On That Distant Day

This time it’s different.

I can recall how, in 1977, when Menachem Begin and the Likud came to power after three decades of Labor Party rule, there was alarm verging on panic in some circles. It was the end of democratic Israel! Fascism was at the gates! Israeli friends of mine spoke that way, too. I advised them to take a deep breath and calm down. Begin, I said, was a democrat, a man of principle. His commitment to parliamentary government and the rule of law was genuine. He had, both in his own party and in his coalition partners, responsible politicians who would counsel him sensibly. Whatever his policies would be, they would not threaten Israeli democracy.

Which turned out, of course, to be the case. Now, though, I feel like the friends I tried calming in 1977. The day after November’s elections, I heard from one of them. He was the one person in our all-Jewish town to cast his ballots for Arab parties in elections, a professed anti-Zionist whose dire predictions for Israel’s future led to stormy arguments between us. Ten years ago he and his wife moved to Portugal, from where he now wrote, “I think I can safely say I’ve been proven right.”

I wrote back:

You’ve won the argument. For years now, Israel has seemed to me like a man sleepwalking toward a cliff. Now we’ve fallen from it. I don’t know whether this will end with a smash-up and a slow, painful recovery or with something worse. If worse, it will be slow and painful, too.


Should I feel less frightened than I do? Fascism is still not at the gates. It’s not the end of Israeli democracy, either.

But as I write these words in the second week of December, something very bad is happening. A former prime minister, currently on trial for graft and abuse of the public trust, his only demonstrated principles his own ambition and survival, has been voted back into office and is about to form—having driven every independent voice from a party in which he is now surrounded by political hacks and bootlickers—a coalition with four religious parties. One of these, ultra-Orthodox and Ashkenazi in leadership and rank and file, has traditionally devoted its efforts to promoting the power of its rabbis and procuring all it could from government budgets for its followers and their institutions. The second, which calls itself Sephardi, pursues similar goals; though its leadership is black-hat too, its base is religiously diverse. The third, described as “religious Zionist,” appeals to a knit-skullcap electorate and is hypernationalist and Jewish supremacist in its attitude toward Arabs. The fourth draws on all three of these constituencies and is more extreme than the third. All agree on the need to weaken Israel’s judiciary and empower the Knesset that will be controlled by them to overturn High Court decisions. All are prepared to vote for legislation enabling the charges against the prime minister to be dismissed.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin meets with Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, 1977. (Courtesy of the National Photo Collection, Israel.)

And what will they get in return? Party 1 has been promised an extension of the rabbinate’s considerable (and lucrative) powers over Israeli life, plus large hikes in government spending on the ultra-Orthodox sector’s many yeshivas and their students (who do not serve in the army and do not participate in the workforce) and on its religious school system (which does not teach basic subjects like English and mathematics that would prepare its graduates for the job market, thus condemning most of them to a life of dependence on the welfare payments campaigned for by their politicians). Party 2 will benefit from these measures, too, as well as from a Knesset bill allowing its leader—who would normally be barred from political office by his recent conviction for tax evasion (he has previously served a prison term for bribe taking)—to double as Minister of Health and Minister of the Interior before rotating as Finance Minister with the head of Party 3. The latter, a former activist in the settler movement and advocate of Israeli annexation of Judea and Samaria, will also be given control of the Civil Administration in the Defense Ministry that is in charge of Jewish settlement in these territories. (Conquered by Israel from Jordan in 1967, they are still under military rule.) The head of Party 4, an avowed admirer of Meir Kahane and a lawyer who has specialized in defending Jews accused of anti-Arab violence and hate crimes, has been awarded the Ministry of Public Security, which is responsible for Israel’s police and its military wing, the Border Patrol.

And this is just the beginning. Each day brings developments that were inconceivable a short while ago. No, it’s not the end of Israeli democracy. But it is the end of an Israeli consensus about what is and is not permissible in a democracy—and once the rules are no longer agreed on, political chaos is not far away. Israel has never been in such a place before.


But, say the comforters, this is just one election. There will be others. That is democracy. You vote the rascals in and you vote the rascals out. “We’ll be back in two years,” says outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is the largest in Israel’s Center-Left bloc.

It’s wishful thinking. Yes, there will be other elections. And the rascals will probably win them by bigger margins than they won this one, which was close.

This is in part because they have the demographic winds at their backs. The current ultra-Orthodox birth rate in Israel is twice the modern Orthodox one, which is a good deal higher than the nonreligious one. Defections from Orthodoxy are low, and the Orthodox comprise a relatively small percentage of Israelis who emigrate. Unless these trends change, the number of Orthodox voters will continue to grow proportionally. And since the ultra-Orthodox parties will always join hands with whoever most fully grants their religious and financial demands, and the nationalist religious parties with whoever most unstintingly strengthens and expands the settlements, where a large number of their voters live, the Center-Left bloc, which is answerable to a secular and liberal base, can never outbid Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud for religious support.

Still, you say, voters are not unchangeable. If the newly elected government disappoints those who elected it, won’t enough of them turn against it to swing the next election the other way?

Not likely. Israeli politics are now so solidified across entrenched lines of group identities that voting blocs are extremely stable. In recent elections, of which the latest was the fifth in three years, there was much movement from party to party within each bloc but almost none from bloc to bloc. Disgruntled voters in Israel switch teams, not sides.

It’s not impossible that the political landscape will undergo tectonic shifts, especially once Netanyahu, who is now seventy-three, leaves office. The Likud could conceivably split, part of it joining the Center in a new alignment. But even then, the currents driving Israel steadily rightward will persist. These are not just the slow-acting ones of demography. They are also the volatile ones of the Israeli/Jewish-Palestinian/Arab conflict. The more hopeless this conflict becomes, the more the Right and its religious allies gain and the Center-Left loses.

This has been happening for a long time. With every dunam of Palestinian land taken for an Israeli settlement; every Palestinian stone thrown at the car of a settler; every act of revenge against a Palestinian village; every Arab stabbing or shooting of a Jew; every army raid to catch the stabber or shooter; every rocket shot from Gaza; every retaliatory strike and counterstrike; every death, injury, insult, and humiliation, the fear and fury, and with them the feeling that the other side is ineradicably evil, mount—and each time they do, more Israelis decide to vote for the parties that best express these emotions.

They have spilled over, too, these emotions, into Israel proper. The May 2021 riots in Israeli cities, in which Arab mobs torched synagogues and Jewish property and Jewish mobs attacked and sought to lynch Arabs, were unprecedented in the country’s history. Israelis were shocked by them. They thought that what happened on one side of the 1967 border wouldn’t cross it. It did.

And more forebodingly yet, Israeli youth have been shown by poll after poll to be more extreme and dismissive of democratic values than their elders. According to a survey last year, a quarter of all nonreligious Israelis between ages eighteen and twenty-four, and half of all religious ones, thought Israel’s Arab citizens should be stripped of the right to vote! Yet why should this surprise us? The main contact with Arabs that most of these young people have had has been while serving in the territories as soldiers. Some of them may be disturbed by having to act there as the masters of a people who have no rights, no freedom of movement, and no one to protect or defend them except a corrupt Palestinian Authority that has little power itself. Many, however, accept this as the natural state of affairs. Many fail to see why it should not be extended to Israel itself.

This is the voting population of Israel’s future—and it is a future in which any alliance between the Center-Left and Israel’s Arab parties, which might balance the Right-religious bloc, is ruled out. The chronically inflamed state of Jewish-Arab relations ensures as much, since no Jewish party can afford to be seen as “Arab-loving” and no Arab party wants to be accused by its voters of selling out to the Jews. Fleeting convergences of interest may be possible. Long-term collaboration is not.

The process feeds itself. The more the conflict with the Palestinians is exacerbated, the more the Right-religious bloc is strengthened; the more it is strengthened, the more exacerbated the conflict becomes. The cycle can be broken only by ending the conflict, and the conflict now seems, after the last elections, more incapable of being ended than ever.


