To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin [“After Zionism: Reflections on Israel and the Diaspora,” June] says that he has mellowed in the twenty years since he published Letters to an American Jewish Friend, and in tone perhaps he has. In substance, however, Mr. Halkin’s present essay contains the same fundamental strength, and the same fundamental weakness, as his argument of twenty years ago. The strength is his accurate assessment of the dismal long-term prospects of secular Jewishness in the Diaspora. The weakness is his assumption that it is the Diaspora rather than secularism that is the primary source of those dismal prospects.
Mr. Halkin shrugs off the lack of Jewishness of secular Israelis even while conceding that Zionism, the only available secular ideology, has lost its relevance for them. “They will do,” he writes, “these Hebrew-speaking goyim,” though even he seems uncertain as to whether “simple Israeli patriotism” would be enough to sustain their commitment in a crisis.
In 1977, by contrast, when he still had hopes for the flourishing of a secular Jewish culture in Israel, he understood more clearly the risks which de-Judaization of Israeli life would entail. “I do not believe,” he wrote then,
that a polity of Israelis who are not culturally Jews, whose roots in this land go no deeper than 30 years and no wider than the boundaries of an arid nation-state, has a future in the Middle East for very long. . . . [I]t will be blown away like chaff as though it never were, leaving neither Jews nor Israelis behind it.
Mr. Halkin admits that he failed to foresee the modest revival of traditional Judaism which has taken place in the last twenty years. He demonstrates, without admitting, that he also failed to foresee the extent of cultural assimilation among secular Israelis during that period. What his present essay shows clearly, however, and what the experience of the last twenty years makes virtually indisputable, is that only renewed commitment to traditional Judaism can ensure long-term Jewish survival, whether in the Diaspora or in Israel.
Douglas D. Aronin
Forest Hills, New York
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin correctly points out that “Orthodoxy . . . instills not merely love for a tradition, but fear and guilt at the thought of leaving it.” But guilt and fear are effective only if the price is high enough. My father’s oft-repeated admonition that rituals were necessary to ensure that my children and their children remained Jews was effective largely because the price of abandoning them was the inevitable disappearance of my family’s lineage—Mr. Halkin’s “Jewish vanishing point.”
As a father of two small children who has often contemplated moving to Israel, I ask myself: how effective would they find this argument if they were living among secular Israelis who are proud of being Jews but who have discarded all tradition and ritual and for whom Jewish history begins in 1948? How long before they concluded that, to be deemed a Jew, simply living in the Jewish state is enough? But for modern, observant Diaspora Jews like me, to raise Jewish children blissfully oblivious of their legacy is not an acceptable option. Where would we be better off? In New York or in Tel Aviv? On this point, Mr. Halkin is not convincing.
I take much stronger issue with his indictment of Diaspora Jews who dare to offer counsel to their Israeli brethren. Israel is more than the Jewish state; it is part of the Jewish nation, and every Jew, by birthright, is a member. And no member of the Jewish nation can be deemed to have forfeited his right to be concerned for the welfare of other Jews by his decision to live in the Diaspora.
Indeed, when a Diaspora Jew believes in his heart of hearts (as I do) that the Oslo process is likely to lead to the deaths of many Jews, does he not have a moral duty to speak up, even though his own life is not on the line? Would Mr. Halkin also advise such Diaspora Jews as Norman Podhoretz, AM. Rosenthal, and William Safire to clam up?
Finally, the last few paragraphs of Mr. Halkin’s article are simply bizarre. The words “if Israel should ever go under . . . I would not want the Diaspora to continue. . . . I would not want there to be any more Jews in the world,” no matter how many times I read them, seem almost surreal. Coming from Mr. Halkin, whose writings I have greatly enjoyed over the years, they cannot simply be discarded as the ravings of a lunatic. And yet I just don’t get it.
