Letters to an American Jewish Friend

The Case for Life in Israel
<i>Israeli postage stamp commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Youth Aliyah, issued May 10, 1955.</i>
Israeli postage stamp commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Youth Aliyah, issued May 10, 1955.
Nov. 3 2013
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), and, most recently, Jabotinsky: A Life (2014). His essays and columns have appeared in MosaicCommentary, the New Republic, the Forward, the Jewish Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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.

More about: Aliyah, American Jewry, Diaspora, Hillel Halkin, Israel, Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Zionism


Devaluing the Diaspora

Hillel Halkin's scorn for American Jewry.

The cover of the Pew Research Center's report on American Jewry.
The cover of the Pew Research Center's report on American Jewry.
Allan Arkush
Nov. 6 2013

I didn’t need the experience of the last 36 years to be convinced that Hillel Halkin’s analysis in his 1977 book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend, was correct. I read the book almost immediately after it appeared and have been in substantial agreement with Halkin ever since, even though (for reasons he would apparently consider legitimate, if also lamentable), I didn’t follow him in emigrating from the United States to Israel. But that doesn’t prevent me from being a little irked when, prompted by his new essay in Mosaic, I turned back to re-read what he had to say then about the slowly vanishing Jewry of the Diaspora.

I can’t complain about his stinging descriptions of American Jewry, about which he was prescient. Although in his new essay he passes up an easy opportunity to underscore the point, the much-publicized statistics of declining Jewish identification on offer in the latest Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans are in line with his decades-old prognostications, or at least close enough for discomfort. Back in 1977, Halkin also wrote dismissively of the then-current “fashion of the ‘new ethnicity,’” which allegedly would replace the old melting-pot model of inevitable assimilation into American society. He was right about that, too; as he said then and as time has told, “the melting pot remains a melting pot even when the fire beneath it is temporarily turned down.” 

But if his depiction of us American Jews was and remains accurate enough, what bothers me is his reluctance to acknowledge that we might serve some useful purpose. To be sure, he did foresee in 1977 that American policymakers’ increasing tendency to “appease Arab appetites at the expense of Israeli interests” would lead to a battle for American public opinion, and that “this [would] involve the mobilization of American Jews, both as a pressure group in their own right and as an agent for influencing American opinion at large.” But instead of contemplating what good might thereby be done for Israel, he reflected at length on the ways in which Jewish involvement in a battle for American public opinion was likely to compromise and weaken the position of American Jews themselves. Halkin’s 1977 apprehensions thus anticipated the 2007 dream of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who would like to see “the Lobby” cornered and the battle for American opinion take a different turn. If that hasn’t happened in the past three-and-a-half decades, it is at least partly due to the strenuous efforts of the kinds of Diaspora Jews whom Halkin continues to belittle for thinking that the adventure of Zionism is a project entirely for others. 

In the book, Halkin’s scorn for the average American Jew’s Zionism is matched by his disdain for the community’s contributions to Jewish culture. “[P]erhaps the saddest part of the Jewish experience in America,” he wrote in 1977, is that “it will have left behind when it is over, Jewishly speaking, next to nothing.” I don’t know whether anything that has taken place since 1977 has led him to revise his opinion on this matter; I would doubt it. But I am less interested in learning whether I am right about this than I am in hearing whether he remains as optimistic about Israeli culture as he once was. 

In the stirring paragraph toward the end of his Mosaic essay in which he sums up the unparalleled adventure of the Jews’ restoration to their own land, Halkin marvels at the fact that they have begun once again to speak the language of their old books. But readers of Letters to an American Jewish Friend will recall that he once was looking forward to much more than this. In the book, his account of Israeli culture is almost as scathing as his description of American Jewish culture. “We have developed a society whose one demand from everything,” he wrote of his new fellow Israeli citizens, “from a philosophical idea to the label of a product on a shelf, is that it bear the seal of the outside world that we have appointed the arbiter of our values and tastes.” Unfortunately, Israel had not yet succeeded in fulfilling, for him, the Zionist vision of “the secularization of traditional Jewish culture in such a way that it will remain identifiably Jewish in all its aspects while at the same time serving as the basis for a modern society whose members will share a common cultural identity that draws on what each of them has brought to it.” Still, he did see signs that things were headed in the proper direction and reported on them with some degree of enthusiasm. Is he, I wonder, still upbeat about this? 

