Two hours after finishing Yossi Klein Halevi’s magisterial, heartbreaking living history of modern Israel, Like Dreamers, I took my mother, who just had a stroke, and my six-year-old, to see a movie here in Orange County.
This was the first time my mother had been out of her home in three weeks and she cannot walk without assistance. The back of the theatre, where we needed to sit, was almost full. We took seats in the last row and one seat in the next-to-last row.
Sitting next to my mother was a Moslem woman wearing the traditional head covering. I said, “Salaam aleikum,” peace be upon you, and she, surprised and delighted, responded “Aleikum salaam” — and upon you, peace.
The woman could not have been more solicitous of my mother, who clearly needed assistance for every move. When the film ended, I tried to think of the Arabic word for thank you. I speak no Arabic.
I went back in my mind 30 years, to the time I attended a religious seminary or yeshiva in Jerusalem, and spent endless minutes on hold some evenings when calling the international operator. You got a recording in Hebrew, English, and Arabic, asking you to wait and wait and wait. The last word of the Arabic recorded message had somehow stuck in my brain.
Or at least I hoped it had.
“Shukran,” I said, and once again she was astonished.
She made a lovely gesture in response, bringing her hand to her eyes and slightly lowering her head. It surely meant, “You’re welcome.”
What made the exchange so poignant was just having read 538 pages of conflict, terror, and killing among Jews and Arabs, and among Jews and Jews, from the Six-Day War-actually, from the War of Independence of 1948. Well, from the time of the Holocaust. Well, in reality, the time of the prophets. No, make that the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Halevi’s thesis is that the paratroopers of the Six-Day War, whose lives, philosophies, marriages, and personal and political crises he follows in minute detail, gave Israel its greatest blessing and its greatest curse when they conquered East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The blessing: the Western Wall. The curse: the responsibility to rule hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs in the Biblical areas of Yehuda and Shomron, now and for all time.
Or at least until an Israeli government trade those lands, dismantling the settlements built by religious settlers, for the promise of peace.
Halevi’s book, the crowning jewel of modern Israeli historiography, is heartbreaking as it depicts error after error made by Jews of all stripes:
The kibbutzniks or collective farmers, placing their trust in Stalin and a Soviet Union that armed the Arabs.
Moshe Dayan, for surrendering control of the Temple Mount to the Arabs, shortly after the Six-Day War, in exchange for…exactly nothing.
The Israel Defense Forces, for allowing their planning, their preparedness, and even their military equipment to turn to rust in the years following 1967.
Dayan and the legendary Prime Minister Golda Meir, who allowed Israel to absorb a brutal blow the morning of Yom Kippur, 1973, when Egypt invaded and nearly destroyed the Jewish State, just so that the world would not view Israel as aggressors.
Ariel Sharon, Israel’s most courageous warrior, for bludgeoning into Beirut in the 1982 war, sinking Israel into a Vietnam-style quagmire and permitting the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Various Israeli leaders for trying too hard to make Israel like all the other nations (“normalization”) or trying too hard to make Israel be something different (“chosenness”).
Religious Jews for creating an environment that fostered a Baruch Goldstein, who shot up Muslim services in Hebron, killing 29, and for the Orthodox man who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
It is a story with no winners and too many losers, ultimately calling into question God’s hand in Israel’s miraculous six-day victory.
Halevi is not the first to debunk the mythology of June, 1967’s lightning victory over six Arab nations. Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, by Max Blumenthal, and 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East by Tom Segev do the same thing. But no other author tells the story from the hearts and spiritual passions of the Israelis who battled Arabs and each other to a virtual stalemate.
He writes with such love for almost every one of the paratroopers, kibbutzniks, politicians, military leaders, yeshiva students, and everyday Israelis he describes that the reader comes away feeling that virtually everyone was at least partially right…or utterly, disastrously wrong.
The future, Halevi suggests, is likely to be nothing more than repetitions of the past, a longing for peace and an exhaustion regarding war on the part of the Israelis, and an inexorable desire on the part of the Palestinians to regain the land they lost from 1948 to the present.
In fairness, the choices made by many governments and military leaders in the 47 years since the Six Day War, most notably our own, haven’t been much better than what the Israelis did. But the world never looks at Israel with fairness. Jews and non-Jews alike somehow expect more from the Jewish state. Halevi’s book demonstrates how the Holy Land somehow aligns intense moral courage with the highest level of discouragement possible.
Will peace ever come? Halevi’s answer seems to be that it will take a real miracle to bring true peace to the Middle East, not the disaster disguised as a miracle as many Israelis now view the Six Day War.