Paramus, New Jersey
To the Editor:
I have always read Hillel Halkin’s writings with reservations, disliking their hectoring self-righteousness even as I have admired their eloquence. And I confess to some impatience with a formerly American Israeli who abuses his erstwhile countrymen and co-religionists in American magazines, or from American podiums, in English, for honoraria and royalty checks denominated in dollars, not shekels. It is, at the very least, inconsistent—although perhaps no more puzzling than the behavior of American Jews who pay for the privilege of being sneered at.
It was, however, with some pleasure that I began reading Mr. Halkin’s essay, “After Zionism,” in which he acknowledges his earlier shrillness, and even expresses some regret for it. My relief dissipated, however, when I reached the concluding paragraphs, in which Mr. Halkin tells his readers that if Israel were to be destroyed, he would like to see all the Jews of the Diaspora “dead there, too.”
That the destruction of Israel would be the most dreadful of calamities goes without saying. Who can tell if the Jewish people could survive it, and no doubt many would not wish to do so. But it is a far cry from that kind of Zionist nightmare to the extremity of Mr. Halkin’s concluding remarks. As expressed in his article, at any rate, his Zionism is the same kind of self-absorbed madness that would have led Second Temple Zealots to slit the throat of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai rather than let him lay the foundations of exilic Judaism.
Perhaps Mr. Halkin does not mean what he says. Not long ago, the Jewish prime minister of the Jewish state fell to a Jewish assassin’s bullets, in part because Jews had not learned to contain in speech and writing their loathing of one another. The wild and dangerous rhetoric that encouraged Yigal Amir has its echoes in the extreme and violent tone of Mr. Halkin’s closing words.
Hillel Halkin may dislike the Diaspora—fine. He does not have to live with us; we do not have to read him. But the last paragraphs of his article take his antipathy for Diaspora Jews to an appalling length. We have lived in a century in which communities of innocent Jews have indeed been exterminated. For anyone, but particularly for a Jew, to say he would welcome such events again is despicable. None of Mr. Halkin’s hiding behind the phrase “not literally” can efface the Tightness of his wife’s reported response, “That was a terrible thing to say.” It is indeed a terrible thing to say, and I am surprised that the editors of COMMENTARY would publish it.
Eliot A. Cohen
Silver Spring, Maryland
To the Editor:
I would like to remind Hillel Halkin that Judaism did not begin 100 years ago at the first Zionist Congress. God promised the land of Israel to the descendants of Abraham, not to the descendants of Theodor Herzl.
It is a pity that a true Zionist like Mr. Halkin, who has given his heart and soul, his life and being, to Israel, cannot envision a world beyond the immediate future if—God forbid—Israel were destroyed. Had he lived at the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, would he not want Jews to exist today?
For all his devotion to Israel and to Zionism, Mr. Halkin seems to lack a basic Jewish principle: emunah, faith in the Almighty, that we will be redeemed.
Zionist Organization of
To the Editor:
Surely Hillel Halkin understands that American and other Diaspora Jews spend much of their political capital, energy, and treasure to ensure that Israel will never “go under.” This alone should be sufficient justification for the Diaspora to continue. If Israel were to “go under,” the Diaspora would be the only logical hope for its ever rising again.
New York City
To the Editor:
Like Hillel Halkin, I immigrated to Israel in the 1970’s, but my experiences over thirteen years, which included fighting in Lebanon and helping establish a kibbutz, have taught me that he is dead wrong. Mr. Halkin insists that he is not alarmed by the resurgence of Israeli Orthodoxy, contending that it “will allow secular Jewish culture in Israel to develop.” This is a highly problematic claim. If the Orthodox birth rate continues to soar in Israel, as it does in the U.S., then what factors will preserve the secular culture that is essential to Israel’s frail democracy? Not only does Mr. Halkin fail to take this into account, he utterly ignores the struggle of Reform and Conservative Judaism in the face of an intolerant Orthodoxy.
