Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Israel's Duel on the Sun

Israel's Duel on the Sun


TEL AVIV — Israel goes off daylight saving time on Sunday, like countries in Europe do. The clock will take a small step backward, but Israel will take a giant leap forward.

Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse

Shmuel Rosner

By order of the Knesset, Israel’s D.S.T. season was extended to 212 days, instead of an average of 182 days according to a law from 2005. Public pressure and political changes finally made it possible for the government to enact what most Israelis wanted long ago.

Even as Israelis are becoming increasingly attached to Jewish tradition and religion, as the Israel Democracy Institute has found, they are becoming less patient with religious dictates from pious politicians and Orthodox rabbis.

Most Israelis — 73 percent of them, according to a poll taken on May 30 — have been wanting to extend D.S.T. so that they can have light during more of their active hours, save on electricity and drive more safely. (Not all these expected benefits have been proved.) But ultra-Orthodox politicians have opposed the idea on the grounds that longer days make religious practices more burdensome.

Morning prayers can only begin with sunrise, but if sunrise comes later because of D.S.T. (this Saturday in Tel Aviv dawn comes at 6:53), some people might have difficulty completing their prayers and getting to work on time.

But few Israelis pray every morning, and so the religious establishment has brandished Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as its main anti-D.S.T. argument. Surely the some 70 percent of Israelis who say they observe that holy day wouldn’t want to have the fast end later in the evening?

In 1980, Israel had just 42 days of D.S.T. after a court ruled that the country had to change its clocks and a religiously minded interior minister ordered an absurdly short “trial period” of just six weeks. There were also years of no D.S.T. at all. The tussle between the Orthodox and secularists has meant a roller coaster of changes. Israel’s D.S.T. season lasted 170 days in 2007, 191 in 2008, 184 in 2009, 170 in 2010, 185 in 2011 and 177 in 2012.

In 2005, a law was passed ordering D.S.T. to be implemented, beginning with the last Friday before April 2 and extending until the last Sunday before Yom Kippur — in order to make the painful final hours of the 25-hour fast seem a little brighter.

But while Jewish holy days follow the lunar Jewish calendar and fall on different days each year, summers and winters follow the Gregorian calendar — meaning that in some years, ending D.S.T. before Yom Kippur would mean changing the clocks in early September, while in other years, when Yom Kippur falls late on the Gregorian calendar, it would mean changing them in October.

The D.S.T. season in Israel historically has been short when ultra-Orthodox political parties were key actors in the Israeli coalition, or when Orthodox politicians were in charge of the Interior Ministry, which governs the clock.

In 1999, when the ultra-Orthodox Shas party was in charge of the ministry, D.S.T. was just 154 days. A year later, with Shas weakened and a secular minister in office, D.S.T. lasted 175 days.

Last year, amid rising pressure from the public and secular legislators, the Knesset extended the D.S.T. season for 2013, based on the recommendations of a special committee. The ultra-Orthodox parties (and the interior minister) still had the final word, though, and D.S.T was ordered to end before Yom Kippur.

But the 2012 extension was never even enacted. With the ultra-Orthodox parties out of a new coalition, another committee was appointed, this time by the new, secular, minister. It recommended that D.S.T. last from the end of March until the end of October.

And there is some reason to hope that this will be a more lasting change. For one, the current governing coalition doesn’t include an ultra-Orthodox party. So its decision better reflects the majority view and not political shenanigans.

The second difference is more subtle: A new generation of Israelis has proved in recent years that it has lost patience with government favoritism. Israeli politicians are therefore becoming much more careful not to defy the public on matters that might reek of catering to religious interest groups.

Last month at the synagogue, as Yom Kippur was drawing to a close, I was standing next to the man who blows the shofar, an instrument made of animal horn, to mark the end of the holy day. We were chanting the final verses. I was peeking at my watch. It was 7:25 p.m., I was thirsty and hungry, and it seemed late. And it was.

But at least one prayer had been answered. Israelis had proved once and for all that Yom Kippur is no excuse for turning off the lights too early in the fall, and that the country’s majority — which often bickers about ultra-Orthodox power and influence — can win the battles they choose, and, in this case, unchain themselves from the forces of darkness.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor for The Jewish Journal and chief nonfiction editor for Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, a leading Israeli publisher.


Monday, October 28, 2013

Helping Beyond its Borders: Israel’s Humanitarian Aid to Syrian Refugees in Jordan

Helping Beyond its Borders: Israel’s Humanitarian Aid to Syrian Refugees in Jordan

October 23, 2013

This past August, Near East Report published an account of Israel’s military bringing injured Syrians across its border for medical treatment.

Despite decades of hostility from its northern neighbor, Israel has responded to Syria’s tumultuous humanitarian crisis by quietly opening its world-class hospitals to those marred by the violence.

As the situation worsens and the death toll rises, the task of providing aid to Syria’s victims has become increasingly difficult. Syria’s refugee crisis continues to intensify, with more than 2.1 million Syrian refugees flooding transient camps throughout the region—the majority of whom depending entirely on aid for survival. Yet, while the Israel Defense Forces work to bring afflicted Syrians into its emergency rooms, Israel’s humanitarian agencies are engaging in comprehensive relief efforts for refugees beyond state lines.

In Jordan, where 500,000 refugees have poured in from the north and an estimated 3,000 Syrians are entering the country daily, an Israeli organization is quietly distributing vital aid to refugees in need.

For over a decade, IsraAID has worked to help people all over the world overcome crises by providing vital support and assistance. According to its mission statement, the Israeli humanitarian agency operates to bring millions “from destruction to reconstruction, and eventually, to sustainable living.” As hundreds of thousands of Syrians flood across the Jordanian border, IsraAID is extending its hand. In Jordan’s northern region, tens of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in what are now overcrowded, disease-filled and crime-ridden camps.

Outside the refugee camps, Syrians stand in line waiting to be greeted by truckloads of purple bags, delivered by Jordanian NGOs that have partnered with Israeli agencies. Each bag is filled with lentils, rice, sugar and other dry foods—a small but critical byproduct of charitable donations from Jewish groups around the world.

Earlier this month, The Times of Israel interviewed a number of volunteers taking part in the relief efforts.

“We are concerned for their livelihood,” said the director of an international humanitarian organization partnering with IsraAID. But just as those involved in Israel’s aid missions face the challenges one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades, they must likewise be constantly vigilant of the political tensions between Israel and Syria that complicate their efforts.

“You see a lot of Americans doing humanitarian work all over the world,” says Mickey Alon, a volunteer with IsraAID. “It’s a bit more complicated for Israelis to do it.”

Several Jordanian NGOs, for instance, are forced to remain silent about their involvement with Israeli aid organizations. They fear the Syrian government’s retributions upon refugees’ family members who remain in Syria. In many cases, individuals have faced gruesome punishment once their relatives’ support from Israel is discovered. Yet for IsraAID and its volunteers, people are suffering. This is enough of a reason to continue the work, despite the obstacles in play.

“For us, this has nothing to do with politics at home…We come because we are people who want to do humanitarian work,” says Alon. For the many volunteers at IsraAID, distributing vital assistance to the men, women and children escaping Syria’s bloodshed is simply a necessity.

Humanitarian aid organizations within the United States work with countries and communities in need throughout the world with relatively little hindering their global reach. Israel, however, faces challenges unlike most countries in the world. Amid the constant threat of regional neighbors seeking its destruction, and despite the challenges presented along each of its borders, the Jewish state remains steadfast in its commitment to human values, bettering the world and preserving life. The tireless work of IsraAID across its eastern border is proof of this reality, ensuring that even the citizens of nations whose governments oppose Israel’s existence are entitled to the very freedoms Israel promotes.

These values embody the key partnership between the United States and Israel. The strength and security of the Jewish state allows its citizens to serve as beacons of democracy in a region where dictators can deprive their citizens of the most basic, inalienable rights.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Israel’s newest general, 100 years old, finally heals his wounds

Israel’s newest general, 100 years old, finally heals his wounds

For two-thirds of his long life, Yitzhak Pundak battled to restore the reputation of the defenders of Kibbutz Nitzanim in the War of Independence. Finally, as he neared his centenary, he succeeded, and a promise by Moshe Dayan was honored at long last

Israel’s newest general, a 100-year-old man who received his longed-for promotion in August, was exasperated. Seated on the couch in his Kfar Yona home, beyond earshot of his in-house caretaker, he lamented the roller coaster of calm and crisis on Israel’s southwestern border. “Give me Gaza,” Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yitzhak Pundak said, “and I’ll do just what I did back when I was the governor.”

That was in 1971. At the time, Pundak said, the locals would ask his permission to play soccer. They’d ask him to ref the matches. The border was quiet. The train ran daily from Gaza to Tel Aviv.

Terror, he went on, would be met with a firm hand. Here’s what he would not be doing: fortifying more Israeli homes and bombing tunnels. “People fire at you and you bomb their tunnels. “How nice,” he said in his broad Polish accent, stretching the Hebrew vowels. “How nice.”

No, he would open up the Strip and offer residents ample employment, and he would wage war each time a rocket was fired on Israel to force the Palestinians “to sit quietly.”

“But I’m 100 years and 2 months old. What do I know?”

Well, he knows that Israel has “no choice but to destroy what they have there” in Iran. He knows that it’s not certain that today’s IDF has the ability to prevail under the desperately strained conditions of the War of Independence — in his brigade of 2,000 soldiers, 675 were killed. And he knows that this year, in some ways, has been the best of his life.

In August, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of the IDF General Staff, awarded him the leaf-and-sword rank of general. Furthermore, after considerable searching, he found a man willing to write the full history of the battle of Kibbutz Nitzanim. It was there that soldiers under his command succumbed to a far superior enemy force during the War of Independence. And it was there that those soldiers returned, facing the unburied bones of their loved ones and the derision of a young nation.

