This fall two important books about Israel have appeared in English and both are worthy of extended discussion. One is Yossi Klein Halevi’s rightly acclaimed Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, which was reviewed in the December issue of COMMENTARY. The other is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which has gotten a lot more play in the secular media and the approval of some of the Jewish state’s usual critics as well as praise from many of its friends. While both have provoked a lively discussion, anyone looking for an essay putting both in perspective could do no better than to read Ruth Wisse’s piece on the two volumes in Mosaic Magazine.

Wisse provides a valuable pushback against some of the unwarranted praise that Shavit’s book has received and provides both praise and criticism of Halevi’s book. I agree with her on the first but would like to provide a slightly different perspective on the latter.

Wisse, a frequent and esteemed contributor to COMMENTARY, is one of the most astute writers about Jewish life. Her takedown of Shavit’s guilt- and fear-ridden approach to the triumph of Zionism, and in particular, her answer to his focus on the story of what happened in Lydda in 1948, is particularly valuable. She writes:

In his chronological march through Israel’s history, 1897, 1921, 1936, 1942, Shavit situates 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, not in Tel Aviv with David Ben Gurion reading the proclamation of independence under Herzl’s portrait, and not among the about-to-be savaged Jews of Jerusalem (in fact, not one of his chapters is situated in the capital, where Shavit has also lived part of his life), but in the battle over the Palestinian Arab town of Lydda (Lod), where he emblematically recasts the creation of the state of Israel as naqba, the “catastrophe” that is the founding myth of Arab Palestinians:

Lydda suspected nothing. Lydda did not imagine what was about to happen. For forty-four years it watched Zionism enter the valley: first the Atod factory, then the Kiryat Sefer school, then the olive forest, the artisan colony, the tiny workers’ village, the experimental farm, and the strange youth village headed by the eccentric German doctor who was so friendly to the people of Lydda and gave medical treatment to those in need…. The people of Lydda did not see that the Zionism that came into the valley to give hope to a nation of orphans had become a movement of cruel resolve, determined to take the land by force.

Like women who hold up bloody sheets to confirm a bride’s virginity, Shavit waves before his readers every bloody act committed by Jews in (what used to be known as) Israel’s war of independence. This chapter of the book was the one picked out to be featured, before the book’s publication, in the New Yorker, a venue in which Israel’s bloody sheets are regularly hoisted in place of its blue and white flag.

And what is “Lydda”? The researcher Alex Safian has taken the trouble to separate fact from propaganda in Shavit’s description of an alleged massacre in that town, second only to the more notorious alleged massacre in Deir Yasin. Starting with the Israelis’ cannon-bearing “giant armored vehicle”—actually, a recovered Jordanian light armored scout car the size of a Ford SUV—Safian deconstructs Shavit’s inflamed portrait to establish the following: the Arab inhabitants of Lydda first surrendered to Jewish soldiers and then, having retracted their surrender when it seemed that Jordanian forces had gained the upper hand, went about killing and mutilating Israeli fighters. This alone might be seen as cause enough for a “cruel” response at the height of a war launched by five invading armies against Jews who had been prevented by the British from preparing defenses and were relying on paramilitary forces of young volunteers. Once the town was secured, the Israelis let the Arabs leave, something both sides recognized would never have happened had victory gone the other way.

While acknowledging that Shavit deserves credit for recognizing before many of his fellow left-wingers at Haaretz that the Oslo peace process was a disaster, she rightly notes his inability to grasp the positive Jewish vision at the heart of the Zionist project or his lack of faith in the ability of his compatriots to resist the never-ceasing efforts of their foes to destroy their state. As she states:

Shavit ends his book as he begins it, with an image of concentric Islamic, Arab, and Palestinian circles closing in on Israel. But danger is different from tragedy, and the healthy fear that hostility inspires is different from the sickly fear of imagining that one is guilty of causing that hostility. Shavit fails to distinguish the triumph of Israel from the tragedy of the Arab and Muslim war against it—a war that began before 1948 and that has always been indifferent to concessionary adjustments of Israel’s boundaries or policies. The only harm Israelis ever did to Arabs—and I emphasize only—was to impose on the Palestinians a terrorist leader whom Israelis would never have allowed to rule over themselves. 

