A Pietist’s Bookshelf

by John E. Phelan Jr.

Like Dreamers
Yossi Klein Halevi
HarperCollins, 2013

My Promised Land
Ari Shavit
Speigel and Grau, 2013

During a recent stay in Jerusalem I heard the following bit of proverbial wisdom more than once in varying forms: If you come to Israel for a week, you go home and write a book. If you stay for a month, you go home and write an article. If you live in Israel for a year, you no longer know what to write.

All people and places are complex. All human communities have tangled and fraught histories. But the tangled histories and intractable complexities of Israel are unique. Other nations and peoples suffer from similar struggles over land, identity and religion. And in many of those nations the struggles are much more violent and destructive than in Israel. So why do the struggles of Israel garner so much of the world’s attention? Why do incidents that would be local news in most places, at the most, become international news when it comes to Israel? What is it about Israel?

Friday afternoon in Jerusalem is a mad scramble. The shops and grocery stores are filled. Israeli Jews hurry home, their arms filled with flowers and groceries. The Sabbath is coming and the celebrative Sabbath meal must be prepared before it arrives. As it grows dark, the city grows quiet; its frantic pace slows. On my walks to share the Sabbath meal with new friends, I would hear snatches of song, chanted prayers and laughter. On Saturday morning the city was still. In Jewish neighborhoods nearly all the shops and restaurants were closed. You could almost feel the collective sigh of relief. The peace was palpable. But, of course, this is only part of the story.

Just before I began my sojourn in Jerusalem random stabbings of Jews began. The Jerusalem Post app on my phone kept alerting me that yet another Jew had been assaulted in East Jerusalem or the West Bank. I continue to get notices from the Post. In fact, as I was writing this piece the Post informed me: “Palestinian teens stab two Israelis in West Bank supermarket attack.” One of the victims died. The two fourteen-year-old assailants were shot and wounded. There were perhaps fortunate. Frequently the stabbers are killed outright. Israel is a place of quiet and holy Sabbaths; a place where Jewish life, thought, art and scholarship flourish. It is also a place where the occupation of the West Bank and mutual hostility between Jews and Palestinians produce misery and fear for both parties. And it has become tragically clear that there is no easy road to rapprochement and peace.

If you ask Israelis and Palestinians how they got into this mess you will obviously get very different answers. Two distinguished Israeli journalists recently set out to explore the question from different perspectives using very different methods. In My Promised Land Ari Shavit recounts the Zionist adventure in Israel beginning with the visit of his great-grandfather, Henry Bentwich, to the Holy Land. Bentwich was a wealthy and prominent citizen of Great Britain. He was taken with the possibilities of the Land as a Jewish homeland. When he arrived in the Land he was overwhelmed. The problem, Shavit suggests, was that Bentwich did “not see the Land as it is. Riding in the elegant carriage from Jaffa to Mikveh Yisrael, he did not see the Palestinian village of Abu Kabir.” He could not see that another people were occupying the land of his ancestors (Shavit, 12).

Everyone was not as blind as Bentwich, of course. Some saw the Palestinians as a problem to be solved. Others saw them as potential partners in the Land’s flourishing. But from the earliest days of the pioneering socialists of the kibbutzim, people within both communities distrusted and feared one another. Shavit describes how the early, fledgling, mostly secular Jewish communities carved out a place for themselves, contending with hostile land and frequently hostile neighbors. He describes the shock of the Shoah, the founding of the state, and the arrival of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, remnants of the shattered Jewish communities of Europe. He describes the surprising victory in 1967 and the more difficult victory of 1973. But he argues that through all of this the Israelis and Palestinians still didn’t really see each other. In the words of Israeli novelist Amos Oz, “By the early 1990s it was all very different. Reality had struck and changed both Israelis and Arabs. The 1973 war made the Arabs realize they could not take us by force. The 1987-92 Palestinian uprising made the Israelis realize there is a Palestinian people and they will not go away. They are here, and they are here to stay. After a hundred years of mutual blindness we suddenly saw each other. The illusion that the other would disappear was gone” (Shavit, 259).

Shavit’s book is in many ways a very personal work. It grew out of his family history and his journalistic experience. The most controversial part of his book is his account of the actions of the Israeli forces in Lydda in 1948. He describes how Palestinians were assaulted, shot and driven from their homes. One only has to do a simple Internet search of Shavit’s name to turn up angry denunciations of this chapter of the book. But this, Shavit would perhaps argue, only illustrates the very problem he is trying to address. “We Israelis face a Herculean mission. To live here we all have to redefine a nation and divide a land and come up with a new Jewish Israeli narrative. We will have to restore a rundown state and unify a shredded society and groom a trustworthy civilian leadership. After ending occupation, we’ll have to establish a new, firm, and legitimate iron wall on our postoccupation borders. Facing the regional tide of radical Islam, Israel will have to be an island of enlightenment. Facing seven circles of threat, Israel will have to be moral, progressive, coherent, creative, and strong” (Shavit, 417). Both the Israelis and Palestinians need a new common narrative. They really need to both see and hear one another. How all this might be accomplished, Shavit does not say. But loving his country, his family, his home, he can only describe his hopes.

I found Shavit’s book fascinating and well written. I found Yossi Klein Halevi’s book a revelation. I was already familiar with Halevi’s earlier work, especially his wonderful At the Entrance of the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. But I was unprepared for the scope and power of Like Dreamers. It is a big book, nearly 600 pages. But I found myself unable to put it down. During the day I was working at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Every spare moment and all evening were taken up with Like Dreamers. Yossi Klien Halevi is a fellow at the Hartman Institute and when I met him near the end of my stay I told him he had cost me a lot of sleep! His is also a personal book. The first chapter describes Halevi’s trip with his father, a holocaust survivor, from the United States to Israel in the wake of the 1967 war. He describes the palpable fear of the wider Jewish community at the beginning of the war and its dazed joy at the end. Key to the victory and, especially, the conquest of Jerusalem, were the Israeli paratroopers. They were memorialized in a still famous photograph that graces the front of Halevi’s book. “The Israel I encountered that summer belonged to the paratroopers,” he writes. “The photograph of the three paratroopers at the wall [of the old city] was everywhere.” Like Dreamers is the story of this diverse group of paratroopers and how they shaped, for better and for worse, contemporary Israel.

Modern Israel was built on the foundation of old-line socialists from the kibbutzim, religious Jews with visions of a land prepared for Messiah, and immigrants from places as diverse as Ethiopia and Russia. As the state developed, tensions rose between the religious and secular Jews as well as between the old socialists and the new Israeli entrepreneurs. But the conflicts were perhaps greatest between Jews, secular or religious, who wanted the entire land of Israel in Jewish hands and those who were willing to share it with the Palestinians. Halevi tells this complex and fascinating story by describing the lives and convictions of the very paratroopers that put Jerusalem in Jewish hands. Their actions, as his subtitle puts it, “reunited Jerusalem and divided a nation.”

Included are the stories of Yoel Bin-Nun, a religious Jew who was instrumental in the foundation of what is now called the “settlement movement”; Udi Adiv, who ended up in prison for consorting with the Syrians; Arik Achmon, an Israeli entrepreneur who argued for a more open economic system; Meir Ariel, an Israeli singer-songwriter who became a spiritual seeker. One of the great strengths of Halevi’s book is that he lets these men tell their own stories. They are secular and religious; political conservatives and political radicals; they live from very different narratives about Israel’s past as well as its future. The ’67 war formed them as well as the nation. The results of that war and the subsequent actions of those who fought it, good and bad, helpful and unhelpful, continue to shape the ongoing conversation about Israel and its future.

Over the last few years I have read a good number of books about the recent history of Israel. Like Dreamers is without doubt the best. Halevi describes great historical events—wars, uprisings, assassinations, and political machinations. But by using the stories of these diverse and at times maddening men, he sets these great events in a human context. You can begin to appreciate why the various players made their often fateful decisions, even if you disagree with them. You may even find yourself liking some of these men whose political positions you seriously question. This is one of the book’s great gifts. It does not simply treat abstract religious or political stances, but very human, very flawed men and women. Within their stories are the glory, the tragedy and the hope that is Israel. Like Dreamers has my highest recommendation.