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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.

Quite apart from the serious objections one might raise with respect to Halkin’s argument that war with the Arab world is inevitable, I cannot see what his alternately inspiring and depressing anecdotes can achieve other than to speed up the pace of American Jewish breast-beating. How, after all, can even what he calls “hard-core”8 American Jews be expected to help beyond writing checks and backing their lobbies in Washington? Moving to Israel is not like joining the Jewish Defense League. Unless one grows up, as Halkin did, in a home steeped in Hebraic tradition, moving to Israel requires a leap into a radically new way of life. It means struggling three years with the mysteries of a new daily newspaper, learning a new politics and new customs, and sending one’s children off to schools that turn them into strangers. Such transitions are not impossible, of course; American Jewish parents and grand-parents were immigrants too. But for all his thoughtfulness, Halkin avoids the most obvious problem for anyone with old-fashioned Zionist aspirations: that Israel has by now become such a complicated and molded society that it can hardly accommodate the “self-determination” of American Jews. Of the few thousand Americans who have tried to “ascend” to Zion since 1967, over 70 percent have returned—not because Israel is less than a good country but because they have evidently decided not to be reborn.

The Zionism which Halkin celebrates once offered Yiddish- and Hebrew-speaking youths from the Pale the chance to escape the pogroms and fill up the empty spaces of Palestine with their ambitions. The “Zionism” of today offers English-speaking (Bellow-reading, Dylan-humming, Wheaties-eating, world-hopping) American Jews the chance to be “good material” for Israel’s society, and good soldiers in Israel’s army. Early in his book, Halkin remarks that “the Zionist movement always had little taste for the tragic antithesis latent in its own success.” One such tragedy has been the crumbling of the cultural unity that once characterized the Jewish people in the Pale. As the fictitious “American friend” to whom Halkin’s book is addressed tries to tell him (and it is curious how often his answers evade the strongest questions raised by his fictitious foil) Israelis and American Jews are different. If the latter are to be Zionists, they must also be self-denying; and this is not the same as moral excellence.

But Halkin resists the evident differences between Israelis and American Jews. He clouds our perceptions of their respective ways of life with novel, and bad, arguments. To take his second point first, Halkin tries to convince us that Israel has no secular Jewish culture of its own as yet, a conclusion which, if it were true, might make the prospect for American Jews in Israel considerably brighter. If Israel has no real culture to master, then American Jewish newcomers would presumably have substantial room to work out their own ambitions.

To make his case, however, Halkin relies on a triple confusion. First he presumes that there will eventually develop in Israel some ideal, organic, and embracing folk culture, the absence of which he now regrets. He then surmises that, until such time as this appears, Israel will have “no culture” at all. Finally, he blames its absence on the cultural pluralism that has marked Israeli life as it has grown more sophisticated, less dominated by the institutions and practices of Labour-Zionism, and as it has been made more fractious by the antagonisms between the Sephardic immigrants and the old Ashkenazi pioneers.

Some of Halkin’s insights into Israel’s cultural history are brilliant. He is right, for example, that many esoteric folkways of immigrants from Islamic lands were lost during Ben Gurion’s misguided campaigns to achieve a cultural consensus by fiat in the 1950s and 1960s. He is also right that Labour’s constituents put their own fragile and pristine culture under great strain in this failed attempt to integrate the newcomers. The result has been, for both groups, an often thoughtless emulation of Western bourgeois standards in a country that cannot afford them, especially by those in the new middle class.

But Halkin’s reasons for recounting this convincing history are simply wrong. Those who would now join him in his quest for a Jewish (or any other) folk culture will be chasing the past, and, thank goodness, will also be few and far between. If Halkin wants to live in an Israel that will be as “Jewish” as the mir is “Russian,” as the souk is “Arab,” this is his affair; some of us would find the prospect stifling. (Those who like Israeli rock music, as I do, would be as remote from Halkin’s idea of folk culture as those who like the music of Stravinsky.)

But the absence of a single, thick Israeli folk culture is obviously not the same as “no culture.” Israel’s pluralism is a mark of its maturity, not of its prolonged infancy. As a matter of fact, this is precisely the conclusion Halkin might have drawn from his own analysis of Israel’s cultural history. The ethos of Labor Zionism—its music, dress, moral heroes, literary styles—has been superseded by an urbane eclecticism drawing on Sephardic, Orthodox, and Western sources as well. Yet the “language and the land,” Halkin knows, are still Jewish, still vital, and still open to new possibilities. Israel’s cosmopolitan style of life is not as cozy as what Halkin, it seems, had in mind when he came there. But its peculiar cultural anarchy is what secular Judaism is all about. I need not add that new immigrants will have all the more difficulty adjusting to Israel because of its confusion.

