Devaluing the Diaspora

Hillel Halkin's scorn for American Jewry.

November 6, 2013 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.
This is a response to Letters to an American Jewish Friend, originally published in Mosaic in November 2013

The cover of the Pew Research Center's report on American Jewry.

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.