Finally, I have to add that I was delighted to learn that Letters to an American Jewish Friend is or will very soon be available again. If there have been many editions of Moses Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem, the best epistolary Zionist tract of the 19th century, then the 20th century’s best book in the same mode deserves no less. Besides, I’m tired of loaning my personal copy to my students—who have almost always been deeply affected by it, if not always in ways that would fully please its author. Their company includes a half-American, half-Israeli young man who several years ago was writing a paper about the book, and whom Hillel Halkin was gracious enough to engage in an email conversation about it—and who is now happily settled on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.


Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University and senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

More about: Diaspora, Hillel Halkin, Israel, Jewish identity, Letters to an American Jewish Friend


Making Jews out of Zionists

A new-old paradigm is taking hold in Israel: a secularism based on a renewed embrace of Judaism.

"The ground beneath a people's feet": a view of the Israeli landscape. Courtesy Maximus/Flickr.
"The ground beneath a people's feet": a view of the Israeli landscape. Courtesy Maximus/Flickr.
Micah Goodman
Nov. 10 2013

For committed Jews, life outside the borders of the Jewish state can be full of human meaning; but it can never be full of Jewish meaning. By contrast, Israel, where “the most—the only—meaningful future for the Jewish people” will occur, is by definition “the most meaningful place for a Jewish life to be lived.”

This profound and provocative statement by Hillel Halkin deserves close attention; it contains within it a radical idea that I’d like both to explore and to take issue with.

As Halkin notes in Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Zionism granted three gifts to the Jews:  a land, a language, and sovereign power. In Israel, the synthesis of all three has helped to create a vital secular Jewish culture. As I understand him, the synthesis works like this: with the assumption of Jewish sovereignty, there came a whole series of new and extremely urgent challenges of a kind unknown to Jews in the Diaspora. But the encounter with these challenges now takes place through the medium of the Jewish people’s ancient language and against the background and within the environment of its ancient homeland. That enormously fruitful encounter is what has given birth to the new Hebrew culture of Israel—and this culture, the product of Zionism’s three gifts, has enriched and enlarged the Jewish heritage.

Here lies my problem with Halkin. According to him, every form of Judaism that develops outside the land of Israel, not in Hebrew, and outside the context of Jewish sovereignty isn’t fully Jewish. Yes, it’s possible to live a full and estimable life outside Israel, to do great deeds, think great thoughts, create great works. But just as a full Jewish life is possible only in the land, so an authentic Judaism develops only by way of the triple synthesis of land, language, and power.

In my view, this is simply not the case. For most of Jewish history, Judaism developed without benefit of the threefold synthesis. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled and redacted by rabbinic sages in exile. Maimonides wrote the Guide of the Perplexed in Egypt, in Arabic, under the yoke of Muslim dominance. The same goes, in Europe, for the Zohar, the crowning work of Jewish mysticism; for Yehuda Halevi’s philosophical masterpiece Kuzari; for Hasidism; for the yeshiva culture of Lithuania; and for much, much more.

For 2,000 years, almost every significant work of the Jewish mind was produced without the advantage of the conditions that according to Halkin form the sine qua non of a full Jewish life and authentic Jewish culture. Indeed, the great achievement of the Diaspora was precisely the formation of a living, meaningful Judaism in the absence of a political or territorial base. To deny the worth of Jewish life outside the land of Israel is thus essentially to deny millennia of Jewish creativity.


My point is this: Halkin’s penetrating words are not just a critique of the Jews; they are a critique of Judaism. As for the secular Hebrew culture celebrated by Halkin, furthermore, my contention is that it has not so much enlarged the Jewish heritage as betrayed it.  

As it happens, I too am excited by the promise embodied in the Hebrew culture of Israel; but how is that promise to be fulfilled? This, in fact, was one of the key questions confronting the founding fathers of Zionism, and in particular those among them who attempted to envision the new Jewish culture that would be shaped by the return to the land of Israel. Two of the greatest figures to grapple with this issue took opposing positions.

For Mikhah Yosef Berdichevsky (1865-1921), the cultural aim of the Zionist project had to be the complete severance of the historical continuity that bound Jews to their past and its replacement with an altogether new identity. In the Diaspora, Berdichevsky maintained, the Jews had been subjugated not only by Gentile authority but also by the Judaism of the rabbis. His Zionist program therefore had a dual thrust: emancipation at once from Gentile rule and from the rule of Jewish tradition.

Behind the demand to break the link between Jewish identity and Judaism stood an animating impulse: Zionist anger toward the Jewish past and in particular toward the stereotypical passivity of Diaspora Jews. This anger propelled a mighty wave of creativity, shaping many seminal works of the modern Hebrew imagination; today, the anti-religious attitudes that lay behind it are still to be found in various segments of contemporary Israeli society.

