|Resources » Aliyah » Aliyah Infobase|
|Author: Hillel Halkin|
The same classical Zionist beliefs that justified modern Jewish settlement in Palestine, and that justified the establishment of a Jewish state, justify this country to this day.
These are so simple that they can be presented as an ordinary syllogism:
1) It is natural for a Jew who is committed to his Jewishness to seek to perpetuate Jewish life in himself and in his people.
2) For objective historical reasons, Jewish life in the Diaspora is doomed; and, conversely, such life has a possible future only in an autonomous or politically sovereign Jewish community living in its own land, that is, in the State of Israel.
3) Therefore, it is natural for a Jew who is committed to his Jewishness to desire to live only in Israel.
This, I suggest, is the essential faith of this country; and when I say that a Jew who visits here from the Diaspora is necessarily a person on trial, I mean that his visit is an evasion if it fails to compel him to confront these articles of faith in all seriousness and to take a stand in relation to them. First let him determine whether he is committed to his Jewishness, since otherwise he is not subject to the jurisdiction of our syllogism. (That is, the court of Zionist faith must dismiss his case since Zionism, as it has generally been conceived by its proponents, is a free alternative to assimilation, not a moral crusade against it). If he is, let him proceed to its major premise, that concerning the future of our people, and judge it true or false. If true, simple logic must make him accept the conclusion as well, though he may still feel unable to implement it due to one practical difficulty or another. (Such a person has pleaded guilty before the court, which will no doubt be lenient and sentence him to a period of probation in which to remove the difficulties in the way.) If false, let him be prepared to argue against it, calling what witnesses he sees fit.
And it is to such a debate that I invite you now -a debate whose proper prize should be yourself. My dear A-, it's simple: having settled in Israel myself for nearly six years now, I am still enough of a Zionist to believe in the articles of faith I have set out. Diaspora Jewry, I am convinced, is doomed; Jewish life has a future, if at all, only in Israel; and Jewish and Israeli history are two converging lines that are ultimately bound to meet, so that whoever wishes to be a point on one must be one on the other as well. And so it seems curious to me when someone as intelligent as you writes in a letter that he cannot consider settling in Israel because life here is not to his taste, as curious as if I were to hear a drowning man refuse to board a lifeboat -a lifeboat, in this case, which is itself desperately in need of his strength to help it fight the buffeting waves because he fears he will be uncomfortable on it. (True, the man may not believe that he is drowning since he may mistake the driftwood he is standing on for solid ground, but this hardly makes his situation less bizarre). Believe me, I am the first to concede that life in Israel is difficult, often unpleasant, and has little to recommend it objectively; and I would be the last person to urge anyone to choose it for himself...unless he has already chosen a task so difficult and having so little objective to recommend it as living in this world as a committed Jew -in which case the choice not to live here, the one place where such a commitment can be meaningful in my opinion, seems to me the height of absurdity. And I must confess that sometimes, when in musing about these things the scales of habitual reality drop from before my eyes, I am forced to blink in astonishment: here, on the one hand, after two thousand years, is the miracle of a reborn Jewish state, and here, on the other, are millions of individuals in the Diaspora claiming to be committed Jews, seeking even, often at considerable expense and inconvenience to themselves, to live as such, yet freely rejecting the opportunity to partake in that miracle and defend its struggle to survive. Can it be? Are we really such a foolish people -or merely a lazy and hypocritical one? And while I do not deny that instinctively I feel far closer to you than to any assimilated American Jew because I share with you a background of common knowledge and concern that I cannot share with him, I do not doubt that he is leading the more sensible life of the two of you since his has the virtue of consistency while yours is entangled in a web of contradictions that must ensnare you however you turn...
