Mosaic Magazine

Monthly Essay November 2013

Letters to an American Jewish Friend

The Case for Life in Israel

Letters to an American Jewish Friend

It’s happened at least a half-dozen times. Somewhere—at a social gathering, after a speaking engagement, while sitting in a café—someone has come up to me and said, “You know, the reason I’m living in Israel is Letters to an American Jewish Friend.” The same is true of some portion of the reactions to the book that I received in the mail, the bulk of them in the early years after its initial publication in 1977. Of them all, the most memorable was a postcard from 1986. On one side was a photograph of Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. On the other, next to my address, was written:

                      Hillel Halkin: 

Thank you for helping me find my way home.


There was no signature.

Today, re-reading the book from cover to cover for the first time since writing it, I ask myself why it had such an effect on some people. I suppose its epistolary form had something to do with it. It drew readers in; many responded with letters of their own. Not all of these agreed with me. From my point of view, disagreement was almost as good. I had never thought I could convince American Jews to move to Israel by writing a book. I had thought I might help start an argument that was missing from American Jewish life.


1. The Imperative

The argument I had in mind wasn’t about Zionism per se. Jewish backing for Israel was rarely challenged in the 1970s; only later did some American Jewish intellectuals on the political Left begin to question not just the wisdom or morality of this or that Israeli policy but the very idea of a Jewish state. Yet I would not have argued with such people in Letters to an American Friend even had they been more common at the time. I didn’t write the book to defend Israeli policies, and I have never believed that, as a Jew, I should have to make the case for Israel’s existence to anyone. Whoever disputes it deserves to be scorned, not reasoned with.

But the Zionist consensus of the organized American Jewish community in the 1970s was of a peculiarly American kind. It had rejoiced in Israel’s establishment; it took pride in Israel’s accomplishments; it celebrated Israel’s military victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 and gave thanks when Israel beat back its enemies in the Yom Kippur War of 1973; it acknowledged that its own fate and Israel’s were intertwined. Yet it did all this from a vicarious distance. Unlike the European Zionism that led to Israel’s creation, it was not a movement of self-actualization. It was one of helping others, of philanthropy and political support.

It had always been like that. From the outset, American Zionism viewed a Jewish state as a home for Jews less fortunate than America’s—for those fleeing the Europe of the Czars or Hitler, for Holocaust survivors in the DP camps, for refugees from the Arab countries of the Middle East, for Soviet Jews imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain. Its task, as it saw it, was to assist these victims of fate or anti-Semitism to reach a Jewish homeland and be absorbed there in a secure and prosperous environment; it was not to encourage American Jews to join them. Although there were tiny American Zionist youth groups that preached and practiced aliyah, emigration, the subject was never on the American Jewish agenda.

The statistics reflected this. Between 1948 and 1964, an American Jewish community of close to six million produced an annual average of some 300 immigrants to Israel. That figure rose somewhat in the mid-1960s and, then, under the impact of the Six-Day War, jumped dramatically to nearly 8,000 annually in the years 1969-1972.


My wife and I, when we moved to Israel from New York in 1970, belonged to this surge. The war hadn’t created a sudden awareness of Israel in either of us. I had grown up in a strongly Zionist home, first visited Israel during the summer I was eighteen, and returned for a longer stay several years later. My wife, also in her late teens, had spent an entire year in Israel, falling in love with the country and returning a second and a third time. We both knew Israel well. Each of us, independently, had considered living there.

But at the time of our marriage, we were both deep into our American lives, and Israel was not in the forefront of our thoughts. It was pushed back there by the 1967 war and all that surrounded it: the fearful anxiety preceding it, the jubilant relief when it was over, the realization of how much Israel had continued to mean to us even as we were thinking of other things. We traveled there as tourists in the summer of 1968—a brief description of this trip can be found toward the end of Letters to an American Jewish Friend—and left with the understanding that we had to make up our minds. We were still young enough to do with our lives what we wanted and old enough to know we wouldn’t always be. Either we were going to live in Israel or we weren’t. Less than two years later, we decided.

I don’t remember thinking at the time that our decision made us part of a wave. Or rather, if it did, the wave was of young New Yorkers like ourselves, products of the 1960s, leaving a city we had had enough of for the challenge and excitement of other places. Some went to live in rural New England or New Mexico; we moved to Israel. The life we chose for ourselves did not seem so different from what others were choosing in America. Soon after arriving, we bought land in a small farming village and set about building a house on it.

Once we did arrive, though, we became aware that we were also part of something else. The country was full of young American Jewish immigrants like ourselves. The Six-Day War had affected them as it had affected us. For a moment it almost seemed that the one thing American Jewry had never wanted to talk about—a large American Jewish aliyah—was actually taking place. The pride and excitement of being in its avant-garde were joined to the energy and optimism that prevailed in Israel in those years, when the exhilaration of the 1967 victory had not yet entirely worn off and a more sober awareness of the problems following in its wake was only beginning to sink in.

Sobriety came with the Yom Kippur War. Israel emerged from the war’s three weeks a different country—grieving, bewildered, its confidence shaken. The triumphalism of the post-1967 years vanished all at once. The economic boom came to an end. Immigration from America fell sharply, too, dropping to 5,000 in 1973, decreasing again in 1974, and in 1975 returning to its pre-1967 level. The mass aliyah never materialized.

I wasn’t in the army during the war, not being inducted and doing my basic training until the summer of 1974. But the country was then still on a semi-wartime footing, and during my first year of reserve duty I was in uniform for two months in an infantry battalion. We had a small baby and had just moved into our new house, with no telephone because no lines were available, and it was a difficult time. I was angry that I had to be away from home so much. So was my wife.

In general, Israel was an angry place then. It was still licking its war wounds. Taxes had been raised on everything to meet the war’s costs, and Israelis were struggling to make ends meet. The future looked bleak; a new outbreak of fighting seemed likely. The balance of power in the Middle East had shifted. America, Israel’s best friend, was now also the patron of an Egypt weaned from Soviet influence. As details emerged of the failures of political leadership and military intelligence responsible for the initial Yom Kippur debacle, a groundswell of protest spread. In November 1975, the United Nations “Zionism is Racism” resolution came as a brutal kick to a country that was already down. Israelis felt abandoned, misunderstood.