Against this, however, and against the ideas of Berdichevsky, stood Ahad Ha’am (pen name of Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927). He, too, was looking to emancipate the Jewish spirit, and he, too, sought freedom—but he understood these terms in a completely different sense.

To Ahad Ha’am, the great goal of the Zionist project was, precisely, the renewal of Judaism. Freedom was to be achieved not by liberation from Judaism but by the liberation of Judaism—a goal to be approached through a new and free interpretation of the tradition. In Ahad Ha’am’s vision, the reborn Jewish home would sprout new academies of learning (batei midrash), new scholars, and new students. In no way inferior in talent or learning to the generations who had come before, this new generation would be thoroughly immersed in traditional texts but would relate to them less as sources of restrictive authority than as sources of expansive and vitalizing inspiration.


The contest between Berdichevsky and Ahad Ha’am ended decisively: Berdichevsky won. Secularism, defined as a veritable wall of separation between Israeli Jews and their Jewish past, became the paradigmatic stance of many of the key political, cultural, and educational institutions of the Jewish state. In this respect, ironically, a large part of secular Israeli culture came to resemble a mirror image of its archenemy: ultra-Orthodoxy. As the ultra-Orthodox segregate themselves from the outside world, many secular Israelis still zealously segregate themselves from their religious and Diaspora past.

But Berdichevsky’s victory was, in the end, temporary. Over the last decade, a deep change has come over secular Israeli culture. Energetic forces, some of them still underground, have given rise to a new and decidedly Jewish cultural scene. In music, rock stars like Beri Sakharof, Ehud Banai, and Kobi Oz have created an avant-garde sound steeped in explicitly Jewish references and motifs; others, like the New Jerusalem Orchestra led by Omer Avital and Rabbi Haim Louk, explore the vibrant intersection of jazz and classical Sephardi liturgical composition (piyyut). There are new television programs, films, festivals of art and culture, and, especially, study centers straight out of the dreams of Ahad Ha’am. In these new academies, thousands of Israelis, starved for connection, are discovering intellectual and spiritual sustenance in the classical Jewish sources.  

I’m not suggesting that secular Israelis are turning religious, though numbers of them are. I’m talking about a cultural movement that doesn’t undermine or displace secularism but actually fortifies it, albeit in a new mode. If, for the first two generations of Israelis, secular culture was built on the negation and repulsion of Diaspora traditionalism, the burgeoning secularism of recent years is defined by a wholly different impulse. Berdichevsky is out; Ahad Ha’am is in. A new-old paradigm is taking hold: a secularism based not on the repudiation of Judaism but on the willingness, and the desire, to be influenced by it.

To put all this another way, it’s not so much that secular Israelis are becoming religious as that they are becoming Jews. The new Israeli paradigm embodies a more modest and less radical form of Zionism—but it does so by offering a synthesis that is actually bigger and more capacious than the one sketched by Hillel Halkin. Embracing power, land, and language, it also welcomes and eagerly embraces Maimonides of Spain and Egypt, Rashi of France, and the talmudic sages of Babylonia.  


Micah Goodman directs the Ein Prat Academy for Leadership in Israel, a nonprofit specializing in Jewish-Zionist education for young adults. His best-selling Hebrew book, Secrets of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, is forthcoming in English from the Jewish Publication Society.

More about: Diaspora, Hillel Halkin, Israel, Jewish identity, Jewish sovereignty, Jewish State, Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Maimonides, Zionism


By Our Efforts Combined

Dear Hillel: Don't you think that Israel needs American Jews to help it withstand the campaigns of hate it faces?

<i>A Youth Aliyah girl on guard duty.</i> Courtesy Government Press Office.
A Youth Aliyah girl on guard duty. Courtesy Government Press Office.
Nov. 13 2013
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).

Dear Hillel,

I am immensely grateful that Letters to an American Jewish Friend is being republished so that I can continue to recommend it to anyone who is willing and able to read it. You could never have included me in your composite image of your American Jewish interlocutor, “A.,” because I so fully share your convictions that Israel is the center of any meaningful Jewish history and the place where Jewish life can be lived most completely.

Indeed, my husband and I moved to Israel with our three children about the same time as you and Marcia, and we met you soon afterward at the home you were then renting from the poet Yehuda Amichai. Just as you left New York for good, so we, too, had left our jobs and sold our home with no intention of returning. Like you, we undertook aliyah out of mutual attraction: Israel needed us, and we needed to be in Israel. 

Nevertheless, unlike you, we did return, and ever since then we have lived the best and most useful Jewish lives possible outside the Jewish state. We educated our children in Montreal’s Jewish day schools, joined a synagogue, and supported local Jewish institutions. I spent a lifetime teaching Yiddish and Jewish literature in North America rather than at Tel Aviv University, where I had been given tenure.

