Originally published in 1977, Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend was hailed by Robert Alter in Commentary as a work marked by “ruthless lucidity and a “terrific impetus of personal conviction,” a book that “any Jew concerned with Israel and the future of the Jewish people ought to read.”
Today, three-and-a-half decades later, Halkin’s analysis of the existential dilemmas facing modern Jews, and in particular of the fraught relation of American Jews to Israel, has lost none of its power or resonance. Neither has his impassioned case for the Zionist solution to those dilemmas, advanced in a series of ardent and closely reasoned rejoinders to an imaginary friend’s defense of Jewish life in the Diaspora.
Long out of print, Letters to an American Jewish Friend is now being reissued. The present essay, in somewhat different form, serves as the introduction to the new edition.
It’s happened at least a half-dozen times. Somewhere—at a social gathering, after a speaking engagement, while sitting in a café—someone has come up to me and said, “You know, the reason I’m living in Israel is Letters to an American Jewish Friend.” The same is true of some portion of the reactions to the book that I received in the mail, the bulk of them in the early years after its initial publication in 1977. Of them all, the most memorable was a postcard from 1986. On one side was a photograph of Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. On the other, next to my address, was written:
Thank you for helping me find my way home.
AN AMERICAN ISRAELI JEWISH FRIEND
There was no signature.
Today, re-reading the book from cover to cover for the first time since writing it, I ask myself why it had such an effect on some people. I suppose its epistolary form had something to do with it. It drew readers in; many responded with letters of their own. Not all of these agreed with me. From my point of view, disagreement was almost as good. I had never thought I could convince American Jews to move to Israel by writing a book. I had thought I might help start an argument that was missing from American Jewish life.
1. The Imperative
The argument I had in mind wasn’t about Zionism per se. Jewish backing for Israel was rarely challenged in the 1970s; only later did some American Jewish intellectuals on the political Left begin to question not just the wisdom or morality of this or that Israeli policy but the very idea of a Jewish state. Yet I would not have argued with such people in Letters to an American Friend even had they been more common at the time. I didn’t write the book to defend Israeli policies, and I have never believed that, as a Jew, I should have to make the case for Israel’s existence to anyone. Whoever disputes it deserves to be scorned, not reasoned with.
But the Zionist consensus of the organized American Jewish community in the 1970s was of a peculiarly American kind. It had rejoiced in Israel’s establishment; it took pride in Israel’s accomplishments; it celebrated Israel’s military victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 and gave thanks when Israel beat back its enemies in the Yom Kippur War of 1973; it acknowledged that its own fate and Israel’s were intertwined. Yet it did all this from a vicarious distance. Unlike the European Zionism that led to Israel’s creation, it was not a movement of self-actualization. It was one of helping others, of philanthropy and political support.
It had always been like that. From the outset, American Zionism viewed a Jewish state as a home for Jews less fortunate than America’s—for those fleeing the Europe of the Czars or Hitler, for Holocaust survivors in the DP camps, for refugees from the Arab countries of the Middle East, for Soviet Jews imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain. Its task, as it saw it, was to assist these victims of fate or anti-Semitism to reach a Jewish homeland and be absorbed there in a secure and prosperous environment; it was not to encourage American Jews to join them. Although there were tiny American Zionist youth groups that preached and practiced aliyah, emigration, the subject was never on the American Jewish agenda.
The statistics reflected this. Between 1948 and 1964, an American Jewish community of close to six million produced an annual average of some 300 immigrants to Israel. That figure rose somewhat in the mid-1960s and, then, under the impact of the Six-Day War, jumped dramatically to nearly 8,000 annually in the years 1969-1972.
My wife and I, when we moved to Israel from New York in 1970, belonged to this surge. The war hadn’t created a sudden awareness of Israel in either of us. I had grown up in a strongly Zionist home, first visited Israel during the summer I was eighteen, and returned for a longer stay several years later. My wife, also in her late teens, had spent an entire year in Israel, falling in love with the country and returning a second and a third time. We both knew Israel well. Each of us, independently, had considered living there.
But at the time of our marriage, we were both deep into our American lives, and Israel was not in the forefront of our thoughts. It was pushed back there by the 1967 war and all that surrounded it: the fearful anxiety preceding it, the jubilant relief when it was over, the realization of how much Israel had continued to mean to us even as we were thinking of other things. We traveled there as tourists in the summer of 1968—a brief description of this trip can be found toward the end of Letters to an American Jewish Friend—and left with the understanding that we had to make up our minds. We were still young enough to do with our lives what we wanted and old enough to know we wouldn’t always be. Either we were going to live in Israel or we weren’t. Less than two years later, we decided.
I don’t remember thinking at the time that our decision made us part of a wave. Or rather, if it did, the wave was of young New Yorkers like ourselves, products of the 1960s, leaving a city we had had enough of for the challenge and excitement of other places. Some went to live in rural New England or New Mexico; we moved to Israel. The life we chose for ourselves did not seem so different from what others were choosing in America. Soon after arriving, we bought land in a small farming village and set about building a house on it.
Once we did arrive, though, we became aware that we were also part of something else. The country was full of young American Jewish immigrants like ourselves. The Six-Day War had affected them as it had affected us. For a moment it almost seemed that the one thing American Jewry had never wanted to talk about—a large American Jewish aliyah—was actually taking place. The pride and excitement of being in its avant-garde were joined to the energy and optimism that prevailed in Israel in those years, when the exhilaration of the 1967 victory had not yet entirely worn off and a more sober awareness of the problems following in its wake was only beginning to sink in.
Sobriety came with the Yom Kippur War. Israel emerged from the war’s three weeks a different country—grieving, bewildered, its confidence shaken. The triumphalism of the post-1967 years vanished all at once. The economic boom came to an end. Immigration from America fell sharply, too, dropping to 5,000 in 1973, decreasing again in 1974, and in 1975 returning to its pre-1967 level. The mass aliyah never materialized.
I wasn’t in the army during the war, not being inducted and doing my basic training until the summer of 1974. But the country was then still on a semi-wartime footing, and during my first year of reserve duty I was in uniform for two months in an infantry battalion. We had a small baby and had just moved into our new house, with no telephone because no lines were available, and it was a difficult time. I was angry that I had to be away from home so much. So was my wife.