Commentary Magazine

The American Jew: A Zionist Analysis, by Ben Halpern

Exile and Israel
The American Jew: A Zionist Analysis.
by Ben Halpern.
Theodor Herzl Foundation. 174 pp. $2.00.


Ben Halpern’s book is an exciting exception to the dreary journalistic output about American Jews and Israel. Halpern has done several things in this lengthy essay: he has examined the situation of American Jews; he has analyzed various formulas or ideologies bearing on the future of American Jewish life (Reform, cultural pluralism, Reconstructionism); and he has set forth his own views and feelings about a viable Jewish cultural life in America. Despite the basic disagreements I have with Halpern’s conclusions, I find his book honest and acute throughout. But he is far more cogent as an observer of American Jews than as an advocate of secular Zionism. The introductory chapter “America Is Different” is, I think, the best in the book, with its penetrating discussion of the differences between the Jewish situation in America and in pre-war Europe, and its analysis of the attenuation of Jewish culture in America. But I was dissatisfied with Halpern’s explanation of why he is—or, to be exact, why, so many years after Israel’s establishment, he has remained—a Zionist in America.

Central to Halpern’s Zionism is the concept of Exile. To him it is “the inalienably Jewish idea, the most intimate creation of the Jewish people, the symbol in which our whole historic experience is sublimated and summed up.” This momentary illumination becomes dissipated, for me at least, by Halpern’s somewhat rambling debate over the meaning of Exile with the founders of Reform Judaism, with Mordecai M. Kaplan, and with the “neo-Zionists,” all of whom have in one way or another rejected the idea that Jews in America are in Exile.

Halpern insists on defining Exile as “essentially a religious idea,” “a disordered condition of the Universe as a whole, which is epitomized in the fact and symbol that the Jewish people live outside their own proper place, the land of Israel.” He does not, however, attribute such cosmic importance to the subsidiary but sustaining concepts of Exile: Mission, Chosenness, and Redemption. He deals with the concept of Mission as if it were an invention by Reform Judaism to evade the Exile, hinting ironically that perhaps 19th-century Reform discovered Isaiah 49:6 (“I will also give thee for a light of the nations, that My salvation may be unto the end of the earth”). Though Halpern insists on an exalted metaphysical view of Exile, he considers Mission sociologically, as an outlook on Jewish life evolved by a particular group of Jews in a particular time. His mystique of Exile grows, I think, out of his Zionism, rather than the other way round. It arises from his desire to make of Zionism something more than a late 19th-century political movement: he wants to link it up with an ancient tradition of Jewish thought.



As a non-Zionist and a secularist, I cannot see Exile as anything but the condition of the Jews in the world, the way Jews themselves view the possibility of their survival among Gentiles. All Jews live with some feeling of Exile, an anxiety about their place in the Gentile world. But mere awareness of Exile does not necessarily give meaning to one’s Jewishness. It is rather in the challenge to Exile, the way in which the Jew chooses to interpret his role in Gentile society, that makes his life meaningful as a Jew in dispersion. In the past Jews offered alternate challenges to Exile: Redemption and Mission. The desire for Redemption in the immediate present arose when the conditions of Exile became insupportable. These were the tragic Messianic periods. The idea that Redemption would come in the trans-historical future, while Jews fulfilled their Mission in the present, governed periods when the conditions of Exile were tolerable.

In trying to justify classical Zionism as the heir of an authentic Jewish tradition of Exile, as against what he considers the spurious interpretation of Reform, Halpern indulges in word-play. He says that Reform was based on a “denial” of Exile, while Zionism grew out of a “rejection” of Exile. I find this distinction artificial. The men who shaped Reform Judaism and classical Zionism assessed the condition of Exile according to their own lights. Reform believed that Jews could survive in a Gentile society; whatever they may have said about the meaning of Exile, they accepted it as a Jewish tradition. Their concept of Mission was developed to insure the continuity of Judaism in a modern world, since they were already assured that the Jews would survive in this world. But Theodor Herzl thought that the Jews could survive physically only in their own society. Herzlian Zionism was concerned primarily with improving the political and economic status of Jews; the survival of the Jewish people was secondary.

The deeper difference between Reform and classical Zionism is seen in their respective attitudes toward the concept of the Jews as the Chosen People. Whether we interpret this idea theologically, historically, or sociologically, it still remains one means of understanding Exile. Reform shaped the idea of the Chosen People into a universalistic mission. Classical Zionism refused to admit that the Jews differed as a people from other peoples except insofar as they had been affected by the accidents of history.