Classical Zionism was born from the impact on Jewish life of modern secular society, with whose effects its analysis began. Most simply, it argued as follows: in the face of persecution and intolerance, Jewish communities and Jewish culture were able to survive and even flourish in the Diaspora throughout the late classical and medieva l periods, that is, from the decline of ancient Palestinian Jewry until modern times, because, whether in the sphere 0f Christianity or Islam, they existed as islands in a larger human sea whose values were predominantly religious and whose mode of social and political organization was feudal and decentralized. In practice this meant several things:
Firstly, it meant that as the Jew lived in a world where religious belief was a universal norm, he had no problem in defining himself religiously as well or in living an identity that was religious in nature;
Secondly, it meant that the Jewish community, like other social corporations in the medieva l world, was granted considerable autonomy in the organization of its internal affairs, which it was expected to regulate with a minimum of interference from without, so that it enjoyed a legal status and powers of enforcement that enabled it to impose its practice on its members even when they sought to stray from the fold;
Thirdly, it meant that the only way for a Jew to cease being Jewish, or to leave the confines of the Jewish community, was to take the radical step of becoming a Christian or Muslim, there being no neutral social or intellectual ground on which he, along with defecting members of other faiths, could make a stand;
Fourthly, it meant that there was little external pressure on the Jew to assimilate, for though both Christianity and Islam professed a nominal interest in his conversion, and even actively pursued it at certain historical junctures, they were generally content for him to remain a Jew in as much as he performed in that capacity certain religious and economic functions (bearing witness to the accursedness of Christ's crucifiers for Christianity; money lending in the Christian world or artisanship in Islam) that could not be, or were inadequately, performed by Christians and Muslims;
Fifthly, and consequently, it meant that popular anti-Semitism, although enjoying religious sanction and occasionally fanned from above, was rarely allowed to get out of hand to point of threatening the total ruin of local Jewish communities, whose existence was of general value;
Sixthly, and lastly, it meant that in those cases where a Jewish community was threatened with physical destruction, forced conversion, or expulsion, it was able to find refuge elsewhere, since there were always local rulers who were glad to make use of the Jews' commercial and other skills in order to gain an advantage over their rivals.
With the demise of the medieva l world and the rise of the modern, centralized, national state, classical Zionism pointed out that the relative equilibrium in which most Jewish communities had been able to maintain themselves for hundreds of years was irreversibly destroyed -to the benefit, in many cases, of large masses of Jews as individuals, but to the great detriment of organized Jewish life as a whole. As religious belief and identification waned among the native populations in whose midst the Jew lived, so it declined as well among Jews, who were increasingly forced to ask themselves: if they were no longer Jews by virtue of religious practice or belief, in what sense were they still, or should they continue to accept the hardship of being Jews at all? At the same time ceasing to be Jewish, or simply living apart from the Jewish community, became an easier and less painful step to take since there were now, especially in the large urban centers of Europe and America, secular gentile communities of Frenchmen, Germans, Poles or Americans which the assimilating Jew could join without having to feel a traitor to his ancestral past through its institutions and ideology, moreover, the secular nation-state actively encouraged such assimilation since the existence in its midst of separatist ethnic minorities, possessing distinct social and cultural institutions of their own, was considered a threat to its all-embracing authority -unless, that is, it preferred to consolidate that authority by mobilizing the nationalist emotions of a native majority against such minority groups, in which case an anti-Semitism more virulent and comprehensive than that of the Middle Ages, because unchecked by any considerations of religious dogma or economic self-interest, was a logical option to adopt.
In short, classical Zionism held that it is the fate of Diaspora Jewry in the modern world to be hopelessly trapped between the Scylla of assimilation and the Charybdis of anti-Semitism, the only escape from the one being into the jaws of the other, and vice versa...
It was this analysis that led classical Zionism to conclude that the Jews as a people had a future in the modern world only as an autonomous community living in a land of their own and organized, if possible, in the form of a nation-state. Only in such a state, it was argued, could a secular Jewish culture develop to fill the void left in Jewish life by the decline of religion, thus preserving the Jew from assimilation; only in such a state could the Jew be safe from the ravages of anti-Semitism...
If Jewish life can survive anywhere in the Diaspora today, this is, for two reasons, in America. The first reason, is sheer size...No other Diaspora community can begin to approach American Jewry in either the quantitative or qualitative wealth of its institutions because there is a point, as is frequently observed, at which quantity becomes, or can become, quality. The second reason has to do with what has accurately been called, though not without a measure of exaggeration, the pluralism of American society. In a country that has been characterized from its earliest history by an influx of different immigrant groups, as well as by an endless proliferation of social and religious sects, and whose decentralized mode of life has sanctioned and even encouraged such multiplicity, being Jewish has come to be looked upon not as the tolerated divergence from the mainstream of national life that it is at best considered to be elsewhere, but as part of the mainstream itself -to the rather absurd point, indeed, that it is commonplace to refer to the United States as a country of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, as if the latter comprised one-third of the general population rather than less than one thirtieth. Although one need not take such flattering hyperboles too seriously, the fact remains that in no other modern society have the Jews been accepted so much on their own terms as they have been in the United States. Moreover, the political side of American pluralism, that is, the relatively great decentralization of government in the United States, has also worked to the advantage of the Jews, whose heavy concentration in a handful of key urban localities has enabled them to wield an influence as voters and political participants out of all proportion to their actual numbers in American life. In short, nowhere in the Diaspora have conditions for Jewish life been remotely as favorable as in America, and thus nowhere else might one hope to find with equal chance of being right that classical Zionism has been disproved.