American Jews, though sympathetic, were detached. Israel was no longer the can-do-no-wrong country it had been for them in 1967. It was certainly no longer a country to consider living in. When friends visited from the U.S., the subject wasn’t raised. They came for their summer vacation, or part of it, and went home while I went back to another month of reserve duty and the worry of paying bills.

I was bearing a burden my friends weren’t; more and more, it felt like the burden of Jewish history. I didn’t say this to their faces. I should be grateful, I told myself, that they bothered to visit at all. But had I been truthful, I would have said other things. And so I wrote Letters to an American Jewish Friend.


2. My Correspondent

One of the finest traits of Jewish life in the Diaspora has always been its ethical idealism and its concern with social justice, not just for Jews but as a universal principle in the spirit of the Hebrew prophets. One need only reflect on the participation of Jews, out of all proportion to their numbers, in socially progressive causes everywhere in modern times, or, in the specific case of America, in liberal politics, . . . to realize how persistent this tradition has been.

“Yet what of such typically Jewish behavior do you find in Israel today? You know the answer as well as I do. Oh, Israelis are quick enough to protest when they feel that they themselves have been wronged—if anything, too quick!—but try suggesting to them that they might care as much about wrongs done to others, especially at their own hands, and you will get a pitying look for your innocence. For the first time in our history, realpolitik has replaced Jewish ethics as a way of life. Is the moral that . . . if power is morally corrupting, the greatest possible corruption for a people is having a state of its own?”

—A., in Letters to an American Jewish Friend, p. 80

I’ve been asked whether “A.”, my correspondent in the book, was a real person. The answer is that he was a composite of several real people. They were indeed friends. Like me, they had come of age in the 1950s and 60s, and they represented the best in American Jewish life. They cared deeply about Judaism, about the Jewish people, about Israel. Many had been to Israel more than once. They just didn’t think of living there. It didn’t occur to them that they should.

It was this that bothered me the most. Had any of them said, “Look, I know that as a Jew I belong in Israel, but it just isn’t possible for me,” I would have forgiven them immediately. There are all kinds of good reasons for not leaving everything for a new country. One might have a profession or career for which no good opportunities exist elsewhere, or elderly parents one can’t leave by themselves, or a dozen other perfectly valid excuses. I wasn’t asking for heroic sacrifice. I hadn’t made one myself. Life in Israel was difficult, but it was also rich and rewarding and I wasn’t a hero for choosing it.

What I was asking for was honesty: the honesty to face a historical situation and draw the right conclusions. These seemed obvious to me. It was obvious that, entering the last quarter of the 20th century, the state of Israel was the most—the only—meaningful future the Jewish people had; that this state’s existence could be ensured solely by the Jews living in it; and that it was therefore the most meaningful place for a Jewish life to be lived. I had no quarrel with Jews who didn’t care about meaningful Jewish lives. There were millions of them in America. The name for that was assimilation—and since Zionism had always regarded assimilation in the modern Diaspora as inevitable, it would have been absurd of me, as a Zionist, to argue against it. Some of my American Jewish friends were assimilated, too, but Letters to an American Jewish Friend wasn’t written to them.

My quarrel was with American Jews who did care deeply about being Jewish. I didn’t doubt that they were as committed to their Jewishness as I was to mine. I didn’t think that living in Israel made me a better Jew. I thought it made me a more logical one. It gave my life as a Jew its maximal value.

This was what I tried to convince “A.” of. Was I also trying to convince myself?

Perhaps. Not that I was having second thoughts. There was no room for those. When my wife and I had decided to move to Israel, we had decided to move for good. We didn’t say to ourselves, “If we like it, we’ll stay.” We were staying. That was clear from the start.

As we discovered, this made our adjustment simpler. Others did it differently. They came for a trial period. Why burn their bridges? That would only, they thought, make their lives in Israel more stressful.

It was just the opposite. Every day was another test for them. Their new neighbors had invited them for dinner? Israelis were wonderfully friendly. The family next door didn’t say hello on the stairs? Israelis weren’t friendly at all. The man in the government office was polite and helpful? Israeli bureaucracy wasn’t so bad. He was rude and argumentative? Israeli bureaucracy was intolerable. They kept an open ledger in which there were new entries all the time and the bottom line kept changing. Many returned to America in the end.

We avoided all that. When you know something is permanent, you make the best of it and sometimes even come to see its good side. (Israeli bureaucrats were actually the world’s most humane. That’s why they argued with you instead of simply saying “Next!”) I don’t remember a single moment in which I regretted what we had done, possibly because regret would have been beside the point.


And yet there were moments in which I needed firming up. Talking with my American Jewish friends, I sometimes felt a twinge of envy. Life was so damned easy for them. The second car they thought nothing of owning. (We could barely afford a first one.) The weekend house on ten acres in the country. (Ten acres? We were considered estate owners for having bought three-quarters of one acre.) The vacations abroad. (In Israel there was something called a “travel tax” that charged you a fortune just for the right to buy a ticket to anywhere.) Things like that. I needed to reassure myself, not that I had good reasons for being where I was, but that I had better reasons than they had for being where they were.

In this sense, Letters to an American Jewish Friend was addressed to myself, too. I had no trouble putting myself in A.’s place. I knew his arguments. They were, allowing for the changed times, the same arguments American Jews had always used to explain why life in Israel wasn’t for them. I thought these were evasions, rationalizations. But then American Jewish life had always seemed to me one big rationalization. Even as a boy, it had always struck me as a kind of play-acting. Israel was genuine. Jews were fighting there for a country of their own, living in it, building and defending it. In America, they were listening to sermons. What did it matter if these were the sermons of rabbis, intellectuals, political activists, social reformers, or poets and novelists? From the time I was little, I instinctively wanted no part of it. Living as a Jew in America never made any sense to me. I loved America for many things, but not for its Jewish life, to which I couldn’t see myself belonging if I remained an American.