I am hardly the first Jew to live in the West with at least part of her heart in the East, which is why my own polemic, If I Am Not for Myself, published fifteen years after yours, is written in the form of love letters to a friend who has moved to Israel and with whom love would have to be maintained across considerable distance. My book accepts rupture as an ongoing feature of Jewish survival. Even had we stayed, I would have insisted that Israel’s priorities must include the Jewish civilization that thrives in its orbit but outside its borders.


There are two ways in which I would like to qualify the thesis of your book, or would have liked you yourself to qualify it in retrospect. In your Mosaic essay, you write: “Living as a Jew in America never made any sense to me.” Here I take you to be excusing yourself. If living as a Jew made sense to our ancestors in Babylon and Bialystok, how can it fail to animate those of us still in the Diaspora who are blessed with the freedom to live fully as Jews?

Today, now that its energizing powers have been made manifest, the Jewish way of life rooted in the Bible and maintained through centuries of civilizing talmudic refinement is more wondrously fertile than ever before. After all, this same way of life is what encouraged the reclamation of Hebrew as a living language and the reclamation of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel after millennia of creative survival in other people’s lands. If the reemergence of Jewish statehood is the apotheosis of Judaism, it is only because the Jewish way of life allowed for it. Without that impetus of empowerment, Israel would still be Palestine (God preserve us).

We both know that merely being born Jewish, whether in Israel or America, is a qualitatively different thing from living as a Jew. And of course, by “Jewish way of life,” I don’t mean tikkun olam—the perversions of which you exposed in one of my favorite essays by you. The Jewish way of life, at its best, rewards what it demands with the satisfactions that accrue only to those who meet those demands. Over a lifetime, the Sabbath surely affords more pleasure than the effort it takes to maintain it. Jewish study requires years of preparatory textual training before it really begins to pay off. Familial and communal obligations that feel onerous to the adolescent bring joy to the adult as well as comfort to the aged. But I admit that living in Israel as you do, immersed in Jewish languages and learning, with an institutionalized Sabbath and with heavy collective obligations—including for national defense—may confer an advantage here, allowing you to maintain a balance that you would have had to organize piecemeal had you established your Jewish life elsewhere.  


The second way in which I think you might have modified your argument in retrospect concerns the welfare of the Jewish polity. In all that depended on Jewish effort, Zionism succeeded beyond messianic expectations. But simultaneously, and unexpectedly, modern anti-Zionism exceeded even modern anti-Semitism in its capacity to organize politics against the Jews. You in Israel certainly bear the brunt of the physical assault. But we outside Israel confront the aggression of a campaign that uses Israel as a proxy for the West, for pluralism, democracy, individual rights, and the liberalization that Israel’s Arab opponents dread.

When you wrote your book in the 1970s, you were actively soldiering in the war on the ground; you could not foresee the gathering momentum of the broader ideological assaults or the formation of new anti-Israel political coalitions. But can I suggest that you in Israel may need more reinforcement from us than you anticipated in the battle to counteract the effects of Arab propaganda—and also in undoing the damage inflicted by some Israelis on their country’s good name?

During one of your visits to Harvard, you and I saw the exhibit “Breaking the Silence,” which airs the abuses allegedly committed by those who soldier in Israel’s defense rather than the murderous violence that requires them to soldier in the first place. This defamatory show, organized by Israelis, was on display at the campus Hillel house, the intended “center” for Harvard’s Jews. Now, Harvard students in general may be intelligent enough to see through the phony charges of “Apartheid” hurled at Israel, and they may be able to resist malicious calls for boycott, divestment, and sanctions; but how can anyone respect a people so demoralized that it advertises its conscience by throwing its countrymen under the polemical bus?  

There is no lack of demoralization among us here as well. Yet look at the record: AIPAC does more to expose Arab disinformation than any ministry in Israel, even now that the Netanyahu government has belatedly begun to address the problem. American watchdog groups monitor distortions and lies in the media and combat delegitimation at the United Nations and in universities. Analogous groups in Israel, like the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and NGO Monitor, were founded by American immigrants to Israel who still receive most of their funding from abroad. American journalists and editorialists rally to counteract the anti-Zionist slanders of their Israeli counterparts. American film-makers produce documentaries to counter Israeli films that hold Jews responsible for the aggression against them. And so forth. This is just to say that some American Jews form the ideational equivalent of the IDF: a unit of “special forces” in whose ranks they are joined—fortunately—by non-Jewish Americans who recognize that Israel’s struggle is equally theirs.

