Commentary Magazine


Defending Zion

To the Editor:

Much of what Hillel Halkin says in “Was Zionism Unjust?” [November 1999] is profoundly disturbing. He states, for instance, that Zionist leaders repeatedly lied to their followers and to the world at large about the necessity of “dispossessing” the Arabs in Palestine because, if they had told the truth, their support would have disappeared. At the same time, he refers repeatedly to the “intrinsic justice” of Zionism—but without explaining or defending that justice.

Halkin also states flatly that “without an independent homeland in Palestine the Jewish people had no life in our time.” I refuse to accept this implicit evaluation of American Jewish life, especially when it is offered by an Israeli who apparently has no conception of the rewards, both material and spiritual, that Jews have received in our country, including lessons like pluralism and opposition to theocracy that Israelis have not yet learned.

David M. Blank
Pleasantville, New York

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To the Editor:

It is all very well for Hillel Halkin to call for textbooks that demonstrate to thirteen-and fourteen-year-old Israelis the intrinsic justice of Zionism and the compelling necessity for a Jewish state. But who will write them? The current minister of education, Yossi Sarid? Or the countless other Israeli intellectuals whose belief in the intrinsic justice of a Palestinian Arab state is far more powerful than their belief in the justice (or necessity) of a Jewish one?

The curse of Israel, as Midge Decter pointed out a few years ago, is its premature development of an intellectual class. I have often been asked by Jewish audiences whether, among all the other forms of anti-Semitism that flourish in Israel, Holocaust denial has taken root. My answer has been a cautious “not yet.” But this is probably because the ever-widening tendency of the Israeli Left to refer to the Arabic naqba (catastrophe) of 1948 as a Holocaust and to their own (nonleftist) countrymen as Nazis would not carry much punch if the “original” Holocaust had never happened at all.

Edward Alexander
Seattle, Washington

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To the Editor:

I slept better after reading Hillel Halkin’s “Was Zionism Unjust?” He restored the pride I have felt since childhood in the incredible events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel. He forcefully demonstrated that the “new historians” do not succeed, after all, in dimming the light of Israeli heroism in 1948 and 1967.

But my gratitude is not strong enough to dispel my reservations about the second half of his article. The real problem with the new histories, he tells us, is that their cool detachment robs the young Israeli of “identification with his people or his country.” Gone is the affect that breeds loyalty and devotion—“the excitement, the tremendous emotion, the joy and the tears, . . . the dizzying sense of a dream unbelievably come true.” But is it really the confident and committed tenor of the storyteller that ultimately provides legitimacy to Zionism’s claims?

Rashi, the most famous of Jewish biblical exegetes, once asked: if the Torah is primarily a legal work, why does it not begin with the laws and statutes? Why start with the story of Creation? Because, he answers, “If the nations of the world say to Israel, ‘You are bandits, for you conquered the lands of the seven nations,’ Israel can say to them, ‘The whole earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed is He. He created, and He gave it to the one who is proper in His eyes.’ ”

If Israeli children are going to believe in the Zionist idea, they are going to have to sink roots in a history that goes back much farther than 1948. For millennia, Jews predicated their tie to the land of Israel upon confidence in the veracity of the biblical narrative and their divinely ordained mission to the world. Ironically, it may have to be religion that saves secular Zionism.

[Rabbi] Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, California

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Hillel Halkin writes:

David M. Blank should read more carefully. Nowhere in my article did I claim that Zionist leaders in the British Mandate period deliberately “lied to their followers” about the need to “dispossess” Palestinians. Rather, I wrote, they lied to themselves in thinking that a Jewish state could be established in Palestine without the Palestinians going to war to stop it. And as for my “conception of the rewards” of American Jewish life, I can only say that, having been born and having spent my first 30 years in the United States, I am neither ignorant of its culture nor in need of lectures about theocracy or pluralism. It is hard to please American Jews like Mr. Blank. If the Israeli government were to announce tomorrow that it was scheduling Knesset meetings on Jewish holidays and introducing pork into army kitchens, such Jews, far from applauding its newfound pluralism, would no doubt deplore its abandonment of Jewish values.

It is not clear to me what future age Edward Alexander thinks would have been more appropriate for the development of an intellectual class in Israel. It certainly is true that most Israeli intellectuals lean to the Left today, as do, I daresay, most intellectuals in America. But I might remind Mr. Alexander that one recent minister of education was the late Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious party, whose views are far from Yossi Sarid’s, and that the same Israeli electorate that brought the Right to power in 1996 is perfectly capable of doing it again. Giving up the battle for lost is no way to win it.

Rabbi Adlerstein thinks religion may yet save secular Zionism. Perhaps. The other half of the picture, however, is that secular Zionism may save religion—and particularly the ultra-Orthodox brand of it that has traditionally been anti-Zionist. One of the most encouraging developments in Israel in recent years has been the formation of the first volunteer ultra-Orthodox combat units in the army, drawn from a population that has shunned military service in the past. If the ultra-Orthodox community ever gains the moral maturity needed to realize that it is a hillul hashem, a scandalous blot on Judaism, to expect to be defended with the lives of secular Jews whom it is unwilling to defend in turn, Zionism can take all the credit. And if this community also learns to shoulder its share of responsibility for the general welfare of the society in which it lives and by which it is today heavily supported, it may yet come to be regarded as a spiritually credible force by the many Israelis who now are repelled by its selfishness and hypocrisy.

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