But this was, as I have said, an instinctive reaction, a thought only partially thought through. Now, in Israel in the mid-1970s, I needed to think it through to the end. Letters to an American Jewish Friend was a way of doing this. It forced me to make the coherent argument for life in Israel that I had never bothered to make even to myself. Letters to a friend, especially if he was given an occasional chance to respond to them, seemed a good way of doing this. The give-and-take of argument could be reproduced in them and I would be kept honest by having an adversary I would have to think for; although he was my fictional creation, he wouldn’t let me get away with anything. In re-reading Letters to An American Jewish Friend today, I take some pride in the fact that he didn’t.


3. The Reception

Just as the Bible is not a treatise on ethics—are not many of its profoundest moments those in which its heroes act in the most chillingly unethical ways?—so Jewish history is far from a striving for social justice or ethical perfection. In the strict sense of the word, indeed, there is and can be no such thing as Jewish ethics or a specifically Jewish ethical impulse at all. Ethics are universal. . .; they make the same demands on everyone. Cultures and histories do not. And thus, if ethics are what make a Jew like anyone else, they cannot also be what makes him a Jew.

.  .  .  .  . 

But if there is no such thing as Jewish ethics, there is such a thing as the ethics of Jews, that is, the social behavior of Jewish communities judged by universal ethical standards—and it is precisely here that the greater ethical seriousness of being an Israeli rather than a Diaspora Jew lies. For what seems to you the ethical advantage of living in the Diaspora, namely, the marginality and lack of sovereign power which sensitize the Jew to the sufferings of others while saving him from the sin of mistreating them, seems to me the very opposite. . . . Where the possibility of sin does not exist, innocence is no virtue.

The abuse of national sovereignty may be, as you say, the ultimate form of corruption for a people; but just as an individual who does not go out into the world and dirty his hands with its business because he deems it unworthy of him, . . . so a people that lacks the responsibility of sovereignty remains ethically incomplete as well. And if this has been true historically of Diaspora Jewry, which never had the option of sovereignty yet was organized in semi-autonomous bodies that were empowered to make fateful decisions about themselves, how much truer is it of a voluntaristic and authority-less body like the American Jewish community today. It is easy to understand how under such circumstances, especially if accompanied by the anodynes of affluence and security, a community’s ethical conscience can turn outward, away from its own atrophied self; but the ethics of philanthropy, of tzedakah, when practiced as a form of self-distraction (and you are right that no people has so indulged itself in modern times as we Jews) are ultimately a sham.

What then is all your talk of a Jewish obsession with justice but hypocritical mouthing of words if you decline the opportunity to express it in a Jewish state of your own?

—Hillel, in Letters to an American Jewish Friend, pp. 96-99

The response to Letters to an American Jewish Friend when it was published surprised me. It was far livelier than I had thought it would be. There were many reviews in prominent places, including essay-length ones in two intellectually prestigious venues, Commentary and the New York Review of Books. Although the book didn’t sell very well, this was only because it wasn’t available, the publisher being a small one that didn’t know how to place it in bookstores. It did, however, have quite a few readers, who passed it from hand to hand like underground literature. I knew of people who borrowed it from someone who had borrowed it from someone else who had borrowed it from still someone else.

Not all of the many dozens of letters I received—often lengthy ones—took sides for or against. There were readers who simply wanted me to know that I had made them think about something they had never thought about before. Some were quite eloquent. Many said they felt spoken to by me personally.

Sometimes it was uncanny. Following the book’s publication, I went on two American lecture tours. My talks were mostly well-attended. One took place at a university in the Midwest. During the question period, a student in the back rose to take issue with me. How, he asked, could I expect sophisticated American Jews like him to live in a backwater like Israel? He had once spent a few weeks in Afula, a small city in the Valley of Jezreel, and had been appalled by its provinciality.

“And Topeka, Kansas is less provincial?” I countered.

For a second, he just stood there. “How did you know I grew up in Topeka?” he asked when he found his voice.

If it wasn’t telepathy, it was pure coincidence. But my book had touched a sensitive nerve. There were, it seemed, more Jews in America bothered by the issues it raised than was indicated in the statistics of aliyah. American Jews didn’t talk about aliyah publicly, and perhaps not even very much privately, but the subject hung over at least some of them: as a rebuke, as a challenge, as an interrogation of their beliefs, as a set of questions about Jewish existence, as a reminder that they owed themselves an accounting that had yet to be given.

I had no idea how many such Jews there were. I only knew that some of them had gone to the trouble of getting hold of Letters to an American Jewish Friend, and reading it, and lending it to their friends, and discussing it with them because it said things no one else was saying. These were not particularly original things. Classical Zionism had said them all along. I was simply applying them to the reality of the 1970s.


And yet if I had hoped to help change the American Jewish agenda, I was foolishly naïve. Aliyah did not become part that agenda, and Letters to an American Jewish Friend faded from public sight within a few years. Although it continued to attract readers, there were fewer and fewer of them. As the 1980s merged into the 1990s, American Jews were into other things: New Ageism, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, multiculturalism—the whole parcel of social and political liberalism that most of them subscribed to. Whatever did not come under its rubric mattered steadily less to them. Support for Israel ceased to be, as a commentator had famously called it in the 1970s, the “civil religion” of American Jews.

In part, this was because no community can live vicariously through another community for very long; either it finds raisons d’êtres of its own, or it ceases to be relevant to itself. In part, it was spurred by illiberal developments in Israel. The ongoing occupation of the territories conquered in 1967, the continued rule over the Palestinians, the spread of the settlements, the increasing strength of the nationalist Right, the Israel-initiated 1982 war in Lebanon, the rigid Orthodoxy of Israel’s religious establishment—all of this made Israel a more difficult place for liberals to identify with and a more embarrassing one to be identified with. It wasn’t just its provinciality that now made it unattractive. For many American Jews, it was the perceived injustice and immorality of life in it as well.