Halkin’s misunderstanding of, or distaste for, secular Judaism in its less fantastic forms leads him to carp at the “inauthenticity” of American Jewish reformers even before he tries to take on Israel’s “non-culture.” This is Halkin’s second fresh point. Why is the “new” American Judaism that one finds on college campuses—secular but often intensely concerned with moral and political issues—“inauthentic” in addition to being so vulnerable to assimilationist pressure? Again, he resorts to good history and bad argument.

Halkin explains, cogently, that non-orthodox American Jews who have nevertheless retained some positive attitude toward Jewish practice have—like German Jewish reformers in the nineteenth century—tended to reduce Judaism from a total and demanding pattern of life to an ethical tradition which can be reconciled to Western civil experience. But such reforms are absurd in principle, Halkin asserts, because “there is and can be no such thing as Jewish ethics.” Why? Because “ethics are universal. They deal not with Israelis or Palestinians but with men as men; as such there can be no more a Jewish ethics than a Muslim or Navajo ethics, which is why there is always a potential tension…between owing one’s allegiance to a particular tribe, people, or nation, and being an ethical human being.” This statement is so wrong-headed one can only marvel at it.

In the first place it is philosophically unsound. Ethics, at least since Aristotle, have been a conscious attempt to set moral standards for the whole human species. But we generally acknowledge the existence of Jewish ethics or Navajo ethics, liberal ethics and socialist ethics, because we perceive no species-wide agreement about what a human being is. Moreover, different cultures will disagree about a man’s needs, endowments, and his corresponding social claims. Cannot Jews have some unique things to say about right thinking, right living, and cannot American Jews distinguish themselves, however subtly, from other American citizens by saying them? Of course they can, and will, at least until they disappear. It is all the more galling that Halkin should take so unwarranted a slap at this last face of American Judaism when, less than forty pages later, he shows very eloquently how Jewish ethics would differ from that of the so-called American “counter-culture.”

Halkin’s implication that loyalty to one’s people or “tribe” is bound to contradict one’s ethical obligations is not only wrong but dangerous. Defense of the particular society through which one develops one’s capacities—one’s language, ethics, aesthetics—may itself be ethically warranted; this is why today most of us acknowledge claims to national self-determination. Of course, one may have to decide on conflicting ethical priorities, as in war. But a man who thinks he must defend his society without regard to his own sense of ethics—as if generals ever fail to point out the “justice” of their cause—is potentially another Eichmann. Halkin’s formula cannot be right; but it does inadvertently provide a refuge for scoundrels.

Halkin’s denial of “Jewish ethics” is revealing apart from its failures of logic. For his identification of Jewish interests with some form of tribal loyalty, along with his contention that the Israelis are a “community of faith” whose interests may clash with the self-evident ethics of humanity, leaves one doubting whether Halkin knows how, or wants, to be a secular Jew at all. In fact, he has reproduced, albeit without Jehovah, the fundamentalist belief of some orthodox Jews that ethics are natural laws which, as Maimonides claimed, all men would eventually promulgate for themselves had they not been revealed at Sinai. The Jews, in this view, are set apart from a potentially righteous mankind by their keeping of God’s special and finally inscrutable commandments to them. No wonder Halkin dismisses as “inauthentic” any Jew who will not view the tradition as a “divine trust.” (He is so oblivious to his own syncretism, by the way, that he does not even bother to use quotation marks for such religious categories.)

Halkin’s shuttle between classical, secular Zionism (the cultural consequences of which he dislikes) and orthodox Judaism (the God of which he rejected in his youth) would be more poignant, and less annoying, if it did not finally carry him into the camp of the “Scripture-hawks” who now resist any plan to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank for “historic” reasons irrespective of the state’s security requirements. Although Halkin’s “Zionism” pretends to promote a revolutionary, secular Jewish culture, he wants at the same time to accommodate notions such as “holy land” and “promised land” which, he does not see, subvert such a culture. The result is an ideological mélange which may well persuade him and many other Israelis that their national rights in Palestine derive from God’s will and not from the UN’s recognition of their modern self-determination. Such rhetoric may also convince them that they will betray “Zionism” if they agree to redivide sovereignty in the “promised land.”

