Commentary Magazine


New York and/or Jerusalem

These are indeed troubled times for Israelis pondering their national future and for those Jews of the Diaspora who think much about their relation to Israel. The shock waves set off by the Yom Kippur War and its political aftermath, in which Israel’s essential isolation and vulnerability became so evident, are still reverberating. In many quarters there is an impulse to rethink old positions on the Jewish state. More than ever before, it seems Israel’s exasperating fate to have to justify its national existence—unlike all the other nations of the earth, down to the shabbiest military oligarchy of murderous buffoons in the ex-colonial world. In America, as a gap has begun to emerge between conceivable American policy and Israel’s vital security interests, or, again, between those interests and the commitments of many Jews on the Left to peace and freedom and the Third World forever, there are signs of growing ideological divisions among Jews. The results of the recent Israeli elections, moreover, could easily exacerbate such division. In Israel, of course, animosity between Right and Left, religious and secular, has always been the very air one breathed, but even such familiar contentiousness seems sharpened since 1973. The religious nationalists, having shown themselves more openly prepared than ever before to brandish the flaming sword of an uncompromising neo-messianism, are now part of the ruling coalition. In response to this new militancy since 1973, anti-annexationists on the secular Left like the writer A. B. Yehoshua have raised the old Zionist banner of “normalization,” with all the radical rejection of religion as the vehicle of Jewish life which the slogan implies.

Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic1 is clearly a product of this whole post-1973 climate of malaise, something he himself actually admits when he observes near the beginning, “The war and its aftermath have frightened this country with a glimpse of its own mortality, and the country has not gotten over it.” It is in the shadow of this intimation of mortality that Halkin frames his whole urgent argument with American Jewry, as the concluding section of the book, concentrating on Israel’s political and demographic predicaments, makes perfectly explicit. Let me hasten to say that Letters to an American Jewish Friend is not merely a symptom of the historical moment but a vigorously active response to it, an intellectual event in its own right. It raises with an unusual quality of ruthless lucidity all the most fundamental issues about Jewish survival in the Diaspora and in Israel, and the implications of an allegiance to Israel on the part of Diaspora Jews. It is a book I think any Jew concerned with Israel and the future of the Jewish people ought to read. Precisely because it touches the very nerve centers of identity, loyalty, and ambivalence with which we live as Jews, this is a book that invites not so much a review as a response. First, however, some notion of the nature of the book and where it comes from is in order.

Hillel Halkin is an American now in his late thirties, raised in traditionally Jewish and Hebraist circles in New York, who emigrated from this country to Israel in 1970. He is an accomplished essayist,2 and over the past ten years or so he has firmly established himself as the foremost English translator of modern Hebrew prose. Letters is his first book—very much, to judge by the way it reads, a book written in the white heat of passion as an encompassing apologia pro vita sua judaica and, because the personal here is inextricable from the ideological, as a vehement reformulation of the classic Zionist shlilat ha-golah, the negation or rejection of the Diaspora.

The peculiar form Halkin has chosen for his argument is both a major virtue and something of a technical problem. He makes his case for Zionism in six long letters to a hypothetical friend in New York, a younger contemporary who is an untypical American Jew in having a knowledge of Hebrew, a familiarity with Jewish culture, and a strong commitment to Jewish life, but who is typical in having chosen to relate to Israel personally as a tourist and nothing more. The contents of the friend’s letters to Hillel Halkin have to be inferred almost entirely from what Halkin says in his own letters, though from time to time the correspondent from Israel resorts to the somewhat awkward but understandable strategy of quoting the friend’s own statements back to him at length. Since, moreover, Halkin wants to storm all the major positions defending life in the Diaspora, some readers may detect a certain slippage of identity in the friend from one letter to the next: from someone addicted to the cultural ethnicity of American Jewish life, to a George Steiner sort of ideologically universalist Diaspora intellectual, to someone flirting with the neo-pietism of the Jewish counterculture, to a post-Vietnam American liberal shrinking from the idea of armed conflict. But if when we read an epistolary novel we can make allowance for certain improbabilities of the form—like those voluminous letters the heroines of Samuel Richardson somehow manage to inscribe with the hot breath of the would-be rapist almost literally at their shoulder—we can surely forgive Letters to an American Jewish Friend a degree of awkwardness caused by the convention it has adopted.