“Pundak told me, ‘I’m 99 years old and I can’t die until the wrong is righted,’” Uri Milshtain, the author of the resulting book, “Left to Die,” said to this reporter.

For Milshtain, the story of Nitzanim is one of “political filth” and ideological bigotry. The Givati Brigade commander, Col. Shimon Avidan, was a communist, affiliated with the Hashomer Hatzair movement, and the members of Nitzanim were not. In consequence, the kibbutz was ill-prepared for the Egyptian onslaught and ill-spoken of after it.

Pundak, left, with Ben-Gurion in May 1956 (photo credit: IDF Archive/Ministry of Defense)

For Pundak, the story is personal.

In order to explain — and Gen. Pundak insisted on explaining properly — he began with the Russo-Japanese War. Pundak’s father, an Orthodox Jew and a Zionist, had fought for the tsar. His direct commander during the war was Joseph Trumpeldor.

The first Jew to receive an officer’s commission in the Russian army, Trumpeldor lost his left arm in combat and went on to die defending the northern Galilee village of Tel Hai, becoming a sort of sad Paul Revere in Israeli lore. Pundak’s father lost two fingers during the war but returned to Bialystok with an understanding of what it means to be a Jew. Don’t die for the sanctification of God’s name, he told son Yitzhak. Live for it.

“And if you want to live, you have to know how to fight,” Pundak added.

He went to a regional grade school and, as one of four Jewish students, was ceremoniously pummeled every day. As a boy, he recalled lying on the ground, watching his own blood redden the snow, and vowing that he would not let that happen again. He crawled home, took a large metal key from his father’s shed and hid it in his pants. The next day, when the boys approached him, he beat them with the metal key.

“After that, we were friends,” he said. “They said: ‘You’re a Jew? You’re not a Jew. You’re one of us.’”

He joined the fire scouts and participated in paramilitary training. But in the end, he decided his place was in Israel. Immediately upon arrival, in 1933, he joined the Haganah.
The first wound

In 1947, David Ben-Gurion called Pundak to a meeting and appointed him to the post of battalion commander. Most of his training until that point had taken place in a schoolhouse in the hours between darkness and midnight. “I knew what it was to be a battalion commander?” he asked rhetorically.

He accepted the post nonetheless. His deputy was Zvi Zur, who became the commander of the IDF in 1961. Pundak was given three months to assemble the battalion and was told he could choose from among the youth of south Tel Aviv, an area settled by poor immigrants, many of whom, he said, “didn’t even have belts to keep up their pants.” It was not the pick of the Zionist litter.

They muddled their way through the early days of the war, some of his soldiers only learning to fire a weapon while in battle. Their only success was in the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv, he said.

On March 1, 1948, two-and-a-half months before Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, his brigade commander ordered him down to the south. His battalion consisted of 450 soldiers, who were asked to hold a 45-kilometer-long line.

Their first operation, on March 13, ended tragically. Men under his command, traveling in a convoy of armored vehicles, took fire from the Arab village of Falluja and, without any radio equipment and amid the confusion of the night, opened fire on an oncoming force, killing seven men and wounding 13, all of them Israeli, who had come out to their aid.

Pundak, third from right, with, from right: Eli Zeira, Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Jibli, Moshe Dayan and Zvi Zamir (photo credit: IDF Archive/Ministry of Defense)

This was during the first stage of the war, he explained, which was fought on the roads and within the small towns. In May, the second stage of the war began, with the invasion of the Arab armies and the fight taken to the three main Israeli cities.

During a break in the battles, in June, Pundak met with the families of the dead soldiers. They met in Kibbutz Gat. He told them exactly what had happened and answered their questions. “I told them how our battalion killed their sons.” Then he unfolded a letter of resignation and showed it to them. “You say the word and I’ll sign it,” he recalled telling them. They spoke for four hours. They cried, they hugged. None demanded that he put his signature on the letter. “That was the first of my wounds,” he said. “And I was able to heal it then.”

The other two took 65 more years.

‘A singular act of heroism’

The one that has defined his life since is Nitzanim — one of the kibbutzim that fell during the War of Independence and the only one to have been openly derided.

The settlement was founded on the eighth night of Hanukkah, in December 1943, on a plot of land situated perhaps halfway between Gaza and Jaffa. The Arab villages of Isdud [Ashdod] and Majdal [Ashkelon] flanked it to the north and south and it was topographically inferior to all its surroundings, save the sea. The nearest Jewish village, Be’er Tuvia, was 12 kilometers away.

During the spring of 1948, as the Egyptian army advanced, Nitzanim came under siege. The road was inaccessible. Supplies came rarely, either by foot or dumped out of an airplane. Sniper fire into the kibbutz and ambushes on the road were daily occurrences. Worse, despite the fact that the kibbutz was situated in the middle of the coastal road linking Gaza to Tel Aviv, and was the sole Hebrew settlement on the coastal route all the way to Ayanot, near Tel Aviv, the Haganah, and the commander of the brigade, Col. Shimon Avidan, decided not to fortify the kibbutz. Instead, Pundak said, Avidan focused on the inland route north and fortified the villages there.

On April 20, the kibbutz came under Egyptian attack. The assault lasted 20 hours and Nitzanim nearly fell. Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood companies, along with hundreds of local Palestinian militia, attacked the kibbutz, crawling up to the perimeter under the cover of machine gun fire and mortar shells.

Kibbutz Nitzanim after the bombardments (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Pundak came to the aid of the kibbutz, attacking a nearby Arab village and drawing the Egyptian fighters away, but lost 12 men. Four of them, he told Milshtain, fell into enemy hands. They were decapitated; their heads were displayed on posts in Majdal.

One month later, on May 16, with the Egyptian army camped nearby, the command, after considerable deliberation, ordered the transport of the children out of the kibbutz, Milshtain wrote. None of the 33 kids were over 4. At night, the men and women of the kibbutz, after giving the children a sleeping pill, walked six miles through the fields with the children on their shoulders. It may have been the only such transport during the war. Members of Kibbutz Be’er Tuvia met them in the fields one mile outside their kibbutz and received their children. In exchange, they handed mines to the adults.

On June 2, despite the protestations of many members, the women were ordered to leave. All but 10 complied. This left 57 male kibbutz members, 10 female members, 30 of Pundak’s soldiers and 44 inductees, who had been drafted one week earlier. They had 78 rifles, few of which worked reliably, four machine guns, one mortar and one improvised radio, which managed to send a total of three broadcasts during the battle.

After days of mortar fire, on June 7, an Egyptian battalion [which included a young company commander by the name of Gamal Abdel Nasser], along with a rifle company, a demolitions platoon, four tanks, 13 armored half-tracks, several mortar and machinegun squads, all covered by aerial support and artillery cannons, launched a final attack on the kibbutz.

Egyptian aircraft and artillery pounded the kibbutz from midnight until daybreak. In the morning, the tanks and infantry advanced on all sides, further thinning the ranks of those on the perimeter and squeezing the remaining soldiers and kibbutz members to “the Castle,” an old Arab house made of stone. By 3 p.m., after the northern perimeter finally fell, the company commander, Avraham Schwartzmann, ordered all troops into the Castle. The plan was to break out to the open sands to the south. The first two groups that tried to cross the open ground were gunned down. Schwartzmann, with little ammunition, dozens of dead and many wounded, and realizing that it was either death or surrender, decided to wave the white flag.

Pundak received only two of the three messages sent from within the Castle. The first, at 10 a.m., was an SOS, which he didn’t get; the second, at around 3 p.m, said “the Egyptians are at the gate and ammunition is running low”; and the third, at 4 p.m., revealed the beginning of a drama that Pundak characterized as “a singular act of heroism.”

Mira Ben-Ari with son, Dani (Photo credit: wikicommons)

Mira Ben-Ari, a radio operator and a mother, who had parted with her young son weeks earlier and tucked a note into his pocket, sent word over the radio — the third message — that the Egyptians had broken into the kibbutz and that she was destroying the radio and going out to fight. She joined Schwarzmann. At first, he tried to surrender from afar but was shot. Then he removed his white undershirt and waded out in the yard. He told Ben-Ari to remain behind but she insisted on accompanying him. The two approached a group of three Egyptian officers, Pundak said. One shot Schwartzmann dead, dropping him at Ben-Ari’s feet and leaving her alone against the three. The Berlin-born woman dragged her commanding officer toward the Egyptians, drew her sidearm and killed the shooter at point-blank range. The other two killed her.

The remaining members of the kibbutz were taken prisoner. They were paraded through Majdal and Gaza and finally housed in the notorious Abassiya Prison in Egypt. They were incarcerated for nine months. In the beginning it was awful, then it got better. There was even a final party together with the guards before returning home. But none of them had any idea what had happened in their absence.

On the day after the battle, the brigade commander, Avidan, published a letter from Givati’s education officer, Abba Kovner, the partisan and poet. Under the title “Failure,” he wrote: “Surrender — so long as the body lives and the last bullet in the magazine yet breathes — is a disgrace! Departing to the captivity of the invader — is a disgrace and death!” The letter was distributed far and wide.

Though Kovner had acknowledged that “not all of the details have reached our hands,” even Pundak believed the underlying message of the letter: that the kibbutz had meekly folded. The word Nitzanim became synonymous with surrender and capitulation. Few came out to receive the POWs when they returned in March 1949. The bodies of their fallen comrades, Pundak said, had been left for the animals.

One man, whose son spoke to this reporter, told his family that he had returned from captivity, taken a bus to his parents’ Tel Aviv apartment and found a draft notice waiting on his table. Chaim Graniewitz, who had enlisted as a 16-year-old, went on to serve three more years in the IDF. In 1957, he moved to England. He became a cantor at the Dean Street Synagogue. “My dad was an Olympic talker, a great raconteur,” David Graniewitz said, “but he never spoke about this.” The shame, coupled with the guilt of surviving, silenced him.

