• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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.1

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.2 Philip Roth, whose renderings of American Jews have been much maligned, has warned that most of his critics are so preoccupied with the dilemma of the Jewish victim that they are embarrassed by Jews who confess to their merely human wants, or, worse, who in trying to satisfy them display aggressiveness toward other Jews.3

Halkin is no admirer of Philip Roth, but he certainly shares Roth’s intuition that a great many American Jews are trying, and failing, to live on a kind of moralistic spite now that the more resilient bonds of language, faith, and folk culture have been gradually dissolving during four generations. However willingly most American Jews profess their mutual solidarity, or rally to Israel’s and their own defense, Halkin recognizes that their practice of Jewish culture is, “to be kind, not great: a smattering of Yiddish or Hebrew remembered from childhood, a nostalgia for a parental home where Jewish customs were still kept, the occasional observance of an isolated Jewish ritual, the exclusion of non-kosher foods from an otherwise non-kosher kitchen, a genuine identification with the Jewish people combined with a genuine ignorance of its past history and present condition.”

In this light, Halkin implies, American “Zionism” is merely a consoling (and vicarious) celebration of Jewish power. More directly, it is a chance to work off some of the “residual guilt” which sinks so many American Jews as they contemplate the terrors they have themselves been regularly spared, and the tradition that other Jews have suffered for and that they have let slip through their fingers nevertheless. It is this advanced assimilation, not physical violence, which seems to be on Halkin’s mind when he proposes that American Jews are doomed.

He also makes an ingenious case for the imminent decline of Jewish political influence in America—a decline resulting from a falling birthrate, intermarriage, the steady abandonment of Northeastern urban centers where Jewish votes were hitherto concentrated, and so on. He also speculates about the demoralization of Jewish leaders who will soon have to preside over a community which is increasingly divided by American diplomatic pressure on Israel and, more urgently, which will progressively lose interest in existing Jewish cultural and social institutions. He sees these stresses precipitating a kind of “crash.” But, to his credit, Halkin is aware that it is precisely their loss of interest in Jewish life that will erode the Jews’ political power, not vice versa. So one must first understand that diaspora Judaism is wearing thin if one is to appreciate the loss of political élan among diaspora Jews.

At this point Halkin proves himself a most faithful and persuasive disciple of classical Zionism, echoing the views stated in 1897 by Achad Ha-am, the founder of cultural Zionism.4 Halkin recalls that the political emancipation of Jews in “enlightened” Western societies posed a more serious threat to the traditional culture of the Torah than any posed by Christ’s avengers during the Middle Ages:

As religious belief and identification waned among the native populations in whose midst the Jew lived, so it declined as well among the Jews, who were increasingly forced to ask themselves…in what sense were they still to accept the hardship of being a Jew at all? At the same time, ceasing to be Jewish…became an easier and less painful step to take since there were now, especially in the large urban centers of Europe and America, secular gentile societies…which the assimilating Jew could join without having to feel a traitor to his ancestral past.

So it was that most Jewish immigrants to, say, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and London throughout the nineteenth century—and to New York at the onset of the twentieth—made for the “neutral” ground of their hosts’ secular and liberal nationalism.5 This is what Achad Ha-am had in mind when he wrote about “Judaism coming out of the Ghetto also,” and when he argued that the old defenses of Jewish life were “overturned” by those modern societies whose political freedoms and scientific gifts were bestowed only on those Jews who would first adopt the languages and habits of Western nationals.

Achad Ha-am—and Halkin, who writes in his shadow—cherished Zionism as the saving movement of newly secularist Jews who, though hankering after “modernity,” were loath to secure it at so high a cost to their own distinctive and still flourishing Jewish culture. If the prospect for Jewish life had become bleak in the post-enlightenment world, caught as it was (in Halkin’s phrase) between “the Scylla of assimilation and the Charybdis of anti-Semitism,” then the Jews must fully transform themselves into a separate, secular nation, living in its ancient homeland. There the Jews’ traditional religious symbols and their old folk culture would have counterparts in a new and modern social life; there confident, rooted writers could ask radical questions in Hebrew.