Ahad Ha-am was the first and for many long years the only Zionist to argue that a Jewish state was necessary, less for Jews as individuals, than to promote the continuity of the Jewish people, to serve as a spiritual center to insure the survival of Jewish culture in the Diaspora. Unlike the Herzlians and the later Labor Zionists, Ahad Ha-am accepted dispersion and mission as essential to the Jewish people. He looked upon a Jewish state basically as a means of fortifying the Jewish people in dispersion against the inroads of assimilation.

It is actually to Ahad Ha-am’s “national will to live” that Halpern addresses himself when he speaks of the individual Jew’s awareness of Exile. In American Jews he has found this will to live enfeebled by both the blunted sense of Exile (that is, the meaninglessness of being Jewish) and the conditions prevailing in America that militate against development of an integral Jewish culture. Halpern has obviously found the American Jewish experience conclusive: Jews cannot survive as a people and develop an authentic culture unless they are forced into effective separation or unless they live in a Jewish state.

Though I find myself largely agreeing with Halpern’s appraisal of American Jewish life, though the outlook for a living Jewish culture in America is dim, I am not yet prepared to accept Halpern’s conclusion. Perhaps this is simply because I am not a Zionist. I am unwilling to admit that the price of security for Jews as human beings is the loss of Jewish group life and culture. I want to continue to hope that the integration of Jews in Gentile society does not necessarily mean the disintegration of Jewish culture and tradition. True, the kind of Jewish culture that may evolve will differ from the culture that I have known and differ from Halpern’s, but it may suit America and keep American Jews within the mainstream of Jewish tradition.

This is my hope, for I do not share Halpern’s implied belief in Israel’s ability, at least as of today, to provide American Jews with a Jewish culture they can practice even as a cult.



Halpern has said that Zionism “rejected” Exile. But it rejected also the Jew in Exile, his culture and his ethos. Hatred of the Diaspora turned into contempt for the Jew in Exile and his way of life. The culture now developing in Israel has its roots in this denigration of the Diaspora Jew and his values. In this sense, Zionism—like assimilation—has cut a deep wound into the continuity of Jewish tradition.

In his eloquent address at the Ideological Conference in Jersualem last summer, the Yiddish poet H. Leivick reminded the Israelis that the basis of the life of every Jew both in Israel and outside was not negation but affirmation, that the essence of Jewish existence was to be found in continuity. “‘In the beginning’ was said only once: when God created the world. Since then everything has been in process of flux.” He went on to say that no person “could create an aye from a nay,” that love could not be attained by intoxication with hate.

Many Israelis, at least in their ideological thinking, have discarded the traditional Jewish values of the Diaspora, swept away as worthless shards the two thousand years of accumulated experience in Jewish survival. The Jew we have known has been replaced by the image of the “new Jew,” the tough, bronzed, muscular Israeli, standing fast at his post, defending his farm with a musket, reclaiming his land from the wilderness. This Israeli frontiersman is the sabra we have all met at one time or another, contemptuous of the Jew outside Israel, scornful and ignorant of Jewish tradition and history from the Talmud to the Nazi death camp. The sabra may be at home in his own land (certainly he is provincial and chauvinistic), but he is alien to and alienated from the sense that all Jews belong to one people.

Rooted physically in his land, the sabra has remained emotionally and intellectually rootless. The arrival in Israel of hundreds of thousands of Jews who came, not because they wanted to end the Exile for themselves but because they needed a place to live, has sharpened the realization among Israeli leaders that a national tradition cannot develop from negation or nothingness. Jewish culture did not, after all, begin in 1948 with the establishment of Israel, nor even in 1897 with the founding of the Zionist Organization. In casting about for a Jewish tradition, the sabra has hit upon the cult of the Bible. When David Ben Gurion wrote to Nathan Rotenstreich that “the distant past is closer to us than the recent past of the last two thousand years,” he was speaking for the sabra rather than for himself.1 For in his article that started the debate, Ben Gurion admitted that the sabras “need to understand the ties that bind them to Diaspora Jewry and to realize the unity of the Jewish people at all times and in all places.” Ben Gurion argued that the “tales of the Patriarchs four thousand years ago,” “the wars of Joshua Bin-Nun” and “the achievements of Uzziah King of Judah and Jereboam II, King of Israel,” are closer to the sabras than the speeches of Zionist congresses. But obviously these are not the only milestones in the Jewish past.