The main point is that the friend’s absent letters succeed in having, as the publisher’s blurb quite rightly says, “a dialectical reality of their own”; and though Halkin clearly has to feel that he has conclusively won the debate, for he sees the position he is arguing as an absolutely inexorable historical truth, the friend is no mere straw man but an intelligent and stubborn antagonist. The epistolary form of the argument, then, seems to me to justify itself because, whatever its inconveniences, it is a vivid, compelling way of confronting the opposite sides of ambivalences, of bringing out the polemical nature of the author’s Zionist position, of making every reader become the friend in America and thus wrestle with every turn of the debate. I should add that the epistolary form provides the writer a rhetorically appropriate means for articulating an ideological argument quite openly out of his total personal involvement in it. His wife and children, his home in the little town of Zichron Ya’akov, his onerous stretches of duty as a reservist near the Lebanese border, his lyric responses to the Israeli landscape in its seasonal changes, and his irritation with the abrasive shallowness of ordinary Israeli culture—all these not only make his argument a lively one but they also define a concrete context for it, give us a picture of what it means for him to live with the daily implications of his Zionist decision.

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The personal involvement is crucial to the authenticity of the argument, for what Halkin, as an American who has chosen to settle in Israel, insists on is nothing less than an imperative obligation for all Jews who really care to be Jews to immigrate to Israel. Such a bald summary may make his position seem foolish, and even a detailed synopsis will hardly do justice to the force of his argument, for the book as it unfolds is a rhetorical tour de force, combining passionate conviction with considerable intellectual subtlety as it builds its case, step by step, with attention to historical, cultural, and political details. Without attempting, then, to recapitulate each stage of the argument, let me briefly sketch the general plan of attack.

Halkin’s most basic contention, on which everything else he says ultimately depends, is that Diaspora Jewry is doomed, if not in the next generation or two, certainly within an easily foreseeable historical future. Before the emancipation, Jews in the various lands of their exile enjoyed a relatively stable, cohesive existence, despite their physical vulnerability. Group solidarity was guaranteed by their exclusivist religious faith which, with very rare exceptions, imposed formidable barriers between them and their Gentile neighbors. Socially and politically, they lived in enclaves that were allowed by the host nations to exercise considerable autonomy. In these circumstances, attrition was a peripheral phenomenon, and violence from without only an intermittent threat, though of course these communities were repeatedly subjected to extortion, humiliation, and expulsion.

All this has changed in the modern era. On the one hand, modern nationalism in its totalitarian forms has menaced the descendants of the ghetto dwellers with a systematic denial of Basic human rights, including ultimately the right to live. In liberal democracies, on the other hand, Jews are naturally drawn from their Jewish parishes to the freedom of the larger environment, and without the compelling force of traditional faith, all their modern institutions, from reformed religion to communal organizations and the social rituals of ethnicity, must prove exercises in self-deception, unwitting way stations to assimilation or, in any case, rear-guard actions powerless to hold back assimilation’s broad historical sweep. Halkin sums up this view in a metaphor:

Modern Diaspora Jewry is a particularly volatile gas that is destined to suffer from a kind of Bernoulli’s law: if not compressed from without, it will simply expand in all directions and disappear, while if pressure is applied to it, this will almost inevitably become so great as to cause a violent explosion. A relatively tolerable stasis of the medieval type—just enough pressure applied steadily enough at all points to hold the gas stably together—is no longer possible.

This should not suggest that Halkin rests his case merely on metaphorical ingenuity. The image of a Bernoulli’s law occurs in a letter that is mainly devoted to marshaling statistics from a variety of recent demographic studies of Diaspora Jewry, and the numerical news is hardly encouraging. The Jewish birth rate in America is well below the replacement level; the rate of intermarriage has apparently been doubling and redoubling since the mid-50’s, so that it is now considerably higher than the rate of intermarriage among the Jews of Weimar Germany. Given these facts, Halkin projects that the current American Jewish population of five million plus will be reduced by the end of the century to at most three million, of which perhaps a quarter will be identifiable as committed Jews. American Jewry then will be a much smaller group, without the capacity to sustain its own institutions, with much less political influence in a more populous America, and as this process of erosion continues, American Jewish life will diminish—one may infer, in the course of another century or so—to a vanishing point.

On the basis of this historical prognosis, Halkin argues that it is a form of bad faith to profess Jewish loyalty and yet remain in the Diaspora. Sensibly enough, he makes no attempt to convert those who make no such professions (they are hardly likely to read the book in any case). What he wants to do is to drive the Diaspora Jew who is concerned with Jewish survival to an awareness of the contradictions in not personally joining the Jewish national renascence on Jewish soil. “I am not saying,” he makes clear in his second letter, “that you cannot live, if you try hard enough, an authentic Jewish life in the Diaspora; I am saying that if the criterion is the future of our people, you are living in the wrong place. And yet is not being in the wrong place in such a case itself a form of inauthenticity?” By the end of the last letter, the degree of diplomacy exercised here toward what Halkin clearly sees as the hypocrisy of the American friend’s position is cast aside in favor of a stinging castigation couched in prophetic rhetoric:

I have no quarrel with him who says plainly not to be and plainly lives by it; let him go his way and I will go mine; I wish him well and trust he wishes me no less. He who says to be, however, while refusing to act on it, concealing the not like a mortal pill beneath his tongue—for this kind of not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing, I have quite lost patience.

Such an uncompromising attack on the contradictions of living as a Jew in the Diaspora rests on the premise that the Israeli to be can plausibly be construed as to be Jews, and some of Halkin’s finest pages are his discussions of the potential in Israel for the development of a secular Jewish culture, no longer defined by Judaism as in the past yet preserving something of Judaism’s cultural heritage. He begins the book with a characterization of Israel as a “community of faith”—the faith of Jews in the possibility of their sustaining a collective existence at this precarious intersection of geography and history, because there are no other possibilities, because this is the only hope for their survival as a people.

To be sure, Halkin’s view of the actual state of Jewish culture in Israel is thoroughly unillusioned. In his fifth letter, he offers a shrewd and lively thumbnail cultural history of Palestinian Jewry in our century, arguing that at first ideology served the purposes of culture, but that the waves of mass immigration after the founding of the state swept away the fragile beginnings of a new Jewish culture which the early Zionists had fostered. By the third decade of statehood, it was clear that the cultural vacuum was being filled mainly with a debased eclecticism, an indiscriminate aping of foreign models encouraged by the international media to which an encircled Israel was all too attentively tuned. Nevertheless, Halkin contends that someone who can see Israeli society from an insider’s viewpoint—unlike the French sociologist, Georges Friedmann, in The End of the Jewish People?—can perceive subtle bonds with the Jewish past and what Halkin tactfully calls “incipiencies” of a new Jewish cultural synthesis. The evidence presented for these incipiencies is chiefly, perhaps necessarily, anecdotal, but the case seems plausible enough, especially when one considers the difficulties involved in making a corresponding case that an authentic new Jewish culture is now developing in the Diaspora. Halkin’s own perspective, however, while for the most part sharply focused on the Israeli scene, is in some respects drastically foreshortened for Jewish life in the Diaspora.

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Before we go on to the ambiguities of the cultural question, though, something should be said about the political thrust of Halkin’s argument, for here, it seems to me, he entangles himself in the greatest contradictions. In his final letter, he casts a cold eye on the prospects for anything like genuine peace between Israel and the Arabs in our lifetime, and then he asserts that without a substantial transfusion of immigration, which means primarily from North American Jewry, Israel cannot in the long run survive. Now, the avowed aim of Letters to an American Jewish Friend is to plant in its readers a seed of doubt, unease, guilt about staying in the Diaspora. That much I think it will achieve for many readers, but it is surely quixotic to imagine that the seed will flower into a decision of aliyah for more than a handful. No instrument of persuasion, even so brilliant as this, is going to convince large numbers of American Jews to emigrate to Israel, barring, of course, a totally unforeseeable political catastrophe in this country. Given this fact, the hopeful urgency of 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.

The kind of demographic projection, moreover, used to demonstrate the inevitable withering of the Diaspora unfortunately could be used just as easily to demonstrate the inevitable disappearance of a Jewish state in the Middle East. For 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, a growing group of them within the borders of Israel itself. 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 were resumed. The point is that the Jews cannot win a historical numbers game, no matter how it is set up, and indeed never have won such games during three-and-a-half millennia of improbable persistence. In any global perspective, they are a tiny people that is bound to get tinier in proportion to mankind at large; and while numbers have political implications, 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, or that American Jewry will be doomed if by then its population is three million instead of five or six million. Jewish peoplehood must have a toughness and Jewish culture a resilience that do not depend on such numerical scales, and in this essential respect there may possibly be more grounds for hope than Halkin’s analysis suggests, not only in regard to Israel but in regard to the Diaspora as well.

There is, in any case, something ultimately and oddly unpolitical about the way Halkin tacitly equates the problem of national regeneration with the problem of survival. This, more than anything else he says, is classic Zionism with a vengeance: the belief that it is chiefly within the power of the Jewish people itself, by a process of courageous inner transformation, to determine its historical destiny. That might conceivably have been a plausible view in 1900—though perhaps even then a careful scrutiny of developing world politics might have raised certain questions—but after 1973, with the ominous international constellation that has arrayed itself against Israel, such a notion is no more than the poignant, painfully quixotic, vestige of an outmoded faith.

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I have spoken of a quality of ruthless lucidity in Letters to an American Jewish Friend. There are times, however, especially in relation to the psychology and cultural dynamics of life in the Diaspora, when it becomes a hyper-lucidity, like a pair of overcorrected spectacles that focuses distant objects telescopically but at the cost of distorting the whole field of vision. This is a bracingly anti-apologetic book, which again and again cuts through the cant of self-serving Jewish pretense: about the resplendent ethical heritage of the Jews, the supposed universalism of the Jewish vision, the intellectuality of the Jewish tradition, the feasibility of converting classic Jewish religion into modern liberal doctrine. (Characteristic in manner and perception is his comment on a remark of Voltaire’s that “the Hebrew Bible is the most infamous chronicle ever written of atrocities perpetrated by a people on its neighbors”—to which Halkin replies, “While I would not exchange one chapter of the Bible for all the writings of Voltaire, its record of our dealings with the natives of Canaan is not, when judged by the standards of the anti-Vietnam movement, an admirable one.”) But the problem with the wonderful sharpness of this anti-apologetic outlook is, as I have just intimated, its tendency to overcorrection. Halkin’s uncompromising formulations often have a tonic effect, but they also eliminate at certain crucial junctures the nuanced variety and complexity of the historical phenomena they purport to define.

His dismissal of religion is a case in point. He sees Reform and Conservative Judaism as pure reflexes of assimilation, riddled with contradictions, from their origins in 19th-century Germany to their mimicry of the forms and manners of Amercan Protestantism today. The new experiential Judaism of the havurot and related groups he sees as a parallel mimicking among the fashion-conscious young of the rituals and folkways of the counterculture, a quest for elevated moments that has nothing to do with the recognition of historical Judaism as a binding system of belief. For him, Orthodoxy alone has authenticity, but it is the authenticity of an anachronism, preserving itself only by averting its vision from the most imperative aspects of modernity, and so its historical fate will be gradually to fade away in the slow dawning of the Jewish secular future.

This either-or thinking about religious options strikes me as the mental habit of someone who, as Halkin confesses of himself, has suffered an adolescent bout of vehement Orthodoxy followed by an equally vehement rebellion against religion. This is by no means to dismiss all the items in his indictment of American Judaism. Jews on this continent have surely created a three-ring circus of spurious religion unprecedented in the history of our people, at least in variety and magnitude, from the thunderous organs of the great mausoleum-temples to the dernier cri of the new guitar-slinging cantors, and one can easily share Halkin’s skepticism as to whether any of this holds much hope for the Jewish future. But the prevalence of ersatz institutions in a confusing era of historical transition hardly implies that all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism are inauthentic, or that all religious options for the future have been closed out. There are, after all, synagogues in this country that have managed over the years to serve as powerful centers for Jewish loyalty and cultural cohesive-ness, and I think it would be presumptuous to conclude that they were not also, at least for some of their members, vehicles of genuine Jewish religious needs. If, as Halkin notes, there has been a drop in synagogue membership in recent years, at least one reason is that some American Jews have become disillusioned with the huge synagogues established in the post-World War II building craze, and there are increasing experiments with small prayer quorums, home study-groups, and the like, as viable alternatives to institutional gigantism.

As for Orthodoxy, one might at least speculate that, in the long historical perspective, its fate will be not to shrink as an internally coherent anachronism (though that is the likely future of one of its wings) but to open out toward modernity, gradually modifying the more rigid premises of its world view, and responding honestly to the most disturbing challenges of the modern condition; this is at any rate a possibility suggested by the occasional manifestations of constructive openness among Orthodox thinkers. I would not dispute Halkin’s notion that we have crossed a historical watershed, and that religion will no longer be the embracing framework of Jewish existence. What I am proposing is that for the imaginable future Judaism, and not only the holding operations of fundamentalist Orthodoxy, will continue to be a live option which may be elected by members of the larger entity we call the Jewish people; and that Jewish secular culture will therefore have to enter into a dialectic not only with the legacy of a distant past but with a continuing religious alternative.

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To generalize from the conceptual difficulty reflected in Halkin’s treatment of the religious question, I think he leaves little room for necessary ambiguities when he is discussing historical issues or their consequences in the cultural politics of the present. Thus, in his assault on the various modernizing apologists of the Jewish heritage, he tends to insist on an absolute cleavage between the particularism of Jewish existence and universalist values, between the imperious self-interest of the Jews and ethical concerns, between the authoritarianism of a revealed religion and the fostering of intellectuality. This sort of cleavage can be maintained, I think, only through repeated exaggeration, or by blurring the key terms of distinction. It is, for example, a misleading simplification to claim, as Halkin does, that because ethics addresses itself to man qua man, it is “what makes a Jew like anyone else” and so it “cannot also be what makes him a Jew.” By such syllogisms, in which both the major and the minor premise are questionable, he can conclude that there is no Jewish ethical heritage, no way to talk about ethical values as a component of Jewish identity. Or again, it is very well to remind us that classical Judaism exhibits a pronounced bias against empirical science and philosophical inquiry, but this hardly means that traditional Jewish culture, as is contended here, is anti-intellectual, for the obvious reason that there are other forms of intellectuality, as (to cite the most evident instance) two millennia of exegesis and legal dialectics attest.

The question of the historical Diaspora communities’ relation to the cultures around them is the most crucial instance of this fondness for schematic distinctions, because the either-or view of assimilation or aliyah ultimately depends on it. Halkin repeatedly insists on an unyielding separatism as a cultural axiom of the traditional Diaspora. It was because Jews fiercely entrenched themselves in their own communities, turning their backs on the blandishments of the Gentile world, that they were able to preserve their identity as a people. It then follows that where free interchange between Gentile and Jew is the norm, the Jews cannot possibly persist as a distinctive group, and from now on can so persist exclusively within the borders of their own state. As elsewhere, there is considerable justice in Halkin’s historical observations, but, as elsewhere, they are overstated. If the Jews were in many respects rigid separatists, they also exhibited, throughout the lands of their exile, an absolute genius for assimilation, as the late Israeli historian, Yehezkel Kaufmann, showed long ago in his great synoptic study, Golah v’Neikhar (“In Exile and Alien Land”); but one would be hard put to guess how this mysterious osmosis took place from Halkin’s notion of a hermetically sealed Diaspora world.

