Hillel Halkin is the reason I moved to Israel. I read his Letters to an American Jewish Friend at sixteen, and my life trajectory was changed forever—mine and that of a great many other young Jews. Hillel is, for me, Zionism incarnate, and I love him.
But even heroes can be wrong. One need look no further than the beginning of Halkin’s eloquent lamentation to see how. That is where he informs us that his erstwhile Jewish neighbor—who voted for anti-Zionist Arab parties and then jumped ship to live out his days in a Portuguese villa—is in the right, whereas we, who vote for emphatically Zionist parties like the Likud, Ha-Tzionut Ha-Datit, and Otzmah Yehudit, and who will never leave this country under any circumstances (even if the radical left takes control), we are the problem.
And, for Halkin, the fact that we are the problem—that we represent the very ruination of the Zionist enterprise and that the government we elected consists of a bunch of “rascals”—doesn’t require any real explanation. It is an axiom that sets the stage for the real question: is there any chance that we benighted, barbarous Neanderthals can be ejected from the corridors of power and sent back to our caves?
Readers of Halkin’s heartfelt requiem are supposed to take as a given that Benjamin Netanyahu’s “only demonstrated principles [are] his own ambition and survival.” It is, apparently, beyond the realm of possibility that this prime minister, who has spent his entire life in the service of the State of Israel, is motivated even partially by any lingering vestiges of genuine Zionist idealism.
The ultra-Orthodox, for their part, are—well—ultra-Orthodox: a bunch of black-hat, backward medievalists who—just like Netanyahu—harbor no ideals whatsoever. Their political parties “will always join hands with whoever most fully grants their religious and financial demands.” Describing the Ashkenazi party United Torah Judaism, Halkin writes that it “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.” Political parties that seek to benefit their constituents? Shocking! Almost as shocking as the fact that these money-grubbing opportunists channel such funds primarily into the promotion of Torah study, rather than into buying larger houses, more ornate furniture, or fancier—or any—cars.
These unenlightened free riders, continues Halkin, “do not participate in the workforce”—this, despite a fresh study conducted by The Israel Democracy Institute showing that 53% of ultra-Orthodox males and 80% of ultra-Orthodox females are gainfully employed, and that almost half of the haredi population volunteers regularly in charity organizations which—as any Israeli who has ever needed an ambulance, a free meal, assistance with his special-needs kid, or a gratis mobility scooter for his grandmother will readily attest—hugely benefit all sectors of society, secular as well as religious.
Oh, and their religious school systems “do not teach basic subjects like English and mathematics.” Now English is currently the bane of Israel’s existence (as we shall see momentarily below), and is, at any rate, on its way out as the international lingua franca as a result of exponentially improving simultaneous translation software. As for math, I will pit your average ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student against the valedictorian of Israel’s most elite secular high school in a logic and reasoning contest any day of the week.
Of course, all of the above sidesteps the most salient point: that the ultra-Orthodox, whatever our differences may be with them, have always been, and remain today, the Jewish People’s backbone. If we could ever stop demonizing them daily in the media, celebrating every child of theirs who defects to Tel Aviv bohemianism or a life of debauched promiscuity, and stop striving like the dickens to coerce them into adopting our modern Western worldviews and lifestyles—most of which fly in the face of thousands of years of sacred Jewish tradition—then the ultra-Orthodox might just come out of their self-enforced insularity and become one of Israel’s greatest assets.
But Halkin’s real nemeses are the newly ascendant religious Zionists, like the “hypernationalist and Jewish supremacist” parties. If by these epithets Halkin means that their members and supporters care more for Jews—their national family—than they do for the enemies of the Jews; that they are hell-bent on putting a stop to the weekly slaughter of innocent Jewish civilians by Arab terrorists; and that they believe that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish People, and oppose the erection of a jihadist Palestinian polity controlled by Hamas, then this is just classical Zionism. Ben-Gurion would affix his signature to these propositions as quickly and unhesitatingly as Ben-Gvir.
Halkin seeks to decipher for his readers the conundrum of the rise of the religious right. “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….” Let us leave aside the particular Jewish sickness of rising above the quarrel and taking the neutral, God’s-eye view (true Zionist normalcy consists in taking one’s own side). The real problem here is Halkin’s patronizing assumption that the “fear and fury” engendered by all this mutual escalation has led many Israelis to “vote for the parties that best express these emotions.” We right-wing voters politely and calmly—not, God forbid, emotionally or furiously—beg to take exception to the imputation that we make our choices in the ballot box solely based on our inflamed kishkes.
Here are just a few of our rational reasons for ushering in the new government:
First of all, we, who aren’t headed for Portugal any time soon and whose children and grandchildren will, God willing, grow up here in Israel, want peace more than anybody. We believe, as has many an Israeli strategist hailing from both sides of the political-ideological divide, that peace will come only if we are strong, and only if we are insistent on our rights to this land. In addition, we have noted that when the liberal left-leaning Yair Lapid was at the helm, he came up with no better or more humane ideas for dealing with the conflict than any of his predecessors (including Rabin and Peres). We also remember that only two Israeli governments brought about peace deals of any worth—the Camp David agreement and the Abraham Accords—and they were both right-wing.
Some of us also know (and no one knows better than Halkin) that what offended the Palestinians most deeply about the fin de siècle Zionist arrivals was not the pioneers’ religiosity, but their secularism. Others of us know that the Qur’an’s central beef with the Jews is that they are not sufficiently assiduous in observing the Torah’s commandments. In short, we right-wing voters venture that our loyalty to our religious tradition is not necessarily an obstacle, and may well represent an advantage,in the struggle to find a modus vivendi between us and our adversaries.
