Commentary Magazine

Israel vs. the Diaspora

To the Editor:

As I can only thank Robert Alter for his more than generous review of my book, Letters to an American Jewish Friend [“New York and/or Jerusalem,” August], I trust it will not count as ingratitude if I choose to take issue with certain criticisms he makes of the book.

I am quite willing to accept Mr. Alter’s contention that the theses on Jewish life presented in Letters to an American Jewish Friend are more boldly stated than scholarly caution might warrant. The book is, after all, a polemic, which is to say a form in which a measure of overstatement for the purpose of dramatizing the issues dividing one from one’s adversaries is not always, I think, illegitimate. At the same time, however, my impression is that in accusing me of oversimplifying certain complex realities of past and present Jewish experience, Mr. Alter is guilty of some oversimplification himself, with the result that he occasionally misrepresents what I say or dismisses it rather too facilely. Some key, although not the only, instances:

1. Mr. Alter attributes to me the belief that Jews were able to retain their identity as a people in pre-modern times only because—unlike today—they lived in “a hermetically sealed Diaspora world.” He asserts that if only I realized that, far from this being the case, Jews have “exhibited, throughout the lands of their exile, an absolute genius for assimilation [of elements taken from non-Jewish culture],” I could not possibly take the dim view that I do of contemporary Jewish prospects in the Diaspora. In fact, however, this is a belief I never express. On the contrary, I state several times (pp. 87,136,138) that, exactly as Mr. Alter asserts, traditional Jewish life in the Diaspora continually absorbed influences from the Gentile world. The point I make in my book is simply that as long, and only as long, as Diaspora Jewry had a culture of its own, such influences were invariably transformed by it into distinctively Jewish modes of thought and behavior (is not this precisely the “genius for assimilation” of which Mr. Alter speaks?). No one denies that gefilte fish was originally borrowed by Jews from the non-Jewish cuisine of Central Europe, or that the Purim spiel derived from the Easter play, but no one would deny either that once borrowed these assumed a form and significance in Jewish life that they had nowhere else. What distinguishes Jewish life in the contemporary Diaspora, on the other hand (and here lies the whole thrust of my argument), is its total lack of any independent cultural framework within which such transformations can take place. When Jews in America cook hamburgers or make movies the result is not a Jewish food or a Jewish art form, which is in a nutshell why Jewish life in the Diaspora is inevitably in the process of disappearing.

2. Mr. Alter writes (fairly enough, apart from his unqualified use of the word “unqualified”):

The chief ideological correlate of Halkin’s either-or thinking both about Jewish history and about options for the future is his unqualified adherence to the old Zionist idea of normalization. . . . The only consistent and healthy position [for Israel to aspire to], Halkin contends, is to be k’khol ha-goyim, like all the nations: “If we had as much true culture in this country as the Albanians or Finns [Mr. Alter quotes me as writing], the Guatemalans, or Greeks, I would say dayenu too.”

This celebration of the health of the Finns strikes me as a moment when the anti-apologetic stance slips into the familiar netherworld of Jewish inferiority complexes. . . . Indeed, one might wonder whether not only the Israelis but also the Jews of the Diaspora . . . do not have a culture with a breadth and vitality hardly in evidence in the sleepy provinces of Central America or the Balkan boondocks that Halkin proposes for emulation.

But it is Mr. Alter who culturally equates the Balkans and Central America with Dogpatch, not I. I have never been in the Balkans; I once spent some time in Guatemala, where there lived, so it seemed to me, a people of more beauty and grace than I had ever seen elsewhere. Clearly, though, the choice of countries in this passage is incidental; I could just as well have referred to Holland and Czechoslovakia. Surely there is no necessary feeling of Jewish inferiority in the realization that we in Israel today are a culturally dislocated people, a saving remnant cast together from Jewish communities all over the world, whose inner lives have been tragically ravaged in this century by assimilation, physical destruction, and the process of “Israelification” itself. “Normalization” in such a context does not mean losing anything of value that we at present have, but rather gaining something of value that we at present lack—namely, a sense of harmony and at-homeness in our environment with all that this entails in our life, manners, values, and expressive and functional arts—and that numerous other peoples less often in the headlines than ourselves possess, even if they have failed to produce world-famous professors and Nobel Prize winners.

