Commentary Magazine

After Zionism: Reflections on Israel and the Diaspora

Almost Exactly 100 years ago, in August 1897, Theodor Herzl stepped out on the platform of the Municipal Casino in Basel, Switzerland, to launch the First Zionist Congress and the Zionist movement whose centenary is being marked this year. A year earlier, Herzl had published his Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”), in which he argued that anti-Semitism in the Diaspora could be eradicated only with the eradication of the Diaspora itself.

And exactly twenty years ago, I published a book called Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic. Since this is something of a personal essay, I will begin with that.

I did not write the book hoping for a large audience; I wrote it because I needed to say something, though I knew it would seem foolish to most readers. This was that, even if anti-Semitism was no longer a salient concern for most Diaspora Jews, the radical Zionist critique of their existence that Herzl had helped to formulate was correct. With the establishment of a Jewish state, Diaspora life had lost its justification. For the Jew who took his Jewishness seriously, there was no alternative to Israel.

To my surprise, the book was reviewed and read widely1 No doubt because it was composed in letter form, it inspired letters in return. Within a year or two of its publication, I received over 100 of these. Long afterward, they were still arriving in smaller numbers. Many were argumentative and indignant; some ran to five or ten pages. There were also lecture tours of America, invitations to speak, requests to participate on panels and in conferences. As such things go, it was small-time—yet for a while it seemed that I had started a discussion that was taking on a life of its own.

Sic fugit. Not long ago, I received the last of the letters prompted by Letters to an American Jewish Friend. It came from the publisher and informed me that the book was going out of print. There were a few dozen copies left and I could buy as many as I liked at a discount.

I did not bother to reply. A friend asked if I intended to look for another publisher to reissue the book. I said that I did not. He asked if I no longer believed what I had written there.

No, I said. I still believed it. I just did not think it mattered any more.

“To you?”

“To anyone.”

“How do you mean?” he asked.

Let me try to explain.



The book that I wrote was, in its way, outrageous. Although I had grown up in a Zionist home in New York, it had a convert’s zeal and a convert’s intolerance. In 1977, I had been living in Israel for seven years, and the fervor of the decision to do so had not yet waned. And yet there must have been lingering doubts. Why else would I insist on turning what I had done into a Jewish categorical imperative?

The times had something to do with it, too. It was the period between the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and Anwar al-Sadat’s peace initiative. After the triumphant years following the Six-Day War of 1967, the country was feeling battered and under siege. Immigration had stopped. Israelis were anguished and angry. Like most men my age, I was doing long stretches in the army. And back in America, Jews were going about their business.

It was an emotional book. But it also aspired to be a closely reasoned one. It was this combination, I suppose, that drew readers into it.

It began with an introductory chapter, the first of six letters to an imaginary friend. A composite profile of several real American Jewish friends, he was an academic by profession; well-educated and committed as a Jew; semi-traditional in religious practice; liberal-minded in his politics and cultural attitudes; confident about the future of American Jewry; sympathetic to Israel but critical of its policies; and not in the least inclined to consider living there.

It was this last fact, I observed to him, that introduced a tension into our relationship, because Israel was less an ordinary country than a “community of faith” whose credo was that all Jews belonged in it. The letters that followed were, as it were, this faith’s rational demonstration.

The second letter started with an analysis of Jewish population trends in the United States. Extrapolating from studies done in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I argued that the broad middle, the children of millions of Jewishly uneducated or partially educated “ethnic Jews,” was about to vanish from the community. As Zionism had always predicted, Diaspora Jewry in modern times would be decimated, if not by anti-Semitism, then by assimilation. Demographically, Israel alone would grow while the rest of the Jewish world shrank.

In “Letters Three and Four,” my friend fought back. Even if my demographic predictions were correct, he wrote, a smaller Diaspora was a Jewish necessity, delegated with preserving and developing Jewish values—for example, by fostering a Jewish ethical tradition that could not flourish in an Israel born and maintained by the coercive use of state power; or by being the soil for the cross-fertilization of Jewish and Gentile cultures that was the key to Jewish creativity; or by renewing Judaism spiritually—once again impossible in Israel because of the Orthodox stranglehold on religion there. The Diaspora and Israel were two poles of Jewish existence that would always be complementary.