Halkin, in fact, has shown that he can himself fall into his own intellectual trap. In an article in Commentary,9 he complains that if Jews do not have rights in such West Bank Arab towns as Nablus or Jenin he “is not sure” what rights they have to Tel-Aviv and Haifa. He cannot imagine a Jewish state “from which the heartland of Jewish historical experience” has been excluded. Unfortunately for Halkin, his new and syncretic “Zionism” has blinded him to the elementary importance of Zionist history. The new heartland of “Jewish historical experience” is obviously in Tel-Aviv, Haifa, and the Valley of Jezreel, not in Arab cities built on ancient Jewish sites. How can Israelis expect Arabs to recognize the modern Jewish state if they will not do so themselves?

Still, I suspect that Halkin’s is a self-inflicted blindness motivated, as I suggested at the outset of this review, by the trauma of Yom Kippur, 1973. If Halkin were to admit that Zionism is merely what it was to Achad Ha-am, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion—a cultural revolution and political refuge for Jews who needed both—he would also have to admit that Jews are living in a post-Zionist age.10 With the challenges of war still heavy on his mind, this conclusion could be understandably painful to him.

Israelis are anxious about their enemies and the condition of their civil life—about their collective durability—and want badly to believe that new waves of Jewish immigrants from America will not only help to resolve their economic, political, and military problems, but give their enormous sacrifices a special meaning. They want Zionism to be still magnetic, still heroic, though it is thirty years since their state’s founding, and thirty-five years since Hitler murdered the large remnants of Zionism’s natural constituency in Eastern Europe.

Israelis want immigrants and are afraid to abandon the word—Zionism—that they think is their major draw. To give this word meaning, however, is no longer a simple matter. This is why so many sensitive and overtly secularist young Israelis11 like Halkin are tempted to promote the only Zionism that, it must seem to them, cannot be made obsolete by history. This is the messianic and righteously chauvinist “Zionism” of Gush Emunim and Menachem Begin which sets itself goals inherently beyond the reach of politics; a “Zionism” which promises God’s redemption and anoints its faithful with the prestige of pioneering martyrs.

It is convenient for the new “Zionists” that their language is one that a good many American Jews can understand—namely the “hard core” Jews Halkin refers to, though they are not potential immigrants. And it is the more convenient that their squatter settlements on the West Bank—now endorsed by the government itself—appear as a manifest demonstration of their integrity and “realism” just when the more moderate voices of the Labour movement have discredited themselves in corrupt administrations. Only Carter’s peace initiatives seem inconvenient.

The recent Soviet-American communiqué is unprecedented in that both-superpowers, supported by several Arab states, have jointly agreed that Israel can be expected to negotiate not merely to end the state of war but for “normal peaceful relations” and on the basis of “sovereignty, mutual recognition, territorial integrity, and political independence.” The Israeli government cannot be reckless in pursuing these objectives. It would be right—as the Brookings Institution report supported by the Carter administration concedes—to demand open borders, formal treaties, and convincing demilitarization of evacuated territories. Still, it would be ironic if a “Zionist” revival now became an obstacle to the progress of these negotiations. When learning from history, Halkin might have considered that those Frenchmen who would not, by 1848, give up on the “revolution” helped clear the field for Louis-Napoleon.

  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). 

  8. 8

    Halkin supposes that out of five million Jews in America, only about one million are “hard core” Jews who put Judaism—its practices, sources, and community institutions—at the center of their lives. These, by the way, are mainly orthodox Jews who would, presumably, not need the Zionism of Achad Ha-am, or who would resent Israel’s incipient secularism, something Halkin does not consider. 

  9. 9

    January 1975. 

  10. 10

    I have recently pursued these themes in my article, “To Praise Zionism and to Bury It,” Moment, October 1977. 

  11. 11

    Menachem Begin’s popularity among the young—whose sense of history is most likely to be acquired second-hand—is still astounding. Haaretz (October 3) reported a poll in which Begin was given a high rating by 70 percent of young Israelis, even after his unsatisfactory performance in Washington and his controversial (some say politically motivated) pardon of a bank embezzler with connections to Gush Emunim.