Translator, Novelist, Zionist, Detective

The author of dozens of translations of Hebrew and Yiddish literature into English, one novel, eight works of nonfiction, and numerous essay and columns, Hillel Halkin has behind him a distinguished career. Adam Rubenstein recounts a recent visit with Halkin at his home in the Israeli town of Zichron Ya’akov and reflects on that career:

In a review of one of his books, . . . Halkin was called “one of the great snoops of the age.” In English, the word carries a negative connotation: a snoop is one who sticks his nose in others’ affairs, who pries. In Hebrew, the noun can be rendered as balash, a word that suggests a gumshoe, a detective. That somewhat more dignified Hebrew concept applies to Halkin. He has the snoop’s attitude and gimlet eye, a critic sizing up everything and everyone before him, including his readers. . . .

As [Halkin and I] sat for a few hours in [a local] café, several patrons approached our table and introduced themselves to him. . . . The fact that Halkin is still greeted in public and thanked by strangers surely has something to do with his first book. A few years after he and [his wife] Marcia moved to Israel he began work on Letters to an American Jewish FriendA Zionist’s Polemic (1977). The book is written as if it were Halkin’s side of an exchange of letters over several months with a fictitious American friend, a composite of some of Halkin’s real friends. It is a deep yet lively exploration of Jewish continuity. The classical Zionists, Halkin writes, believed that Jews were “hopelessly trapped between the Scylla of assimilation and the Charybdis of anti-Semitism.” The existence of Israel offers another option.

Halkin draws on history, philosophy, sociopolitical commentary, and descriptions of his young family’s life in the young country to make the case that for a Jew, Israel is the most logical place to live. “I have tried to reason with you,” he writes his pen pal in the book’s concluding letter, “to implant in you no more than a feeling of unease for being where you are, or if you prefer, since I don’t mind speaking bluntly, of guilt.” And even if the reader does not leave America to make aliyah—that is, does not move to Israel—“I should hope that these letters will have helped you to think more clearly about the alternatives before us.”

The best dialogic literature forces a confrontation with one’s basic assumptions; it riles the reader. But what makes Halkin’s case so compelling is that he and his wife had themselves recently made the move to Israel—that is, he is a case study in the security of his own argument. Letters combines the thumotic and the erotic—the spirited, preservatory case for aliyah with a yearning for completeness.

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More about: Aliyah, Arts & Culture, Hillel Halkin, Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Zionism

 

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem