Hillel's friends can't tell if his politics are left-wing or right-wing


AS the sun set and the deepening shadows of trees loomed, it was a relief to spot the frame of a figure waiting at his gate down an isolated country lane, prudently fenced off to keep marauding wild boar at bay.

Secreted away on the fringes of Zichron Yaakov, Hillel Halkin looked precisely how I had imagined him from photographs: a youthfully alert 75-year-old, weather-beaten face topping the typical kibbutznik-style attire of jeans, t-shirt, checked shirt and, of course, sandals.

In fact, Halkin appears the very embodiment of old-style Labour Zionism, but he is wistful as he declares that, while he has stayed the same, the left has moved further left and the right further right.

One gets the sense that he speaks for many who feel stranded, as if amid the waters of an ever turbulent river on the shrinking island of a type of Zionism that no longer exists.

Even as a teenager, he dreamed of living in Israel. His first book, Letters to an American Friend: A Zionist's Polemic (1977), which has recently been republished, sets out his stall as an oleh.

It makes an ardent case for aliya against the doomed hollowness of American Jewish life, and takes the form of a platonic dialogue through an exchange of letters with a fictional, or perhaps composite, American friend.

"I still believe that 95 per cent of what I said in Letters to an American Friend is correct," he insisted.

"I was young and thought it would have an effect, and I still don't think that there is going to be a big aliya from the United States."

He even goes so far as to claim that American Jews are beginning to become uncomfortable and are trying to dissociate themselves from Israel.

All of which makes one wonder how he came to write his seventh and most recent book, a biography of revisionist Zionist Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

Halkin's friends on the left think he is on the right and his friends on the right think he is on the left.

"There are no longer any centrist parties," he mused. "For example, on the Palestinian issue, the old Labour position was much tougher than today's.

"They were more insistent that Jews had rights in this country. Labour was a very nationalistic party."

He added: "When I arrived (in Zichron), I spent a lot of time with the old timers who were the product of the First Aliya. To this day, they look upon the Labour Zionists of the Second Aliya as interlopers."

It was amid those discussions, he revealed, that he realised there were other versions of Zionist history than that of the Labour Zionist movement.

It was for all these reasons that he seems almost to have surprised himself when he reveals that he found himself voting for Menachem Begin's Likud a number of years after his arrival in 1970 in Zichron Yaakov, which he considers to have been a right-wing, mainly farming town.

This information lessens the surprise that his most recent book is on Jabotinsky.

It was written at the behest of the Yale University Press and represents a new review of Jabotinsky's life for a series entitled The New Republic.

Halkin's research led him to a new perspective and he confessed: "I would never have dreamed that, one day, I would think that Jabotinsky was a wonderful and heroic figure."

Throughout his life, he says, his ideas have changed organically and gradually.

However, his openness to different ideas seems to be a product of a literary and philosophical overlay to a childhood and adolescence growing up in New York City in what he categorises as a very Zionist home.

Its influence was compounded by spending vacations at American Labour Zionist summer camps

Although not observant since his youth, he is from an Orthodox background.

An escalation of religious sentiment meant that Halkin, who attended a Jewish school, would lay tefillin every day and fervently offer his prayers.

However, as a teenager, he started questioning traditional Jewish teachings and gradually dropped much of his religious practice.

There is a fork in his life when he had to choose between entering a religious Jewish high school or the Bronx High School of Science. Halkin believes it was to his parents' credit that they chose not to intervene in his decision-making process.

After a period of what he calls "inner struggle," the Bronx school won and this decision led to the "real opening up of the world".

Although lonely and unhappy at first, he was influenced by teacher Dorothy Appelbaum and became a fixture of the literary set in the creative writing class.

This led to his studying English literature at the New York Ivy League University, Columbia.

Out of the inspiration of his memories of this literary crowd emerged his sixth book, the novel Melisande! What Are Dreams?

The title bears the name of the star-crossed love of the protagonist Hoo's life, Melisande, and together they are enmeshed in a painful love triangle with friend Rick.

So was it autobiographical? Although Rick, admits Halkin, was based on his closest friend Nicky Goldman, who passed away at a relatively young age, the triangle was not autobiographical, he asserts.

However, I was uncomfortable asking whether Melisande represented his wife, Marcia, whom I had spied fleetingly on her way out.

When I did pick up the courage, Halkin voiced surprise that I should ask, acknowledging that most interviewers refrain from asking that type of question.

However, the response was almost a fudge with the stock author's reply, resorting to the familiar refrain of the writer's craft, always inserting friends and relatives, but with changes.

At high school, Halkin found he had both "a very Jewish side and a very American side" and muses: "I was never able to reconcile the Jewish and the American sides - to integrate them - and certainly not by living in America."

So who is Halkin? The character Hoo is, he reveals, perhaps a projection of that side of the author, further explaining a tension that appears to be the source of his personal dynamic.

"I had my Jewishly Jewish friends, my non-Jewish friends and my assimilated Jewish friends," he said.

What does he make of life now that he is advancing in years?