The rightward trend in Israeli politics tracks closely with the final collapse of the so-called peace process initiated by the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Not that prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace were particularly bright even at the time of Oslo. Yet for much of the post-1967 period, they were not negligible. Most Israeli governments recognized that without a resolution of the Palestinian problem, Israel was headed for disaster. In its standard formulation, this meant that unless Israel relinquished control of most of the territories acquired in 1967 along with their millions of Arab inhabitants, it would eventually have to either grant these inhabitants citizenship and cease to be a Jewish state or continue to deny it and cease to be a democratic state: a binational Israel that would inevitably implode from within or a morally repugnant Israel ostracized by the world and deserted by many of its own citizens—such would be the only, the intolerable, choice if Israel failed to extricate itself from the Palestinian quicksand.

For most of the period after the 1967 war, efforts were made, some more concerted than others, to do so. In the war’s aftermath, overtures were made to Jordan, offering to return to it most of the West Bank in exchange for a peace treaty. In 1979–1981, Begin and Anwar Sadat conducted negotiations over Palestinian autonomy. In the 1980s, attempts were made to revive the Jordanian option. In 1993 came Yitzhak Rabin and Oslo. In 2000, Oslo having run aground, Ehud Barak went with Yasser Arafat and President Clinton to Camp David. In 2005, after the quashing of the Second Intifada that followed the failure of the Camp David talks, Ariel Sharon ordered an evacuation of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip as an apparent prelude to a unilateral disengagement from large parts of the West Bank. Incapacitated by a stroke, Sharon was succeeded by Ehud Olmert, who reversed course and strove to reach a two-state agreement with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas procrastinated, Olmert resigned because of corruption charges, and elections held in 2009 ushered in a Likud-Netanyahu government ideologically committed to an undivided Land of Israel—and though Netanyahu continued for a while to pay lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, it was clear from the start that he didn’t mean it. By then, too, the conventional two-state solution, though its virtues continued to be sung by the world, was impractical, having been rendered so by the hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers now in Judea and Samaria. Not solving things but “managing” them became the slogan of the Netanyahu governments—and the Center-Left opposition, having run out of ideas of its own, went along. The Palestinian problem, until then at the heart of Israeli political debate, was shunted aside. Nothing had worked, ergo, nothing could work; why waste time discussing it? What couldn’t be solved could be lived with.

Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Itamar Ben-Gvir with supporters in Jerusalem, March 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images.)

And lived with in the Netanyahu years it was—to all outward appearances, successfully. The economy grew, the high-tech sector flourished, and dramatic breakthroughs were made in Israel’s relations with the Arab world, all at the same time that talks with the Palestinians were abandoned and the settlements went on growing rapidly. Here and there, there was armed resistance and Palestinian terror. Now and then, there were eruptions of fighting with Hamas in Gaza. There were domestic problems as well—an overburdened health care system, a poorly performing school system, spreading lawlessness, spiraling housing prices, a cost of living that left Israelis struggling to make ends meet. But these were ills that afflicted other countries, too. On the whole, it seemed, Israel was doing well.

Concomitantly, the Center-Left began a period of decline. Its share of the national vote, having resulted in sixty-four Knesset seats in the elections of 2006, dropped to fifty-nine seats in 2009, fifty-eight in 2013, fifty-two in 2015, fifty in 2019, and forty-six in November. The Labor Party that presided over Israel’s birth and first years fell from forty-one seats under Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 to its current total of four.


And all the time that Israel was managing, it was headed for the cliff with its eyes shut. Its new government is not about to open its eyes now. Flush with his electoral victory, Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that, as far as Israel is concerned, the Palestinian problem can go unresolved indefinitely, since the Palestinians are but 1 or 2 percent of the Arab world. Why lose sleep over them when Israel now has diplomatic relations with Egypt, with Jordan, with Sudan, with Bahrain, with the United Arab Emirates, and with Morocco, and lower-level ties with other Arab countries?

One might as well say that a daily dose of poison is no reason for concern as long as it is a small percentage of one’s diet.

