Method to Our Madness: A Response to Hillel Halkin

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.


  1. Phil Cohen

    I always write with caution when entering upon a debate among Israelis. I am not one. I am only a passionate and deeply sympathetic Israel watcher, perhaps a dying breed here in the US. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond briefly to Professor Maghen's critical response to Hillel Halkin's despairing essay.

    Looking at things from the diaspora, the election of the current government is not problematic because of its rightward shift. Speaking personally, I've long become accustomed to that growing phenomenon as an interesting contrast to the American Jewish predilection for the left. (In the event, "left" and "right" mean different things in the two countries.)

    So it's not per se about Netanyahu's third return to power in his long political career that troubles me. It's not, theoretically at least, about the strongest Orthodox presence in this government of any preceding it.

    It is, rather, the presence of personalities whose politics threaten many groups within the Israeli polity, none of whom Prof. Meghan discusses at any length. I'm delighted, by the way, that Mr. Ben Gvir is prepared to hug a gay or lesbian child, should such materialize in his family, unless, of course, it was a gem intended for public consumption either before or after his provocative stroll on the Temple Mount.

    But I am concerned about what Mr. Maoz, whose single obsession appears to be with disenfranchising the gay and lesbian population. Speaking of Mr. Ben Gvir, I'm bemused at the notion of a man with no serious administrative experience running an agency that includes control over some elements of the police population.

    I'm further bemused at the presence of a convicted criminal in the form of Rabbi Deri, for whom a special law needs to be passed to allow him to serve in the Knesset and then in a ministerial position. At the very least Prof. Maghen should be profoundly embarrassed at this state of affairs. This does not even mention the Prime Minister's own legal problems, the concern over which, it is rumored, Bibi built this coalition in the first place, having alienated so many of his natural Likud allies.

    As for the Haredi population, I read the same statistic attesting to a 53% male and 80% female working population. But this statistic is offered here just a bit disingenuously. First of all, with all due respect, the number of men at work means that 47% of Haredi men are not earning a living. Perhaps they're too busy giving out free meals, but more likely they're in the beis medresh studying Talmud. Perhaps that activity does give them powers of logic that a secular Israeli does not possess. But the secular Israeli's (man and woman) knowledge of math, English (I'm not prepared to acknowledge the existence of translator devices will supplant a knowledge of English anytime soon), science, literature beyond the Rabbis, place them in a much better position to support their families and support the Israeli economy than the places in the workforce occupied by both the 53%-ers and the 80%-ers. This is before we account for the longstanding Israeli complaint that this population does little in either the IDF or any other form of national service. Their contribution to the Israeli economy and its defense is, objectively, a problem, and it's enormously disingenuous of the professor to deny it, the good works of Haredi Jews notwithstanding.

    Beyond these issues, I am severely cautioned by the alarm sounded by the many Israeli (note:Israeli, not the Tom Friedmans out there) commentators I read and listen to, men and women who are normally more sanguine about things political in their country than they are at the moment, including Mr. Halkin (whose Letters to an American Friend I, too devoured in its day). And while I am aware that this last point amounts to the philosophical fallacy of begging the question, the weight of numbers here I find, if not determinative, at least cautionary.

    Whether Israel has gone off the cliff, as Halkin claims, I am not sufficiently Israeli to prognosticate. On that matter I surely hope he is wrong, as I have plans to continue my longstanding relationship with the Jewish State. However, I do not find Meghan's response to constitute a persuasive refutation.

    1. David Becker

      In response to Mr. Cohen:

      First my biases. I too, am a fan of Mr. Halkin in all of his books, including his vacation in Gaza. I too am an American looking at Israel from abroad, though because of that I tend not to comment critically on it, at least without a couple decades of hindsight. I didn't criticize Shalom Achshav overly much when it was a force and I was living in Israel attending yeshiva. My secular friends (my best secular friend was/is openly homosexual but his mom was traditional Moroccan and had me over for shabat fairly frequently) all supported Shalom Achshav. And they have since moved "rightward," even if not all the way to Likud. I have always been on the right and liked Netanyahu best when he was privatizing stuff. Despite being virulently Orthodox, I am probably most comfortable with Likud out of all the parties, though like many Jews none are a perfect fit.

      But unlike your response, Mr. Halkin's essay was not concerned with petty politics. If the right people had the criminal record of Mr. Deri (sorry I hate using that title when he so clearly should have had it revoked) or the inexperience of Mr. Ben-Gvir (I take your word for it--as far as I know he'll get the right staff and be just fine) we wouldn't have had Mr. Halkin's article. Yes, those are always things to bemoan. I wouldn't vote for Shas and I wish Shas would have the fortitude and vision to have jettisoned Deri long ago. So perhaps you're right that some of those in government shouldn't be there. I don't know if there was a time in Israeli politics that wasn't so, but that also wasn't Mr. Halkin's point. He doesn't like that the government is leaning in on Israel being a Jewish country.