Of course, I had argued in Letters to an American Jewish Friend that the justice or morality of life in Israel had nothing to do with the question of where a Jew should live. One did not choose a new homeland, or remain in an old one, because it was moral or just. One chose it by asking oneself this question: “Since morality and justice are important to me, where do I most want them to exist and where should I be living a life consistent with them?” For a Jew who took his Jewishness seriously, I had said, the answer was: in a Jewish state.

But this was not something that American Jewry was any longer in a mood to hear. Sometime in the 1990s (I forget the exact date), the publisher of Letters to an American Jewish Friend informed me that it was letting the book go out of print. I could, if I wished, purchase the remaining copies at a discount. I didn’t bother to respond.


4. What I Got Wrong—and Right

Once again we are a people speaking our own language and living in our own land. (You may be as skeptical as you wish about the specifically Jewish value of a country of the Bible that has been shoddily urbanized or of an Israeli Hebrew that is illiterate and ill-spoken. I tell you, they are still everything. Everything. A land and a language! They are the ground beneath a people’s feet and the air it breathes in and out. With them all things are possible, for each is an inexhaustible treasure if only we could learn to take what it has to give us. No, my friend, you are wrong: you cannot even buy cigarettes in Hebrew without stirring up the Bible; you cannot walk the streets of Tel Aviv without treading on promised land.) It means having a state of our own to protect these two things and to assure that wherever its authority extends, . . . the forms of our present-day lives coincide as far as possible with those of the past. It means having our own educational institutions and media to transmit this past to us and to translate what we must take from the outside world into terms natural to ourselves. It means having our own economy that allows and compels us to participate in all aspects of productive life and to make them part of our national experience. It means having our own streets, shops, courts, criminals, factories, farms, and football leagues. In a word, it means having the soil in which our own culture can grow.

—Hillel, in Letters to an American Jewish Friend, p. 182

Re-reading Letters to an American Jewish Friend today, I’m pleased to see that I still agree with nearly all I said there.

There were, of course, things I got wrong. I underestimated the vitality of some sectors of American Jewish life. I didn’t take into account the extraordinary growth, both in Israel and America, of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, or deal with the implications of this development. (One implication is that, as opposed to the 1970s, today’s trickle of American Jewish immigration to Israel has a largely Orthodox character.) I had no inkling that nearly a million Russian Jews would soon arrive in Israel. I didn’t foresee major developments in the Middle East and in Israeli-Arab relations: the peace treaty with Egypt, signed a few years after my book was written; a similar treaty with Jordan; the Oslo Agreements; the rise and spread of radical Islam and the Iranian nuclear program, let alone the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath. Who, in 1975, did?

But mostly, I think, I got it right. I was right that assimilation in America was an unstoppable force and that the American Jewish community was in a long-term process of contraction. (I might perhaps have spared my readers a few statistics, but some things called for more proof in the 1970s than they do today.) I was right that Israel would become the pivot of world Jewish life, displacing for all the world’s Jewish communities except America’s the old bipolar model of Israeli/American Jewish parity. I was right that no peace agreement would put an end to Arab grievances against Israel or to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I was right that whatever happened in this conflict, Israel would remain demographically imperiled and would need every Jewish immigrant it could get. I was right that Israel’s ultimate survival was far from assured.

These were by no means uniquely my opinions. Many others shared some or all of them. At the time I wrote Letters to an American Jewish Friend, however, they were not the accepted wisdom in the American Jewish community.

Is this enough to create an audience for the book now, when it is being republished? I honestly don’t know. What I wrote then may still be true today—may be truer than ever—but that doesn’t mean a readership exists for it. How many American Jews still care enough about Israel to be willing to engage a reasoned call on them to live there?

Quite possibly, fewer than in 1977. Yet perhaps, as then, I will be surprised. Perhaps now, too, among more American Jews than are visible, there is a hidden unease with the Jewish lives they are living or not living. Perhaps there is an unexpressed desire to make of these lives a meaningful wager. Perhaps there is a yearning to be part of a great Jewish adventure such as American Jewish life cannot provide. If there is, Letters to an American Jewish Friend will have a new generation of readers. 


5. Nothing Like It in Human History

When I speak of the hope for a secular Jewish culture in this country, I am thinking of things, each of which has rescued a vital spark, what the kabbalists would call a nitzotz d’kedusha, from our past or present condition and reincorporated it into a living process; not four or five of them, of course, but thousands upon thousands that would be related to each other as the details of a single landscape that have been shaped and tempered by the same elements and forces. I cannot prove to you that such a culture will grow here, or that little by little it will cover the harsh nakedness of our lives. I can only say that I believe it will—or, rather, that I do not believe that our people has come all this long way only to lose itself in the end.

Perhaps such faith has an element of mysticism; if so, it is a mysticism based on a trust in natural process and on the belief that, as everything organic strives in this world to become or remain its own self, so does a people. Nor can I tell you with any precision what this culture will be like. . . . Neither of us, I am afraid, will see it in its “finished” form, for of all the things required for its development, none is so essential, so freely given us and yet so difficult for us to have to accept, as time. . . . As for ourselves, we must be content with the thought that we will have been part of its coming into being, like that Jewish peasant in the midrash who, when asked by a passerby whether the carob tree he was planting was intended for his children, laughed goodnaturedly and replied, of course not, no carob tree grew fast enough for that; he was planting it for the children of his children, and for their children who came after them.

—Hillel, in Letters to an American Jewish Friend, p. 197

A great adventure. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

There’s been nothing like it in human history. A small and ancient people loses its land and forgets how to speak its language; wanders defenselessly for hundreds, thousands, of years throughout the world with its God and its sacred books; meets with contumely, persecution, violence, dispossession, banishment, mass murder; refuses to give up; refuses to surrender its faith; continues to believe that it will one day be restored to the land it lost; manages in the end, by dint of its own efforts, against all odds, to gather itself from the four corners of the earth and return to that land; learns again to speak the language of its old books; learns again to bear arms and defend itself; wrests its new-old home from the people who had replaced it; entrenches itself; builds; fructifies; fortifies; repulses the enemies surrounding it; grows and prospers in the face of all threats.