In a photo taken of the Israeli POWs, Chaim Graniewitz is top right (Photo credit: Courtesy: David Graniewitz)

In 2006, David, an English teacher in Jerusalem, hosted his father at his home for Passover. Praying at the Western Wall, his father bumped into a man named Avraham Habshush, who had served along with him in Nitzanim. Habshush told Chaim that Pundak gathered the veterans together every Remembrance Day in Nitzanim. When he came back from that first meeting, “at age 75, he finally started to talk,” David said.

Pundak has spent years trying to rehabilitate the kibbutz’s good name. In 1959, he forced the army to re-investigate the battle and to publish its findings. In 1993, he established a monument to female heroism in the rebuilt kibbutz, marking the bravery of Ben-Ari and two other women who were killed. In 2001, he buried his wife there, alongside the mass grave for the 33 fallen during the war, and has set aside a patch for himself beside her. And this year he witnessed the publication of Milshtain’s book. “When I was 99 years old I decided that a book had to be written about the battle for Nitzanim,” Pundak said. “Because before I go the way of all man, I must see this truth spread among the masses.”
And finally…

Several months later, the last of the old wounds was healed. Pundak has for years kept a letter from Moshe Dayan promising that he would be promoted to general. This was in 1954, when Dayan was chief of the General Staff and just before the Lavon Affair became public. In the aftermath, Lavon, the defense minister, did not promote him to general and neither did anyone else.

In recent years he sent requests to three chiefs of the General Staff and two defense ministers. Nothing. Then came Gantz. “All of a sudden I get a call from the secretary of the chief of the General Staff, telling me I’ve been awarded general’s rank,” he said.

He asked what he could do. They told him to stay put, that a tailor would be arriving shortly to provide him with a new uniform.

When I asked to see it, he called to his caretaker in English and told him “the dress uniform.” The man brought it out on a hanger and Pundak, seated on the couch, held it to his chest.

Israel becomes major partner in EU satellite program

Israel becomes major partner in EU satellite program

Local companies and academics will now have security clearance to work on Galileo, a colossal space project. BY DAVID SHAMAH

Artist's rendition of a Galileo satellite (Photo credit: Courtesy)

At a gala event Monday evening in Jerusalem, Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri and the head of the Israel Space Agency, Menachem Kidron, signed an agreement with European Union officials to give Israeli researchers and companies access to projects associated with the EU’s Galileo satellite program.

Officially called the Cooperation Agreement on a Civil Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) between the European Community and its Member States and the State of Israel, the deal was inked on the EU side by Antonio Tajani, Vice President of the European Commission, responsible for Industry and Entrepreneurship, and the incoming EU Ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen.

By the end of the decade, EU officials expect to have some 30 satellites in orbit, doing everything from checking out weather and climate patterns to monitoring outer space and providing GPS services to the world. While the satellites put into space by the US and Russia are perfectly serviceable, EU officials said, the European GNSS will be the only system to provide services like GPS from satellites run by a civilian organization instead of a military. In addition, the new satellites will provide more coverage, bandwidth, and availability of satellite-based services, as the demand for such services continues to grow.

As an official EU program that is not military in nature, the Galileo project will be open to absorbing technology from a wide variety of sources. As a result of the new agreement, Israel will be one of those sources, Israeli space officials said. Israeli companies will now be able to participate in tenders to supply software and hardware to companies involved in the project, and Israeli scientists and academics will be able to initiate and participate in studies and experiments that will be part of the Galileo program.

Israel had negotiated a similar but more-limited agreement with the EU about 15 years ago, but it was shelved when the European GNSS program faced difficulties getting off the ground. The new agreement is a major improvement over the old one, officials said, as it gives Israeli academics and companies security clearance to actually work on portions of the project.

Speaking at the event on Monday, Peri thanked Tajani for his efforts in fostering the agreement with Israel. “This agreement is a milestone in relations between Israel and the EU, and shows our mutual admiration for each other’s research and development capabilities. GPS capabilities have become a major part of our lives, and this agreement will lead to strategic, security, and economic cooperation between Israel and the EU in the coming years.”

Space research, said Kidron, “is an area that has moved forward aggressively in recent years, and has a great deal of influence on our quality of life. This agreement will enable Israeli companies to join an industry worth tens of millions of dollars, and enable Israeli researchers to widen their scope and participate in the most important projects in Europe.”

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rabin 18 years later

Rabin 18 years later

by Marc Goldberg

With all of the fuss and the legend that has come about since the murder of the Israeli Prime Minister who gave his life to bring peace to Israel it’s worth remembering just how hated he was. It’s worth remembering that people would go to the Prime Minister’s residence simply to shout insults at him and his family, it’s worth remembering the hatred that festered and still festers.

After a lifetime of being told Palestinians were the enemy Rabin came along with a different message entirely. It’s not easy to have your own prime minister contradict what you have always thought, to change a reality you have always held. Many people hated him for it, his effigy was burned at demonstrations attended by tens of thousands. Pictures of him in an SS uniform appeared everywhere. People were outraged that he would fathom, that he would even consider making peace with the PLO. After all, this was the ENEMY.

Rabin tried to do more than just make peace, he attempted to alter people’s perceptions, show us a different way of living, to usher in a new dawn of peace. But it just proved to be too much for the Israel of the 20th century.

Wandering around Rabin Square 18 years later I see the youth movements out in full force. The beige shirts of the Scouts, the blue of Hashomer Hatzair and a bunch of others that I am less familiar with. The kids are everywhere and it dawns on me that most of the people in the square were born after his death. They know of Rabin only from history books.

The cafes around the square are full to bursting, I guess a lot of people have chosen to eat cake while listening to the speeches. The Brasserie with it’s cheesecake and cafe Landwehr with its apple tart are particularly full.

The musicians ascend to the stage and play their music, the speakers make their speeches, some get cheers from the crowd others less so. On Ibn Gvirol street, one of the medics standing next to a Magen Dovid Adom ambulance is messing around with her colleagues, laughing and joking while it’s all happening in the background.

Watching all of this the truth sinks in fully.

When Rabin died hope died with him. Those who allowed hope into their lives, allowed it to shape their world, dared to believe that he could succeed, that Israel would have a border to the East, that guards in shopping malls would be there only to search for thieves, were rewarded by watching it die, not by the hand of the man who killed Rabin, but by a society that refused to honor what he died for, what he lived for.

The prime minister elected in his wake is the same man who now oversees peace negotiations of his own. The hope that existed for the future up until the moment Rabin was shot is no longer to be found.

But at least the people sitting near the Square have cake to eat while they wait for the ceremony to end.

I would like to say that Rabin’s legacy lives on. But it doesn’t.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

National Archives Unveils Iraqi Jewish Artifacts in Exhibit Opening October 11

National Archives Unveils Iraqi Jewish Artifacts in Exhibit Opening October 11 Exhibit explores Iraq’s Jewish past and showcases National Archives’ preservation expertise

Washington, DC…On Friday, October 11, 2013, the National Archives will unveil a new exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.” The exhibit details the dramatic recovery of historic materials relating to the Jewish community in Iraq from a flooded basement in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, and the National Archives’ ongoing work in support of U.S. Government efforts to preserve these materials.

Located in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, “Discovery and Recovery” is free and open to the public and runs through January 5, 2014. In both English and Arabic, the 2,000 square foot exhibit features 24 recovered items and a “behind the scenes” video of the fascinating yet painstaking preservation process. This exhibit marks the first time these items have been on public display.


On May 6, 2003, just days after the Coalition forces took over Baghdad, 16 American soldiers from Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha, a group assigned to search for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, entered Saddam Hussein’s flooded intelligence building. In the basement, under four feet of water, they found thousands of books and documents relating to the Jewish community of Iraq – materials that had come from synagogues and Jewish organizations in Baghdad.

The water-logged materials quickly became moldy in Baghdad’s intense heat and humidity. Seeking guidance, the Coalition Provisional Authority placed an urgent call to the nation’s foremost conservation experts at the National Archives. Just a week later, National Archives Director of Preservation Programs Doris Hamburg and Conservation Chief Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler arrived in Baghdad via military transport to assess the damage and make recommendations for preservation of the materials.

Given limited treatment options in Baghdad, and with the agreement of Iraqi representatives, the materials were shipped to the United States for preservation and exhibition. Since then, these materials have been vacuum freeze-dried, preserved and digitized under the direction of the National Archives.

The collection includes more than 2,700 Jewish books and tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and English, dating from 1540 to the 1970s. A special website to launch this fall will make these historic materials freely available to all online as they are digitized and catalogued. This work was made possible through the assistance of the Department of State, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Center for Jewish History.

The Jews of Iraq have a rich past, extending back 2500 years to Babylonia. These materials provide a tangible link to this community that flourished there, but in the second half of the twentieth century dispersed throughout the world. Today, fewer than five Jews remain.

Display highlights include:
A Hebrew Bible with Commentaries from 1568 – one of the oldest books in the trove;
A Babylonian Talmud from 1793;
A Torah scroll fragment from Genesis - one of the 48 Torah scroll fragments found;
A Zohar from 1815 – a text for the mystical and spiritual Jewish movement known as “Kabbalah”;
An official 1918 letter to the Chief Rabbi regarding the allotment of sheep for Rosh Hashanah 
(the Jewish New Year);
Materials from Jewish schools in Baghdad, including exam grades and a letter to the College Entrance Examination Board in Princeton regarding SAT scores;
A Haggadah (Passover script) from 1902, hand lettered and decorated by an Iraqi Jewish youth ; and
A lunar calendar in both Hebrew and Arabic from the Jewish year 5732 (1972-1973) - one of the last examples of Hebrew printed items produced in Baghdad.
“Discovery and Recovery” is divided into six sections:

Discovery: The dramatic story of how these materials were found, rescued and preserved is one worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. A short film captures these heroic efforts. The section includes actual metal foot lockers used to ship the documents to the United States.

