Note: The following are excerpts from “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” (Harper), which tells the story of the paratroopers’ reservist Brigade 55, which liberated the Western Wall in the battle for Jerusalem. The book traces the lives of seven veterans of the battle, some of whom became founders of the West Bank settlement movement while others became active in the anti-settlement peace movement. “Like Dreamers” won the Jewish Book Council’s 2013 Everett Book of the Year Award.
On the streets of Cairo, demonstrators waved banners of skulls and crossbones and chanted, “We want war!” Caricatures in the Arab world’s government newspapers fantasized about the coming victory. An Egyptian cartoon showed a hook-nosed Jew being strangled by a Star of David; a Syrian cartoon showed a pile of skulls in the smoking ruins of Tel Aviv. One ad in an Egyptian newspaper depicted a hand plunging a knife into a Star of David, and was signed, “Nile Oils and Soaps Company.”
Barely twenty kilometers wide at its narrowest point, which happened to be around the coastal area containing most of its population, Israel could be severed in minutes. The claustrophobia that Israelis had tried to ignore— extending kibbutz fields and housing projects to the very edge of the border— was now unavoidable. The nation could field an impressive force in war— 300,000 soldiers and reservists— but only at the cost of wholly mobilizing its barely three million people. The combined Arab armies confronting Israel had nearly twice as many soldiers, four times as many planes, and nearly five times as many tanks.
As young men began disappearing from Israel’s streets and fields, high school students and pensioners volunteered to take their place, working as mailmen and harvesters. The army requisitioned tour buses, taxis, private cars. Gradually, civilian Israel was absorbed into military Israel. Shelters in apartment buildings were swept clean, trenches dug around houses, windows taped against shattering. Pits were dug in parks, in preparation for mass graves.
Aside from emptying grocery shelves— a resurgence of the refugee instinct— Israelis responded without panic. Hitching soldiers barely had to extend their hand before drivers would stop. So many high school students and pensioners volunteered for the postal service that mail was often delivered two or three times a day. Even thieves contributed to the national effort: as war approached, apartment break-ins stopped.
The reservists of the 55th Brigade left young wives and girlfriends and boarded buses covered with the dust of back roads. They were brought to citrus orchards near Lod Airport, on the Jordanian border, below the hills of the West Bank.
Pup tents lined the dirt paths between the trees in even rows, divided and subdivided into battalions and companies, each company with its own field kitchen. The orchard was young, and its low-hanging branches provided thin shade against the strong sun. In the humidity of the coastal plain, men stripped to undershirts and spent the midday hours burrowed in tents, so small one could barely sit upright inside them. The only relief was provided by makeshift showers, cold water pouring from pipes. There were no outhouses: white tape marked areas where soldiers relieved themselves. The orchards filled with clouds of gnats, so bold that the men had to cover their mouths when they yawned.
Of the brigade’s 2,000 men, only one requested sick leave. Far more typically, reservists whom doctors determined weren’t fit to jump refused to be sent home. One officer appeared for duty in a cast. Young men studying abroad flew back to Lod Airport and, without stopping at home, hitched directly to the orchards.
Despite rumors of an imminent Israeli offensive, the reservists stayed put. They dug trenches around the encampment, stood guard duty, took refresher courses in first aid and explosives, cleaned and recleaned their Uzis and Belgian FN rifles, whose long steel barrels rusted easily and required constant attention. They played backgammon and chess and amused themselves by listening to Radio Cairo’s Hebrew broadcasts, which warned the Jews to flee. They laughed at the bad Hebrew and laughed, too, at the threats. Of course we’ll win, they reassured each other; the only question is the cost.
They argued constantly, Israeli style— not to convince an opponent but to bolster one’s certainties. Was prime minister Levi Eshkol right to try to exhaust the diplomatic option, or was he showing weakness? Should we listen to the Americans and show restraint? Can we go to war without American backing? Whatever the differences among them, they shared a growing sense of aloneness, of Jewish isolation. Israel’s foreign minister, Abba Eban, sought help in Western capitals, but no nation was prepared to stand with Israel. France, Israel’s closest ally, turned against the Jewish state. The United States, which had promised to defend Israel’s access to the Straits of Tiran when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Desert after the 1956 war, was preoccupied with Vietnam. And the UN was the UN.
We can only depend on ourselves, said the young reservists, and on our fellow Jews in the Diaspora. Angry and anxious, the young Israelis increasingly sounded like the old Jews of exile they were meant to replace.
When they tired of talking politics, they argued religion. “How can you believe in God after the Holocaust?” a kibbutznik demanded of Yoel Bin-Nun. “How can you not believe in God when He returned us to the land of Israel after the Holocaust?” said Yoel. “Prove to me that God exists,” the kibbutznik challenged. “Prove to me that He doesn’t,” Yoel countered.