I proceeded to argue with each of these propositions. I tried to show him that they were illogical, rationalizations. Ethics meant the assumption of responsibility; how could a Diaspora that eschewed the responsibilities of Jewish independence have a Jewish ethical mission? Jewish cultural creativity presupposed a Jewish culture; the Diaspora no longer had one. And since Orthodoxy was the only genuine form of Jewish religious expression, it was the only one likely to endure in America, too. Only in Israel was there any possibility of a secular Jewish culture, the one authentic Jewish response to modernity.

The book’s last letter dealt with Israel’s political future. It argued that even if peace with the Arabs were achieved, this would necessarily remain tenuous; that any Palestinian state would be irredentist; that a high Arab birth rate would cause the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs in Israel to be precarious; and that Israel would continue to need as many Jews as it could get in order to help it survive. Therefore, it was the one logical place for a serious Jew to be.

Quod erat demonstrandum.



In the years that followed, I read many books, Herzl’s too, that I might profitably have read earlier. And as I did, Letters to an American Jewish Friend began to seem to me a rather passionate exercise in reinventing the wheel. There was not a point in it that could not be found in the Zionist literature of the past; no argument rebutted by it that was not timeworn, too; nothing that had not been debated since Herzl’s time. Even its epistolary form had been used by Moses Hess in his Rome and Jerusalem, the first modern Zionist manifesto, published in 1862. An exercise in futility!

Not that I had expected American Jews to read it and pack their bags. Indeed, I felt not only gratified but somewhat unnerved when, over the years, letters would sometimes arrive bearing Israeli postmarks and informing me that I had been a factor in their senders’ moving to Israel. As if I didn’t have enough on my head!

But I had hoped to put the subject of Zionism, as a serious critique of contemporary Jewish life, back on the American Jewish intellectual agenda from which it had disappeared. And this, I came to realize, was thoroughly quixotic.

Some things are beyond rational argument. There are deeper forces at work.

That is certainly true of Zionism itself. The rationales and ideological justifications given for it in the last 100 years have been innumerable and often contradictory: Zionism as an affirmation of Jewish history, Zionism as a revolt against Jewish history, Zionism as a cure for anti-Semitism, Zionism as a bourgeois Jewish utopia, Zionism as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, Zionism as the Jewish contribution to the world socialist revolution, Zionism as Jewish Blut-und-Boden, Zionism as a philanthropic rescue mission, Zionism as a messianic theodicy. The remarkable thing is that, for the most part, the holders of these different views were able to cooperate and work together in practical matters. But that, as far as I could see, was only because they were all serving the same master: Zionism as the Jewish will to live honorably in our times.

But the Diaspora had a will to live, too. And it, too, had given, and would go on giving, innumerable and contradictory rationales for its existence. What Hitler could not convince it of—what the entire horrendous and inspiring history of the Jewish people in the 20th century could not convince it of—no book or library of books was going to convince it of.

The issue was not debatable. The will to live never runs out of arguments. And so, after a while, I began to change the subject, and my American Jewish friends found me more pleasant company.



I was not alone. If the years before and after Letters to an American Jewish Friend was written marked the final realization on both sides that, barring catastrophe, the Diaspora would stay where it was, this realization, in turn, helped end the Zionist era in Israel itself. Or to put it another way, if Zionism was the failed world revolution of the Jewish people, the Diaspora was the counterrevolution; already by the 1970’s, far more Israelis were living in America than American Jews in Israel.

Yet one cannot blame just the inertia or even the pull of the Diaspora for the death of Zionism as a motivating force in Israeli life—any more than one can credit the arrival in Israel of a half-million Russian Jews in the early 90’s to a Zionist revival. For all its uniqueness, Zionism was but one of the revolutionary ideologies that marched across the stage of modern history; and when, for the first time since the French Revolution, all the other grand causes made their exit, it could not have been expected that Zionism, like an actor who has missed his cue, would remain behind by itself.