Text and Heritage: This section explores Iraqi Jewish history and tradition through recovered texts, including a Torah scroll fragment, a Hebrew Bible with Commentaries from 1568, and a Babylonian Talmud from 1793.

Iraqi Jewish Life: Constancy and Change: Using recovered texts, this section explores the pattern of Jewish life in Iraq. Highlights include a Haggadah (Passover script), siddur (prayer book) and an illustrated lunar calendar in both Hebrew and Arabic (one of about 20 found, dating from 1959-1973).

Personal and Communal Life: Selected correspondence and publications illustrate the range and complexity of Iraqi Jewish life in the 19th and 20th centuries. Original documents and facsimiles in flipbooks range from school primers to international business correspondence from the Sassoon family.

After the Millennia: Iraqi Jewish life unraveled in the mid-20th century, with the rise of Nazism and proliferation of anti-Jewish propaganda. In June 1941, 180 Jews were killed and hundreds injured in an anti-Jewish attack in Baghdad. Persecution increased when Iraq entered the war against the new State of Israel in 1948. In 1950 and 1951, many Iraqi Jews were stripped of their citizenship and assets and the community fled the county en masse. This section includes the 1951 law freezing assets of Iraqi Jews.

Preserving the Past: It is not surprising that the Coalition Forces turned to National Archives conservators for help. Learn about transformation of these materials from moldy, water-logged masses to a carefully preserved, enduring historic legacy. View the National Archives’ state-of-the-art treatment, preservation, and digitization of these materials.

The Fall issue of Prologue Magazine, the Archives’ flagship publication, will feature two articles on “Discovery and Recovery.” Prologue is available in the Archives Shop.
Related Programs

Thursday, October 17, at 7 p.m., William G. McGowan Theater
PANEL DISCUSSION: Discovery and Recovery: Eyewitness Accounts
Director of Preservation Programs Doris Hamburg and Conservation Chief Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler from the National Archives; Maurice Shohet, analyst at the Middle East Media Research Institute; and William D. Cavness, Jr., retired Foreign Service Officer, will chronicle the dramatic story behind the exhibit and discuss the historic significance of the items saved. Larry Abramson, National Security Correspondent for NPR, will moderate the discussion.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013, at noon, William G. McGowan Theater
BOOK TALK: New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq
Although Iraqi Jews saw themselves as Iraqi patriots, their community—which had existed in Iraq for more than 2,500 years—was displaced following the establishment of the state of Israel. New Babylonians, by historian Orit Bashkin, chronicles the lives of these Jews, their urban Arab culture, and their hopes for a democratic nation-state. It studies their ideas about Judaism, Islam, secularism, modernity, and reform, focusing on Iraqi Jews who internalized narratives of Arab and Iraqi nationalisms and on those who turned to communism in the 1940s.

A book signing will follow the program.

Public tours

Guided tours for the public will be given on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday at 11 a.m. while the exhibition is on view.

The Preservation Programs department cares for the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents, as well as billions of other records. Preservation staff assess the condition of records and identify strategies for preserving them. In state-of-the-art conservation and preservation labs, experts stabilize and treat documents in a wide range of formats to prepare them for digitization, exhibition, and use by researchers, and by reformatting them.

See astounding conservation work on the 1297 Magna Carta as staff use ultra-violet photography to reveal previously illegible writing, remove old repairs, fill areas of loss with conservation paper, and humidify and flatten the document.

Go behind-the-scenes to see the state-of-the-art preservation lab at the new National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. A fire in the former facility in 1973 destroyed millions of military personnel files. Watch preservation technicians arduously treat records for damage and mold, piece together burnt paper fragments, and see how text seemingly lost to fire damage can be restored to legibility.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Tiny Israel a Nobel heavyweight, especially in chemistry

Tiny Israel a Nobel heavyweight, especially in chemistry

Latest Israeli laureates, Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt, are the fifth and sixth winners of the chemistry prize in under a decade
By Haviv Rettig Gur

The Nobel chemistry medal (photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel has long punched far above its demographic weight when it comes to the Nobel Prize.

The latest Nobel laureates, Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt, announced Wednesday, mark Israel’s fifth and sixth winners of the chemistry prize in under a decade.

Israelis Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover won the prize in chemistry in 2004, together with American colleague Irwin Rose, for their research into ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation, a process within cells responsible for diseases including cancer, cystic fibrosis and others.

Ada Yonath won the 2009 chemistry prize, together with colleagues Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, for her study of the protein-producing part of the cell known as the ribosome – groundbreaking work that led to treatments for leukemia, glaucoma and HIV, as well as antidepressant drugs.

Israeli Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonath, who is also a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, at a press conference in Rehovot (Photo credit: FLASH90)

Yonath was the first woman among Israel’s Nobel laureates, the first woman from the Middle East to win a science Nobel and the first woman in 45 years to win the prize for chemistry.

Tel-Aviv born Daniel Shechtman’s 2011 chemistry Nobel for the discovery of quasicrystals was perhaps the most dramatic of the awards. Shechtman’s discovery of quasicrystals, made in 1982, “fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter,” according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman speaks to media at a press conference in Jerusalem on October 09, 2011. (Photo by FLASH90)

But the discovery faced ridicule and disbelief among scientists. “For a long time it was me against the world,” Shechtman once said. “I was a subject of ridicule and lectures about the basics of crystallography. The leader of the opposition to my findings was the two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, the idol of the American Chemical Society and one of the most famous scientists in the world.”

Shechtman was eventually vindicated, with his discovery playing a key role in the development of important industrial and commercial materials.

Former science minister Daniel Hershkowitz (second from left), in an unusual meeting in July 2012 with Israeli Nobel laureates. Participants included Ada Yonath (left), Aaron Ciechanover (second from right), and Israel Aumann (right). (photo credit: Gil Yohanan/Flash90)

Israelis have also won Nobels in other subjects in recent years.

Daniel Kahneman (photo credit: US GOV, Wikimedia Commons)

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel in economics in 2002 for his study of risk in economic behavior.

Three years later, Hebrew University professor Yisrael Aumann also won the economics prize.

Aumann won for his groundbreaking study of game theory, the study of decision-making among multiple interacting parties in a group or system, such as governments, markets or organizations.

Professor Yisrael (Robert) Aumann (photo credit: Flash90)

Three Israelis have also received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in seeking regional peace agreements. These include former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, and Israel’s current president Shimon Peres.

And Israel boasts one Nobel Prize in Literature: S. Y. Agnon, who won the prestigious award in 1966 “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people,” in the words of the Swedish award committee.

S.Y. Agnon, the only Israeli author who has ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature, published his first novella a century ago. (photo credit: Courtesy Agnon House/JTA)

The last two 2013 Nobel prizes, for literature and for peace, will be announced Thursday and Friday, respectively.

The Nobel Prizes were established in the 1895 will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. Each award is worth 8 million kronor, or about $1.25 million.

Following intense debate, Women of the Wall agree in principle to move to new egalitarian space.

Following intense debate, Women of the Wall agree                   in principle to move to new egalitarian space.

Pluralistic organization cedes demand to hold services in the women's section of the compound, 
despite prior rejection of Sharansky proposal to have them pray at Robinson's Arch.
By Judy Maltz and Yair Ettinger

Members of the Women of the Wall group take part in their monthly prayer session at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. Photo by Reuters

The board of directors of the organization voted, following an intense and heated debate on Sunday night, to compromise with the government and move its Rosh Chodesh morning service to the new egalitarian prayer plaza slated for construction on the other side of the Mughrabi Bridge, subject to a list of conditions.Women of the Wall, the pluralistic group that has been at the forefront of the battle to wrest control of the Western Wall from the ultra-Orthodox, has agreed to back down from its longstanding demand that it be allowed to hold its monthly prayer service at the women’s section of the holy site.

“It is with great pain and sadness that we began to consider this new strategy, but we must be agents of change,” said Women of the Wall Chairwoman Anat Hoffman following the vote. “We have decided today to stand on the tips of our toes and look into the future. We must rise about our internal conflict in order to build the future we want for our daughters.

Women of the Wall intends to hold its next monthly Rosh Chodesh service at the women’s section of the holy site though, she said.

“We have no intention of moving from there until all our conditions have been met,” Women of the Wall Executive Director Lesley Sachs told Haaretz.

Among these conditions is that women who wish to pray together on their own in the new space be allowed to do so. “We don’t exactly know how this is going to work,” said Sachs, “but one option is that there be a temporary mechitzah [divider separating men and women] be made available to us.” Quite a few participants in Women of the Wall services are Orthodox women, who do not want to prayer together with men, and this is one of the reasons the organization did not initially agree to move its prayer service to the egalitarian space.

Women of the Wall have been holding a monthly service at the Western Wall for the past 25 years. In recent months, a few hundred women have been present at this service. The women pray out loud, and some wear prayer shawls and tefillin – practices the ultra-Orthodox find objectionable.

The other demands of Women of the Wall are that there be one entrance and one contiguous national plaza for all three prayer sections – the already existing men’s and women’s spaces and the new mixed space– as well as full equality in funding. Women of the Wall have also insisted that Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Kotel rabbi, have nothing to do with the new egalitarian space and that equal representation be given to women on the board that runs it.

Most of these demands have already been accommodated for in the proposal outlined earlier this year by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. One of the major hurdles in implementing such a plan that creates one contiguous prayer plaza, however, is obtaining approval from the Jordanian government, which objects to unilateral changes undertaken by the Israeli government in this contested part of the city.

Sources involved in the negotiations said that in the best-case scenario, it would probably be many months before Women of the Wall moved their services from the women’s section.

The women’s organization plans to submit on Thursday a detailed list of demands to the government committee headed by Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit that is putting together recommendation for new prayer rules at the Western Wall.