Yes, the Palestinians, too, bear their share of the blame. They have been intransigent. They have cultivated a politics of grievance. They have supported terror. They have intimated that any agreement with Israel will mark but a temporary lull in their campaign to reclaim all of Palestine. They have not been the partners for peace that Israel could have wished for.

I fail to see, however, what consolation is to be derived from this. If I were a Palestinian dreaming of getting back all of Palestine, I could wish for nothing better than for Israel to swallow Judea and Samaria hook, line, and sinker. After that, I would need only to wait for it to choke. Ten years, twenty years, thirty years—and it will be gone.

“With God’s help,” recently tweeted our new proconsul for the territories, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, “we in the incoming government will accelerate Israeli settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel.”

“With God’s help,” b’ezrat hashem, is a ubiquitous phrase in the conversation of Israel’s Orthodox. God’s help will be needed if Smotrich has his way.

When you can think of no rational reasons for hope, you turn to irrational ones. The steady drift toward religion in Israeli life in recent decades, so opposed to the trend in Western countries, is directly related to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Israel’s religious Right is often accused of being messianist. It isn’t, not really. The Smotriches and Ben-Gvirs do not believe that the messiah is knocking at the door. They merely believe, as do many of the Israelis who voted for them, that God is on their side. So do the ultra-Orthodox who make common cause with them, though they may ascribe to God different priorities.

I do not make light of the Jewish historical claim to the Land of Israel. I have always favored Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, because I believed that these were part of my people’s heritage. But I believe that they also belong to the Palestinians who live in them, and I do not pretend to know whose side God is on, or whether he takes sides at all in such matters, or whether he still would be God if he did.

There is something, however, that I do know. Zionism aspired to wean the Jewish people off the belief that God was on its side and could be relied on to rescue it from its predicaments—that it should rely on God rather than on itself because it was God’s chosen. This was precisely why most of the rabbis of Europe, where Zionism arose, and especially of Eastern Europe, where it struck its deepest roots, fought it tooth and nail. The bulk of ultra-Orthodoxy remained bitterly anti-Zionist right up to the declaration of the State of Israel, if not beyond that, while modern Orthodoxy, though it took part in Zionist construction in Palestine, contributed relatively little to it or to Israel’s creation.

And now, with Benjamin Netanyahu in tow, these are the forces dragging us into the abyss.

Some saw it coming long ago. In 1879, the Hebrew poet Yehuda Leib Gordon wrote a long poem called “Zedekiah in the Dungeon.” Zedekiah, the Bible’s Tsidkiyahu, was the last king of Judea, imprisoned and blinded by the Babylonian conquerors of Jerusalem. In Gordon’s poem he muses in prison about his conflict, while still king, with the prophet Jeremiah, who insisted he govern by religious law, and about the similar confrontation of King Saul and the prophet Samuel, who first crowned Saul and then brought him down because he disobeyed God’s command to slaughter the Amalekites he had vanquished. Zedekiah reflects:

Since our nation first began to be,

The Law’s upholders and the monarchy

Have been at war. Always the visionaries

Have sought to make the kings their tributaries,

As did, going back five hundred years,

The earliest of all our seers,

The son of Elkanah [Samuel]. . . .

So every prophet in his hour

Has sought to get the king under his power.

What Samuel did to Saul is what

I met with from the man of Anatot [Jeremiah],

And what awaits each ruler of our nation

Until the final generation.

I see how on that distant day

The son of Hilkiah [Jeremiah] will have his way.

His dispensation will prevail;

All governance will founder and then fail;

Our people, erudite in chapter and in verse,

Will go from woe to woe and bad to worse.

I see . . . alas, I see!

What the blind king saw, the king-elect is blind to.

To my friend in Portugal, I wrote:

If there is still a difference between us, it is that you take satisfaction (though I hope not just that) in what has happened and I feel only pain. And there is another difference, too. You put the blame on Zionism, and I put it on Judaism, of whose fantasies and delusions Zionism sought to cure us only to become infected with them itself. Zionism wanted to make us a normal people. It failed and grew warped in the process. Yet today, too, I honor the physician who sought to heal the patient rather than save only his own skin.