Had it not happened, could it have been imagined? Would anyone have believed it possible? And would anyone believe it possible that one could belong to this people, value one’s connection to it, even construct one’s life around it, but have no interest in taking part in such an adventure? Would anyone believe that one could repeatedly declare how much this people means to one but think the adventure is entirely for others?

Yet this describes the average “committed” American Jew.

I don’t say that the average Israeli consciously lives the adventure called Israel on a daily basis, either. Israelis live their lives as people do everywhere. They think about their families, their work, what they will have for dinner, how they plan to spend the weekend. They don’t go about pondering the great historical drama of which they are part.

But they are a part of it. And I think there are moments in which most of them, however they may conceive of it or phrase it, realize how privileged this makes them despite all the strains and tensions of their existence. I know I do. There are few things in my life that I am as thankful for as the decision we made in 1970.

I don’t know if there will be an Israel one-hundred years from now. I don’t know if there will be one in fifty years. It depends on many things. One of them is whether you who read this book understand that the responsibility is yours, too.

I wrote it to persuade you. That was a long time ago. I hope you’re still there. 


  1. What Has Zionism Wrought? by Hillel Halkin
    Zionism is at once the greatest repudiation of the Jewish past and the greatest affirmation of it.
  2. It’s Only Natural by Ran Baratz 
    Why Israel is the foundation upon which the house of Jewish culture can be most safely built.
  3. By Our Efforts Combined by Ruth Wisse
    Dear Hillel: Don’t you think that Israel needs American Jews to help it withstand the campaigns of hate it faces?
  4. Making Jews out of Zionists by Micah Goodman
    A new-old paradigm is taking place in Israel: a secularism based on a renewed embrace of Judaism.
  5. Devaluing the Diaspora by Allan Arkush
    Hillel Halkin’s scorn for American Jewry.

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  • Lucy S.

    Another thing you could perhaps not foresee: the economic polarization of Israel, such that no American below the upper-middle class can afford to make aliyah without fear of living in poverty. My personal inability to consider living in Israel was a result of the horror stories I had heard about what happens to people without means there. Your book and article seem myopic with respect to the fact that not all American Jews are of your class, especially not nowadays.

    • Trish94903

      I disagree. I live in Israel now. The olim who are successfully middle-class are those who come with Hebrew, or pick it up very quickly. Doors are wide open for people with skills who are bilingual. Taxes here are no worse than taxes in California, and you get more services for them. The people who struggle are those Americans who come without Hebrew and think that it’s still 1955 and we’re all milking cows and harvesting mangoes during the day and dancing the hora around a campfire at night. This is a modern, competitive, well-educated society and you need to have marketable skills and fluency in Hebrew to make it — otherwise, you will survive, but not at the same income level you were accustomed to in the States. This, by the way, is true of all immigrant societies. I’m sure there were Russian business owners in Minsk who saw no point in going to America either and giving up their comfortable niche.

      • Myron Bassman

        Israel is a country in which the disparity between the haves and have nots is the largest among OECD countries. It ranks very high in poverty rates.

        I am an American Jew (religious). I am not interested in living in Israel. From the beginning of our people there has always been those who did not live in the land. At this point, I agree with the Rebbe that Israel is the largest Jewish ghetto in history and to ensure our continuance as a people, we must be everywhere.

        • Trish94903

          I’ve never read any such quote by the Rebbe. I know he stated prior to the 1967 war that Israel had no need to fear because the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. His closest family members live in Israel. Yes, Israel has a very high poverty rate because 20% of the Jewish population refuses employment and lives on the dole in order to ‘study Torah’ (but they all have money for cigarettes and cellphones) and 50% of the Arab population — its women – are kept at home upon marriage without further education or employment in an exercise of patriarchal control. People who are employed and who have skills and education are doing well. Take that non-working-on-purpose-poor out of the equation, and that disparity you mention disappears.

          • Alan Schleider

            Well said, Trish94903.

          • Myron Bassman

            The Rebbe said this in the 1950s. When you take out the people who make up the population of the impoverished, wow—the disparity disappears. This is nonsensical economics. The reasons for the disparity matter for a solution not for the fact of the disparity.

        • Alan Schleider

          You must have difficulty with the Rambam, who stated that it is preferable to live in a city within Israel with a population solely of idol worshipers than it is to live in the Diaspora in a city with a population of exclusively observant Jews. (PS. The late Rebbe – I presume you refer to the 7th Rebbe of Chabad/Lubavitch – agreed with the Rambam.)

          As far as poverty goes, (a) Trish has it correct on poverty in Israel; and (b) poverty in the Jewish populations in the US are not much different. (Ask anyone with a senior citizen in his or her family.)

          I have now lived in Israel for ten-plus years. My wife has had one steady, albeit modest income, job since year-one. I have had several modest income jobs for most of that time and – yes – endured a couple of periods of unemployment. So tell me how and why that is profoundly different than the economic experience in the US?

          The salient point that Hillel Halkin makes is that the odds of my great-grandchildren being Jewish is a lot brighter for my living in Israel than for someone who is, in your words, “not interested in living in Israel”. Now tell me, Mr Bassman – can you not see that this is exactly the wealth versus poverty that really matters?!

          Maybe it is time to change your perspective.

          • Myron Bassman

            Yes the Rebbe agreed with Rambam and that’s why he never went to Israel since he would never be able to leave. Rambam holds no sway over me.

            As to poverty in Israel, read my response above. In the United States the richest group by religion is Jewish with Reform at the top followed by Conservative. As to Jewish poverty check out the recent survey of NYC Jews. It is the Orthodox and Hasidic families that are poor. That is a path they have chosen.

            I am 70 years old and am not poor.

            I do not believe living in a state that discriminates against Jews. I do not see your wealth. We all make our choices. My question back to you – Do you think your great grandchildren will be living in Israel?