In the tent synagogue there was celebration: a medic named Yossi Yochai was to be married in the coming week. Yossi was summoned to bless the Torah. Reciting the blessing— “Who has chosen us from all the nations and given us His Torah”— the groom’s voice caught. The soldiers showered Yossi with candies and peanuts and sunflower seeds, gathered from gift packages sent by schoolchildren. One big young man named Yisrael Diamant lifted Yossi onto his shoulders and carried him outside. The others followed, dancing and singing: “The rejoicing of bride and groom will be heard in the Judean hills and in the outskirts of Jerusalem.”
JUNE 6 1967
02:15. The Israeli sappers approached no-man’s-land. They encountered their first surprise: a line of barbed wire that hadn’t appeared in the aerial photos. They flattened the wire with their boots and reached the border fifty meters away. There they laid bangalores, long metal tubes filled with dynamite, under a row of barbed wire. They blew the beginnings of a scorched path, fifty centimeters wide and free of mines. Then they entered the breach, blew holes through the next three layers of barbed wire, stretched the bangalores farther, and extended the safe passageway through no-man’s-land, which they marked with white tape.
One by one, paratroopers descended the slope into a valley of thistles. A tank offered cover. The sky turned red and white with arching flares. Over no-man’s-land rose clouds of smoke, providing cover for the men running single file along the scorched path.
Jordanian soldiers, in bunkers and in houses, returned fire. Burning buildings lit the night. Yet the Jordanians failed to notice the paratroopers moving toward them and aimed over their heads. Mortar shells fell into side streets. Directly into the men of the 28th Battalion, Company D.
Pavement exploded. Houses blew open. Soldiers crouched behind cars and stone walls. Some lay down, exposed, gripping the ground.
A flash of light: Avital Geva fell backward, bleeding from his shoulders and knees. Someone rushed to help, but another mortar exploded and he fell too. Haggai appraised the wounds of both men: not critical. Avital was propped against a stone wall. His helmet was removed, to help him breathe more easily. An explosion. “My face!” screamed Avital. “My face!” Blood covered his eyes. “I can’t see!” He steadied himself. Haggai noted Avital’s self-control.
Someone jump-started a car, and Avital was driven a few blocks away to the Bikur Cholim hospital. He dimly discerned a corridor crowded with wounded men, some lying on cots and stretchers, others leaning against the wall. Then he passed out.
Blinding flashes, distortions of light.
The battle hadn’t even been engaged, and the paratroopers were being decimated. They’d been taught to charge when ambushed, but the enemy was invisible and beyond reach. In company D alone, fully one- third of its ninety-two men were wounded before they even crossed the line. Stretchers ran out; men with severed limbs lay in the street. The less injured tried to lift those more seriously wounded. Some could only moan; some couldn’t even moan.
A basement shelter crowded with ultra-Orthodox families became a first aid station. Old people brought blankets and water; modest women who never exposed their knees and elbows in public tore their dresses for bandages.
A medic, hearing the whistle of an incoming mortar shell, leaped onto the man he was treating; the medic was killed, the patient saved. Another medic died in an explosion at a first aid station. He was Yossi Yochai, whose imminent wedding had been celebrated in the tent synagogue before the war.
JUNE 7, 1967
Yoel Bin-Nun approached the Lions’ Gate. Spread before him was the landscape of messianic dream. Terraced into the Mount of Olives were thousands of flat tombstones, of Jews who had chosen to be buried directly across from the Temple Mount, to be resurrected when the Messiah came. In the Valley of Kidron rose the conical stone monument called the Pillar of Absalom, after the rebellious son of King David, founder of the messianic line. Nearby, embedded in the Old City wall, was the Gate of Mercy, through which, according to tradition, the Messiah would enter, and which had been sealed by Muslims to thwart the redeemer of Israel.
Yoel ran up the steep road leading to the Lions’ Gate, past a smoking bus, and through the gate, crowded with paratroopers. When he reached the steps leading to the Dome of the Rock, he abruptly stopped: beyond lay the region of the Holy of Holies.
He felt lightheaded, as if on a mountain peak. To move from battle to this—
He couldn’t pray: prayer seemed inadequate. What was left to ask for? He felt himself to be an answered prayer to all those who had believed this day would come, that Jewish history would vindicate Jewish faith.
He studied the topography. “This was the women’s area of the Temple,” he told a friend. “How do you know, Yoel?” his friend asked, surprised. Yoel explained that he happened to be studying the laws of the Temple just before the war, and he could plainly see the Talmud’s description of the layout of the Mount.