Wisse is more charitable to Halevi and it’s easy to understand why. Few books have offered more insight into what has happened in Israeli society since 1967. By telling the story of the lives of several of the paratroopers who ended the division of Jerusalem in 1967, he found the perfect vehicle for explaining both the Peace Now movement on the left as well as the settlement movement on the right. Their stories are remarkable and even readers who consider themselves well-versed in the history of modern Israel will find plenty here that is both fresh and full of insight about familiar topics as well as those that are less well known. It is nothing less than one of the best and most important books about Israel I’ve ever read.

Wisse notes one of its failings when she mentions that some readers are bound to find the large cast of characters confusing at times as well as the way the author bounces from one of their stories to the next and then back again. Like some classic Russian novels, this is a book that is best read with the page at the front of the volume with the “Who’s Who” permanently bookmarked. However, Wisse has a further criticism:

If there is a problem with this book’s back-and-forth method—and there is—the cause lies less in the disorder of its plot than in the flip side of the author’s eschewal of tendentiousness: namely, his studied disinclination to invest his plot with meaning. A book anchored in some of the most consequential battles for Israel’s life declines to tell us how or why those battles mattered. The same diffidence characterizes Like Dreamers’ tracing of the dissolution of the state’s regnant socialist ideology and the institutions of Labor Zionism, which we see crumbling from below as incrementally, as seemingly spontaneously, as Meir Ariel is drawn into the synagogue. As the book ends, in 2004, the former paratroopers are divided by clashing views on the fate of united Jerusalem, now claimed by the PLO as the locus of its capital; here again, in relaying the men’s arguments, the author strives for neutrality.

But why return to Israel’s “mythic moment” of victory in 1967 if one is unprepared to articulate what that moment signified, and what it continues to signify? If there is one thing the ideological wars over Israel legitimacy have taught us, it is that neutrality, impartiality, and indeterminacy are fodder for whoever and whatever is working actively against the very right of the Jewish state to exist.

In reading Halevi’s book, I share some of her frustration on this point. But any dissatisfaction on this point needs to be balanced by a recognition that what Halevi is doing in Like Dreamers is not so much a defense of Israel or a rationalization of its dilemma (as Shavit’s unsatisfactory book might well be described) as an attempt to explain the Jews to each other. Like the paratroopers who were divided along cultural and religious lines between the majority of kibbutzniks and the minority of modern Orthodox soldiers in the renowned 55th Brigade, both Israelis and American Jews alike need to transcend our differences. If Halevi chooses not to take sides in the arguments between Peace Now and Gush Emunim, it is because he, like some of his wiser subjects, has come to the conclusion that the left-right divide that has largely characterized Jewish and Israeli politics for the last generation has come to a dead end.

The events of the 20 years since Oslo have shown that the left was dead wrong about the Palestinians being willing to make peace and the right was mistaken to think that Israel could absorb the West Bank—Judea and Samaria, which form the heart of the Jewish homeland—without cost or with impunity. The battle facing both Israelis and their friends is not about where Israel’s borders should be or whether the settlements are good or bad, but whether the Jewish state should continue to exist. Like Dreamers calls upon us not to take sides in the deep division in Jewish life that arose after the paratroopers’ 1967 heroism but to rise above it in order to do what is necessary to preserve their sacrifices. Halevi does not tell us what to think about Israeli politics either in the past or the future, but he does remind us that those who focus exclusively on the old arguments are missing the point about the state’s current challenges.

As such, Halevi’s book is, perhaps even more than a pointed critique such as the one Wisse has given us, the perfect answer to Shavit’s ambivalence about Israel’s future. Halevi may not supply us with the conclusion that both Wisse and I would have preferred. But he has given his readers an essential starting point for a journey in the right direction.