Women of the Wall had come under mounting pressure in recent weeks, particularly from the Conservative movement, to show some more openness to the idea of a new egalitarian section.

The pressure to compromise followed the construction in late August of a new temporary prayer platform for mixed services by Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett. The platform, near the site of the archeological excavations by Robinson’s Arch, is equipped to accommodate about 450 worshippers and was designated for members of the Conservative and Reform movements.

Women of the Wall said the decision to vote for compromise was made by an overwhelming majority of its board members.
On Friday, hundreds of young seminary girls disrupted Women of the Wall, when they held their monthly Rosh Chodesh service in the women’s sections. Participants in the pluralistic service were spit on and jeered at while they recited their prayers.--

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How Yossi Klein Halevi captured the soul of modern Israel

 How Yossi Klein Halevi captured the soul of modern Israel

‘Like Dreamers’ is an eye-opening, beautifully written account, told through the lives of seven iconic Israeli paratroopers, of the shaping of the state we live in. Eleven years in the writing, it made a true Israeli of its American-born author. It will make Israel-obsessives of its readers
By David Horovitz

Brooklyn-born Yossi Klein Halevi made aliya in 1982 — in one of Israel’s darker periods, amid the fallout from the Lebanon war, and with every sign that Israel was plunging into an internal, ethnic war as well. He’s worked here ever since as a journalist, and written two elegant, powerful books: A tale of his youth, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” which appeared just as Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, and was widely and entirely erroneously perceived as some kind of rightist tract; and “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” his account of building connections with tolerant Christian and Muslim leaders in the Holy Land, which was published on the very day of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Hopefully, the timing of his new book will prove more propitious.

That book, “Like Dreamers: The story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” is also appearing at a perilous moment, with tiny, remarkably stable Israel buffeted by drastic and unpredictable forces of change everywhere in the neighborhood. It’s a book Klein Halevi, 60, has spent the past 11 years working on — a very lengthy labor of intensive passion and rigor.

The effort, to this reader (Full disclosure: I have worked with and been friends with Klein Halevi for most of our 30 years in Israel.), emphatically pays off: “Like Dreamers” is almost poetic in much of its writing, and its story is nothing less than the narrative of our country since the heady days of the Six Day War, when Israel quadrupled the territory it controlled, and in the process complicated, far more than four times over, some of the most fundamental dilemmas of its revived incarnation.

Ever since that week of improbable victory, the Jewish state has struggled to reconcile its claims to Biblical territory with the demands of a modern democracy, struggled to choose, or at least find a balance, between the dreams of those in what Klein Halevi calls the two Utopian camps within Zionism: the religious Zionists who pioneered the settlement enterprise, and the secular kibbutzniks.

Klein Halevi tells the post-’67 story through the lives of seven paratroopers from the brigade that fought in the battle for Jerusalem, and who — peace activists and settler trailblazers, kibbutz ideologues, entrepreneurs, and one much-missed musician – went on to play significant roles in the forging of Israel’s identity, even as they continued to fight to protect the country as IDF reservists.

That writing this book has finally transformed its author into a true Israeli, rather than the slightly out-of-water veteran immigrant so many of even the most integrated arrivals often remain, counts as a hard-earned side effect of Klein Halevi’s immersion in his craft. The prime beneficiaries are the wide audience that one can anticipate, with reasonable confidence, will be affected by this book — a nuanced, unusually insightful account of heart-lifting, soul-destroying, hard and rewarding Israel as it has developed these past decades, as told through the winding lives of a septet of its many remarkable sons.

What follows here is an edited transcript of a conversation I had with Klein Halevi in his office at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, piled with the paper testimony of his research, shortly before the October 1 publication of “Like Dreamers.”

Yossi Klein Halevi (photo credit: Frederic Brenner)

Let’s start really at the beginning: your choice of title.

“Like Dreamers” comes from the Psalms, from Shir Hamaalot, hayinu k’cholmim, When the Lord returned the exiles to Zion, we were like dreamers, and that’s the opening epigraph.

The significance for me of the title is that this is really the story about the fate of Israel’s utopian dreams – the vast dreams that we brought back with us, and that we imposed on this little strip of land filled with traumatized refugees from the century’s worst nightmares. The disparity between the reality that we’ve had to deal with, and the power of the utopian and messianic dreams that we brought home with us, is really in some sense what this book is about.

The seven paratroopers whom I chose come from the two utopian camps within Zionism – either the religious Zionists or the secular kibbutzniks. Both of these movements saw Zionism as being much more than about the creation of a safe refuge for the Jewish people. The return to Zion would be exactly what Jews believed it would be, which would be the transformative moment in world history, for all of humanity — either through the literal coming of the Messiah, which was the scenario of the Kookian school of religious Zionism, or, more metaphorically, through the creation of a Socialist laboratory in the kibbutzim which would become a model for a new man, a new humanity.

You can argue with me, of course, but I think the book’s a tragedy — and that’s a terrible thing to say — because of the breadth of the utopian dream and the sense that after ’67, at the very least, that our destiny was in our hands, that we had defeated our enemies and now we were free to take this enterprise wherever we could take it. And I feel we haven’t done ourselves justice in this country; we’re so riven. And that is so clear from the book. It ends just before 2004 pretty much, right?

Just before the disengagement.

I don’t think there are huge pieces missing since then, in terms of that process of the state. We’re this riven country that first of all has not negated its enemies; they’re still out there in new guises, in old guises. And we have not come to terms with ourselves and we have not reconciled our divides. There’s the bloody but astounding achievement of ’67. And then it’s a saga of dissent and divide and violence and shattered dreams. It’s a terrible story you tell — with some beautiful people and some noble goals.

One can look at this story in lots of different ways. Tragedy is one way, and astonishing perseverance is another. What moved me, going through this history for the last decade, and really just immersing in the story of Israel — it was astonishing for me, first of all, to rediscover the vitality of Israelis. One of my favorite lines in this book – and I didn’t realize how often I repeated it until I started going through the galleys — is: “He had a plan.” (Laughs.) Every one of these guys, over and over again – they always had a plan. It doesn’t matter what the situation was. There was always a way out. There was always a way to get Israel from here to the next stage. Part of the difficulty of Israel, and this is in a way what the book is also about, is that they all had competing plans. Their plans were all rubbing against the plans of the other group, and one way to read the Israeli story is of the competing dreams and fears that keep clashing against each other.

The left got it right in terms of what do we do about the demographics, what do we do about the occupation. The right got it right about the illusion of peace with a Palestinian national movement that doesn’t accept our legitimacy

If you think of it that way, that’s an inevitable consequence of the ingathering of the Jews from all of our different wanderings, all of the different lessons we learned in our history. Those lessons are often contradictory. What you and I learned in our western experience is the opposite of what Soviet Jews learned in their experience. And then just multiply that. And now we’re all back together and we’re facing this brutal situation, and we’re all reaching different conclusions, partly based on what we brought with us from our diasporas. The fact that we’re still an intact society is an amazing achievement.

So the experience of writing this book has left you optimistic about Israel?

This country could have disintegrated at any moment. Look, I made aliyah in 1982. The conventional wisdom then was that we were heading toward an ethnic civil war. Not between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis. Between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. We had just come through a violent, brutal election campaign of 1981 and that was the assumption.

Emil Grunzweig (fourth from left) at the peace rally in 1983 at which he was killed by a hand-grenade. (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

In the book I write about the grenade attack against the Peace Now demonstration where Emil Grunzweig was killed. I was there. That report is an eyewitness account. I came right after the grenade was thrown. I was there as a journalist and if you were to ask me at that moment, six months in the country, what’s going to happen here – well, we’re already in a civil war, and that was not just left and right, that was Ashkenazi-Sephardi. And when they found out afterwards that it was a Sephardi who had thrown the grenade, it had lots of overtones, the left-right divide. Today, who talks about an ethnic civil war?

What did the country look like on November 5, 1995 (the day after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin)? Where were we heading? We had fallen into the abyss. I remember going on a bus in Tel Aviv wearing a kippa and feeling like I was the enemy. That’s the way people were looking at me. And then six months later, Netanyahu is elected. Now, the left saw that as a betrayal.

What happened there was that the evil of the Palestinians was so unavoidable that we had to put aside the internal divide. The only reason we’re not still ripping ourselves apart over the Palestinian issue is because there’s a consensus in Israel that, with the best will in the world, there’s no accommodation to be found. But I’m not convinced that the essential divides in the Jewish-Israel, post-Rabin assassination, have disappeared.

They haven’t disappeared. But what’s emerged as a result of the first intifada and the second intifada is a new consensus which includes probably up to 70 percent of Israelis, which is that the left was correct about the occupation and if we could end it, we would do it. But the right was correct about the peace, and we can’t do it. That means that a majority of Israelis are doves in principle. They want to be doves, but are hawks in practice. That’s a consensus of sorts.

If we ever reach the point where we find a reasonable negotiating partner on the other side, there will be a majority, maybe even a large majority, for a deal. And that doesn’t mean that we may not have a civil war here, but it’s not going to be one half of Israel against another. It’s going to be a minority against a majority.

And I think that’s true with all of our schisms. For example, it’s not religious versus secular. It’s the haredi community or parts of the haredi community against the Israeli mainstream. And other parts of the haredi community do not want to be in a schism with mainstream Israel.

I call the last chapter of the book “Careening Toward the Center,” because that’s how we operate in this society: We move to the abyss and then we pull back and figure out a reasonable way of living together. So, in that sense, I’m hopeful about Israel, but really, it’s always fasten-your-seatbelt time.