Moreover, a large proportion of Israelis—especially, but not exclusively, those on the secular left—no longer remember why this country exists. For several decades now I have lectured IDF intelligence units on various Middle Eastern and Islamic topics. I always make sure to throw in the reminder that “the State of Israel was created, and continues to exist, for one purpose: to ensure the survival and prosperity of the Jewish People.” In response, my audiences make equally sure to voice their virtually unanimous dismay at my unprecedentedly “racist,” “obscurantist,” and “fascist” statement.
It’s not their fault; it’s Zionism’s fault. The Zionist luminaries spent all day every day pondering the “Jewish Question,” but they were particularly determined that the new, “normalized” Jew who grew up in the homeland would do nothing of the sort. They sought to create a generation that was no longer plagued by the neurotic preoccupation with our nation’s past and future, a generation that lived healthily in the here and now, and related to its geographical location in the same manner that every other nation relates to theirs: as a place to live, and nothing more. And in this the Zionists succeeded.
So today, and for some time now, even the average, “centrist” Israeli will tell you that his or her “Zionism” involves creating or maintaining a liberal, democratic, egalitarian, inclusive, individualist, environmentally conscious, economically prosperous, globally connected, etc., etc., society. Many of these goals are worthy, but none of them were what Zionism was about, and, what is far more serious, none of them can provide a compelling raison d’être today for the continued, long-term existence of the State of Israel in a hostile Middle East as the national home of the Jewish People.
Moreover, the fact that many of the above universalist (i.e., European-American) objectives cause profound pain and concern to a growing segment of Israeli citizenry is roundly ignored. Orthodox Jews who seek to create gender-segregated spaces in academia and elsewhere, so that they can learn a profession and participate more fully in Israeli society, are forbidden to do so by the Israeli Supreme Court. Religious male soldiers are told, in the face of their strongly held beliefs, that they must ride in their tanks together with female counterparts. “Gay Pride Month” is celebrated in dozens of Israel’s major cities, including Jerusalem, with elaborate fanfare; there is no “Torah Month.” (And while we’re on the subject, Itamar Ben-Gvir just publicly affirmed that he opposed discriminatory laws against the LGTBQ community, and that “If my son told me he was a homosexual, I would hug him.”)
Not surprisingly, the large section of the Israeli populace that no longer views this country as a vessel for the perpetuation, welfare, growth, and development of the Jewish People not only acts without reference to Zionism, it acts in ways that directly undermine Zionism.
Hebrew, revived (mostly by the secular left) after two thousand years spent in a coma, and made into the basis for the resplendent Jewish national renaissance in our old-new land, is on its way out in Israel, and with it our collective uniqueness. Shop signs, company names, and marketing slogans throughout the country are now often solely in English. Israel’s two main television stations are called HOT and YES. The vast majority of the youth listen to mostly American music, which is also the default choice in the cafes, restaurants, stores, and malls. Every Israeli knows that the only way to induce Israeli army radio, or any other secular station, to play more than two songs in a row in Hebrew is for over seven of our citizens to die horribly in a terrorist attack. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem—founded by the likes of Ussishkin, Ahad Ha’Am and Bialik—has announced that it is inaugurating a pan-university eradication of Hebrew in favor of English as its pedagogical language.
Many high tech companies in Israel throw annual Christmas parties for their Jewish employees. Returning from Britain this past Hanukkah, a huge Christmas tree welcomed me to Ben Gurion Airport, and its faux-evergreen friends accompanied me step by step, store by store, all the way through Baggage Pick-Up to Passport Control to the waiting taxi. It appears that Halkin’s (rather jarring) complaint that Zionism has not succeeded in curing us of our Judaism was misplaced: the cure, it appears, is underway!
But a goodly number of Israelis are still “sick”: we know that without maintaining at least a hefty portion of the traditions, the rituals, the customs, the learning, the dos and the don’ts of Judaism, Zionism and the State of Israel don’t stand a chance. We know that unless we keep present in our minds our polity’s Jewish nationalist raison d’être, and keep at bay those universalist, Western-based notions that are geared by definition to undermine nationalism in all its forms, this country is done for.
True, finding the way to fuse the many demands on our minds and hearts involved in being simultaneously Jews, Zionists, and human beings will be no easy task. But we have no choice but to engage in that task, without allowing any of those components of our identity to fall by the wayside (as the Left has so clearly done).
No less true, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows no signs of abating. On the contrary: what little dialogue there once was between us and them has virtually disappeared (under the Left no less than the Right). We now communicate via weapons alone. But if, God forbid, our enemies remain utterly implacable no matter what overtures or compromises we make—which is a distinct possibility—then I confess I’d rather have a fierce, hawkish Zionist in the cockpit than a progressive, Westernized wimp for whom this land, and the people who have returned to it after two millennia of incomparable suffering, don’t mean all that much.
Hillel Halkin knows every single thing I have written here, and then some. His inflamed kishkes got the better of him, that’s all. And I know, despite my own somewhat splenetic critique above, that nobody in the State of Israel is more qualified than Halkin to assist us in the truly Samsonian project of merging our Jewish, Zionist, and human selves into one effective force for good. So I think—I know!—that consigning himself to an anguished demise up there on the Zikhron Yaakov promontory—a sort of Moses on Mount Nebo in reverse—is extremely premature.
Don’t give up on us, Hillel. We need you.
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