Israelis have shown great courage in the face of aggression, but they are only human. The more they are battered by an unwavering foe and its Western fan club, the more likely they are to lose their moral confidence. It’s also true that the pressure of Arab hostility falls unequally on Jews inside and outside the Jewish state—the former targeted simply by virtue of being that state’s citizens while the latter can withdraw from a “distant conflict” and even from active membership in the Jewish people. In America, it’s easier to withstand campaigns of hatred than in your anti-liberal, anti-American, anti-Jewish part of the world.

Still, we are in this together. In 1977, in the first of your letters to “A.,” you wrote: “If a Diaspora Jew and an Israeli are to talk to each other meaningfully as Jews, there is only one relevant question with which such a conversation can begin.” That question: “When are you coming here to settle?” Three-and-a-half decades later, with Israel’s Jewish population now equal to or greater than America’s, the question is still pertinent but another question may be more urgent: “What are you doing to help reverse the momentum of the Arab war against the Jews?”

So far, Jews have succeeded in every realm save the one that many other nations appear to have mastered—the ability to keep their land and persuade others that they intend to keep it. This time around, don’t you think it will take our combined efforts to withstand the destroyers?

With gratitude and in friendship,



Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).

More about: Aliyah, Diaspora, Hillel Halkin, Israel, Jewish identity, Jewish State, Zionism


It's Only Natural

Why Israel is the foundation upon which the house of Jewish culture can be most safely built.

<i>Studying at Ein Prat Academy for Leadership, a pluralistic Israeli beit midrash.</i> Courtesy Tikvah Fund/Flickr.
Studying at Ein Prat Academy for Leadership, a pluralistic Israeli beit midrash. Courtesy Tikvah Fund/Flickr.
Ran Baratz
Nov. 20 2013

Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend first came into my hands serendipitously. I knew of its existence in English but was unaware of a Hebrew translation. Then, on one of our regular visits with my wife’s parents at Kibbutz Maoz Haim in the Beit Shean valley, I found myself rooting through sacks of dusty books that the kibbutz library was offloading before sending them the way of all paper. There, among other finds, it lay—and in my native tongue.

Walking back to my in-laws’ house under the scorching sun, I opened to the first page, the second, third, fourth, and finished inhaling the rest in the cooling mercy of their air conditioner. I was struck not only by Halkin’s abundant intelligence but also by his intellectual honesty and courage. Of course, I already agreed with much of his thesis concerning the nature and meaning of Judaism after the establishment of the Jewish state. For his American Jewish readers, his analysis of their condition must have struck like an arrow.

Well established by now are Halkin’s all too accurate forecasts of the demographic decline of American Jewry. But that’s the least of it. The question is: why. And the answer, from my perspective, is related to a motif that runs like a scarlet thread through his book: the artificiality of Jewish identity in the Diaspora versus the natural identity of Jewish life in Israel. As a native Israeli, I hope I can contribute something to this trans-Atlantic conversation.


For Jews living outside Israel, especially in the liberal West, it can be hard to grasp the extent to which Judaism in Israel is predominantly a religion of the people.

I recall a Friday afternoon in the northern town of Rosh Pina. From the karaoke machine at a nearby swimming pool, Mizrahi music with a hip-hop beat reverberates incessantly. Suddenly, the yowlings of the immodestly dressed Jewish girls and their male counterparts in swimsuits and flip-flops are interrupted by an announcement crackling over the public-address system: “Shabbat begins soon!” Silence falls. Soon, showered, in white blouses, kippot out of pockets and on heads, they are making their way to synagogue, secular rock lyrics yielding to traditional sacred melodies.

Ask most of these pious young shul-goers: who is your favorite Jewish philosopher? How can Torah and science be reconciled? Do you think that choosing Judaism is an existential decision? They will think you insane.

Now ask:

Is there a chance you will marry a Gentile? “No way.”

Would you risk your life to fight for the Jewish people? “Absolutely.”

Do you believe in God? “Yes.”

Will you bequeath all this to your children? “A hundred percent.”

Are you proud to be a Jew? “With all my heart.”

Are all Jews brothers? “Yes.”

I propose that, in the liberal Diaspora, those baffled or silenced by the first set of questions would likely answer the second set equivocally or in the negative. Why? Because in the Diaspora, Jewish identity, if one is to engrave it on one’s heart and, especially, pass it on to the next generation, demands a more reflective effort.

In brief, what is acquired naturally for the Israeli is acquired artificially for the Jew in the Diaspora. Which is not to deny that the artificial can be beautiful, fascinating, hugely impressive. But natural? For the American Jew, English is natural. Baseball is natural. Such a Jew does not need to pursue a degree in colonial history in order to celebrate Thanksgiving. Even if he is no expert in philosophy or law, concepts like “freedom,” “the Constitution,” and “self-made man” reverberate in his soul.