So much for Halkin’s impressive reproduction of the Zionists’ view of history. What is lacking, however, is the Zionists’ feeling for politics. Achad Haam, for example, emphasized that the Jews for whom Zionism was a real alternative were not some abstract world “people,” but a vigorous and immanently national community in the East European Pale of Settlement. These were the four to five million Jews who spoke and wrote Yiddish and Hebrew, who were turning in ever increasing numbers to their own “national” (literary, cultural, and political) vanguard movements such as Hibat Zion and the Labour Bund, and away from the rabbis. They did so, moreover, in lively new centers of enlightenment Judaism such as Odessa, where Achad Ha-am himself edited the leading Hebrew journal Hashiloah. These cities, on the other hand, were increasingly ominous places for the Jewish merchants, small tradesmen, and their masses of dependent workers, who were being hard-pressed by the industrialization policies, and the anti-Semitism, of the czarist bureaucracy.6

Achad Ha-am denied that Zionism would be a serious option for his so-called “brothers” in Western Europe. Hence his contempt for Theodore Herzl’s melodramatic and predictably ephemeral leadership. The assimilating Jews of Germany, France, etc., had already lost the cultural fluency, and standards, upon which the Zionist revolution would have to be grounded. Of course, Hitler eventually made reluctant Zionists out of many assimilated Western Jews. But we should not be misled by their tragic choices; Anne Frank left behind pin-ups of Shirley Temple and Ray Milland when the Gestapo finally took her. If, in spite of the Holocaust, Halkin is convinced that assimilation is politically possible in America—and he is—he should also have concluded that his own Zionist exhortations to American Jews would fail. His weighty evidence for the eventual collapse of Jewish life in America—so reminiscent of Achad Ha-am’s survey of Jewish life in France and Germany7—is also evidence that few American Jews will even read his book, let alone move to Israel.

What would such unlikely Jews achieve for themselves by moving? Halkin’s rejoinder is that they will participate in “Jewish survival.” But, surely, he is begging the question: Jews will survive for the sake of being Jewish, they will not be Jewish for the sake of “survival.” And being Jewish, at least in the sense Halkin admires, means being in command of the many perspectives, practices, and habits that make up a seriously Jewish way of life, a life that, as Halkin knows, most American Jews have abandoned.

Halkin has apparently been confused by the guilty lip-service American Jews earnestly pay to the importance of “Jewish survival.” It is as if he need only prove that Jewish life in America will eventually disappear for significant numbers of American Jews to react by moving to Israel as Zionists. Perhaps he has forgotten that the conspicuous declarations by many Jews of concern for “survival,” for “solidarity,” are less resistance to assimilation than a symptom of it.

Halkin plays on American Jewish guilt more shrewdly, with his evocative and undeniably moving account of life in contemporary Israel: he describes the economic austerity, the rounds of reserve duty, the terrorism, and the political uncertainty. If American Jews will not be persuaded that they need Zionist ideas, at least, Halkin supposes, they can be made to understand that Israelis desperately need American Jewish recruits. The country is at war—a terrible inescapable war—and American Jews dare not allow Israelis to carry the burdens alone.

  1. 1

    See Robert Alter’s essay in Commentary, August 1977, and Ruth R. Wisse’s review in Moment, September 1977.

  2. 2

    As a recent United Jewish Appeal poster put it: “…as Jews we stand alone…if we are to survive, we must stand as one…the rest of the world is anxious to forget [injustice to Jews]. Hold on to it…. We are one.” (Canadian Jewish News, September 23, 1977.)

  3. 3

    See Roth’s essays on American Jewish self-images in Reading Myself and Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975).

  4. 4

    See his essay “The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem,” in a collection of Achad Ha-am’s most perceptive essays, Ten Essays on Zionism and Judaism, part of a new series on modern Jewish thought. (Leon Simon, ed., Arno Press, 1973.)

  5. 5

    See especially Michael Marrus, The Politics of Assimilation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971).

  6. 6

    See Ezra Mendelsohn, Class Struggle in The Pale (Cambridge, 1970), and David Vital’s The Origins of Zionism (Oxford, 1976).

  7. 7

    See Achad Ha-am’s essay, “Slavery in Freedom,” in Selected Essays, Leon Simon, ed. (Atheneum, 1970).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print