Besides, Israelis were weary—just how weary, I failed to realize during my first years of living among them. I was full of new beginnings; they, of war, tension, and economic sacrifice. It was no accident that “post-Zionism,” both as a mood and as a political outlook, caught on first among a secular, Ashkenazi elite that had borne the brunt of Israel’s struggle for two or more generations, and spread more slowly among those who came to Zionist activism and to Israel later, such as religious Jews and immigrants from Muslim countries. And although Zionism (often in a heavily theologized form) may still live on intensely among some of these elements, and particularly among settlers in the Territories, there too it seems doomed to expire—one can only hope not too tragically—with the passage of time and the advances of the peace process.

I was a first-generation Israeli. It took a second fully to open my eyes. For my two daughters, who were one and four years old when Letters to an American Jewish Friend was published, Zionism never had the slightest personal relevance.



In some ways, then, the first letter of my book, with its ecclesiastical metaphor of Zionist faith, strikes me today as undiscerning. But the second, on the disappearing Diaspora, is a different matter; for though nothing may date faster than statistics, those of the 1990’s bear out my conclusions far better than did those of the 1970’s. When the book first appeared, it was widely criticized for being alarmist. Now the alarm bells are being rung by everyone. One American Jewish sociologist, who regularly turned up for years on the same panels that I did, used to argue that intermarriage was an asset to American Jews, since it increased their numbers via conversions. The last I heard, he considers it a demographic disaster.

True, I missed some things here, too: for one, just how rapid would be the growth of ultra-Orthodoxy, the product of an extremely high birth rate and a low rate of defection to the outside world. If this trend continues, traditional Judaism, particularly its far-right wing, a small portion of the American Jewish community two decades ago, will soon be a major part of it. Few non-Orthodox American Jews seem to be thinking seriously even now about what this portends, although it is entirely consistent with what I predicted in general.

I also failed to take into account the splintering of American Jewry as the center fell out of it. I wrote at a time when one could speak of Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, and nonaffiliated Jews, plus a few minor variants. My imaginary correspondent was active in what was known as the havurah movement, a blend of the Conservative summer camp, the traditional Jewish prayer-and-study minyan, and the communalism of the counterculture of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Today in America there are gay Jews, feminist Jews, humanist Jews, eco-Jews, Jews for Jesus, Jews for Buddha, patrilineal Jews, unconverted Gentile Jews, and hyphenated Jews of all kinds, including half-Jews, quarter-Jews, and eighth-Jews who consider themselves semi-Jews or full Jews. And that is only to speak of those who still regard themselves as Jews at all.

The fewer Jews, the more sects of them. Not since Hellenistic times, when rabbinic Judaism battled to assert its authority over a wild array of Jewish gnostics, Jewish Christians, and Jewish pagans, has there been such a proliferation of competing Jewish identities having no confessional, social, biological, or other common denominator.

Even the “civil religion” centered on Israel—to invoke a phrase widely used in the 1970’s to describe the one tenet shared by nearly all American Jews—has lost its congregation. Nor did it take Israeli-style post-Zionism for this to happen. American Jews were in any case on their way to realizing that an allegiance to Israel could not permanently confer a sustaining significance on their lives—not only because Israel had failed to provide them with applicable models of Jewish life for emulation, but because no community can exist for long by means of a vicarious identification with another.

Is there a Jewish people at all left in America today, a single collective body whose members, however they may quarrel about other things, mutually recognize each other as Jews and agree on the criteria for doing so? Certainly not in the sense that there was even twenty years ago.



The less educated and/or religiously observant a Jew or his family is in America, the greater the chances of assimilating out of the community and reaching a Jewish vanishing point. The curve starts at one end with no Jewish affiliation of any kind and ends at the other with an Orthodoxy that has built, as it has done throughout history, social, ritual, and educational walls around itself.