Young men on their way up the stairs stopped to ask Yoel directions to the Western Wall. Yoel shrugged; the Wall didn’t interest him. The Jews had prayed there only because they’d been barred from the Mount. Why descend to the place of lamenting God’s absence from the place that celebrated His glory? Yoel thought of his high school rabbi, who had claimed that Israel’s failure to control the Temple Mount was proof that God had rejected Zionism. What was the rabbi thinking now?
“So, Yoel, what do you say?” his kibbutznik officer asked. “Two thousand years of exile are over,” replied Yoel.
Exhausted, grieving, exultant, paratroopers crossed the Temple Mount and rushed down to the Western Wall. Hanan Porat too was looking for a way to get to the Wall. The Temple Mount may have been the locus of holiness, center of the universe, but Hanan craved the Wall, where Jews had prayed for this moment. As he ran down the steps, he told a friend, “We are writing the next chapter of the Bible.”
The narrow space before the Wall— barely five meters wide and twenty meters long— filled with soldiers. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the army’s chief chaplain, was lifted onto shoulders. He tried to blow the shofar but was too overcome. “Rabbi,” said an officer, a kibbutznik, “give me the shofar. I play the trumpet.” Goren complied. The sound that emerged resembled the blast of a bugle.
A kibbutznik asked Hanan Porat to teach him an appropriate prayer. Hanan replied, “Just say the Shema”— the basic Jewish prayer that begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one,” and which any Orthodox child can recite. But the kibbutznik had never heard of the Shema. “Repeat after me,” said Hanan, and they said the prayer together.
A reporter for the Yiddish radio station circulated among the paratroopers, asking if anyone spoke mama loshen, the mother tongue. Yosef Shwartz, known as “Yoske Balagan,” directed him to Aryeh Weiner, a kibbutznik who had come alone to Israel on a refugee boat at age twelve. Weiner had just placed a note in a crack between the stones, which contained this prayer: “I hope I win the lottery.”
“How did you get here?” the reporter asked him. “We parachuted into the Old City,” Weiner lied, unable to speak straight-faced in Yiddish. Weiner’s version was transmitted to the Yiddish-speaking world: The paratroopers had descended onto the Holy City like angels.
Ada Geva found a note in her cubby in the kibbutz dining room: “A friend of Avital’s called to say he’s been lightly wounded.” Of course “lightly wounded,” thought Ada; what else would Avital say?
Without visible reaction, as if she’d expected this news all along, she returned to her room and packed a bag. Then she went to tell Avital’s parents. “I’m going to see him,” she said. “In the middle of a war?” asked Avital’s father, Kuba. “How will you get there?” “Hitching,” she replied.
She began walking toward the road. Kuba borrowed a kibbutz car and drove her to Jerusalem.
In the Bikur Cholim hospital, the halls were crowded with wounded men on mattresses. Some were screaming; most were still. Ada was impressed with the calmness of the staff. The way it’s supposed to be—
She approached the nurses’ station. There was no list of the wounded, and no one could tell her where Avital was. And so Ada and Kuba went from room to room. Ada, nearsighted, peered at the wounded. Which one is mine? They’re all mine—
She saw a head entirely bandaged, except for lips, nostrils, and a single eye. She squeezed between the beds, bent down, and kissed her husband’s luminous blue eye.
The predawn streets of West Jerusalem filled with pilgrims. It was the holiday of Shavuot, Pentecost, celebrating revelation. The war had ended five days earlier, and all of Jewish Jerusalem seemed to be moving east. Many too had come from around the country, to be part of the first holiday at the Wall since its liberation— and the first mass pilgrimage of Jews to the area of the Temple Mount since Titus burned the Temple 1,900 years earlier.
There were women wheeling baby carriages and grandmothers in kerchiefs and kibbutzniks in floppy hats and Orthodox men in prayer shawls and Hasidic fur hats and black fedoras and berets and knitted kippot. It was impossible, but here they were, sovereign again in Jerusalem, just as Jews had always prayed for and believed would happen. Strangers smiled at each other: We are the ones who made it to the end of the story.
Ada, on vigil in Avital’s hospital room, heard movement from the street. Through the arched window she saw the vast crowds heading toward the Old City. “There are thousands of people outside,” she told Avital. “Go join them,” he urged. Everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion. Ada felt as if she were floating. An Israeli crowd could be as edgy as a food line in a refugee camp, yet here there was no pushing, no concern that someone was cutting ahead or not moving quickly enough. They are all my family, she thought; I love them just for being Jews.
As the crowds crossed what had been no-man’s-land, soldiers urged pilgrims to remain on the road: not all the mines had been cleared. Passersby reached out to shake hands with soldiers or simply to touch them, as if they had personally liberated the Wall.
Reprinted with permission from Harper.