I never credited the warnings, sounded by many over the years, that the expansion of the settlements would bring Israel to the point of no return. I believed that in the end, sooner or later, however long it took, the only feasible solution, the one solution yet to be tried, would be seized on and the need recognized for two closely linked states, an Israel and a Palestine, sharing one country, with Arabs living in the Jewish state and Jews living in the Arab one. And this being the case, what difference did it make if there were one hundred thousand Jews already living in the future Arab state, or two hundred thousand, or half a million? However many there were, they would be part of the solution, not the problem.

I was (as I often was told) naive. The point of no return was indeed not a question of numbers. It was the point at which there would be too much recrimination, too much distrust, too much hatred, too much blind conviction, too much disdain for the notion of a shared humanity, for such a solution to be possible. What settler today would be willing to live under Palestinian sovereignty? What Palestinian would want settlers as his neighbors? And perhaps this wasn’t even a point that had to be reached. Perhaps it was, all along, the starting point.

And so that won’t work, either. We’re over the cliff and falling, and no one knows how far down the ground is.

I wrote my friend:

What more can I say? We’re both old now. Neither of us will live to see the end of this. I will die, anguished, in my country and among my people, and you will die, tranquil, among foreigners in a foreign land, and it is good that you don’t envy me and that I don’t envy you, and that each of us will have the death he chose.

Editor’s Note: We are continuing the lively and critical conversation on Israel’s political future with responses from some of today’s most interesting and engaging thinkers about Israeli politics. Click here to read more. 

Comments

  1. Steven Aschheim

    I completely agree with Hillel Halkin's analysis. He is, of course, not the first person to engage in such thoughts. Many people who do not live in Israel have heard of the dire but in many ways accurate predictions of Yeshayahu Leibowitz's as to Israel's future. Far fewer, I believe, have heard of Yehoshua Arieli (1916-2002), Professor of History at the Hebrew University, a deeply cultured, life-long committed Zionist, and wonderfully compassionate and wise man. This is what he very presciently wrote already in September 1997: "It becomes harder and harder to bear what is going on here in the public sphere. Even when disaster strikes us as the last suicidal mass atrocities in Jerusalem, one feels that one is manipulated and the agony of the bereaved, wounded and traumatized ones is exploited and utilized, in order to achieve political ends which will led to even more bloodshed. The alignment of the 'vires obscuranti', in German 'Dunkelmaenner', which are in power and are trying by all means to undo what little had been achieved on the road to peace, lacking the most elementary decency toward the Palestinians, aims at a total revision. I don't think it is far-fetched to look at what is going on, after the murder of Rabin, as a kind of Jewish counterrevolution with camouflaged Putsch element added, headed by Bibi and his Cabal members.....The price to be paid for such counterrevolution, fashioned after the American Ultra-reactionary congressional Republican faction, is among others trying to subject the country to an alliance of the most regressive elements who aim to subject the Jewish state to the halacha as well as to the Biblical command 'to inherit the country', and the mentality of the Ghetto. This is all the more threatening as the present Opposition has ever, since it has lost power, proven completely impotent.....we have here a typical case of the unforeseen or only partly foreseen consequence of an ideological revolution, the attempt to realize a most daring Utopia, to create out of nothing a people, a state, a country, a culture, a homeland in a land which belonged to others."

  2. Ze'ev Wurman

    Living outside the country I may be naive, yet there is a question nagging at me.

    The new coalition's broad principles were known for weeks. The religious turn that Israeli politics took has been obvious (and discussed) for years. How come those so-called centrists and left-wing "secular Zionists" still refused to enter Bibi's coalition when it was clear he *will* be the next PM and if they won't join him, he will be captured by the religious/messianic extreme demands?

    In the past, in dire times, the major Zionist parties from both sides joined forces facing national crises. Is their personal hatred of Netanyahu is so much stronger than their professed love of secular Zionism? Are they any better than Bibi?