Such walls, recent Jewish experience has shown, are indispensable for resisting the assimilatory tide; if non-Orthodox Jews wish their children to remain Jewish, they will have to build them too. And insofar as they increasingly adopt Orthodox patterns, they will find themselves moving back toward Orthodoxy itself. For Orthodoxy alone creates a Jewish superego; it instills not merely love for a tradition, but fear and guilt at the thought of leaving it. And while fear and guilt are not popular in liberal America, there will be no Jewish survival there without them.

Most American Jews, of course, are not prepared to flock to such a religion. They do not want to segregate themselves; they do not want the endless demands of ritual; they do not want what is not “relevant.” And relevance has become, for almost everybody but the Orthodox, an American Jewish obsession. When it comes to Jewish spirituality, one can start with Midrash or Kabbalah, but before long one is back to feminism and gay rights. There is a kind of trick syllogism at work here: the spiritual is the timeless; the timeless is always contemporary; hence, the contemporary is the spiritual.

And yet there is a paradox here, too. When American Jews speak of making religion relevant, they usually mean that it should address contemporary issues in the mode in which these are addressed in the cultural and intellectual circles they themselves inhabit. But if this is already the mode in which these issues are addressed, who needs Judaism to address them? Contemporary values are doing well on their own; if all Judaism has to say about them is that it, too, now subscribes to them, what is irrelevant is Judaism itself.

Judaism—so I argued in Letters to an American Jewish Friend and would argue far more strongly today—has something to say to American Jews only if it is prepared to be unsparingly adversarial. And, a severely classical religion in a giddily neo-romantic age, it is adversarial by nature. Most of what it has traditionally stood for—obedience to divine and human authority, subordination of the individual to the community, unremitting self-discipline and self-restraint, devotion to textual study, the necessity for endless repetition, vigilant regulation of bodily functions, the supreme importance of the family and procreation, consistent gender differentiation, hierarchical distinctions in all walks of life—is profoundly antithetical to the values of contemporary liberal American society.

The majority of American Jews will want nothing to do with this. And as Jews, they or their children will disappear.



“Your problem of identity,” I said recently to a well-known American Jewish feminist and religious activist, “is that you don’t live in Israel. If you did, you wouldn’t have to assert your Jewishness by fighting for a place on the podium of an ancient patriarchal religion that has always wanted you in the kitchen. You could fight your battles where they belong, in a modern, secular society.”

“I’d rather fight with tradition than lose its riches,” replied the feminist. “And your tragedy is that you think that living in Israel makes you a Jew. Oh, you yourself are one, all right; you grew up in the Diaspora. But how about those children of yours for whom Zionism is so irrelevant? Are they and secularly raised Israelis like them any more than Hebrew-speaking goyim?”

Put a committed American Jew on the defensive, and sooner or later that is what you will hear. Hebrew-speaking goyim! An entire country of them! So much for your secular Israel!

I could have answered polemically. I could have said:

Look here, secularly raised Israelis may not have the Jewish literacy of your own children, who attend a good American day school, but that’s entirely the wrong comparison; it’s comparing the least with the most. Suppose the least Jewish Jews in America spoke Hebrew and read Hebrew books—and studied (poorly, I admit) Jewish history, religion, and Bible for several years in school—and lived in totally Jewish neighborhoods and had only Jewish friends—and often spent Sabbath and holiday meals with their families, at which at least some Jewish rituals were performed—and served in a Jewish army and risked their lives to defend their fellow Jews—and, of course, married only other Jews. Would you not bless your good fortune in having such a Jewish community?

Or I could have said:

The difference between being a Jew in a secular Israel and in America is the difference between a ball on an ordinary table and one on a billiard table. When a ball on an ordinary table gets to the edge, it falls off and rolls away. On a billiard table, it caroms back and stays on the table.

But having lost my taste for polemics, all I said to the well-known feminist was: “You’re right. There’s a problem.”