What he says about the occasional exception to the rule of separatism reflects with special vividness the polemical slant of his view of Jewish history. Invoking the great secular Hebrew poetry of the Golden Age in Spain, he expresses his keen admiration for

what these men tried to do, for their determination to widen as passionately loyal Jews the frontiers of Jewish experience, so that all of life, and not just that circumscribed part of it sanctioned by rabbinic authority, might be included within them. And again in Renaissance Italy, or most extraordinarily of all perhaps, in that 17th-century explosion of pent-up Jewish energies known as Sabbatianism. Yet each of these efforts ultimately failed, since the Jewish community, under . . . rabbinical leadership, sooner or later closed ranks against them: each time the partial secularizers were either forced back into the fold or driven away from it entirely—and each time Jewish life remained as constricted as ever in the end.

This is one of a number of historical generalizations in the book that have an air of plausibility but which happen to be wrong in most of the particulars. It is a plain confusion to bracket Sabbatianism, an antinomian movement of ecstatic messianism and the very antithesis of secularism or of “creative assimilation,” with the renascence of a secular literature in Hebrew that drew on Arabic and, later, Italian models. After the apostasy of Sabbatai Zevi, Sabbatianism, as the most powerful movement of mass heresy post-exilic Jewry had ever known, was ruthlessly suppressed by rabbinic authorities. Nothing like the fate of the Sabbatians was ever suffered by the proponents of the new Hebrew poetry and imaginative fiction. The secular literature had its frequent and at times vehement detractors in the religious establishment, but the “closing of ranks” as a suppression of heresy which Halkin’s language suggests never really occurred. This movement, which began in Andalusia in the last decades of the 10th century, not only produced an astonishing series of masterpieces in the first century and a half of its existence, but also managed to establish itself so firmly that it continued to flourish as a coherent, developing tradition in Christian Spain, Portugal, Provence, down into Italy and Holland. In fact, the later stages of the movement were not at all a matter of “again in Italy,” with the implication of one brief episode followed by another after a long interim, but of still in Italy—a hardy continuity that is lucidly described by the Israeli scholar, Dan Pagis, in his major new book, Hiddush uMasoret b’shirat ha-Hol (“Innovation and Tradition in Secular Hebrew Poetry”).

These eight centuries of continuous literary activity, from the Hebrew adaptation of Arabic poetic forms through the implanting of the sonnet in Hebrew—quite symptomatically, the very first language after Italian in which sonnets were written anywhere!—of course do not refute the general idea of separatism and anti-secularism as recurrent features of Jewish history. And one must concede that the movement only embraced certain classes within one large geo-cultural sector of world Jewry. Nevertheless, the whole phenomenon does suggest that the possibilities for culturally productive interaction with the Gentile environment may have been at least somewhat more abundant, various, and persistent than Halkin allows.

One may recognize the cogency of his contention that, after all, there is a yawning gap between our situation and that of pre-modern Jews, for whatever experiments in cultural assimilation and cultural competition they undertook, they stood on the secure base of a coherent community held together by a common faith and governed by its own recognized authorities. There is certainly no warrant for placid confidence that the bearers of Jewish culture outside the borders of Israel will not be dissipated in the course of time like those particles of gas in a Bernoulli reaction. But the fact that there was historically a good deal more continuous cultural interchange between the Jews and their surroundings than Halkin suggests, that, in other words, Jews in many places actually lived with some degree of tension between two cultural identities, indicates that the precarious enterprise of modern Jewry is neither totally unprecedented nor absolutely-unfeasible. (At one point in Letters, the friend is chided for “lack[ing] the passion to live without contradiction,” but perhaps many Jews through the ages have had a peculiar passion for embracing disparate worlds that enabled them to live with contradiction.) Though the Diaspora, moreover, now lacks the strong cement of traditional faith, it has, to balance in part that loss, a real political center, the reborn Jewish state, in which the classic national language has been revived and where the post-religious idea of peoplehood as the primary mode of Jewish existence has been given palpable historical substance.