    1. Lawrence Weinman

      Mr. Wurman: The allocation (and creation) of new ministers was not known in advance..nor were the details of "legal reform" announced within a week of the coalition taking power (we're waiting for anything as detailed on housing, cost of living , and bascially every other issue domestic or foreign.
      As for "joining the coalition: it's a case of been there done that. Bibi has executed his hug in the front knife in the back with a long list of left/moderates including within his own party. Here's a partial list Gantz,Lapid,Livni, Amir Peretz, Dan Meridor,Benny Begin,Benet,Shaked. It's not for nothing Smootrich is on tape on an open mike saying Bibi is a "shakran ben shakran" (liar son of a liar) for now Smootrich/Ben Gvir are on the receiving end of Bibi's unprecedented giveaway : "sub minisries" within domestic security ministry (ben gvir) and defense ministry (smootrich).....that's just the start. Take a look at the hebrew media or if you prefer english skip haaretz if you like read ynet owned by the mainstrean yediot acharanot.
      As for personal hatred I think you're looking in the wrong direction: check what Bibi puts on social media and his sons vitriol on social media which has earned him fines for libel.
      There's a reason Bibi gave hour long interviews to Bari Weiss,Jordan Peterson and Tikva (a driving force through kohelet of bibi's legal reforms) and hasnt given a similar hour plus interview in hebrew to informed israeli journalists and declined offers of campaign debates.
      Just a few thoughts what you see from here you dont see from there (or more accurately could see if you had hebrew competence to follow our media unfiltered)

  3. Robert Licht

    Although Mr Halkin is fond, paradoxically, of quoting the Hebrew prophets, he’s really more at home as Cassandra predicting tragedy. Here is Rabbi Sacks on this subject:

    …there is a fundamental difference between a prophecy and a prediction. If a prediction comes true, it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true, it has failed. A prophet delivers not a prediction but a warning. He or she does not simply say, “This will happen,” but rather, “This will happen unless you change.” The prophet speaks to human freedom, not to the inevitability of fate.

    Why is Mr Halkin more at home with Cassandra’s predictions? Because, as a zionist of the realist persuasion, he believes that the promise of zionism was to restore to the Jews normalcy as a people. Never mind that the Jews were never “normal” to begin with, and their threatened survival as a people apart was the reason for zionism in the first place. Part of this return to normalcy is the jettisoning of Judaism, of which Mr Halkin makes no secret he favors. So, when the representatives of Judaism become, in his view, the bad actors in Israeli politics, he is not surprised. Never mind that, as political actors, they have real interests that they will pursue even if their opponents believe those interests illegitimate. In Mr. Halkin’s view of the return to normalcy, one’s political opponents can magically be deligitimized as unworthy of the zionist dream of normalcy.
    The young, too, have betrayed democracy, in his view. Never mind that they, unlike the ultra religious, do serve in the IDF, pursue educations to make a living and to raise families, even if not as numerous as the religious, and who will also be the future of the normalized Jews in their own state. They are the cause of its coming tragedy. What kind of democratic normalcy is that?
    Jews now, he complains, vote in “blocs” alienated from one another. But a party system based on ideological slicing has to have political blocs to even function. Why is that not also “normal”?
    And then there are the Palestinians who are not treated decently and humanely, whose murderous behaviors should not have served as incitement to Jews. I assume because Jews, as Jews, should rise above such behavior. If only we had treated the Palestinians realistically and decently and given them a future of hope, Israel would have peace and security. Mr Halkin concedes that they are driven by grievance, the politics of which cannot be promising for their democratic future. In his view we are ever compounding their grievances. But what if the grievances lie at the heart of their self-identity and cannot be mollified without their return to dominance over Jews, the rightful order of things according to Islam and Arab custom and tradition? What if there is no political solution to this conundrum? What must Israel do, what must Israel be, as a “normal” state? “Keep on keeping on” would seem to be the anodyne answer. Does that require that the Palestinians continue to be ruled without their consent, and that they must be forced to share their land with Jewish settlers? In the Israeli democracy nothing “requires” this; it is the genius of “keeping on” that is the only hope for both ameliorating and defending against apparently unsolvable difficulties. As Rabbi Sacks said, “The Prophet speaks to human freedom, not the inevitability of fate.”