Mr. Halkin claims that Israeli youth secure a minimum Jewish identity simply by serving in the Israel Defense Force, risking their lives to defend their fellow Jews. But he does not dwell on the moral cost such service has imposed in recent years since the early days of the intifada. In my experience, as a former paratrooper and relative of currently serving Israeli soldiers, there has been a dramatic demoralization and hardening of an entire generation of young people who have been ill-served by the political excesses of the Right.
To my mind, Diaspora Judaism in its liberal forms represents an ethical alternative to an intensely particularist Israeli identity that, via state policies and social stigma, continues to value its own Jews far above all others. What many Jewish Americans have sadly come to conclude is that Jewishness and liberal values remain in irreconcilable conflict in the Jewish state.
Notre Dame, Indiana
To the Editor:
I empathize with Hillel Halkin, whose “mellowing” away from activist Zionism seems to be a function of how long he has lived in Israel. Most native Israelis (I speak only of the non-Orthodox population) seem to have given up on Zionism altogether: it hardly means anything to them, while those who have lived here for ten years or more seem gradually to lose their interest in what was once the be-all-and-end-all of idealism. I have been an Israeli for eight years now, and I have only recently come to understand the lure of a “normal” life. A normal life is what American Jews have had for a long time; Israelis want it, too. They are sick of clinging to a past of martyrdom or heroics. They just want to live.
I have to accept that idealistic Zionism is dead. So now what? If indeed what we are striving for now (and what many of the early Zionist philosophers wanted) is a “normal” country, let us admit it and get on with making this the best country it can be. We are not doing that, unfortunately. We tolerate bad government, dithering foreign policy, corruption in high and low places, a dreadful educational system, a fatal lack of road safety, a growing drug culture, religious coercion, a scandal a day, and even a complete disregard for human life (witness the horrendously built bridge that collapsed during the recent Maccabiah games, killing two Australians).
Many American Jews still feel an intense connection with Israel and are still interested in what happens here, which is why I bother to write this letter. Many of them rail against Israeli foreign policy and against the Orthodox stranglehold on religious expression. But they will never influence Israeli policy, either foreign or domestic, through their Federation missions, senior years abroad, conferences, sabbatical years, or even the Maccabiah games. They will influence us only if they immigrate, jump into the fray, vote, form movements and political parties, and help on the spot to make this country what it should be. I doubt that American Jews would tolerate the ugliness I mentioned above. They are used to something better.
Tel Aviv, Israel
To the Editor:
I applaud Hillel Halkin for his passionate concern over the current state of the Jewish people. However, I think it could be better directed toward trying to bring Jews closer together, not as Zionists or as post-Zionists but as members of a single faith-community.
Throughout their history, the Jewish people have held and lost the land of Israel. Nonetheless, there have continued to be Jews. Judaism has defined itself as a nation with common values, and admission into that nation has come with accepting those values (as undefined as they may currently appear). When the Jewish people have been able to live in the land of Israel, that has been the most appropriate place in which to achieve those values and fulfill those ideals. But it has not been, nor does it seem to be now, the sole, defining criterion of being a Jew. If the Jewish people have no shared ideals, no common goal toward which to strive, the land, in and of itself, is meaningless.
Huntington Woods, Michigan
Hillel Halkin writes:
Oleg Rivkin and others “just don’t get it.” How can anyone but a “lunatic” (and Mr. Rivkin is kind enough to doubt that I am one) wish that the Jewish people cease to exist if Israel perish?
The answer—as I thought the last lines of my article made clear—is that I have an immaturely low shame threshold. If Israel were to be destroyed (and this can happen only if Jews let it be destroyed), less squeamish Jews than myself will spend a decent amount of time mourning and get back to the business of being Jewish. After all, as Leonard Getz points out, we’ve been through it before.
So we have. And if we blow it again this time, we will have proved that we have learned nothing from any of it. I can’t imagine what place there could be in this world for a people so incorrigibly stupid.