      As with Prof. Maghen, I have concerns about balancing the Arab (and other) population with the Jewishness of the country (I know that Hatikva always make me think about Arab soldiers singing this, yet what is the alternative) and that thinkers like Mr. Halkin are crucial. But I also understand Prof. Maghen's point (and the opinion of a clear majority of the Jewish electorate) that the values that are in danger of being lost right now are not humanitarian, but Jewish.

      Your criticism of Haredim is a numbers game. Without admitting it, you seem to disagree with Prof. Maghen's unstated postulate that having a certain number of Torah scholars studying for a few years to life is a desideratum. I might disagree that having humanist philosophers doing the same is a desideratum. But let's agree that in our culture we do value having people doing such things and the question is more about how many.

      To that end, Haredim are participating in the workforce and Israeli society more than they ever have and that is a trend. I don't want it to reverse and it should be a goal of government. Hebrew University has a Haredi outreach program, for example (as well as an Arab one), and it is not alone. But this is nothing new. What is disingenuous in Mr. Halkin's essay, is his assertion that Haredim only care about their own sector. It's just not true, and this is what Prof. Maghen (not a Haredi) is countering with his examples of hesed. Haredim are also more Zionist than they ever been in the history of the State and certainly have an interest in peace, more so than some ardent secular and religious Zionists. The Haredi leadership supported the Oslo Accords and supported land for peace when it made sense. And this is without having large numbers in the military. But they want the state to remain Jewish. Otherwise, why would they care what happens outside of their own neighborhoods as long as they receive funding and are left alone? Instead, they are fighting to stop public transportation for secular Jews and secular Jews doing public sector work on Sabbath.

      That is to say that there is no reason aside from ideology that all the parties in the previous government couldn't reach out to the Haredim and find compromise.

      Similarly, Prof. Maghen is right about his defense of Netanyahu. Obviously, people are complex, politicians want power, and water is wet. But Netanyahu, in addition to whatever petty corruption he has been involved in (and I wish he weren't and I wish he enforced a kosher diet in state dinners when traveling abroad and lots of other things), has shown himself a tireless and creative supporter of Israel. His outreach to Africa and South America alone has mostly been done quietly with enormous success. Maybe he's not fit to be PM--I wish there were someone fit to take his role, but I haven't seen it yet (and yes that is partially due to his power politics within Likud but the electorate can always vote for other parties if unhappy with him)--but to say he is only motivated by power and not by love of country and people is a gross distortion.

      I also don't know the right reforms for the judiciary, but I know they are greatly needed. As Americans, we have a Constitution. Israel never had that and perhaps it's not the right fit. But anything like that should require a supermajority, not basic laws passed by less than 40 votes with a mostly adjourned Knesset and not just created by a judiciary that does not represent the people it judges and bizarrely picks its own successors. Maybe something that was less extreme wouldn't produce as much of a backlash. I'm sure that Israel will come out just fine on that front.

      I agree with Ben-Gvir about our children, but I am also sympathetic to Maoz. The celebration of sexuality is not in keeping with Jewish norms nor any norms until about 10 years ago. Israel is behind even the US on these things and that's saying a lot. Top say that one gentleman in the Knesset bothers you when he represents what 10 years ago was fairly normal opinion (and something on which the Arab and Jewish populations might find common ground) doesn't sound like much of a criticism.

      Prof. Maghen seems to have it right and I hope that Mr. Halkin keeps with the project providing balance for the humanitarian side of things.

  2. Prof David Chinitz

    It is astonishing, but no longer surprising, that the failure, nay sabotage, on the part of Jewish institutions in North America, dovetailing with with the vested interests of the Israeli establishment, to adopt Aliyah of more Jews like Zev Maghen and Hillel Halkin as a serious strategic priority does not get any attention in this debate. The Jewish people, following the model of Babylonian Jewry, has (as Halkin himself stated in a recent podcast with Daniel Gordis) blown it again. It may not be too late (things are getting dicey for American Jews), but, especially with threats to the Law of Return and increasing concerns about population density in Israel, it is just before midnight. The ingathering of exiles that we pray for daily has encompassed only three out of the four corners of the earth. That won’t cut it.

  3. Doron Ben-Atar

    I am appalled by Magen's defense of racism, fascism, and criminality. His response to Halkin is either disingenuous or worse. In what way does the new government of Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, Strook and their Jewish supremacist allies could be a force for good? Does he really think that destroying the independent judiciary would protect the Zionist project? Would Magen approve of imprisoning the leaders of the opposition -- a proposal just raised by Zvika Fogel a Parliament member of Ben-Gvir's party and supported by another one, Almog Cohen. How would putting Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in charge of armed militias to police Palestinian lives is not an invitation for abusing the already oppressed Palestinians? Does he expect Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, two proud settler racists implicated in violence against Palestinians, to protect the Palestinians in the West Bank? I am glad the JRB has published this piece so that readers could see the moral bankruptcy of those who defend the new cabinet and its policies.

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