            For the past 2500 years there have been strong vigorous Diaspora communities. If we had all lived in the land in 70 CE or 132 CE, there would likely be no Jewish people today.

          • Alan Schleider

            I could not agree with you less. As far as great grandchildren go, my eldest grandson is 15. As I am 57, if God gives me the opportunity I should expect to see great grandchildren in this decade. And considering that 6 of 9 of my wife’s and my children live here also, the likelihood of GGCs living in Israel and as Jews is indeed very bright.

            Considering that richness in Judaism is not colored by one’s brokerage and bank accounts, I would take my wealth over assimilating and assimilated Jews any day of the week – particularly on Shabbat.


          • Myron Bassman

            I am assuming you are not referring to me or mine as assimilation or assimilated in the sense that our Jewishness is not central to our lives. My experience with non-Orthodox Israelis is that they are assimilated to Western culture. An Upper Westsider from Manhattan and a Tel Aviv person are much more comfortable sipping their French wine and eating goat cheese together than either would ever be in the company of my family or yours. I would suggest that Jewish assimilation is alive and well in Israel as well. The major difference, and it is of the utmost importance, Israeli Jews marry each other.

            Shabbat Shalom

  • Marvin Israel

    At a party in NYC in the sixties, my wife, Dorothy Brodkin, introduced me to Hillel Halkin. They both traveled in the same social circles. I would say to Hillel that had Israel not decided to reject Yiddish in favor of Hebrew for its national language, I probably would have emigrated as a secular, atheistic Jew. However, for me, Hebrew was associated with davening and I wanted no part of its being the language of my daily, secular life.

    • Yair

      Hebrew was the whole point. Yiddish is a Germanic European langauge. Hebrew was the semitic language of our ancestors. Returning to the land had to come together with returning to the langauge.
      The association with davening is exactly what the first Zionists were trying (succesfuly) to reject. Arguing that it started as a spoken language and it could also become that again.

      • daized79

        Plus it’s parochial–Hebrew is the only language that connects Jews from Germany, Poland, Hungary, India, Turkey, America, Argentina, Morocco, Iraq, Ethiopia…

        • Yair

          Exactly. Reason being that it was the language of the first Jews, which was passed on to all Jews wherever they got to. Along the way the Jews picked up more languages (Aramaic in Babylon, Yiddish in Europe, English in America) but the only originally Jewish language is Hebrew.

    • sabasarge

      I’d say no great loss then.

  • Yair From Yerushala’aim

    Wow. I’m Israeli and I accidentally found your book in Holzer Book shop in Jerusalem (the Hebrew version of it). It was very interesting and your writing here reminded me just how much.
    I totally agree with your last part about Israelis. Most of us don’t think about it too much. But we’re a part of it. And as a result, it’s a part of us. I think that’s the whole point.
    Hazaq Ve’ematz!

    • Manya Shochet

      You found it in Hebrew?! Amazing! This is the kind of thing I am always looking for for my kids, who generally prefer Hebrew to English.
      And Lior Holtzer and his book store are both gems.

  • Ellen

    Dear Mr. Halkin,

    I was one of the many people whose life was greatly influenced by your book. I agreed with almost all of it, except your description of traditional Judaism, which reeked of a characteristically 1960′s condescension toward religion. I always thought that there was a lot of vitality in Orthodox Judaism that would one day result in its reasserting its dominance in Jewish life in America. Happily, that is happening – especially in the New York area – very much against your own analysis.

    Where you were brilliantly right was in your description of the hollowness and triviality of secular Jewish culture and its many proponents. Your description of American Jewish literature and your contrast of it to the thought of Philo of Alexandria (“neither very American, nor very Jewish, nor very good, and destined for an oblivion far deeper than Philo’s from which there will be no church fathers to resurrect it.”) is one of the best commentaries on American Jewish culture ever. I quote this line (recited by heart) periodically on an online intellectual discussion forum on which I am a moderator. If there is one sentence that sums up half of the content of your book, that is it. Bravo for you. The revitalization of American Jewish culture today, to whatever degree it is occurring, I am sure is partly due to your book. No one among American Jewish intellectuals of those days had the knowledge or courage to say what you said, which needed to be said.

    The other half of your book that spoke to me was your love of Israel: the land, the people, the language and the Torah. This also departed greatly from the spoutings of our Jewish intellectual class of the time, which knew almost nothing about any of these subjects and had no feeling for them. That could be said even more emphatically about the so-called Jewish communal leadership of the time, whose ignorance of Jewish culture was and is an abject embarrassment.

    Your book was a Jewish education in and of itself, for many of us in the post WWII world, and for that we should all be grateful. You set the bar high, and encouraged many others to take Jewish ideas and education more seriously, even while you disappeared from America and didn’t remain to see the results. You have no idea how much your book influenced people younger than you, including myself and my children. In our house it is required reading.

    The most ironic result of your eviscerating critique of secular American Jewish culture, though, among many of your readers who did not make aliyah, I have a feeling – is a return to traditional Judaism in some form. This I believe would have surprised you in the 1970′s. You should perhaps rethink some of your own views on the subject, and consider what an unwitting kiruv proponent you made of yourself by showing the hollowness and pointlessness of secular Jewish culture in the Diaspora, without its antecedant religious roots. For that achievement, I would give you a double bravo!

    I can’t imagine an encore to your wonderful book, so I can only wish you a long and healthy life, where you can contemplate a fate much better than that of Philo, Karl Marx, Philip Roth, and all the “Jewish” thinkers who perhaps weren’t that at all, and ended up on the losing end of the chief argument in your book.