    1. roye m

      Setting aside the total amorality of your argument (a tacit admission that the Israeli right sees the Palestnians as feudal kings saw peasants), as an American Jew I do have to say the utter confidence from the Israeli government, electorate, and apparently from critics of the article that Israel has total impunity to do whatever it wants, forever, and unquestioned American support will never change (and if it is acknowledged they simply revert to pointing out that Israel is no longer directly reliant on American funding, as if that would mean that everything would go swimmingly without for instance, a barrier against the UN Security Council). I suppose in many respects your ilk have earned dealing with future president Alexandra Ocasio Cortez.

    2. Jonathan Seidel

      Mr Licht’s response is an outstanding analysis and extremely literate and reasonable to my mind. I appreciate the references to Rabbi Sacks ז״ל

  4. Shalom Freedman

    I will begin by saying I have very great respect and appreciation for the writings of Hillel Halkin. I will also say I share his anxiety over the future of Israel and recognize how much truth there is in what he has written here. However, there are certain points I disagree with him on. And I respectfully present them here.
    1) He is far too even-handed in apportioning blame for the situation with the Palestinians. After rejection of the Barak and Olmert offers, most Israelis have come to believe that the Palestinian leadership does not want anything other than the destruction of Israel and a Palestine in which there are no Jews at all.
    2) There still is the possibility of a Center Right Zionist government which does not include the ultra-Orthodox.
    3) There is no mention of the absolute unfairness of the United Nations and the majority of the world's media in its attacks on Israel and how this precludes our being a normal nation.
    4) Nothing is said about the great contribution the religious Zionists make serving in the Army now. And there is no consideration of the large part of this share of the electorate that had no representation in the most recent election.
    5) While I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu should have resigned and allowed the creation of an alternative coalition headed by the Likud there seems to me a strong case for his argument that the court-cases against him are a result of a biased system deliberately aiming to incriminate him.
    6) A more general point. 'Demographic doom" based on continuation of present trends as disciples of Malthus and Paul Ehrlich might have learned is often mistaken prophecy.
    7) Finally, I agree this is a troubling time, and not only because of our apparently insoluble situation with the Palestinians but because there is an Islamic nation on the verge of nuclear weapons aiming to destroy us either by use of its surrogates or through its own nuclear arsenal.

  5. Louis D Levine

    Halkin's piece has been with me continually since I read it, and has been the subject of dinner party conversation. IAfter one last night, I forwarded the link to those who were there, with the following comment.

    Here is the link to Hillel Halkin's piece.https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/contemporary-israel/12801/on-that-distant-day/
    It is indeed very dark, but it is also deep - the work of someone who has been wrestling with these issues for well over half a century.  And it is quite beautifully written.  As I may have said, I spent much of that half century disagreeing with Halkin, but as he says, "This time it is different." 

    He concludes the article with a quote from a letter to a friend.

    "What more can I say? We’re both old now. Neither of us will live to see the end of this. I will die, anguished, in my country and among my people, and you will die, tranquil, among foreigners in a foreign land, and it is good that you don’t envy me and that I don’t envy you, and that each of us will have the death he chose."

    Halkin and I are contemporaries, so I too will not live to see the end of this.  But if the friend to whom he is writing is anything like me, someone who has lived in Israel, who has been intimately entangled with it since the year I spent there in 1957-58, whose life was transformed by that relationship in ways beyond measure, I can venture that his friend will not die "tranquil among foreigners in a foreign land," but anguished in his community, a community that has never before felt more welcomed it the place it has settled, and that feels that Israel has become ""a foreign land" estranged from so much that he was brought up to believe is good and right.  This is certainly not the death that I would choose for myself, but we do not get to chose what king of death we will have any  more than we chose the birth that started the journey.