Perhaps I was conceding too much. My children, it so happens, grew up as Israeli Jews of the type I have just described: not the kind of Jew I am, to be sure, and not exactly the kind of Jew I might have liked them to be, but Jews. Watching them has made me realize the limitations of a secular Jewish identity in Israel. This saddens me, but it does not strike me as a cause for despair. I do not think that the kind of minimal Jew that most young Israelis are is quite the indictment of secular Israeli culture that it is commonly interpreted as being—by Diaspora Jews, by religious Jews in Israel, and even by many secular Israeli educators and intellectuals.

Culture is about creating minimals; it is the safety net that catches everyone somewhere close to the ground. The product of an average Israeli home and school cannot parse any but the simplest parts of a Hebrew Bible and would not know what to do in a synagogue? No, he cannot and would not. Would the average young Frenchman do any better with Racine and a Catholic mass? I forbear to ask what the average young American would make of a page of Shakespeare.

They will do, these Hebrew-speaking goyim. I have watched them head with their army packs for Lebanon and I have watched them head with their back packs for India; as long as they come home and stay home, none will be lost to the Jews. Beyond that, everything is a question of background and inclination. Some will go farther than others; a few will go far enough to create Jewish culture themselves. That is the way it works everywhere.

Nor, unlike many secular Israelis, am I disturbed by the resurgence of Israeli Orthodoxy, a phenomenon parallel to its counterpart in the United States. On the contrary: I welcome it. A strong Orthodoxy will allow secular Jewish culture in Israel to develop while still in contact with its religious roots. Tension there will be; civil war, no.

Of one thing, then, I still remain convinced: there is no better alternative for a modern Jew than Israel. And as a modern Jew, only Israel strikes me as quite real. In this respect, Zionism has not only given Jews a home, it has made of them an honest people. I would put that in my eulogy for it.



But will they stay home, those young people with packs on their backs and Jewish wanderers’ blood in their veins? Will they stay the course if the rosy predictions of post-Zionism prove wrong?

We are told by post-Zionism’s celebrants that the death of Zionism is nothing to mourn, for the movement launched by Herzl is passing away at a ripe old age, after a full and achievement-crowned life. Unlike other “isms” of our century, it did not crash in flames to a cataclysmic end or waste away in a revolting spectacle of putrescence. It accomplished what it set out to do, namely, to restore the Jewish people to independence in their land. Having done so, albeit at the cost of bloody conflict with the land’s natives and neighbors, it leaves behind a grateful posterity that can lay that conflict to rest and turn to new and more private challenges. “Perhaps nothing enslaves the individual more than the ‘high,’ elevated meanings a community attaches to a life of devotion to collective goals,” writes one leading post-Zionist spokesman, the Israeli political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, in his recently published and much praised book, Rubber Bullets. As against this, he continues, post-Zionism represents the victory of “liberal-democratic values,” and opens the way to both “Arab-Israeli coexistence and a future Israel as an open and advanced society unthreatened by war.” The Arabs, Ezrahi is quite certain, will cooperate.

It sometimes strikes me that, regarding Arab-Israeli coexistence, the difference between the Left and the Right in Israel has nothing to do with their relative perceptiveness. Both are equally guilty of projecting their own minds onto the Arabs. The post-Zionist Left says: “Fighting for land and national honor is primitive; we would never do it, and therefore the Arabs, once their reasonable demands are met, will not either.” The paleo-Zionist Right says: “Land and national honor are paramount; we would fight for them, and therefore so will the Arabs.” Both pure projections—but the mind of the Right, alas, may be more attuned to the mind of the Arabs.

It is possible, though far from certain, that the Oslo process will end in a territorial and diplomatic compromise. It is likely, however, that such a compromise will eventually be the starting point for a new series of Palestinian demands. If Israel can be rolled back to nearly its 1967 borders, why not farther? Especially a post-Zionist Israel which, as Ezrahi says, wishes to “blunt, demystify, despiritualize, and devalorize the use of Jewish power vis-à-vis the Arabs.”