Tell me some of the choices that you made in formulating the book the way that you did, in adopting the voices in the way you did. You’re the omniscient narrator who knows everything and you’re here, there, everywhere, including places where you plainly were not. You chose to end it at a certain point. You chose, I would say, not to plunge into great conclusion-drawing sections. You told the story and you allowed us to draw our own conclusions. This combination of omniscient narrator who on the other hand keeps himself out of it, that’s quite an achievement. I don’t think the reader knows your stance at the end of the book, which is quite something for a great big book with lots of stances…

For many years — and this book has been going on for many years (laughs) — I didn’t know the voice of the book. I didn’t hear it. It was acutely painful, because I was investing most of my time in this and I didn’t feel there was a voice, which means the book wasn’t alive. And then, just in the last four or five years, I suddenly heard the voice and I realized that the voice of the book is each of the characters speaking in turn.

Yossi Klein Halevi, Kibbutz Degania, September 1967 (photo credit: Courtesy Yossi Klein Halevi)

That is, in fact, my voice, because to one extent or another, each of them is speaking for me. Those are all voices that have been fighting inside of me from the day I landed here, which was two weeks before the Sabra and Shatila massacre in the middle of the Lebanon War, which was the first war to divide us, and I felt torn apart. The first time I came to Israel was the summer of ’67, which was the peak moment of our unity, and then I make aliyah at the low point of our national unity, at least until then. We’ve managed to reach lower points. What I realized about this voice is that by allowing all of these characters to speak fully — even one or two characters who were appalling to me, in terms of what they believed and what they actually did — by letting go and letting them speak, I was able to own the book as a writer and to own the Israeli story.

At what point did you decide, oh, the seven guys who are my heroes, I’ll call them by their first names and all the other characters we identify by their surnames. That’s critical to the tone of the book. These are our fighters, these are our fellow travelers. Did you do that from the start?

Yeah, I mean I thought of those seven guys always by their first names, so I suppose so. But you know, the book was, from the start, a totally different story. It took me two years before I knew who my characters were. There were 2,000 men who fought in Brigade 55 in Jerusalem in ’67. And I didn’t have a clue when I started out which categories I was interested in. So I was going from one guy to the next. Then I realized that the two groups had to be religious Zionists and kibbutzniks – had to be these two utopian groups – because the book begins with our most utopian mythic moment, that big bang of June 7, 1967. Through that lens I decided to tell the story of the fate of the kibbutz and the settlements and the fate of our big dreams. So, those first couple of years, I was just groping. It was a delightful groping because I was learning… I’ll give you an example:

When I went to speak with Arik Achmon for the first time – Arik Achmon was the chief intelligence officer of the brigade in ’67; he then led the crossing of the Suez Canal in ’73 with Sharon, which won the war – and I said, ‘Tell me something about yourself.’ And he tells me about Jerusalem and then he says, ‘And I led the crossing of the canal. I planned it and I was the senior officer across the canal on the night of October 16, 1973.’

And I said, ‘Really? You mean the paratroopers of Jerusalem were the same guys who crossed the canal with Sharon and won the Yom Kippur War?’

And he just looked at me, like I was the most pathetic person, and he said, ‘You came to me, and you didn’t know that, and you’re planning to write a book?’ (Laughs.) And he told me later – we developed a very close relationship – that it took him about two years after that before he realized that he could trust me with the story.

It’s a huge deal, that people were willing to trust you. You’ve written this poetic English saga of a Hebrew-speaking nation. You did all your interviews in Hebrew, you spoke to everyone in Hebrew, and now they’re seeing the result in English, and most of them are struggling, wading through…

Half of them will be able, I think, to read it in English.

You got over that terrible language barrier that all of us olim grapple with.

I came to see this book as a Hebrew book that happened to be written in English. And in fact, there were phrases that my editor took out because they were just blatantly Hebrew phrases that I thought I could slip into English but it didn’t work. When I did the interviews, I don’t know if you do this – but when I interview someone in Hebrew, I simultaneously translate it into English, so my notes are mostly in English with little bits of Hebrew mixed in. So I don’t even have a Hebrew record of those conversations.

In a way I think that this is a book that reflects how we immigrants from English-speaking countries, who have become journalists – how we have experienced Israel for the last 30 years, which is that we have been simultaneous translators.

The Jerusalem ’67 battle scenes were incredibly resonant. How did you do that, practically speaking? I don’t imagine you walked across the Suez Canal for the ’73 material? But you must have walked around Jerusalem for ’67. Did you walk around Jerusalem with the people who were telling you the story?

First of all, my knowledge begins and ends, to a large extent, with Arik Achmon, who really became the historian of Brigade 55, the historian of ’67 and ’73. In the IDF archives, Achmon is among those few who have the last word. Arik, after a while, when he realized he could trust me, adopted this book as virtually a full-time project, at times, of his life. He was retiring and saw this as one of his last major projects. He just celebrated his 80th birthday. So Arik took me along the routes of battle, in very, very detailed form.

I did the walk with Yoel Bin-Nun, several times. I joined his trek every eve of Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the unification. He takes a group of students, all night, through the battleground and I joined him on those treks. It got to the point where, after being involved in this book seven, eight, nine years, he would ask me, ‘So, what is it that actually happened here?’ And there were times when I almost felt as if I’d been there. I felt like I should really be an honorary paratrooper. (Laughs) And I have to keep restraining myself from saying ‘we.’

Mordechai ‘Motta’ Gur (seated, with black curly hair) and his troops survey the Old City before launching their attack, May 1967. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA/Mazel123)

That was one piece, but there are some wonderful accounts that have been written about the battle for Jerusalem. The definitive account was written by Motta Gur, the paratrooper commander in Jerusalem. That book is called “Har Habayit Beyadenu,” The Temple Mount is in our hands. Parts of it were translated into English and Arik Achmon helped write the book. His reports of the summer of ’67, about the battle, formed the basis of that book, so I couldn’t have had a better guide.

There were a number of other books. The paratroopers themselves put out a fantastic narrative history of the battle of Jerusalem and then they did the same thing for Yom Kippur and it’s a collection of interviews with the fighters – diary excerpts, letters that were saved.There’s so much rich material, all within those two volumes. That was very useful. Yisrael Harel edited both of them.

Then there was Abraham Rabinovich, who wrote very important accounts of both ’67 and ’73. And a number of other books that have come out recently, especially on the Yom Kippur War. One of the reasons that this book took so long is that there’s such a wealth of material and one has to read through different accounts, and of course the accounts don’t always confirm each other. Sometimes when you’re interviewing somebody, you get contradictory reports, and then you have to decide which are you inclined to go with.

I’m not a historian by training or profession. I’m a journalist. This is the first time that I’ve ever done anything like this and hopefully the last time as well, because I think a professional historian would have been able to do this in a much shorter time. I had to learn on the job – how you really work with archives, how do you make these assessments on getting these opposing perspectives – not just perspectives, but facts, from so many different people. And so, the plethora of material was both blessing and obstacle.

Let’s talk about some of the characters. You mentioned Motta Gur, whose death emerges as, in your mind, a terrible loss. You actually say that toward the end that he could have been this unifying political figure.

He could have been a unifying prime minister.

And you say this on the basis of what other people said about him?

The love that was expressed for Motta from across the political spectrum from the people who knew him and were ready to trust him. The settlers who were very close to him — Motta was their channel in the Labor government during the Oslo years — could hear a justification for the peace process from Motta that they couldn’t hear from anywhere else. Not that he convinced them, but there was a softer tone in the conversation because Motta really loved the settlers. He loved their sacrifice, their heroism, their love for the land. Motta managed to convey to the settlers the sense of haval, sorrowful pity, I really wish it could have worked out the way that you were trying to do.

I think, personally, that Rabin felt that way to some extent as well. That comes out in the private conversations between Rabin and Yoel Bin-Nun, which to me were one of the revelations of this project. Yoel Bin-Nun shared with me the faxes that he had kept that he had sent to Rabin and his accounts of those meetings, which I thought were just extraordinary. What emerges is the private Rabin versus the public Rabin. One of the tragedies of Rabin is that he wasn’t able to convey that warmth and empathy in public that he was to some extent able to do in private. It’s also an expression of Rabin’s greatness that he reflected his generation’s reticence, his generation’s suspicion of emotionalism in public and of manipulating emotions through politics. But there was a terrible result of that. Rabin had a big share in deepening the schism.

You discuss those Bin-Nun-Rabin exchanges. You don’t give proof, to my mind, of a reciprocal conversation there. You make this claim of hours and hours of Rabin’s time and you show us all the things that Yoel Bin-Nun sends to him. Why and how do you know that Rabin was deeply invested in the conversation as well?

Eitan Haber (photo credit: Shalom Bartal/Wikipedia Commons)

From Eitan Haber, in particular, who was Rabin’s right hand. Haber said in an interview that Rabin loved Yoel. As the relationship deepened, Haber went from including Yoel’s faxes in Rabin’s Shabbat reading to bringing him faxes immediately and putting them on the table. Haber said that whenever Yoel called and asked for a meeting, he had access – sometimes immediately. Yoel was Rabin’s sounding board. Obviously, there are three people here who know – Yoel, Haber and Rabin. So I heard from two out of the three.

You talk about Arik Achmon as probably being the person who facilitated the book. Yoel Bin-Nun is certainly one of the other key characters.

Definitely. Those two are the two key characters.

I would argue that you let him off too easy.

Who, Yoel?

Yeah, here’s this guy who has this insistence on trying to suggest that this is why God’s done this to us at every stage, and trying to understand: Why has the Creator of all things done this? How are we supposed to understand that? How ’67, how ’73, how the Yamit evacuation… And also at the very end, when Bin-Nun publicly raised the specter of rabbis having approved Rabin’s assassination, you assert that by doing so he’d somehow enabled this post-Rabin-assassination healing process.

I think you could read Yoel Bin-Nun as one of the villains of this story, with his Messianist, arrogant sense that he can understand God’s will, and he’s directing swathes of the population and contradicting other swathes of the population. I could argue that he is the engine of all the grief. And you certainly don’t make that argument. You give us all the information, but you’re so forgiving of this guy. You know, he legitimizes Yehuda Etzion…

How do you know all that?