  6. Jonathan H Gerard

    Hillel Halkin's conclusions are painful. I hope, as was cited of Rabbi Sacks, that they become prophecy rather than prediction. An addition to the conversation: Israel is a client state; America is its patron. (Jews have, throughout history, sought to find patrons who would protect us.) Hamas and Hezbollah are also clients; Iran is their patron. (The Palestinians have a history of stupidity when choosing a patron; hence their situation. Even the UN is a failed sponsor.) A solution, therefore, is most likely to come when America and Iran find it in their common interest to create a two state solution. Thinking about this geopolitical reality further darkens hope for the future.

  7. David Farkas

    In the same paragraph, Halkin notes that that the move toward religion in Israeli life goes against the trend in Western countries, and asserts that many of the Israelis who voted for the current Gov't believe that "God is on their side."

    Concerning the former, we might reply that this is exactly the point. Why, indeed, should contemporary Western "culture", if such it can be called, be viewed as a role model for anything? Does he not realize that the exact same questions he has of Israel’s future, are now being asked by millions of Americans about their own? Instead of despairing, Halkin should take a step back and ponder if Israel's new direction is the canary in the coalmine showing where America will eventually head.

    As for the latter, Halkin is too intelligent not to know that accusing religious voters of believing "God is on their side" is a crude stereotype for much more nuanced and thought-out positions. And he must surely agree that non-religious voters believe just as fervently that the Voice of Morality, or the Voice of Intelligence - merely gods of different names - is on theirs. If Halkin has a problem with the election results, then, his beef can only be with the very concept of Democracy itself. And if so, rather than blaming his fears for the democracy of Israel on the tired old bogeymen of Bibi and "the ultra-orthodox", he should really be asking himself if he truly ever believed in the concept in the first place.

  8. David Greenstein

    Response to Hillel Halkin – David Greenstein

    Hillel Halkin’s belated and inadequate cri de coeur is to be welcomed. Perhaps it will be a small step in a process that we need to undergo in order to repair the destruction we have brought on ourselves. Perhaps. Admitting that the Jewish people faces a catastrophic tragedy is not easy to do, as we see from some of the comments already posted in response to his essay.
    But it must still be said that his analysis is inadequate. Halkin insists that there are good guys – secular Zionists – and bad guys – religious Jews – in this story. And, of course, since he is a secular Zionist, he can count himself as one of the good guys. At most he may be guilty of “naivete.”
    But finger-pointing and self-exculpation will not help us. Halkin, despite his intelligence and learning, is not willing to acknowledge that religious Judaism is capable of teaching a more open, democratic Torah. Such a possibility is only weakly in evidence now, but it exists. And, on the other hand, Halkin refuses to see the sins of secular Zionism. The settlements were actively supported by that camp out of a blinkered colonialist and nationalist fueled moral obtuseness. Halkin is just as guilty as all of us for allowing this to go on. Both sides – we all - have choices. We have made very bad choices.
    It is also disappointing that Halkin cannot resist a smug ending, arrogating the moral credit of suffering to himself, as he dies heroically, in noble anguish, in his homeland, with his people, and denying any moral standing to his erstwhile friend. Who were the true moral heroes in pre-war Germany – those (non-Jews) who left their homeland broken-hearted and disgusted, or those who stayed and did not stop the horror?

  9. David Chinitz

    What is astonishing, but not surprising, is that neither Halkin or his critics, mention the main source of what ails Israel and the Jewish people: The lack of a concerted strategy, on the part of both American Jewish Institutions as well as the entrenched interests in the Israeli establishment, aimed at populating Israel with a sizable broad cross section of American Jews making aliyah by choice. This pathology, which goes all the way back to the failure of Babylonian Jewry to respond to Cyrus' encouragement to return to the land of Israel. Israel, unfortunately, gets the government it deserves that reflects its population, and the Diaspora gets the Israel it deserves. Aliyah is the issue, all the rest is commentary.

Suggested Reading

The Beginning of Politics

The Beginning of Politics

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Leon Kass hadn't really read the Bible until he found himself teaching Genesis to freshmen at the University of Chicago. Three decades later, he published his widely acclaimed The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Now he’s published his commentary on Exodus.