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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 ideal of normalization. If there is no prospect for a viable Judaism in the modern era, if there is no real Jewish ethical tradition or universalist impulse, and if existence in the Diaspora is an impossible contradiction, Jews should be thoroughly content to become nothing more than the nationals of a Lilliputian state in an obscure little corner of geography. The only consistent and healthy position, 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, the Guatemalans or the Greeks, I would say dayenu too. As if it were a little thing to be, like them, a people with a sure sense of itself, living, as Zionism envisioned us doing, a healthy national existence on its land!

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. The imitative and meretricious features of Israeli culture are quite rightly deplored, but there is a certain perversity in Halkin’s very literal insistence that Israel as yet has no culture at all, and that, concomitantly, the supposed cultural wholeness of the Guatemalans and the Greeks is an ideal to which Israel might aspire. Indeed, one might wonder whether not only the Israelis but even the Jews of the Diaspora—whatever the ambiguities of their situation—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. In the last letter of this book, the friend is made to say that his Zionist correspondent has won a Pyrrhic victory, leaving “scorched earth” behind because he has destroyed all the bases for a sense of uniqueness or grandness in Jewish history. Halkin’s answer is a long, elaborate parable about koala bears threatened with extinction who can only survive in a particular eucalpytus forest and who want nothing more from the world than to be allowed to go on being koala bears. The parable is an utterly charming narrative invention, but it is no real answer to the friend, who wants to know if after all these centuries and peaks of achievement the Jewish people must acquiesce in being nothing more than an Albania with houmos and hamsins.

Nowhere is it clearer than in this stress on normalization that ideology makes what it wants of history rather than responding to what is actually going on in history. The reasons for the ideal of normalization in early Zionist thought are evident enough, but three decades of statehood, these last ten years especially, have demonstrated how un-normal a people the Jews continue to be—and need to continue to be, for intrinsic reasons as well as those of political necessity. Historically, the Jews have been passionate particularists and at the same time a world people, with a changing experience of the cultures of the world, and, by the logic of their spiritual heritage, with a universalist light at the end of their particularist tunnel vision. In our present circumstances, if Israel, on the one hand, serves as a centripetal force of Jewish national consciousness for the Diaspora, it is true conversely that the multiple links of Israel with Jews elsewhere mean that the Diaspora helps connect the Jews of Israel with the world, in complicated, often ambiguous, and potentially productive ways not available to the hapless Albanians. Israelis in general, if one may judge by many of their intellectual spokesmen, seem far less ready than Halkin to surrender this anomaly of extended cultural identity by entirely dismantling the Diaspora.

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I suppose there is an ironic appropriateness in the fact that we are impelled as Jews to debate now the burning issues of 1900, which may again be the most crucial issues of the year 2000, if by then the physical threat to Israel has receded. For the moment, the more immediately urgent question is the brutal politics of national survival, not the definition of national revival, and though the latter cannot for a moment be forgotten, it would be a mistake to confuse the two, or to suggest that one held the key to the other.

In any case, Hillel Halkin has done a remarkable job of restating the classic Zionist position with great dialectical sharpness and with a terrific impetus of personal conviction. One may quarrel with some of his assumptions or some of his interpretations of the past, but this is a book that has to be confronted, not just read. At this moment of ideological unrest and realignment, Letters to an American Jewish Friend articulates a clear, forceful polemic that will drive every reader back to a careful scrutiny of his own preconceptions about Jewish existence, and for that achievement we can be grateful.


Footnotes

1 Jewish Publication Society, 246 pp., $7.50.

2 Among his essays in COMMENTARY are “Driving Toward Jerusalem” (January 1975), “Holy Land” (June 1974), “Zionism Revisited” (May 1973), and “Building Jerusalem” (September 1971).

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