"It is harder, both mystically and culturally," he revealed. "One of the hardest things intellectually about growing old is nostalgia for the past and the cantankerousness of old age and the very perception that the world has taken a bad turn."

What he means by that, he clarified when prompted, is our high tech, computerised age, but then he is aware that people make much use of aids such as their smart phones.

He declared: "Israel is a very haphazard culture - spontaneous, individual and natural. It has its good and bad sides."

Halkin amuses himself by wondering about an imaginary epilogue, which could equally be with Theodor Herzl or Jabotinsky. He sets the scene at a 1940 meeting in a Paris cafe where he asks: "What do we do now?"

But Herzl refuses to answer, instead giving a quintessentially Jewish reply: "I don't know. You have to figure it out for yourself."

Returning to his formative years, Halkin says he lived in the days of radio culture, there being no TV in the house, with a "high school sub-culture of leftist American politics and a dream that they would radically change the world" - in fact "all the dreams of leftist American youth. It was," he said, "an America that still dreamed a lot, still an intellectual and political frontier that felt open."

One of his standout memories is in 1955, aged 16, at a Jewish spring work camp for youngsters in hillbilly southern Tennessee.

The group was based in tents and connected to the Highlander Folk School, which operated illegally as the only integrated school.

Halkin recollected: "They didn't like negroes, but hated urban whites even more."

This is illustrated by a tale he tells of an event a few years prior to their arrival, when the Ku Klux Klan drove up from Chattanooga with guns, but the hillbillies, with their rifles, succeeded in driving them back.

Halkin proceeds to paint a sharp pen portrait of hillbilly life at that time.

"The hillbillies of the area would be the right-wing Tea Party people of today," he said.

"They led an independent life and brewed their own illegal liquor; if they were hungry they went out and shot a squirrel; they worked a couple of months if they needed some money, and grew a few crops - maybe tobacco - but white society didn't accept them."

He recalls the story of the young African-American civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, who is remembered as having changed the history of segregation in the United States by sitting in the white section of a public bus.

Halkin had witnessed her participating in workshops at the school and claims that she was trained specifically for her role.

In fact the anthem of the movement, We Shall Overcome, was written and came out of that college, he explained.

In the 1950s and 60s he taught in many places including a black college in Alabama - Tuskegee College. There he taught English literature to a "90 per cent remedial contingent and a few brilliant kids".

He recalls spending one night in a cell in Selma, Alabama, next to a certain Martin Luther King.

Halkin spent a year in the UK in 1991 on a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge.

In Britain, he was struck by the enormous difference between American and British Jews, the former being "rambunctious" and the latter preferring to keep a low profile.

On his return to the States, he took on two jobs for the American publication, The Forward, writing about the Gulf War and becoming its Israel correspondent from 1993-6.

He continues as the anonymous author of the column Philologist, in which he examines words in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and English, and pens occasional columns for the newspaper.

His Israel Diary column, from 1993-96, led him to a variety of experiences.

One such experience was a visit to a suicide tent in Gaza after the murder of hitchhikers near Bet Lid, a major junction near Netanya.

He drove into Gaza with an Arab friend to meet the family, "something that you could do then".

Halkin revealed that he has always had the ability to empathise with people.

"I can understand why someone would want to be a suicide bomber and why other people would want to go after them," he declared.

When I advise him that empathy with a suicide bomber resulted in the ousting of a certain Lib-Dem politician from a spokesman's role on the front bench by the party leadership in the UK, he quickly added: "I think that the Palestinians have been treated badly by us but a lot of that treatment has been brought on by their own behaviour.

"Ultimately, my loyalties are as a Jew. If I had to shoot one of them to protect myself, I would have no trouble."

Halkin fulfilled his national service duty with nine years in an infantry unit and repeated reserve stints serving with the UN in Sinai. He was wounded in the 1982 Lebanon War.

So who does he think is worth listening to debates about Israel's future with the Palestinians?

He believes that the only people worth talking to are those who can understand both sides.

"Both have legitimate demands, but they cannot be reconciled maybe in the long run, if it is done in an unconventional manner."

What is his solution? It echoes an article he wrote last year in The Forward and he claims that more and more people are beginning to say that we cannot go on ruling the Palestinians forever and that we cannot move Jews out of the territories.

"We moved 8,000 settlers out of Gaza," he noted. "This must never happen again and it won't happen again."

He claimed that no one in the world has ever suggested his idea that follows his reminder that a lot of that land was more or less fairly acquired, and which he summarised by declaring: "The only possible real solution is two states in one country - two really independent states.

"We cannot be separated, but need relations of equality - no masters and slaves."

"I, as a Jew, think that this entire country should be mine - just as the Palestinians think (regarding their claim). I have no problem with a one state solution if Jews are the majority - but we will always end up doing nasty things to each other.

"The Palestinians are Arabs and I see a lot of nasty things going on in the Arab world. I would not take any chances.

"I agree that we need the Israeli army on the River Jordan. The Alon plan seemed a good idea. My vision is more in line with his nowadays."

Halkin has been commissioned to write a book, entitled Judaism and Death, as part of a series.

First published in ESRA Magazine

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph