A Double Book Review: A Comparison and a Contrast


Two books in English about the history and current issues facing Israel have recently appeared.  Both Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Like Dreamers” and Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” have received enthusiastic reviews.  While both books share a panoramic view of Israeli history they differ greatly in perspective.  Surprisingly, despite coming from opposing political backgrounds, the authors basically agree on the need for a two-state solution for the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and on the difficulty in reaching an agreement with the Palestinian leadership. It is on the more fundamental question of a vision for Israeli society that the two disagree.

“Like Dreamers” examines Israel’s history since the Six Day War through the prism of seven paratroopers who were part of the unit that captured the old city of Jerusalem in 1967, and whose unit also played a critical role in reversing Israel’s fortunes during the Yom Kippur War.  Four of the soldiers come from the kibbutz movement, widely considered Israel’s elite; three are religious Zionists who became leaders in Gush Emunim and the settlers movement. They saw themselves as the successors to the fading Kibbutzim in leading the future of Israel.  The conventional wisdom is that the Six Day War created the split in Israel between settlers and their opponents. In fact it was the Yom Kippur War, with the conflicting messages that were learned from the initial Israeli failures and eventual victory, that solidified the opposing visions that divided Israel.  A loss of confidence in the Israeli Army’s invincibility was dealt with either through seeing Israel in Messianic terms, dependent on completing the Divine plan, or by focusing on the need to compromise with the country’s Arab neighbors.

All of Klein’s soldier-kibbutz members remain part of Israel’s political left, though not all remain living in a kibbutz. Udi Adiv, an extreme leftist, spends twelve years in an Israeli jail as a spy for Syria and later becomes an academic.  Meir Ariel becomes an Israeli under- appreciated Bob Dylan.  Avital Gura remains totally loyal to kibbutz life and becomes a famous conceptual artist.  Arik Achimon, though married to the daughter of the head of Mapam (The United Worker’s party), leaves behind his socialist ideals and becomes a pioneer of privatization in the Israeli aviation industry.  Klein Halevi’s greatest sympathy is with Achimon who moves beyond his original ideology.

Similarly, in discussing Yoel Bin-Nun, Yisrael Harel and Hannan Porat, the three founders of Gush Emunim, it is Bin Nun, who later becomes the great heretic of the settlers movement, whom Klein Halevi most appreciates. Common to both the settlers and the kibbutzniks is a vision of Israel that extends beyond a normal country where Jews are secure and control their own destiny.  Klein Halevi’s own sense of Israel makes him long for this deeper meaning while recognizing that neither vision is ultimately successful.

Critics of the book, while acknowledging its power and scope, are bothered by the fact that all the major characters are male Ashkenazic Jews. While this is perhaps a necessary result of exploring Israeli history through the experience of the paratroopers, the roles played by women, Sephardic Jews, Israeli Arabs, or the great Russian immigration to Israel are largely ignored.

Shavit’s book is even more ambitious as he begins his coverage of Israeli history starting in 1897, when his great-grandfather Herbert Bentwitch came from England to visit what was then Palestine.  Shavit traces the different aliyot and stages of building the land. Shavit appreciates the enormity of the achievement of the development of the state, highlighting in particular the fact that the country absorbed more immigrants in the first four years of the state than the total number of Jewish inhabitants already in the state.  He admires the attempt to create a utopian society through the kibbutz movement. Yet Shavit is always aware that these accomplishments and visions of the Zionists depended on ignoring the inconvenient fact that the land has Arab inhabitants. In particular, the description of the expulsion of the Arab residents of Lydda during the War of Independence is brutally honest.  Years of effort, of two peoples trying to live together harmoniously disappear within a few days. Without any attempt at apologetics or covering up of details, Shavit points out both the cruelty and the necessity of removing Arabs from a city in central Israel in order to make the new state viable.

Shavit is a strong opponent of the Jewish settlements in the territories captured after the Six Day War.  Yet he has to work hard to differentiate between the occupation of these territories and the previous expulsions of Arabs from their homes. Can one oppose living on what the partition plan designated as Arab land in the hills of the West Bank, while remaining comfortable living in what was a previously Arab neighborhood in Lydda? Shavit tries to resolve the difficulty by viewing the mistreating of the Arabs before 1967 as a tragic consequence of the noble goal of creating a Jewish state. However, the post-1967 settlements cannot be justified since a greater Israel is not a necessity for Jewish survival and makes it impossible to come to an accommodation with the Palestinian residents.

The book also analyzes the many other challenges facing Israel internally, as well as threats stemming from external enemies like Iran. The remarkable integration of Jews from Russia, Ethiopia and the Arabic countries has changed the earlier culture.  Israel’s pioneering founders came from a European background but the population of the state today is mainly Mediterranean, coming from a radically different cultural background.  The socialist ethos which produced all the political and military leaders before and during the early years of the state has long disappeared without a clear, unified replacement.

Shavit is sympathetic to many elements in Israeli society including the hedonists of the club scene in Tel Aviv despite the fact that they represent the opposite extreme from the kibbutz ethos and the national identity of Ben Gurion that he admires.  A striking exception is a clear distaste for anything religious.  The growing movement amongst secular Israelis to connect to Jewish texts is not mentioned.  Any discussion of Orthodox figures is purely political. In a chapter discussing the settlement of Ofra, Shavit opens with an interview with Yoel Bin-nun which captures none of his complexity. He examines the political philosophy of settler leaders in detail, focusing on the political differences between Pinchas Wallerstein, who believes in building settlements as a means of creating facts on the ground, and Yehuda Etzion, who wants to replace Israel’s democracy with the kingdom of Judea. He is fascinated by Shas leader Aryeh Deri and his charisma and political acumen, but needs to hear from a secular Sephardic woman to appreciate Sephardic dissatisfaction and alienation. However, Shavit does not examine the complexities of the religious motivations of the settler movement, or discuss the interesting intersection between religiosity and and Sephardic pride and identity.

The personal background of the two authors explains much of the contrasts between the books.  Klein Halevi is a religious American oleh for whom the Six Day War is a critical event in his life, though he actual made aliyah much later, after the first Lebanon War. Shavit on the other hand is a fourth-generation Israeli from a family far removed from observant ancestors. While Shavit is a major figure in Israeli journalism and political analysis and his book has been hailed as the most significant book about Israel in forty years, this disregard for Jewish tradition weakens his discussion of the meaning of Jewish identity.

I strongly recommend that anyone who wants to deepen his or her understanding of the historic accomplishments and profound challenges facing Israel read both books.