Ever since what Hillel Halkin calls my “bloc” lost Israeli elections, I have tried various therapies to manage my disappointment—and fear. I visited Susya, the ancient town near Hebron, examining the partially reconstructed synagogue from 300 CE to remember that, as Halkin acknowledges, these disputed lands are “part of my people’s heritage.” I read Benjamin Netanyahu’s memoir Bibi to remember that Netanyahu helped transform Bureaucracy Central into Start-Up Nation and, for all my criticisms, has not played with the lives of my four children, who have all served as soldiers under him. And finally, I went on two US speaking tours that stirred my instinctive Israeli patriotism and Zionist optimism after encountering so many American Jewish critics who are unhinged, unsophisticated, and unkind.
When I read Halkin’s sobering essay, “On That Distant Day,” I needed a bolder intervention. I needed a soaring, inspiring injection of historical perspective, Zionist passion, and Jewish hope. The prescription was obvious: I reread Halkin’s rousing Letters to an American Jewish Friend, including his preface to the book’s 2013 rerelease.
When Halkin’s “Zionist polemic” appeared in 1977, he was swimming against the historical tide. The Israel he celebrated was fragile, harsh, and depressed. As Halkin recalled in 2013, “Israel was an angry place then. It was still licking its [Yom Kippur War] war wounds. Taxes had been raised on everything to meet the war’s costs and Israelis were struggling to make ends meet. The future looked bleak. . . .” Halkin also recognized that for many American Jews, “Israel was no longer the can-do-no-wrong country it had been for them in 1967.”
The Israel Halkin moved to in 1970 was a provincial backwater run by an undemocratic, heavy-handed Branja, the clique of Israel’s WASPs—White Ashkenazi Sabras with Protekzia. “Protekzia,” that Israeli-made fuel that greased the few blue-and-white wheels that actually revolved then, required kowtowing to the Labor Party.
Nevertheless, we young American Zionists in Young Judaea worshipped these mostly Eastern European-born Israeli superheroes, barely aware of the social, cultural, and political damage they wrought in founding the state, absorbing nearly two million new citizens, and protecting the country from its murderous neighbors.
Halkin knew the cost outsiders paid—be they Mizrachim, right-wingers, or olim—but he still loved Israel. His Letters pushed us past Israel’s pressing impossibilities in order to appreciate its enduring possibilities. We absorbed his love: the faith and excitement that Israel was the most important Jewish place on Earth.
Halkin also taught that as Jews our love for Israel could not be conditional. Israel should not be on probation, with its legitimacy only accepted by other Jews, or the world, as long as it plays nice and fulfills some American Jewish fantasy.
Subsequently, Israel’s miraculous development—and democratization—made Halkin’s words easier to accept year by year. For all the challenges since 1977, starting with the shock to cultured American Jews of the “fascist” Menachem Begin’s election that May, Israel has flourished. By almost any indicator of quality of life—or democratic vitality—it’s better than ever. I challenge my Arab, LGBTQ+, female, Mizrahi, or secular friends to pick a better moment for them and their peers—individually and collectively, culturally and politically—to be Israeli.
I believe, as one of my favorite writers wrote in 2013:
There’s been nothing like it in human history. A small and ancient people loses its land and forgets how to speak its language; wanders defenselessly for hundreds, thousands, of years throughout the world with its God and sacred books; meets with contumely, persecution, violence, dispossession, banishment, mass murder; refuses to give up; refuses to surrender its faith; continues to believe that it will one day be restored to the land it lost; manages in the end, by dint of its own efforts, against all odds, to gather itself from the four corners of the earth and return there; learns again to speak the language of its old books; learns again to bear arms and defend itself; wrests its new-old home from the people that had replaced it; entrenches itself there; builds; fructifies; fortifies; repulses the enemies surrounding it; grows and prospers in the face of all threats. Had it not happened, could it have been imagined? Would anyone have believed it possible?
My family reads that passage of hopeful Halkinism at our seder each year—and will continue the tradition.
So, what we have here is a case of clashing crystal balls: mine is sunnier, Halkin’s is cloudier. I hope I am right, but who knows if Halkin’s new pessimism or my ongoing, Halkin-nurtured optimism will be vindicated? As an historian, it’s hard enough to predict the past, so I won’t touch the future. I do know that the daily texture of Israeli democracy—what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “habits of the heart,” what I call the songs of the street—is far stronger than Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, or Deri, let alone Bibi.
Finally, while I cannot quibble about what tomorrow will bring, I will, with trepidation, question Halkin’s interpretation of what Zionism delivered. Zionists long ago stopped trying to de-Judaize Israel and make the Jewish State “normal.” Zionism was always deeply Jewish, charmingly idealistic, massively ambitious, and frequently messianic. When I examined hundreds of Zionist texts to prepare my recent anthology The Zionist Ideas, I sought one expression of Zionist normalcy, one leading Zionist affirming that the only thing Zionists desire is to “live at last as free people on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die.” But Theodor Herzl himself, who concluded Der Judenstaat, his 1896 Zionist manifesto, with those words, could not stop there. He believed—along with every other secular mainstream Zionist—that fulfilling our particularist dream, catalyzed by Jewish values, would do universal good. “The world,” Herzl gushed, “will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.”
So, yes, I am appalled. I fear that this government has unleashed demons of bigotry, demagoguery, gay-bashing, sexism, and anti-Arab hatred that will be hard to tame. I don’t want the Israeli taxpayer drained—further—to subsidize ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists on the dole. And constructive leaders adjust court-Knesset relations with a scalpel, not missiles. But no, I won’t give up or give into despair.
Our hope is not yet lost. I will continue fighting to reinforce Israeli democracy and expand every Israeli’s civil liberties. I will also continue to be inspired by the many Zionist dream catchers I revere, from Theodor Herzl to my friend, my role model, my hope-generator when things were far bleaker, Hillel Halkin.
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