Has it been? You know that I would not be writing you this letter if I thought so. God knows that I have no wish to belittle the American Jewish community or its institutional achievements, of which I am a product myself and without which -for facts must be faced -Israel might not exist in its present form at all. Certainly when one considers the historically brief span of time in which such institutions have been created and the geographically immense area of space they have embraced, the results are impressive enough. And yet, for all their seeming vitality, American Jewish institutions strike me, for the most part, as being a pathetically empty shell...
The first fact that needs to be stated about American Jewry is that while it may have been more successful until now than other Jewish communities in combating the assimilatory processes at work in the Diaspora, it has by no means been immune to them. About this the available evidence, whatever inconsistencies it may exhibit, leaves no room for doubt: the same basic indices that point elsewhere in the Diaspora to an actual or impending decline in Jewish population and to a drop in even minimal identification with the Jewish community -a falling Jewish birthrate, rising rates of intermarriage, decreasing participation in Jewish communal and religious life -hold true of America as well. It is probable, in fact, that the American Jewish population is already growing smaller and that it now numbers closer to 5.4 million than to the figure of 6 million commonly cited in recent years. Part of this drop may be illusory, the result of unrealistic estimates in the past; part too, however, is clearly the result of losses through assimilation that have not been replaced by births.
As for the current rate of intermarriage, the evidence is even less clear... The latest data, however, suggests that the national rate for all Jews currently marrying in the United States may have shot up drastically in the last few years and is now in the neighborhood of 30 percent.
...In effect, then, if we are speaking about the real Jewish population of America today, there are not six million American Jews, or even five million, but perhaps four million of whom it can be said that they are in some measure identified with the Jewish community and positively conscious of their Jewishness. Even for most of these four million, moreover, participation in Jewish life tends to be marginal and passive: formal membership in a synagogue that is attended once or twice a year; the sending of one's children to a Sunday school or Hebrew school for several years before their confirmation; an annual contribution to the United Jewish Appeal or the occasional purchase of an Israel Bond; membership in a Jewish l0dge or country club; a social life confined mainly to other Jews, and the like. As for the inner Jewish awareness of such people, the personal Jewish culture possessed by them, let us be kind and say simply that it is not great: perhaps a smattering of Yiddish or Hebrew remembered from childhood, a nostalgia for a parental home in which Jewish customs were still kept, the occasional observance of an isolated Jewish ritual, the exclusion of certain non-kosher foods from an otherwise non-kosher kitchen, a genuine identification with the Jewish people combined with genuine ignorance of its past history and present condition, and so forth, The more genuinely committed American Jew is, of course, a different history. He may be religiously Orthodox, but even if not, he is likely to regularly observe certain Jewish practices at home, to attend synagogue more frequently and to play an active role in communal institutions. He is concerned with the quality of the Jewish education of his children, whom he may send to a Jewish day school or intensive summer camp. His own Jewish knowledge is an ongoing process, enlarged through study and the mastery of its tools. Being Jewish, in short, is more than a peripheral concern for him; it stands at the center of his life, or at least reasonably near it. How many such "hard core" Jews are there in America today? One is forced to guess again. Estimates commonly range from a half million to one million. Let us be generous and take the higher figure: out of four million still identified American Jews, about one quarter are strongly so...
I cannot imagine Jewish life in the Diaspora going on forever, but I can only too easily imagine Israel going under before a combination of its own weakness and Arab strength, while an indifferent world looks on. Even miracles do not come insured. And this is why this letter to you, though it may have the dust of the library in its pages, is a personal appeal. For if it were not so -if the future of this country could be as taken for granted as that of Sweden or New Zealand -I might still say to you, "Look here, it makes no sense to me how anyone so committed to Jewish life as yourself should not want to live in a Jewish state," but I would not be making this a test of your commitment, as I am making it here. I am not saying, after all, 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 it in the wrong place. (And yet is not being in the wrong place in such a case itself a form of inauthenticity?). Today, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the survival of the Jews and the survival of Israel are the same; and whether Israel can survive depends, among other things, on the numbers and talents of Diaspora Jews who will come to it -which means it depends on you...
Source: Hillel Halkin, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1977), pp. 24-26,33-37,51-55,58-60,73-74.
|Print Version | Send to Friend|
Shlichut | Zionism | Mount Herzl | Shlichim | World Zionist Congress | World Zionist Organization | Zionist Activities in the Diaspora | Zionist Young Adult Movements | Making Aliyah 2013 | Activities in Israel and Countering Antisemitism | Israel Advocacy | Delegitimation of Israel | Israel Education | Zionist Education | Herzl