To the Editor:
Reading Hillel Halkin’s dark thoughts about Zionism and Israel, I kept wondering if I was truly living in the same country as he [“If Israel Ceased to Exist,” June]. Around me, I see a land with a booming economy; an energetic, enterprising people with (for the most part) a clear-eyed approach to national security; flourishing arts and sciences and universities; ever-strengthening Jewish institutions, as the government monopoly on religious affairs is increasingly marginalized; improving cuisine, architecture, and even weather. Perhaps I am missing the scythe hanging over our heads—I do not see Iran and the demographics of the Palestinians as insurmountable problems—but it seems to me that by any historical standard, the Jews in Israel are living in an arcadia.
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin sees the idea of Jewish “specialness” as a paralyzing myth that the Jews of Israel (and the Diaspora) should break free of. Perhaps this is his way of promoting the Zionist aim for the Jews to be a nation like every other or perhaps he has a fantastical notion of specialness. Maybe his insider’s perspective is distorting. Either way, he is far too modest, as he would surely recognize if he visited among the millions of Americans who draw inspiration from the Jewish state.
Israel may have its share of corrupt politicians and societal problems, but let us not forget that it is also a living demonstration of how the flames of peoplehood, culture, democracy, and courage can be kept alive in modern times. If that is not special, the word has no meaning.
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin’s essay is both fascinating and heart-wrenching. It also reveals a great deal about the problems with Israeli society as it is currently constituted. Mr. Halkin notes that if more American Jews had immigrated to Israel over the years, the Jewish demographic situation in Israel would be much better off. Thus, he suggests, they have failed to embrace the ancient dream of a return from exile to Zion.
On the other hand, Mr. Halkin says that he cannot blame American Jews for this. “Israel,” he writes, “is not the Jewish state these American Jews hoped for.” Given its history of war and political incompetence, far from being a “‘light unto the nations,’ it is not even a light unto the Jews.” The modern Jew, it seems, must make his peace with Israel’s lack of specialness.
There is an irony in Mr. Halkin’s complaint. Was not the purpose of modern Zionism, at least according to many of its founders, to allow the Jews to be like every other people? Should it be a surprise that Israel has in fact turned out to be a flawed nation like the rest?
The secular character of the Jewish state matters more than Mr. Halkin allows. In his discussion of demographics, he does not note the high birthrate among observant Jews in Israel. If all Israeli Jews were as fruitful, the demographic troubles that keep him awake at night would not be much of a worry. Israel, at least on that score, would be in much better shape.
Near the end of his essay, Mr. Halkin notes that the world refuses to treat Israel like just another state, and the Jews like just another people. He wonders whether the world might be insisting on something that “religiously skeptical” Jews like himself are loath to concede—namely, that the Jews are “forever destined or doomed to a special and inescapable fate.” In response, he cautions that “before picking up the gauntlet that is again being flung at their feet, Jews should be wary of slipping back into the delusions [of specialness] that Israel should have cured them of.” A traditional Jew might
respond differently: “A mentsch tracht, un Got lacht” (Man plans, and God laughs). If, to paraphrase Tevye, modern Israel was created to allow God to choose someone else every now and then, Mr. Halkin’s essay raises the question of whether, in that sense, the Zionist project has failed.
Claremont McKenna College
To the Editor:
It seems to me that Hillel Halkin overstates the degree to which American Jews continue to harbor notions of Jewish “specialness.” Thus, I cannot agree with his suggestion that it is the disparity between such self-glorifying views and the raw realities of life in Israel that explains the reluctance of American Jews to immigrate to the Jewish state. While some may indeed believe Jews to be “more advanced, more rational, and more morally refined than others,” and that a Jewish state would consequently be better-run and more harmonious than other states, such views could not withstand even a cursory familiarity with ancient Jewish history as recounted in the Bible or, indeed, with involvement today in Jewish communal or religious organizations.
One possible explanation for the reluctance of American Jews to immigrate to Israel that Mr. Halkin does not consider is the perception that Israel offers little space in the religious spectrum between ultra-Orthodoxy and ultra-secularism. The absence in Israel of the middle ground of Reform and Conservative Judaism—with which the vast majority of synagogue-going American Jews are affiliated—may be far more of a barrier to aliyah than any outmoded notion of Jewish exceptionalism.
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin says many interesting things about the somewhat strained relations between American Jews and their Israeli cousins, but he does not articulate what may be the most important point of all: that the main reason so many non-religious American Jews are adrift in terms of their Jewish identity is that they have no real organizational vehicles to nourish it.
For secular Jews, membership in any of the religious denominations of Judaism is at best a messy compromise designed to impart to the next generation a version of “tradition” and “identity” that the present generation has discarded. The two main secular variants of Jewish expression—Reconstructionism and Humanistic Judaism—have for their part not attracted passionate adherence among great numbers of American Jews, probably because they continue to pour the new wine of their secularism into the old flasks of ritual, prayer, and so on.
Perhaps, then, the energies of those concerned with the Jewish future who are of a broadly secular outlook, as Mr. Halkin clearly is, should focus less on the question of how Israeli and American Jews have failed each other and more on how a vast segment of American Jewry has failed itself by not constructing institutions and ideologies that truly express its identity.
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin is surely right that the demise of the state of Israel would be equivalent to the destruction of the third Temple. But I wonder if he is not overly pessimistic in assuming that in the event of such an unthinkable calamity, a meaningful Judaism could no longer survive in the Diaspora. There is, after all, a flourishing Jewish culture in the United States. And while the yearning for Zion has been a part of Jewish tradition since the destruction of the second Temple, Jews have always managed to adapt, often brilliantly, to the lack of a national homeland.