Because you told me.


But I think you’re very forgiving of him, ultimately.

Yoel Bin-Nun, 2013 (photo credit: Frederic Brenner)

Apparently, though (smiles), one can read this book and reach your conclusion, which is a totally legitimate reading of this book. And if you want to talk about what I think…

Yes, let’s talk about you. As an Orthodox Jew? What are you?

I’m a traditional Jew. I’m a Clal Yisrael Jew who loves Judaism, is deeply attached to Judaism, and doesn’t belong to any particular denomination or camp. Refuses to. Maybe that’s why I was able to write this book, because what’s true for me to some extent politically, is true for me as well religiously. I find deep wisdom and truth in our various political, religious camps and I also find maddening limitations and I refuse to identify myself in any way other than a Jew. That’s enough.

That’s fine. So now, as to the conclusions you draw from your story…

Look, it’s a very tricky business writing a book where the author does not want to be heavy-handed with conclusions. But I certainly give hints about what my own inclinations are, and you do that in the choices you make in terms of emphases, the stories you tell, the stories you leave out. There were so many stories that I had to leave out. This book was originally 900 pages. I really thought it was going to be that. I couldn’t imagine cutting it, so, that’s why one has editors, as you know from our past. (Laughs) This is, by the way, the book that I wanted to write when I was at The Jerusalem Report with you, all those years ago, and I wanted to do it through all those articles that I kept trying to make longer. Finally I was given unlimited time and seemingly unlimited space to write the story. And it still wasn’t enough.

Mass protests against the disengagement plan in 2005 (photo credit: Flash90)

I choose to end the book with ‘Careening Toward the Center,’ which is in fact what I believe has happened here, but someone else handling this material might have ended it in a very different way, might have ended with the disengagement in Gaza. That’s quite a moment to end with. Beginning to dismantle Yesha – Yehuda-Shomron-Aza (– Judea-Samaria-Gaza). I deliberately ended just before the disengagement, because for me the place where this ends is where most of the main characters, not all, begin to realize that the other side was right about certain essential points. That the left really got it right in terms of what do we do about the demographics, what do we do about the occupation. The right got it right about the illusion of peace with a Palestinian national movement that doesn’t accept our legitimacy. That’s the moment where I chose to end it, because it also happens to be where I am, after 30-plus years of being engaged in our internal conflict. That’s the conclusion that I’ve reached.

So, yes, on the one hand, I’m reluctant to impose conclusions. On the other hand, there are conclusions to the book. There is a point of view. I allow all of the characters to speak their piece. When you are reading either about a settler or a kibbutznik or a peace activist, you are in that person’s state of consciousness. You are experiencing Anwar Sadat’s coming to Jerusalem either through Hanan Porat’s lens or through Avital Geva’s lens. That in fact is part of how I have lived in this country, being torn apart. So I do feel that this book is, to go back to your earlier question about a voice, to a large extent, a reflection of my voice. In that sense it’s a very personal book, even though this is the first book I’ve written which is not about me.

And yet, coming back to my question about Bin-Nun and my earlier question about whether this story of Israel you tell is tragedy or not: The conviction that this is God’s will, as expressed by some of your characters in the settler enterprise, you don’t think that is ultimately prevailing over the center? You said civil war but minor civil war, if we were able to reach an accommodation.

If this conflict continues for another generation, maybe. I don’t think we’re there yet.

But I want to go back to your hard and fair question about Yoel Bin-Nun. He is, unequivocally, one of the heroes of this book, maybe the hero, in the sense that he went farther in challenging the limitations of his own camp and paid a higher price than anyone else in this book. And that’s powerful. That’s something I deeply respect.

I do allow myself one or two editorial moments, maybe a few more, and when I wrote about Yoel Bin-Nun after the Rabin assassination, as helping heal Israel, I’m ready to defend that claim. For mainstream Israel, the symbol of Israeli brokenness and rage after the assassination was a rabbi from Ofra. When Israelis would talk about their anger at the settlers or at the religious Zionist community generally, in those weeks, they would always have to say, ‘Well, of course there’s Yoel Bin-Nun.’ Most of his colleagues hated him for that. He made himself the ‘good’ settler.

But the fact that there was a ‘good’ settler and the fact that there was someone who understood that this moment required more than the kind of defensive, ‘yes, but’ approach that the religious Zionist community adopted after the assassination, that there needed to be a cry of grief, an ancient cry of mourning going back to the fast of Gedaliah. That’s what Yoel Bin-Nun carried into the Israeli discourse. The fact that he gave religious expression to the grief over Rabin made it impossible in the long term — not immediately — but in the long term for secular Israel to hold onto that us vs. them. That’s my feeling.

Meeting of Gush Emunim settlement leaders, July 1987. Hanan Porat is at far left, with Yoel Bin-Nun next to him. (photo credit: Shmuel Rabmani)

One of the gifts that I received, unknowingly, was that immediately after the assassination, I got an assignment from an American magazine, to write about the settlers in the aftermath of Rabin. And the story that I chose, which the magazine approved, was a profile of Yoel Bin-Nun. So I spent two or three months, from around early December 1995 through March, and then periodically checking in with him, till the elections of that May, focusing on Yoel Bin-Nun. Those incidents that I describe with Yoel after the assassination, those are from my notes. I was there when he spoke after the assassination to a hundred Hashomer Hatzair teenagers. With Avital Geva, another one of my main characters, in the audience at the time, though of course I didn’t know who Avital Geva was. And then going back to my notes after realizing that he’s one of my characters and thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I think I was there then when he had his reunion with Yoel Bin-Nun.’

The larger point here is that I saw the healing effect that he had, on the one hand, and I saw the price that he paid, on the other. Some of the theological issues that you have with him, I have with him too. That’s not my theology — to be able to look at an historical event and speak with that kind of certainty about God’s intentions – that’s not where I am. But I don’t have to identify with all of the beliefs or actions of my heroes.

An awful lot of the narrative ought to be familiar to everybody, all of the facts – and yet they’re really not. You’ve taken history and you’ve put it into the readable, Everyman’s context. You went to Arik Achmon and didn’t know the first thing about ’73? Do you think I knew, do you think anybody really knows, all those aspects of the story? That it was a lot of the same people from ’67 who saved the day in ’73? I didn’t know that Kfar Etzion was the first settlement…

When I speak to Israeli groups, I say, what’s the first settlement? Knowledgeable groups. They say Hebron, Sebastia.

And isn’t it extraordinary that Levi Eshkol legitimized initial settlement? That Baruch Goldstein was at Yamit, my goodness.

I found that and I got chills.

And other things there. The Bin-Nun-Rabin exchange.

Nobody knew that.

That the National Religious Party in 1967 opposed taking Jerusalem.

Michael Oren wrote it in ‘Six Days of War.’ What’s interesting though, David, is that what I realized going through this material is that I thought I knew the story and I didn’t. At a certain point, you know, you ask yourself who you’re writing this book for. Who is your ideal reader? And I realized that my ideal reader was me — if I hadn’t made aliyah, and had been so engaged emotionally with Israel all these years, and knew the outlines of the story, but didn’t know the texture. What did it actually feel like?

A revelation for me was Sebastia. The fact that it was pouring rain when thousands of people were walking through the mud. They left their vehicles at army roadblocks and walked a full day, slept through the night in this pouring rain on the hilltops. You realize the enormous force, the emotional force of the settlement movement, and why it was so unstoppable.

Another revelation for me was the relationship between Sebastia and the Zionism-Racism resolution, something that maybe I knew at the time but forgot and then suddenly realized it’s the key to the whole Sebastia story. Three weeks before the settlers break through the opposition of the Rabin government, the UN gives them a gift, which is Zionism/Racism. And Israelis are so enraged at the UN that they adopt Gush Emunim as the response. Ehud Olmert, who was a young Likud Knesset member, says that this is the Zionist answer to the UN. Suddenly you realize: of course. And what’s the lesson of that? That the more the international community pushes Israelis into a corner, the harder Israeli society responds. We don’t respond well to pressure.

Sadat’s genius was to understand that the only pressure Israelis can’t resist is the pressure of an embrace

I wrote, when Sadat came to Jerusalem, that his genius was to understand that the only pressure Israelis can’t resist is the pressure of an embrace. If you compare Sadat to Sebastia, that’s the story in some sense of the last 45 years, in terms of our relationship with the international community.

Yeah, I think you could see that in a very trivial way in the Obama visit, just now. You take off your jacket at the airport, we love you…That’s all he had to do.

That’s right.

Another thing that’s true is that Yoel Bin-Nun birthed Yehuda Etzion. That he birthed the Jewish terrorist underground (the machteret), which is probably why all those years later he had the reaction he did to the Rabin assassination…

To some extent that’s correct. There were some other incidents in the book that I deal with that aren’t known and that are very hard and that I think explain how certain people later…

Another, less original hero and not a central character, is Arik Sharon, of whom Arik Achmon says that he’d basically saved all their lives by rejecting a plan by…

Gorodish, who wants to send them to the Chinese Farm.

There was very little Sharon in the book, but the few bits are great. When Sadat greets him in 1977?


Where did that come from?

Yehuda Avner, I think, wrote it. There was a book that came out, kind of a semi-official book – about the peace.

What did Sadat say? ‘Ah, Mr. Sharon…

He said, ‘Oh, here you are. Here you are. I chased you in the desert.’

‘And then Sharon said, ‘No need for that now. I’m the agriculture minister.’

The way you tell it is gorgeous.

Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon shaking hands with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at a summit meeting held in Sharm e-Sheikh, June 4, 1981 (photo credit: GPO/Moshe Milner)

It’s amazing to me that you set out to do a book on the paratroopers who liberated Jerusalem without realizing how central they were in ’73. Right?