His Judaism, by contrast, far from being imparted through the air of his environment, comes to him out of a special precinct created and protected by his coreligionists, who form a religious and cultural (and still in some ways ethnic) minority. The challenge facing the serious Jew-in-exile is tremendous: to choose, every day, the deviant over the natural and the normal. When he fails, he assimilates into his surroundings.

Such, writ large, is the story of Judaism in the reality of contemporary America, where the combination of diluted religious faith and the decline of anti-Semitism has long propelled a natural process of assimilation, leading in turn to the demographic facts recorded in the recent Pew Report. In the face of that reality, Jews who intend both to lead a natural national life and to maintain their Judaism are in for a constant religious, intellectual, and institutional struggle. To me, that struggle seems rather hopeless, especially for non-Orthodox Jews. I cannot understand how such Jews, living as equals among non-Jews, adopting most national customs and participating fully in public life, can expect their children not to fall in love with a person from the other 98 percent of the population, let alone justify the demand that they refrain from doing so. Isn’t it obvious that the young people will see that demand as arbitrary and contrived? Isn’t it clear that nature will prevail?

In Israel, the situation is the diametric opposite. Secular Israelis speak Hebrew, read Jewish sources in their original language, celebrate the Jewish holidays, and mark life’s most significant milestones—birth, marriage, death—in the traditional (Orthodox) manner. They marry Jews naturally. In Israel, even secular identity is Jewish, and certainly more traditional than the Judaism of the garden-variety American Jew—since, in Israel, cultural and national assimilation pull toward Jewish tradition. Add to this the national element (service in the IDF, political participation, etc.), and the result is a stable Israeli-Jewish identity that has virtually no parallel in the Diaspora.

When these two Jewish cultures are brought together, they are bound to clash, tragically so. My American Orthodox friends (and some national-religious Jews in Israel who still struggle with a Diaspora Orthodox mentality) find that practicing Judaism is too easy in Israel. They miss the heroism of rejecting the natural, the passion of making an existential choice. They miss the education and the devotion. From their personal perspective, they are right; but from a historical perspective they are wrong: in history, the natural defeats the artificial every time.

Similarly, many American Jews are proud of the proliferation of denominations. In truth, as a secular Israeli with a bit of a traditional streak, I like many of the changes that the non-Orthodox denominations have injected into their Judaism from the outside environment. It is nevertheless clear to me that these changes have been caused, to no small degree, by the pressure of assimilation. In Israeli eyes, the resulting permissiveness inevitably undermines the tradition and serves as further testimony to an identity problem that does not exist in Israel.

Thus, when an American Jew criticizes Israel for its religious conservatism—a completely accurate description—the Israeli sees someone who, unable to keep the fundamentals of faith transmitted to him by his father, has exchanged some of them for modern American beliefs and principles and is now paradoxically demanding that Israeli Judaism be less Jewish and more American. Any similar process in Israel, where the natural strength of Jewish identity greatly reduces the need for “progressive” religious alternatives, will perforce be slower, more patient, and much, much more traditional.


In his response to Halkin’s new essay in Mosaic, Allan Arkush observes that in Letters to an American Jewish Friend,

Halkin’s account of Israeli culture [was] almost as scathing as his description of American Jewish culture. . . . Unfortunately, Israel had not yet succeeded in fulfilling, for him, the Zionist vision of a culture “identifiably Jewish in all its aspects while at the same time serving as the basis for a modern society whose members will share a common cultural identity that draws on what each of them has brought to it.” Still, he did see signs that things were headed in the proper direction and reported on them with some degree of enthusiasm. Is he, I wonder, still upbeat about this? 

I can’t speak for Halkin on this point, but to me, the answer to Arkush’s question is obvious. A historian 1,000 years hence will look back and see, in the case of Israel, the full range of Jewish cultural creations in every genre and at every level. Indeed, a great bounty of creativity has flowed out of Israel in just 65 years—years that have seen many internal disputes, and many hard external battles, all taking place against a background of national unity and Jewish solidarity. In almost every area, and in every sector of the populace, an artistic, intellectual, and spiritual Jewish elite labors to preserve and to develop a complex, penetrating, self-aware Israeli and Jewish identity. Alongside it, there flourishes an authentically rooted, traditional, popular culture. And I am referring only to creations bearing a direct relation to Judaism, leaving aside the numerous ways in which the Hebrew language has been put to use in works that have no clearly Jewish content.