    • Yitzchak Ben-Shmuel

      In one letter written by Hillel Halkin in his “Letters to an American Jewish Friend,” Halkin describes a traumatic scene from the 1950s. One Shabbat day, he was accosted by some local toughs and had to quickly stuff his kippah into his pocket to try to avoid a beating which he
      surely thought was imminent. That story, more than any intellectual and polemic argument delivered by the author, seemed, to me, to be a
      key moment in the long history of the rationale behind Halkin’s
      self awareness as a Jew, a Zionist, a seeker of acceptance and belonging to his People and our Land.
      That, and his family influence, his camping at Massad, a Zionist summer camp, is my story as well. I made that decision at about the same time as did Hillel Halkin and have never regreted it. Halkin’s best lines are, of course, at the conclusion of his 2013 remarks, when he expresses
      the feelings that he is proud that he had made that choice. That he
      identifies with the one in a million adventure of having participated, even in a small faction, in the greatest experience one could have envisioned.
      I would also like to join Ellen, who makes the point that Halkin
      does not give enough credit to the spiritual and religious aspect
      of this ideological need to make aliyah. That the mystical and emotional quality of elevating ones soul to the Land, to the People and to the Torah, is and always will be, an integral part of this
      May Halkin’s second edition be as successful as his first.
      Yitzchak Ben-Shmuel

    • Yair Ben-Zvi


      Your statement about the hollowness and pointlessness of secular Jewish culture in the diaspora states reams about yourself. Though far from perfect, diaspora jews, myself included, have had to struggle greatly to create something in the yawning lack, the gasping chasm left behind by our so called traditional and/or religious ‘betters’ who deign us inferior. I’ve seen what passes for ‘literature’ in religious circles in and out of Israel and its utter zevel.

      There are great religious minds, but you and yours aren’t it, at all. Maimonedes, Spinoza, Hillel, Shammai, these are the great minds to whom you and yours are moths around a flame. Do you read them? Do you understand them?

      And what of the secular Jewish writers you slam with your indifference and ignorance? Could you and your warm little home with its required reading of Halkin’s work even begin to compare to the abject beauty of the works of Proust, Kafka, Spinoza (again), and the great secular Jewish writers who carried this heritage onto their pages? What of Amos Oz, Yoram Kaniuk? Norman Mailer? All great secular Jewish minds everywhere?


  • Phil Cohen

    Just a quick anecdotal note. When “Letters to an American Jewish Friend” was published, I was studying medieval Jewish history at Dropsie University (as it was called at the time before it reverted back to Dropsie College) in Philly with Solomon Grayzel. I believe he was still the editor of the Jewish Publication Society, the book’s publisher. He reported to me that the book had raised sufficient enough interest to make it the closest thing JPS had to a best seller, outside of its Bible, a perennial seller for them. And, indeed, I do recall many conversations about the central ideas of the book. Since then I’ve had the privilege of reading many things by Halkin, who has remained to me a model of the Jewish intellectual, thinker, translator, activist.

  • rob brownstein

    I made aliyah in 1973. I was a graduate of Queens College with a degree in physics and a minor in secondary education. I had decided to live in a kibbutz rather than a city because I felt that socialism was best for me. I was also recently married and had convinced my wife to make aliyah, too. But, after a year and a half, we returned to America. Over the years I have reflected on my year, there, and realized how much I had learned about myself. Part of me never wanted to leave but my feelings of commitment to my marriage prevailed.
    Now, my son is about to enlist in IDF and make aliyah. He has lived a secular life until age 11 and decided he wanted to be a bar mitzvah. His interest in all things Jewish continued to grow. He convinced me to enroll him in a co-ed ‘Jewish’ high school and then to support him, a year later, when he moved down to Los Angeles to attend a ‘real’ Jewish school – observant. He had already begun laying t’fillin, celebrating shabbos, and eating Kosher.
    He spent two years in Israel studying in a hasid post-high school yeshiva. Then, he returned to California. Now, he’s ready, at age 20, to serve Israel and make aliyah. There’s a part of me that kvells with pride and wishes I could be 20 and do what he’s doing. I imagine him living somewhere in Israel and my current wife and I spending many months per year, there. I wish I had read Hillel’s book back then and plan to read it, now.
    I had considered myself a liberal, secular Jew in the 1960s and 1970s but have found myself becoming more disgusted with Jewish liberals who are hypercritical of Israel while ignoring countries whose policies make Israel seem like a bastion of individual freedom. I’m tired of American politics. It has become a country of special interests content to let its poor and minorities fight its battles while depriving them of living wages and an opportunity for advancement.
    Perhaps in my remaining years, I can fulfill what began as a premature aliyah and live out my life in ha aretz shelanu.

  • HMejia

    There most certainly is a market for the re-issue of this book in America. I say, more so than ever. As a 28 year-old single, professional, Reform Jew, this article speaks to what I have been missing – seriously considering making aliyah.

  • Loren Sykes

    In the summer of 1977, I spent my first summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and met my first Shaliah from the Jewish Agency. I did not read Halkin’s book. I wonder what impact it would have had on me back then.

    Fast forward to August, 20, 2013 – My wife and I, and our three children landed at Ben Gurion airport, along with my mother-in-law, where all but my oldest son made Aliyah and received our Teudat Zehut.

    So now, later today, I will have to go to the used bookstore on Schatz St. and see if they have a copy of Halkin’s book, read it, and see if Aliyah might have come sooner had I read it after that first summer at camp. I will try and remember what I might have thought at the time, where I was in my own development and I will do all of that reading right here, as a citizen of the Jewish State. Thank you in advance Hillel for writing the book.

    • Alan Schleider

      Yishuv tov & welcome – better late than never!

  • balliolensis

    The oleaginous self-congratulation and self-involvement of this piece of writing will not bring to Israel the kind of people Israel needs and deserves. Let’s start a Halkin “yeridah” fund, shall we?

  • A. Mark Clarfield

    I’m still there, in Israel – but from Canada. Agree with most of what you say, with a niggling irritation that you write to an “American” Jewish friend instead of one from the diaspora.
    But it is a great book and we are on an adventure, aren’t we?

    I’m glad we chose the (Jewish) road less traveled.
    Haval that so few of us took it.

  • Sheryl

    I was too young for this book to resonate when it was first issued. But it surely resonates now. I made aliya 15 years ago from the US, and while it’s not been an easy ride, it is one for which I will be forever grateful. Halkin’s Letters are part of an important conversation that needs to take place, particularly in light of the recent Pew Survey.