And Arik Achmon in Lebanon in ’82, I don’t know how central? How much do we make of him getting past this convoy, getting everybody out of the way, just a minor…?

His central roles were in ’67 and ’73. For him personally, being commander of a brigade was the high point of his military career. I’m expecting a lot of the people who lived through this, especially the paratroopers, to be very critical: ‘Why did you put…?’ That’s a perfect case in point: ‘Arik Achmon, in ’82 you give five pages to [him in Lebanon] but there were so many more important incidents.’ But it’s not a history of the paratroopers. It’s the story of these seven guys and how they experienced the changes of Israel and how they helped Israel change.

What I realized after a while about these seven characters is that together they tell an amazing story about how Israel evolved — not just politically, not just how we moved from kibbutz Israel to settlement Israel. The kibbutz was the symbol of Israel in the world just as the settlement is a symbol now. But also how we moved from the Hebrew music of the 50s and 60s to the Hebrew rock of today. Meir Ariel, one of my main characters tells that story. How we moved from agrarian, industrial Israel to post-Socialist hi-tech Israel. Arik Achmon tells that story.

There are so many stories within the left-right kibbutz-settlement story that its characters tell, and it was very hard for me to let go. I think that’s one of the reasons that the book took so long: I kept learning. I learned so much. I became an Israeli through this book.

Arik Achmon used to call me ‘yeled hutz.’ ‘Yeled hutz’ is a very specific concept in the kibbutz.’ Yeled hutz’ is an immigrant boy whose parents sent him to the kibbutz because they can’t handle him or he comes from a broken family. There’s a whole stigmatized category in the old kibbutz of ‘yeled hutz’ and Arik used to call me ‘yeled hutz.’ And he meant it as kind of a way of reminding me that, ‘Don’t think that you can really understand what happened here.’ I said to him, you know, that’s true. I am a ‘yeled hutz.’ But what you don’t understand and all of you kibbutznikim didn’t understand about the ‘yaldei hutz’ who lived among you, was that they were all spies, because they were watching you all the time. And they understood things about you that you didn’t understand about yourselves. It was precisely because they came from the outside that they were able to understand who you were. It became kind of a running joke between us, the ‘Yeled Hutz.’ And at some point close to the end of this process, Arik said to me in his commander’s tone, ‘Yossi, you’re not a yeled hutz anymore,’ and that was kind of like getting a medal. (Laughs.)

The late Meir Ariel, how did you got into his head? Through who?

Mostly through Tirza, his wife, who was fantastic, really. She gave me unlimited access. And Meir, more than any of these guys, left behind an incredibly rich body of interviews. Most of them in print. I went through the archives, going back to the summer of ’67. I have great interviews with him as ‘the singing paratrooper,’ because he came to prominence immediately after the Six Day War with his song, ‘Jerusalem of Iron,’ which was a response to ‘Jerusalem of Gold’. It was the fighter’s response to the prettification of ‘Jerusalem of Gold.’

Meir Ariel, on leave from Lebanon, 1983 (photo credit: Courtesy of Tirza Ariel)

Meir Ariel, in the summer of ’67 was a media celebrity with fantastic interviews. Meir Ariel is in the books about ’67. He was interviewed. I have him at one point – he’s approaching the Wall – June 7, 1967 – and suddenly he freezes and he doesn’t go up to the Wall. And he’s saying, ‘why don’t I feel anything? What kind of a Jew am I?’ That’s straight out of an account that was published in 1968 – very close after the war, based on an interview with Meir Ariel. So Meir left tremendous footprints.

Also, great recorded interviews. Some of them are on YouTube. I have a great interview with him with Yair Lapid, which I just quote verbatim. A wonderful radio interview with Yoav Kutner. I have the transcript of that. There was so much material. Where I get into his head, a lot of that material is based on the interviews. So I am able to speak about his state of mind with authority because he said it. It’s as if he said it to me in an interview. And of course his friends. I had tremendous access to the Israeli rock community. Shalom Hanoch, who very rarely gives interviews, gave me a wonderful three-hour interview. Because it was about Meir…

And he wanted to be sure you did him justice…

Yeah. And I got him early enough after Meir’s death. I don’t know if he would have done it now. I also had help from Nissim Calderon, who is a professor of Hebrew literature, and is doing a full-fledged biography of Meir. He and I also had a very fruitful and generous sharing. We both are passionate lovers of Meir Ariel.

You were not before you started this project?

I didn’t really know his music. I remember reading that Meir Ariel died and I was vaguely aware of a couple of songs. Most Israelis knew Meir – we knew him by the songs that made it on the radio, which weren’t even necessarily his most important work. Today, posthumously, in that cruel way of this society, Meir Ariel is celebrated as the great poet/balladeer of the last generation. And regarded universally by his peers, by Israeli musicians, as the great Israeli composer of popular song. In our generation nobody comes close to him, in terms of the quality of the Hebrew, the complexity, the courage of the themes that he took on.

So, of your seven, he was dead when you started work on this.

He died in 1999. I started this in 2002. And the other six were all alive. And are alive, except for Hanan Porat, who died two years ago.

Hanan Porat in Sebastia, 1975 (photo credit: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office)

And whom you endeavor to somewhat rehabilitate regarding his ostensible happiness on Purim after the Goldstein massacre?

The portrait of Hanan Porat that emerges in relation to the Goldstein incident is very complicated. And it’s an example where I think people in both camps will not be happy – people who wanted unequivocal vindication of Hanan, which I do not believe my portrait does, or an unequivocal vilification. Hanan was treated unfairly by the media. And his response to Goldstein was distorted. But it wasn’t totally unfair because as his critics noted at the time – his more thoughtful critics – the problem wasn’t necessarily that he said Purim Sameah, Happy Purim – but that he said it with a smile, and that smile was misinterpreted. It wasn’t that he was happy about the Goldstein massacre, not at all, and that I truly believe was a deep distortion of Hanan’s position. On the other hand, it revealed that he didn’t internalize the severity of the massacre.

Maybe one last thing I want to ask you: This banal comment you cite from Rabbi Yehuda Amital — about the people taking precedence over the land — which is so obvious and which you worry is not sufficiently internalized. How tragic that Amital is an unusual, maverick figure, for holding to what surely ought to be the key principles of what Judaism’s about.

Yes. One of the mischievous moments of pleasure that I took in this research was finding an article in the settlers’ magazine, Nekudah, written by Yoel Bin-Nun, in response to Rav Amital when Amital first began breaking publicly with the settler community in 1982. Yoel Bin-Nun was arguing from a more conventional settler position, which of course is turned against him a decade later, and Yoel becomes the reviled maverick, which Amital never quite was to that extent.

That’s part of the story for me – it’s a story of evolution. Most of the characters are not static. The great pleasure that I took in being involved in this story was in trying to figure out those moments of change. How did these characters cope with a changing Israel? How do they help Israel evolve, and how does Israel help them evolve?

What’s so remarkable for me about these characters is that these are seven people who have no border between their own individual lives and the Israeli story. What’s happening to Israel is going right through them – the most important moments in their lives are: when I got married, and when I fought in this war, and when this political event happened, and when Begin came to power, and when this settlement was built, and when there was an evacuation. These are the defining moments of these peoples’ lives. To understand the Israeli story through the lives of seven people who gave themselves totally, not only as soldiers — think of how remarkable that is. These are people who fought a war every few years. And in the intervals between wars, they devoted themselves not just to their individual careers, but to entwining their careers with the destiny of Israel and being deeply involved with the political changes that are happening here. What remarkable people we have in this country.

There are lots of Israelis like that, aren’t there?

There really are.

The destiny of this country is everybody’s life and death issue.

What a gift. It’s also a problematic gift, because when you so totally invest yourself in your particular vision of Israel, then it can become a zero sum game against the other camp.

And the zealots are the relative villains…


But without the zealotry, things don’t move?

That’s one of the open questions that I leave for readers. I frame it in the context of the utopian or messianic vision. One of the things that was clarified for me in the course of writing this book was how central the dream of redemption has been to Zionism — not just to find a secure place for the Jewish people, but the grand dream of transforming human reality. That dream was impelled, was carried by the Kibbutz movement, which was central to the Israeli story up until say the 1970s or the mid-1970s. And then the settler movement became one of the central engines for the direction that Israel moved in after that.

You can’t understand Israel without understanding the place of the messianic dream in our being. My question is — and really it’s an open question for me as well: Could we have achieved what we did without those grandiose dreams? And at the same time, what is the price that we paid for linking politics with messianism in its secular or religious form? Politics and messianism are opposite modes of being. Messianism is the dream of how the world should be, and politics is dealing with the world as it is. And yes, you tinker with it and you try to make the world a little bit better. Politics has to be incremental and messianism has to be transcendent. And when you link utopianism and messianism with politics, the result is at the very least disappointment and at the worst, catastrophe, which is part of the history of the twentieth century. It’s also part of our story. And that story isn’t over yet.

The messianic dream is inherent in the return to Zion. Jews, for two thousand years, carried the dream of return to Zion, inseparable from the dream of messianism. Because the return to Zion was such an improbable likelihood that only the Messiah could deliver. So it’s inevitable that we would come home and carry that messianic dream with us. I find the position of normalization, the secular Zionist dream, the non-kibbutz, utopian secular Zionist dream of normalization, deeply touching.

And utterly unrealistic.

They imagined taking a messianic dream, and translating it into secular terms, and bringing the Jews back to a land sacred to three competing religions, in the middle of the most unstable region in the world — here is where we’re going to normalize the Jewish people. It’s really moving and they really believed it. And we owe so much to that na├»ve faith in the possibility of normalizing the Jews.

I realized as this book was unfolding that it’s another one of those major themes: The clash between the dream to be a nation like all nations, and the dream to be a light to the nations.