In any case, rivalry over relative degrees of cultural sophistication and most-favored-Jewry status are irrelevant and distasteful. The main thing is and should remain the brotherly effort of Israeli and Diaspora Jews to uphold Jewish culture and religion in the modern world. And on this point Halkin again isolated the core of the matter 35 years ago: in that modern world, Israel has no natural alternative as a sustainable solution for Jewish survival; therefore it is also the foundation upon which higher floors can be most safely built.


When our eldest son was seven, he learned the lines of the heartrending lament sung by David when informed of the grisly deaths of Saul and Jonathan in battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa (2 Samuel 1: 19-27). It is one of our people’s greatest poems, approached by very few later works. Whenever we go to visit Kibbutz Maoz Haim, we pass Gilboa and sometimes stop to climb it. On our way up, we pause for a few moments of silence, and my son declaims:

“Thy beauty, O Israel, upon thy high places is slain! How the mighty are fallen!”

In the right season of the year, the soil of Gilboa beneath our feet is soft and aromatic, studded with fragments of flinty rock and crowned by the purple Gilboa iris. The green Jezreel valley spreads out below us, and the entire horizon is Israel. Our brief moment of Jewish-Zionist reflection can have no parallel anywhere in the Diaspora, no matter how creative and sophisticated its Judaism. It is a moment of self-evident belonging, of identifying-as and identifying-with. At such a moment, even an old cynic like me finds himself blessing his fate and sharing the blessing with his children.


Ran Baratz, professor of ancient philosophy at Shalem College, teaches philosophy, history, and Zionist thought at a variety of other Israeli institutions as well. The executive director in Israel of the Tikvah Fund’s program in political thought, economics, and strategy, he is the founding editor of  Midaa new Hebrew-language website .

More about: Diaspora, Hillel Halkin, Israel, Jewish identity, Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Zionism


What Has Zionism Wrought?

Zionism is at once the greatest repudiation of the Jewish past and the greatest affirmation of it.

<i>A Jewish woman, just arrived from Russia, sees her brother for the first time in twenty years at Lod Airport, November 15, 1972.</i> Moshe Milner/Government Press Office (Israel).
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).
Nov. 24 2013
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), and, most recently, Jabotinsky: A Life (2014). His essays and columns have appeared in MosaicCommentary, the New Republic, the Forward, the Jewish Review of Books, and elsewhere.

I thank Allan Arkush, Micah Goodman, Ruth Wisse, and Ran Baratz for their responses to my essay. All were made in a spirit of comradeship and all will be answered in it.

Allan and Ruth certainly must know that I don’t belittle American Jews like themselves. I admire them and wish there were more of them, and nothing I wrote in Letters to an American Jewish Friend, or in my Mosaic essay introducing its republished edition, belies that. They are indeed on the front line in an intellectual and political war that neither Israel nor the Jewish people can afford to lose, and I am grateful to them for being there. A world without Israel would be as empty for them as it would be for me; the fact that I live there and they don’t is my good fortune, not something I hold against them.  If all  of American Jewry—if a half or a quarter of it—shared their views, no one would have to call for putting aliyah on the American Jewish agenda, because it would already be there. There would then be a steady flow of American Jewish immigrants to Israel, because American Jews would be living in a different atmosphere, with a far stronger attachment to Israel, from the one they live in now. Would it were so.

Once, in a spirit of foolish jest, I answered a letter from a prominent American rabbi inquiring what I thought a Zionist strategy for America should be by writing back: the immediate evacuation of all American Jews to Israel. But I am not really that foolish. There are, give or take a Pew more or a Pew less, some six million Jews living in the United States. If one in every 500 were to settle in Israel each year—12,000 annually, which is more than four times the present number—I, like most Israelis, would be overjoyed. To the remaining 499, I would say: keep up the good work!

And good work it would be. In the days before World War II, Zionists spoke of Gegenwartsarbeit or “working in the present.” What this meant to even the greatest sholeley ha-golah or “negators of the Diaspora,” in whose company I number myself, was that even if the Diaspora was (and deserved to be) a lost cause in the long run, everything should be done to strengthen it in the short run, because the stronger it was, the more Zionists there would be in it and the more Jews would leave it for Palestine. In pre-World War II Europe, the short run proved to be horrendously short; in America, it may last for many generations. As long as it does, I would like American Jewish life to be as thriving and as Jewish as possible. So would my respondents. Allan, Ruth, and Micah Goodman may be more optimistic than Ran Baratz and I are about the possibility of sustaining such a life, but we all agree on its desirability.

