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The author who believes that Jewish life in the Diaspora is doomed. Is he right? - A Book Review

Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist's Polemic

by Hillel Halkin*

Paperback. 272 pages. Gefen Publishing House, 2014. $19.95. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Reviewed by Joel Grossman 

 Hillel Halkin's Letters to an American Jewish Friend was originally published in 1977. While this review might seem awfully late, I note that the original work was republished with a new preface in 2013. Other than the preface, the book is unchanged.

Halkin rightly calls his book a "polemic." The literary premise he adopts is a series of letters written to an imaginary friend in the United States by the author, who made aliyah from the States. In these letters, Halkin attempts to convince his friend that he must make aliyah as well. He argues that for committed Jews to remain in the Diaspora makes no sense when the Jewish people now have available a clear alternative. He warns his correspondent that Jewish life is severely threatened outside Israel, due to assimilation and intermarriage. Ironically, he points out, when Jews were threatened in the past in countries where they were disliked and treated unequally, they banded together and kept their Jewish identity strong. Now that Jews in the U.S. are admitted to every profession and face little discrimination, they have embraced the opportunity to become like everyone else and have abandoned their Jewishness.

Halkin sums up his argument in three quick points:

"1. It is natural for a Jew who is committed to his Jewishness to seek to perpetuate Jewish life in himself and in his people.

2. For objective historical reasons, Jewish life in the Diaspora is doomed; and, conversely, such life has a possible future only in an autonomous or politically sovereign Jewish community living in its own land, that is, the State of Israel.

3. Therefore, it is natural for a Jew who is committed to his Jewishness to desire to live only in Israel."

So long as one accepts the premise of his argument in point 2, namely that Jewish life in the Diaspora is doomed, one must agree that living in Israel is the only viable alternative for a committed Jew. Of course, not all committed Jews in the Diaspora would agree with Halkin's premise. As a committed Jew living in Los Angeles, I would be the first to agree that the great freedom enjoyed by Jews in the United States, Western Europe and Australia carries with it the danger that Jews will find great comfort in melting into the host culture. But it does not necessarily follow that Jewish life in the Diaspora is doomed. One wonders how much Halkin knows about current Jewish life in, for example, Los Angeles, where a new, alternative synagogue or kosher restaurant seems to open every week.

While I don't necessarily agree with Halkin's harsh conclusion about Jewish life outside Israel, I still enjoyed the book and found it often compelling. Halkin displays great passion for his topic, and his letters show not only a very brilliant debater but also a loyal friend and raconteur. In fact, one of the joys of the book is when Halkin departs from the polemic and simply tells stories about the life he has made for himself and his family in Israel. His description of reserve duty, for example, is both moving and often hilarious. His discussions about Israel's political issues, especially how peace can be made with the Palestinians, is also fascinating.

At the end of the day I cannot say that Halkin's letters have convinced me—or would convince other committed Jews living outside Israel—to immediately pack our bags and book passage to Israel. But they certainly are eloquent and persuasive enough to make us stop and think seriously about the issue. And any author who can do that has surely succeeded.

*Hillel Halkin is a prolific author and translator. He has published hundreds of essays, articles and columns on cultural, literary and political subjects in Commentary, The New Republic, the weekly Forward, The Jewish Review of Books and elsewhere. He settled in Israel in 1970.

Joel Grossman is an arbitrator and mediator living in Los Angeles, California.

 

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