I rarely recall Theodor Herzl being as agitated as he was when he contacted me this evening, offering me the opportunity to interview him as he does periodically at times of crisis. With PM Netanyahu and Minister of Finance Yair Lapid meeting behind closed doors, he railed against the pending legislation that would enshrine Israel’s status as the nation state of the Jewish people, precipitating the current coalition rupture.
“I do my best not to intervene in your running of the state that I imagined into being,” he told me with a measure of reproach, “but when the Prime Minister invokes my name in promoting a law antithetical to all I envisioned, I simply cannot remain silent.” He was referring to remarks made by PM Netanyahu at last week’s cabinet meeting, proclaiming that the principles that would be hallowed by the law he was determined to pass were those he absorbed from his father who, he said, had absorbed them from Herzl.
“The height of chutzpa”, he barked. “Does he need reminding that it was I who wrote The Jewish State?” Herzl asked acerbically, referring to the political manifesto published in 1896, sparking the creation of the Zionist movement. “Now this pretender comes along with a ‘Jewish State’ bill that would tear half the pages of my book from its binding, all the time claiming that it reflects the values I championed. Chutzpa!” he sputtered again.
I was a bit taken aback by the ferocity of his attack. I’d read the bill myself and hadn’t found all that much in it that was offensive. So I respectfully asked him how it deviated from what he had had in mind.
“‘My friends and I do not differentiate between people. We do not ask a person to which race or religion he belongs. That one is a human being is all that matters to us,'” he answered me, citing chapter and verse from the utopian novel Old-New Land that he’d written, foretelling the success of the Zionist enterprise. “Of course I wanted a Jewish state and a proud Jewish people as well,” he raced on impatiently. “Afterall, it was I who insisted that ‘Zionism is a return to Judaism even before it is a return to the land of the Jews.’ But I was also careful to balance the particular and the universal. Remember, there was an Arab minister in the government I created, and in my Jewish State I insisted that ‘Every man shall be free and unrestricted in his faith or in his disbelief as well as in his nationality.’
It is precisely this principle that the bill your prime minster seeks to pass would negate. First it declares that Israel is not really home to Moslems and Christians by stating explicitly that Jews alone have national rights to it, and only then does it patronizingly promise them individual freedoms and equality before the law. Truthfully, I don’t even know what national rights are. Do you?” he asked, not giving me a chance to respond. “So why bother mentioning them? To disenfranchise the Druze army officer prepared to sacrifice his life for the country, the Moslem mayor toiling to better civil society, the Christian doctor advancing medical care in your hospitals? Be there members of minorities in your midst who already loathe you, I promise you that this legislation will not cause them to rethink their allegiances, while just as assuredly it will cause those who are presently loyal to begin questioning the wisdom of their fidelity.”
I tried to get a word in edgewise but Herzl wasn’t finished.
“No,” he continued, “the last thing you need right now is legislation flaunting in the faces of Christians, Moslems and Druze that Israel doesn’t belong to them. Better invest your energies in convincing the Jews of the world that it does. Are you aware of the ugly incident that took place in the Knesset last week? Even as this ill-conceived legislation was being hotly debated, a group of 60 rabbinical students from abroad – most of them in Israel for the year as part of their studies towards ordination as Conservative/Masortii rabbis – was denied access to the Knesset synagogue on the grounds that it is reserved exclusively for Orthodox prayer!
“It is simply unbelievable,” he practically shouted at me. “Netanyahu and his fellow travelers are so fixated on marginalizing minorities, that they are oblivious to the fact that they are also disenfranchising great segments of our people both at home and abroad. Not only is this morally repugnant,” he cried, “it is a tactical mistake of the highest order. The vast majority of Jews around the world whose support you count on and whom you urge to come home are card-carrying members of Conservative and Reform synagogues. And now they have literally had the doors of the Knesset slammed in their collective face. If you want to put forward a bill declaring that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, come up with one that proclaims loudly and clearly that it is the homeland of all Jews, wherever they reside and however they choose to celebrate their Jewishness.
“More than a century ago I warned against the dangers of mixing politics and religion. ‘Shall we end by having a theocracy?” I asked. “‘No, indeed… We shall keep our rabbis within the confines of their synagogues in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks. Army and rabbinate shall receive honors high as their valuable functions deserve, but they must not interfere in the administration of the State which confers distinction upon them, else they will conjure up difficulties without and within.’ And, I might add, the rabbis upon whom I would confer that honor and distinction include those who are not Orthodox. I grew up in the liberal synagogue of Budapest, you know, part of the movement that was the precursor of Conservative Judaism, and on more than one occasion I declared that while ‘we aspire to return to our ancient land, what we want to see in that land is a new blossoming of the Jewish spirit.’ That is not what this legislation is all about.”
At just this moment we were interrupted by the news that the Netanyahu-Lapid talks had broken down, in part because the prime minister had delivered an ultimatum to the finance minister demanding that he support the Jewish State bill. Before I had a chance to ask Herzl what he made of this, one of his advisors entered the room and whispered something in his ear.
“I’m sorry,” the visionary of the Jewish state said, rising abruptly and taking his leave. “It’s time for me to go. I’m afraid I am again being asked to form a political party to run in the coming elections. Always tempting, but equally inappropriate. Better that the challenges I put before you be embraced by one and all.” Hurrying out the door he hesitated for a moment and turned back to me. “One last thought,” he said, riffling through the pages of Old-New Land. “Yes, here it is: ‘All that you have cultivated will be worthless and your fields will again be barren, unless you also cultivate freedom of thought and expression, generosity of spirit, and love for humanity. These are the things you must cherish and nurture.'”
Then he was gone, once again leaving us to our own devices.