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Originally published Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 3:03 AM

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‘Like Dreamers’: soldiers’ dreams in a divided Israel

Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book, “Like Dreamers,” follows the story of six Israeli paratroopers who helped seize Jerusalem’s Old City during 1967’s Six Day War, but whose views of Israel’s destiny fractured and clashed as they and the country matured.

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‘Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation’

by Yossi Klein Halevi

Harper, 608 pp., $35

In his commanding new book “Like Dreamers,” journalist Yossi Klein Halevi has hit on a narrative conceit that brilliantly captures the heart, soul and fraught political evolution of Israel in the second half of the 20th century. Halevi set out to track seven reservist paratroopers in the Israeli Defense Forces who fought side-by-side in the brigade that seized Jerusalem’s Old City during the Six Day War — the 1967 conflict in which Israel dealt a swift blow to Arab armies and gained considerable new territory, including the West Bank.

For Halevi, this was the watershed moment in which the key symbol of Israeli society ceased to be the socialist secular kibbutz and instead became the controversial settlements planted in occupied territory by right-wing religious zealots claiming the Bible as their authority. Eleven years in the making, Halevi’s book is a kind of nonfiction epic.

Arik Achmon, the 55th Paratrooper Brigade’s charismatic, stubbornly self-assured chief intelligence officer, grew up a typical kibbutznik: socialist in politics, Zionist in world view, fiercely secular in his beliefs.

Yoel Bin-Nun, another reservist in the brigade, realized at the age of 12 that his deepest desire was to see the temple rebuilt in Jerusalem — an event that religious Jews believe will accompany the coming of the Messiah. For Yoel, Zionism was “a movement of the faithful ... about not refuge but destiny, redemption.”

Arik and Yoel perfectly embody “Israel’s competing utopian dreams,” and yet when called up in the late spring of 1967, they fought together to capture Jerusalem’s Old City. “We are writing the next chapter of the Bible,” declared one of the religious Zionist paratroopers on the momentous morning when Israeli soldiers seized the Temple Mount — the sacred plateau where the temple once stood — and, with rabbis looking on ecstatically, hoisted an Israeli flag over the Dome of the Rock mosque.

But subsequent events did not bear out this prophecy. Nimbly braiding together his multiple narrative strands, Halevi recounts how Israeli society fissured, fractured and came close to imploding as religious settlers and peaceniks faced off in the following decades.

The book’s diverse cast of comrades reflects the breadth of talent and the fierceness of commitment that enliven Israeli society. Kibbutznik Udi Adiv rejected Zionism, joined an underground Palestinian terrorist cell, and did time in Israeli prison for spying. Meir Ariel, famous during the Six Day War as the singing paratrooper, became Israel’s Bob Dylan — a composer of haunting and increasingly religious ballads. Hanan Porat, a rabbi and member of the Knesset, founded the first West Bank settlement on the site of a kibbutz that was destroyed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. These men and their fellow paratroopers fought shoulder to shoulder in 1967, but clashed violently in the years that followed.

Halevi refrains from imposing a pattern or clear political slant on his sprawling narrative. By constructing the book as a series of fly-on-the-wall vignettes, he invites us to witness how history is made one stone, one bullet, one prayer at a time. The downside of this approach is that the book’s pace is leisurely and repetitive, and occasionally the big picture vanishes in a cloud of particulars.

“Like Dreamers” has its longueurs and its oversights, but in the end, it is a fiercely gripping exploration not only of four decades of Israeli history — but of the Jewish soul.

Seattle author David Laskin is the author of “The Family: Three Journeys Into the Heart of the 20th Century” (Viking).

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