If Mr. Alter finds more true culture in Israel than I do, I can only hope that he is the more astute observer; when he speaks of a Jewish culture possessing “breadth and vitality” in the Diaspora, however, I must confess that I am at a loss to understand what he is referring to. Who, what, where? An impressive display of Jewish scholarship and book learning among a tiny elite of Diaspora Jews, yes; but a culture? Apparently we mean different things by the word.

3. In disagreeing with my claim that Israel is, for social and demographic reasons, in desperate need of large-scale immigration from the West, Mr. Alter writes that

even if we were to grant Halkin an annual immigration from America of fifteen or thirty thousand, eventually this source of new human material would dry up, with few Jews left in America except those who had chosen not to be Jews, and at that point the Israelis would still be a small minority, with a relatively anemic birth rate, in a vast sea of Arabs. . . . I do not believe that survival will be guaranteed if in the year 2000 there are six million Jews in Israel instead of a projected four million. . . . Jewish peoplehood must have a toughness and Jewish culture a resilience that do not depend on such numerical scales. . . .

Coming from someone as generally pragmatic as Mr. Alter, I find such an attitude toward numbers strangely cavalier. It is a little like saying that it is immaterial whether a person consumes 1,500 or 2,500 calories a day, since the human body should be tough enough, and the human spirit sufficiently resilient, to get by on either. One can agree that numbers are not everything; obviously, however, there is a point at which they matter, and whether Israel has a population of four million or six million Jews by the year 2000—which may mean, among other things, whether it has an Arab minority of roughly one-third or one-fifth—can be not only important but crucial.

Mr. Alter writes that “if one follows the terms of this analysis, the great influx from America would have only bought the Jewish state a few decades of breathing space before the process of its ineluctable dissolution was resumed.” But even if this is so (and one hopes, of course, for an influx from other countries too), a few decades, which is to say thirty or forty years, may be precisely the critical amount of time needed for Arab attitudes toward Israel to change, for the Palestinian-Arab birth rate to drop to the level of the Jewish one, for new and currently unimaginable political constellations to emerge in the world and the Middle East, etc. I never contend in my book that Israel must hold out in the Middle East as a garrison state for eternity, nor do 1 believe that it could; I do suggest that it may have to do so for the foreseeable future, and that during this period numbers are one of several prime factors on which its survival is likely to depend.

Finally, a few words in response to Mr. Alter’s opinion that since no instrument of persuasion, my book included,

is going to convince large numbers of American Jews to emigrate to Israel, barring, of course, a totally unforeseeable political catastrophe in this country . . . Halkin’s argument becomes a mask for apocalyptic bleakness: Diaspora Jewry is said to be doomed, and since massive immigration from America is extremely unlikely, Israel is in all probability doomed as well.

I must admit that I am not particularly sanguine either about the prospects for large-scale immigration to Israel from the West or about the long-term chances for Israel’s survival. Israel was created against heavy odds and will in my opinion have to do its best to continue existing against them for a long time to come. That being the case, however, one may properly ask which course is likely to have the more apocalyptically bleak consequences: to comfort ourselves as Jews with the thought that both the Diaspora and Israel are privy to a dispensation of immortality, or to see our historical situation for what it is and to seek, without exaggerated expectations of success, to remedy it.

From its inception, Zionism—or rather, its more clear-minded proponents, since the Zionist movement never lacked its Panglosses either—enjoyed one great advantage, namely, its determination to tell the truth to the Jewish people, as unpalatable as the truth was. It was this that made classical Zionism at once a curiously harsh and hopeful doctrine: harsh in its prediction of what the Jewish future held in store if a revolution in Diaspora attitudes did not take place, hopeful that if Diaspora Jews were confronted with the facts, such a revolution, if not probable, was at least not impossible. My own feelings, I suppose, are similar. I did not write my book with any illusions about what it might accomplish in itself; if it contributes in some measure, however, to the creation of an atmosphere in which concerned Diaspora Jews will be encouraged to take a good hard look at themselves and draw the logical conclusions, there will have been some point in writing it.

Hillel Halkin
Motsa Illit, Israel



Robert Alter writes:

Hillel Halkin can rest assured that there is a good deal of point in his having written his book: what I stressed in my article was precisely that it is the kind of book which will encourage Diaspora Jews to take a hard look at themselves, as he says. To “draw the logical conclusions,” however, from this hard look may not be so straightforward a procedure as he assumes because some of the premises of his logic are debatable. I won’t try to review all of these here, but perhaps the most fundamental difference between us, as Mr. Halkin himself suggests, is that we understand “culture” in rather different ways.

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