You Can’t Go Home Again

Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic

by Hillel Halkin
Jewish Publication Society of America, 246 pp., $7.50

If Napoleon wins, the better for the Jews; if he loses, the better for Judaism.

—Scheneur Zalman of Lyadi (1804)

American Jews will be disturbed by Hillel Halkin’s articulate and nervous “letters” from Israel. A former American himself, Halkin prophesies that “Jewish life in the [American] diaspora is doomed.” He believes that “such life has a possible future only in an autonomous or politically sovereign Jewish community living in its own land, that is, in the state of Israel.”

We notice immediately that Halkin is ascribing only a “possible future” to Israel, not a very optimistic statement in view of his otherwise glad tidings for the doomed. He tells us that his misgivings are the product of the Yom Kippur war, which “frightened the country with a glimpse of its own mortality.” What Halkin would probably not concede is that his very determination to contrive some plausible, tough-minded version of Zionism for American Jews derives similarly from this war’s aftermath—when most Israelis were anxiously counting their dead, their enemies, and their leaders’ corrupt mistakes. But Halkin’s barely repressed and typical anxieties aside, his arguments are succinct, intriguing, and deserve the serious attention they have already commanded.

Since Jewish life is fated to vanish in America and not—or not necessarily—in Israel, Halkin’s argument continues, any American Jew “who is committed to his Jewishness” ought to emigrate to the Jewish state. Those remaining behind will lack endurance and “authenticity,” and they should realize that they are fossils of historic forces beyond their control.

To anyone modestly acquainted with classical Zionism, Halkin’s polemic has a familiar ring to it, one which will nevertheless be jolting to most American Jews. For all their professions of “Zionism” during recent years, American Jews have been more inclined to ask searching questions of gentiles than of themselves. American Jews’ daydreams are still crowded with images of the Final Solution, the more intense for the ease with which they have been reassigned to the Israeli-Arab conflict since 1948. Here, ostensibly, are still the genocidal threats to Jews. The accusations by the enemy of Jewish moral failings seem once again inspired by anti-Semitism. And here, once more, is the prospect of Western appeasement, preceded by diplomatic ostracism. “Hitler never died,” I was told as a child, “but swam to Egypt and became nasser [wet].”

Such cheerless puns do justice neither to Israel’s ability to determine its fate nor to the complexity of Arab enmity. But they do betray the American Jew’s strangely enervating conviction that, after Auschwitz, after Exodus, being a Jew requires little more than a sense of oneself as victim in the goy’s indecent world and a corresponding sense of Jewish solidarity to survive it. “Survival” itself seems to have become less the self-evident objective of a vital community than the binding neurosis of an otherwise disintegrating one. Philip Roth, whose renderings of American Jews have been much maligned, has warned that most of …

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