Highland Park, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin writes that because of the large and growing population of Palestinians west of the Jordan River, “Israel’s demise as a Jewish state could take place . . . by means of demographic swamping alone” —and this even if Israel were to withdraw “to, or nearly to, its 1967 borders.”
The demographic problem is real, but there is a great deal of misinformation in the air about it. A recent study by the American-Israel Demographic Research Group (AIDRG) has shown that the Palestinian Authority has deliberately inflated its population figures to total over 3.3 million, while the actual figure is closer to the neighborhood of 2.4 million.
The AIDRG study, which was presented to Congress last year, also shows that the fertility rate for Israeli Jews stands at 2.75 children per woman, the highest in the industrialized world. While this is not expected to rise further by 2025, the Palestinian Arab birthrate is expected to drop to 2.4 by that date, following patterns across the Middle East. In Israel proper, new welfare laws have led to a major drop in the Arab Bedouin birth-rate while not affecting the birthrate among religious Jews. All in all, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicates that Jewish births in Israel have risen from 69 percent of the total in 1995 to 74 percent in 2006.
The findings of the AIDRG study have enormous implications. Chief among them is the fact that a sound 67-percent Jewish majority in 98.5 percent of the land west of the Jordan River (excluding Gaza) can be expected for the foreseeable future.
Morton A. Klein
Zionist Organization of America
New York City
HILLEL HALKIN writes:
Hillel Asher and I are definitely living in the same country. Israel is indeed an extremely vibrant and rewarding place to reside in, even if its own citizens—Mr. Asher is something of an exception—tend to grumble about it constantly. But precisely this is one of the points I was making in my essay: life in a Jewish state will never seem good enough to anyone who harbors, however deep in his soul, a utopian notion of what such a state should be like. And as a people, Jews have been the world’s greatest utopians because historically, they have been removed from the exercise of power, and able, therefore, to fantasize about how much better than others they would be at using power if they had it.
Apart from that, Mr. Asher seems to think that I wrote somewhere that the problems of Iran and of Palestinian demographics were “insurmountable.” I did not, of course, say any such thing. I said that, if not surmounted, they could be extremely perilous for Israel’s future. That is a very different statement.
I believe Peter Franklin that “millions of Americans,” by which I presume he is referring to many non-Jews as well, “draw inspiration” from Israel. I know such non-Jewish Americans myself, and am deeply touched and encouraged by their good will. I would only say to them: Yes, do appreciate us, admire us, even love us—we deserve it. But do it for what we are, not for what we are not. Do not idealize, romanticize, or theologize us, because if you do, you will sooner or later feel let down by us.
Richard Samuelson misreads my essay. I did not complain about the fact that Jews in a Jewish state have turned out to be (with the proviso that all peoples, just like all individuals, are unique in their own way) “just like every other people.” I celebrated this fact and expressed my regret that much of the world cannot accept it. Were it ever to become clear to me that God could not accept it, either, I would, I suppose, join the laughter. Meanwhile, the secular Zionist aspiration of normality for the Jews in a country of their own still seems to me a worthy goal.
Mr. Samuelson also misreads me when he says that I do not blame American Jews for their failure to immigrate to Israel in larger numbers. I think this failure has been a colossal one, and I said so clearly. And in speculating that, if secular Israelis would only have the birthrate that observant Israelis have, Israel’s demographic problems might be solved, Mr. Samuelson overlooks the fact that those observant Israelis with the highest birthrate, the ultra-Orthodox, do not serve in Israel’s army, participate only marginally in its economy, depend heavily on the taxes of other Israelis to support them and their many children, and are on the whole more of a drain on the country’s resources than a contribution to them. Emulating them is hardly the solution to Israel’s demographic problem.
Robert Levy is putting the cart before the horse when he speaks of the absence of a religious “middle ground” as an obstacle to American Jewish immigration to Israel. There are plenty of freely functioning Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel today, and the only reason there are not more is that there is no public demand for them and no inclination on the part of American Jewry to invest in them—a situation that would change if more American Jews lived in Israel. The notion that it is Israeli Orthodoxy that is preventing the emergence of Mr. Levy’s middle ground is a myth. The state religious establishment is unpopular among nearly all secular and not a few religiously observant Israelis, and has no such power over Israeli life. And although, unlike Mr. Levy, I have never been involved in Jewish communal or religious organizations in the United States, it is my sense that many American Jews, especially those who are most active in Jewish life, do (or would like to) nurture a sense of Jewish intellectual and moral superiority, and are troubled not to find more evidence of it in Israel.
Contrary to Robert Forstag, I do not believe that American Jews are capable of developing a true secular culture independent of their religious institutions. In response to Hans Fisher I can only say that I explain in my essay why, in the absence of Israel, even a “flourishing” Jewish culture in the United States would be in my opinion historically uninteresting. I suggest that he re-read the passage in which I do so.
I am familiar with the population study of the American-Israel Demographic Research Group cited by Morton A. Klein, and I think its findings need to be taken seriously. It is important to realize, however, that there are leading Israeli demographers who, for good reasons, challenge these findings in part or in whole. (To take just one example, the assumption that the Palestinian Arab birthrate will drop from its present level of roughly 4.5 children per family to 2.4 by 2025 strikes me as wildly optimistic.) But even if these findings are correct, Mr. Klein and I draw opposite conclusions from them. He thinks that an Israel with a 33 percent minority of hostile Palestinian Arabs would be a viable country. I think it would be a dysfunctional one in which ethnic animosities, ethnic politics, and the specter of ethnic warfare would overshadow all else.