When the present Israeli government formulated its basic principles in 1955, it stressed the need for “Jewish consciousness” in the Israeli educational system, in order that “Israel’s youth be steeped in the past of the Jewish people and in its historic heritage; and that its moral affiliation with world Jewry be strengthened through greater realization of the common destiny and historic continuity which binds Jews all over the world and throughout the generations.” Recently the inability of the sabras to communicate adequately with Diaspora Jews has been discussed in the Israeli press; it has been the object of sociological and anthropological studies. As a result a new program of studies called “Jewish-Israel Consciousness” is being introduced in the Israeli schools. Changes have been made in the teaching of religion, folkways, and history “with a view to deepening the recognition of the continuity of the Jewish people.” The upper two grades of elementary school are to be taught a new subject, “Knowledge of the People,” dealing with the life of Jews in the Diaspora. (There is, of course, still the question of how these subjects will be taught and the teachers’ attitudes toward the subject matter.)



The sabra ethos, the myth of the Israeli as rugged frontiersman, has had a paradoxical effect on American Jews. On the one hand, it has deepened the differences between Israelis and those American Jews who have tried to adjust East European Jewish values to America. But, on the other, it has made the Israeli attractive to young American Jews, particularly those who do not even know the Hebrew alphabet. These young Americans have been fired with pride by the Jewish state, though they have no desire to settle there and no wish to relate themselves to its culture. It is their very Americanism that brings them into rapport with Israel. The further the young American Jew wanders from Jewish tradition, the more he absorbs the American ethos, the closer he comes to the sabra, the “new Jew.” The “cowboy” and “frontiersman” have supplanted the People of the Book.

This fraternal attitude of the young American Jew toward Israel is quite different from the fierce pride that first-generation American Jews take in the state, in its “Jewish” army and “Jewish” street cleaners. Theirs is indeed a cult of the state which developed, as I have suggested elsewhere, in great part from their guilt over their own safety during the Nazi holocaust. The cult of the state has become their way of identifying with the Jewish people. But their children and grandchildren feel friendly toward Israel because its style is so American.

The very tenuous thread that binds young American Jews to the Israeli sabras is not at all what held Jews together in the past. Their consensus, if that is the right word for so vague a relationship, does not derive from any Jewish tradition, but rather from a gradual, at times imperceptible, abandonment of tradition in the case of the American, and, for the sabras, from an outright denial and rejection of that tradition. Perhaps we should welcome this convergence, even if it has its roots in a stunted Jewish perception. For in a period when Jews are becoming divided into divergent groups, any force is welcome that will help keep alive our awareness that we are one people.

Halpern believes that the secularist Zionist “is committed to the effort to preserve Jewish culture in the Diaspora on a level that will maintain an adequate national consensus in the continuing Ingathering.” I confess I do not clearly understand what Halpern means. I am certain he does not mean the preservation of Jewish culture as most Zionists conceive it: so many Hebrew words a week or month as a tool to advance Israel tourism, or teaching American children Israel’s geography and the record of the Youth Aliyah. Elsewhere in his book he criticizes American Zionists for wanting the Israelis to be more Jewish and points to the difficulties of “sharing a culture rooted in another land and developing in accordance with foreign conditions.”

This problem is the heart of our dilemma. In the past, fortified by religious observance, Jewish culture was able to preserve its supranational character, while at the same time adapting itself to the conditions of life in different countries and different periods. The fear today is that the condition of Israel’s statehood will so circumscribe its culture that no consensus will be possible with Jews outside Israel. If we criticize American Jews for trying to naturalize Jewish culture in the United States, we must make the same criticism of the Israelis.

If Jews are to remain one people (a desire that is far from being exclusively Zionist), the responsibility rests as much on the Israelis as on American Jews. The state was never intended as an end in itself. The Zionist founders believed that most Jews would come to live in the state and those remaining outside would eventually be lost to the Jewish people by assimilation. Today everyone recognizes that most Jews will continue to live outside Israel, at least in the foreseeable future. We must therefore accept our interdependence. A “national consensus” cannot be achieved by a naturalized American Jewish culture or an insular Israeli one. The two will have to find common elements from the two-thousand-year-old Diaspora culture.




1 The lengthy correspondence between Ben Gurion and Rotenstreich was published in English in Forum for the Problems of Zionism, World Jewry and the State of Israel, III, August 1957.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.