Zionism….Only Zionist empowerment could have made young Jews feel safe enough, barely twenty-five years after the Holocaust, to despise Jewish power.”) From the ranks of the religious soldiers who placed all the country had experienced into a framework of a national redemption approaching the finish line, came the settlers. They first reclaimed – with the blessings of the government – traditional places of strong Jewish connection like Bethlehem, Hebron, and the Etzion Bloc (the last by the adult orphans of its defenders in 1948 who had been massacred after surrendering). In time, the push towards further settlement grew. After much more time passed, doubts about the policy also emerged, especially in the mind of R. Yoel bin Nun, said to be the eventual hero of the book.

The differences were not always about high-minded ideology. The leftist mark on the government left the country mired for decades in the same unworkable and unnatural experiment in mass socialism that failed, eventually, on the kibbutz.

In the Middle East’s military superpower there was a two year waiting list for a telephone – unless you had the right connections. Why was Israel so efficient during war, and so incompetent in peacetime? A modern nation was waiting to be born here, freed of the outmoded fantasy of an agrarian collectivist utopia.

At times, it got uglier. A key rite of passage of Yisrael Harel took place back in 1956 at a Religious Zionist protest against the Haifa municipality’s decision to open a trade exhibit on Shabbos. Thousands of frum Jews, including men in taleisim, walked through the streets singing songs of Shabbos. They walked straight into an ambush, clubbed over the head by goons of the mayor’s private militia. “To be beaten on Shabbat by Jewish thugs protected by Jewish police in a sovereign Jewish state – this was a violation fo the most basic requirements of peoplehood. Some of Yisrael’s friends were taking off their kippot…He would remain loyal to his tribe.”

At least to this reader, the book has begun to read like the study of the results of a complete deficit of traditional Judaism on the part of one group, and an excess of national zeal on the other. (One religious soldier who figures prominently in the book was told by his commanding officer that he would be excused from a training exercise on Shabbos. “No way,” he replied. “An exercise is also potentially a matter of life and death.”)

At one point, we read of a kibbutznik sent as a shaliach abroad, who took a preparatory class, which included basics he had not been aware of. “Why, he wondered, had his kibbutz education denied him the tools to at least understand the Judaism he wasn’t observing?” It struck me that many of us are also tragically undereducated. True, we have all benefited from quality education in what is far and away the ikar: our relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and His demands upon us. Yet, one of those demands is relating to the totality of the Jewish people – frum and not frum – who are the current heirs to His covenant with the Avos. Too often we relate to other Jews as an abstraction, thinking more of Knesses Yisrael as the mega-neshamah of the Jewish people, without understanding the individuals and groups that operate within a renascent, this-worldly, Jewish nation. Surely that ignorance is something that some of us, at least, are not happy about. Reading this book may slake the thirst some of us feel for understanding, until such time that the “like dreamers” of the pasuk will turn into az yemalei sechok pinu.

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5 Responses

  1. Nachum says:

    Why is refusing to abide by U.N. standards of warfare considered to be “acting like everyone else?” Just the opposite, I’d say, much as it may trouble the tender-hearted.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Imagine if an Orthodox group in Israel became numerous enough to win outright majorities in national elections and take the reins of power. This could happen down the road. Which such group is now the closest to being ready to assume all responsibility for domestic and foreign policy on behalf of the whole nation? Is that really close enough? If it’s not near ready, how will it ever get to that point?

  3. Raymond says:

    The whole phenomenon of the self-hating Jew is a very strange one to me, something that I do not truly understand. It is as if some Jews within our own ranks, have adopted the mindset of the very people who love to hate and murder us. I have a hard time believing that such a mindset is borne purely out of ignorance of our Jewish heritage. Then again, it never hurts to know more about our people, and knowledge is power, so educating our fellow Jews in the ways of Judaism, would seem to be at least one way to bring some self-hating Jews over to the positive side of things. Even so, I still do not see how anybody can use such ignorance as an excuse, given how many good Jewish books written in English that are available for anybody to read.

  4. David Kerner says:

    “… the socialist Zionist poet Avraham Shlonsky compared the roads being built by the pioneers to straps of phylacteries, and the houses to its black boxes.” A beautiful image. Just don’t chuck the actual putting on tefilin!

  5. mycroft says:

    I read the book as a result of your post. Very interesting-assuming one has infinite time it is worth reading. It reminds anyone who tends to think about Israel through their machene exclusively that other approaches are held by people who sacrificed for the Jewish people.

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