If that should happen, Israelis like Ezrahi may have to pay a terrible personal price for being mistaken. But what about those American Jews who have supported the peace process enthusiastically and have scathingly criticized its opponents, thereby helping to shape, in America, a heavily onesided view of the political debate in Israel? Although the imaginary friend of my book argued on behalf of the ethically advantageous position of Diaspora life, I can think of no position more morally compromised—and, for those who genuinely care about Israel, more morally excruciating—than freedom from the consequences of behavior one urges on others. And that is the price of Jewish life in the Diaspora.



Although Zionism lived to be 100, it will not have lived long enough. Given how pitifully little it started with, its successes have been spectacular. As at any funeral, they should be dwelled upon, and no words of praise for them can be too eloquent. But Zionism’s failures cry out, too.

The Jewish people rallied to it too slowly. The Holocaust would never have occurred as it did had there been a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1930’s—a not unachievable goal had Jews settled there in large numbers in the decade and a half between the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and Hitler’s rise to power.

Nor did Zionism bring enough Jews to Israel even after its establishment. If the current peace process concludes, as it may well do, with a return to unsafe borders and a potentially breakaway Palestinian Arab minority within them, this will be a function of too few Jews. Another million or two immigrants after 1948 would have made all the difference.

Zionism failed, too, in creating a new worldwide Jewish identity. Its project of “normalizing” the Jewish people by redefining it in territorial and linguistic rather than religious terms stalled halfway, and in some respects has even lost ground. (It is worth remembering, for comparison’s sake, that in Eastern Europe, on the eve of World War II, hundreds of thousands of young Jews spoke fluent Palestinian Hebrew and thought of themselves as part of a Palestinian Jewish nation whose land they had never set foot on.) That is why the future will see not one Jewish people but many, and why absurd quarrels over who is a Jew and what makes a Jew a Jew continue today in both Israel and the Diaspora.

And paradoxically, precisely when Zionism’s pessimistic analysis of Diaspora Jewry has proved correct for the second time this century—for while Zionists did not predict the Holocaust, they alone foresaw the likelihood of the economic and political destruction of European Jewry—Zionism no longer exists as an intellectual force to offer American Jews a clear understanding of their situation.

But more than anything, the passing of Zionism leaves behind the question: when nothing is left to sustain the Jews of Israel but simple Israeli patriotism—no sense of being the revolutionary bearers of Jewish history, no higher Jewish mission—will that be enough? There are nations that stood their ground bravely because simple patriotism sufficed, such as England during World War II, and nations that fell because it did not, such as France in the same war. One can only hope that Israel will not have to stand the test.



As I say, I have mellowed; there is no point in being rude, or hurting feelings. I have never thought that living in Israel made me a better Jew, only that it made me a Jew living in a better place. But since this too is nothing Diaspora Jews wish to hear, I have learned to keep my peace.

Still, the old anger persists underneath. How much so, I myself did not realize until one evening not long ago when my wife and I were sitting with friends. The subject arose of the revival of Jewish life in Eastern Europe; a mutual acquaintance of ours is currently there, devoting himself to this cause. I found myself remarking heatedly that Jews living in America were one thing, but deliberately to start Jewish life all over again in a part of the world where Jews had been reviled and massacred for centuries—the only word I could think of for it was shameful.

“Well,” someone said with that cheerful Israeli cynicism that passes for humor in these parts, “when we here are all dead from Arab nerve gas, you’ll be happy there are Jews in other places.”

That was too much for me. “If we’re going to be dead here, I’d rather they were dead there, too,” I said.

On the way home, my wife remarked, “That was a terrible thing to say. I hope you didn’t mean it.”

I thought about that. Did I mean it?

Yes. I meant it.

Not literally. I’m not that vengeful. But if Israel should ever go under—and I do not find it inconceivable—I would not want the Diaspora to continue. I would not want there to be any more Jews in the world.

It would be too shameful. That is the only word for it that I can think of.



1 See Robert Alter, “New York and/or Jerusalem,” COMMENTARY, August 1977—Ed.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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