Moreover, just as a flourishing American Jewish community would be good for Israel, so would aliyah be good for American Jewry. It’s a mistake to think, as Ruth and Allan appear to, that the aliyah of a portion of those American Jews who care most about Israel would deplete American Jewish support for it or weaken American Jewish life. On the contrary: as I argued in Letters to an American Jewish Friend, every American oleh strengthens American Jewry’s ties to Israel because he or she has parents, brothers, sisters, friends, and colleagues who are now more emotionally invested in Israel than before. Every oleh creates more potential olim while at the same time creating more Jews who are made to take the idea of Jewish peoplehood seriously, even though they would never consider leaving America in its name. Aliyah is not a zero-sum game in Israel’s favor.


I don’t know what makes Micah and Ruth say that I fail to appreciate the achievements of Diaspora life over the centuries or to understand that without them there would have been no Zionism and no state of Israel. Of course, I understand that; of course, I appreciate these achievements; what did I ever write to indicate that I didn’t? As a Jew in Israel, I’m as much an heir of the Diaspora as they are; as a writer and translator, I’ve had prolonged and happy contact with its glories; nowhere have I been dismissive of them.

But your Jews in Bialystok, Ruth (let’s put aside those of ancient Babylon, most of whom, as Yehuda Halevi scathingly observed in the Kuzari, did not join the return to Zion in the time of Cyrus), had no Jewish state as an alternative to Bialystok. Had they had one and chosen to remain there. . . . No, let me rephrase that. You know as well as I do that in the 1920s, when unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine was still possible while no longer so elsewhere, the Jews of Bialystok did remain in Bialystok. Twenty years later they were dead. Zionism did not foresee the Holocaust, but better than most currents in Jewish life it understood that modernity meant radically new circumstances for Jews, too, and that any attempt to look to the Diaspora past for models of coping with these was delusional.

Achievements? The Diaspora certainly had them. But it also had its terrible ills, of which  Zionism (especially in Eastern Europe, where it arose and most of the world’s Jews lived) was a critique, the most penetrating and merciless ever made by Jews of their fellow Jews.  Zionism was a critique of Jewish powerlessness; of Jewish economic luftmentshlikhkayt; of Jewish alienation from nature and human physicality; of Jewish cultural and intellectual backwardness; of the Jewish weakness for wishful thinking; and—yes, Micah—of the rabbinic tradition and authority that historically were responsible for a great deal of this. These were things that, as you acknowledge, a culturally conservative secular Zionist like Ahad Ha’am was every bit as aware of as was a culturally radical secular Zionist like M.Y. Berdichevsky. (I wonder if you know, by the way, that Berdichevsky spent much of his life laboring in the vineyard of Jewish texts and sources, which he never ceased to regard as his and his people’s patrimony.) If Zionism was at one and the same time the greatest possible affirmation of the Jewish past and the greatest possible repudiation of it, this was because it alone had the courage to be both.

I have never been an intellectual admirer of Ahad Ha’am; his thought trims corners and always seeks to muddle through; it suffers from a harmonizing, have-your-cake-and-eat-it laxness. And yet it may be that, ultimately, Ahad Ha’am grasped something about human cultures and societies that Berdichevsky, with his sharper, more conflictual, more dialectical mind, did not; for cultures and societies  muddle through, too;  they tend eventually to come to rest at an illogical midpoint between logical extremes. Your description of the return of repressed parts of the Jewish past in secular Israeli culture, Micah, is a fine example of this. You’re right: Berdichevsky would not have predicted it.

But why do you take this to be a refutation of the views expressed in Letters to an American Jewish Friend? It was precisely such a phenomenon that I anticipated in 1976, in Letter 5 of my book, in which I stated, after describing several seemingly trivial ways in which nuggets of Jewish tradition could be seen resurfacing in Israeli life:

When I speak of the hope for a secular Jewish culture in this country, you see, I am thinking of such things, each of which has rescued a vital spark, what the kabbalists would call a nitzotz d’kedusha, from our past . . . and reincorporated it into a living process; not of four or five of them, of course, but of 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.

Wasn’t I hoping then for the same thing you see taking shape now? Shouldn’t you be answering Allan Arkush on my behalf when he asks whether I am still as optimistic about Israeli culture as I once was? Actually, Allan, I am more optimistic. I’m not sure that, in 1976, I entirely believed in the possibility that I sketched. Today I do.


To Ran Baratz, what can I say? There is no need for words between us, because we already share a country and a sense of it. You have, Ran, summed up Letters to An American Jewish Friend in a single sentence: “in history, the natural defeats the artificial every time.” Thanks for putting it that way. I couldn’t have said it any better. 


Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverA 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.

More about: Aliyah, Diaspora, Hillel Halkin, Israel, Zionism