  • Michiken

    One rarely discussed reason for American Jewish support for Israel is the purely selfish one. A strong Israel brings pride and strength to Jews and better treatment worldwide. Yes, some anti-Semites use Israel as cover for their hatred. But stepping back, since 1948 we see a world where Jews are accorded more respect than at any time in 2,000 years. We see a Christian world realizing in growing numbers that Jews are a people to be respected, not persecuted. Same goes for Hindus, Chinese, etc. This is not a coincidence. It is all because of Israel’s rebirth and its success since then. I believe that diaspora Jews owe a great debt to Israel and it is in our own self-interest to support and help Israel continue to succeed.

  • Dafna Yee

    I was going along with you until I reached the part where you adopted the Arab mythology about what happened after 1967. The Israelis did NOT “occupy Palestinian land”; the war was fought against Jordan who had captured the lands of Judea, Samaria, and eastern Jerusalem in 1948 and named those lands the “West Bank.” Not once in the 19 years that Jordan controlled the disputed lands did anyone either ask or Jordan offer to create an independent country called Palestine. (The same goes for the land of Gaza which Egypt lost in 1967.) Even in the 19th century, there was often more Jews than Arabs in the Palestinian territory, especially in the cities of Jerusalem and Sefad. Also, almost none of the Arabs owned the lands they lived on; they were serfs who were tied to the land owned by wealthy Arabs and Turks who usually lived abroad. It wasn’t until the Jews came and bought land and reclaimed it, that large numbers of Arabs emigrated to the Palestine Mandate from the surrounding countries. Also, it wasn’t the Isaelis who caused the Palestinian refugee problem, it was both the corrupt Arab leadership and the anti-Semitic UN. The Arab countries forcibly expelled about 800,000 Jews from their countries that Israel absorbed without any UN help. The Jordanians ethnically cleansed every Jew from Judea, Samaria, and eastern Jerusalem (funny, nobody protested about that!) and most of the land stayed empty until the Israelis reclaimed the land.

    I’ve studied, written, and published articles about Israel’s history in the 19th and 20th centuries for nearly 40 years. I made aliyah in 1971 and I’ve had to watch the country I love sink into degradation by releasing murderers in order to plead with her sworn enemy just to get them to consider to talk and hear Abbas described as a “peace partner” at the same time as he calls terrorists “heroes”! Check out the Levy Report for yourselves to learn who has rights to Israel.

  • A.aZ

    Larry Derfner has an interesting perspective on the matter

  • Brian F.

    As a 27-year-old American Jew who made Aliyah 3.5 months ago, I cannot adequately express how refreshing this was to read. Thank you for articulating my own feelings on this subject so eloquently. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • JM

    Dear Mr. Halkin, Can you please make the book available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook? I think this would help bring it to a wider audience, and is definitely how I would prefer to read it. Thank you!


  1. Devaluing the Diaspora by Allan Arkush
    Hillel Halkin's scorn for American Jewry.
  2. Making Jews out of Zionists by Micah Goodman
    A new-old paradigm is taking place in Israel: a secularism based on a renewed embrace of Judaism.
  3. By Our Efforts Combined by Ruth Wisse
    Dear Hillel: Don't you think that Israel needs American Jews to help it withstand the campaigns of hate it faces?
  4. It's Only Natural by Ran Baratz 
    Why Israel is the foundation upon which the house of Jewish culture can be most safely built.
  5. What Has Zionism Wrought? by Hillel Halkin
    Zionism is at once the greatest repudiation of the Jewish past and the greatest affirmation of it.

Editors' Note

Originally published in 1977, Hillel Halkin's Letters to an American Jewish Friend was hailed by Robert Alter in Commentary as a work marked by “ruthless lucidity and a “terrific impetus of personal conviction,” a book that “any Jew concerned with Israel and the future of the Jewish people ought to read.” 

Today, three-and-a-half decades later, Halkin’s analysis of the existential dilemmas facing modern Jews, and in particular of the fraught relation of American Jews to Israel, has lost none of its power or resonance. Neither has his impassioned case for the Zionist solution to those dilemmas, advanced in a series of ardent and closely reasoned rejoinders to an imaginary friend’s defense of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Long out of print, Letters to an American Jewish Friend is now being reissued. The present essay, in somewhat different form, serves as the introduction to the new edition.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin's books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath River, A Strange DeathMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), and a forthcoming biography of Vladimir Jabotinsky (Yale).  He has translated Yiddish and Hebrew works by Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mokher Seforim, Moyshe Kulbak, S.Y. Agnon, Shmuel Hanagid, Y.H. Brenner, and many more. His essays and columns have appeared in Commentary, the New Republic, the Forward, the Jewish Review of Books, and elsewhere. 

Cover of new edition of Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic by Hillel Halkin. Gefen Publishing House, December 2013.

Mourners gather at the fresh graves of Israeli soldiers killed during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks in opposition to UN Resolution 3379 ("Zionism is Racism"), November 10, 1975. 















Israel was genuine. Jews were fighting there for a country of their own, living in it, building and defending it. In America, they were listening to sermons.  































Volunteers at Kibbutz Yavne work the harvest, September 1, 1970. © Ted Spiegel/Corbis.















What is all your talk of a Jewish obsession with justice but hypocritical mouthing of words if you decline the opportunity to express it in a Jewish state of your own?

























Cover of first edition of Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic by Hillel Halkin. Jewish Publication Society, 1977.











The sixth annual Jews in the Woods Gathering. Courtesy Amy Sunners.














A land and a language! They are the ground beneath a people’s feet and the air it breathes in and out. With them all things are possible. 


"The ground beneath a people's feet": a view of the Israeli landscape. Courtesy Maximus/Flickr.






























I don’t know if there will be an Israel one-hundred years from now. I don’t know if there will be one in fifty years. It depends on many things. The responsibility is yours, too.














A Jewish woman, just arrived from Russia, sees her brother for the first time in twenty years at Lod Airport, November 15, 1972. Moshe Milner/Government Press Office (Israel).