This February marks 125 years since Theodore Herzl published his crucial pamphlet Der Judenstaat (“the Jewish state”) arguing for a Jewish state. 125 years later and his dream is a reality, with the Jewish State of Israel turning 53 this year.
Although Herzl’s utopian vision and the reality of the modern State of Israel differ in many aspects, Herzl’s writing laid the ideological foundations for the development of the Zionist movement and eventual creation of a Jewish State. His writings were hugely influential on Israel’s first generation of leaders, so much so that Herzl is described in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as “the spiritual father of the Jewish State”. I urge you all to read Der Judenstaat which is easily accessible online.
Although some of his ideas are not compatible with our time, some remain potent.
Writing in Der Judenstaat Herzl comments:
“In vain are we loyal patriots, our loyalty in some places running to extremes; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow-citizens; in vain do we strive to increase the fame of our native land in science and art, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In countries where we have lived for centuries we are still cried down as strangers.”
If I could take one phrase to summarise why the Jewish people need the State of Israel, it would be that one. As the famous Jewish saying goes, ‘the rest is commentary’. Of course, it is wrong to suggest that all countries turn on the Jewish people, Herzl himself suggests that “for a little period they manage to tolerate us, and then their hostility breaks out again and again.” But in every nation’s midst antisemitism simmers, sometimes just by a group of individuals on the outskirts of society, sometimes in the heart of the political realm.
Herzl encountered the ugliness of antisemitism whilst covering the Dreyfus Affair as a journalist working as Paris correspondent. He followed the trails of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of treason for allegedly revealing French military secrets to the Germans, a classic antisemitic trope of Jews having split loyalties, never to be trusted. At the time, antisemitism in Europe was growing rife, culminating into the Holocaust just over 30 years after Herzl’s death. We can only but imagine how many Jewish lives would have been saved if the State of Israel had existed before the Holocaust.
And how grateful I am that the State of Israel exists in my lifetime. When a potential Prime Minister utters ‘Jews don’t get British irony’ Jews are once again “cried down as strangers”, yet the difference is there is now a lifeboat state to welcome Jewish people and make them feel safe.
Herzl realised that “everything tends, in fact, to one and the same conclusion, which is clearly enunciated in that classic Berlin phrase: “Juden Raus” (Out with the Jews). The simplest of questions which then laid down the blueprints for the Jewish state he then asks “Are we to ‘get out’ now and where to?”
Where to and what will the State look like?
Firstly, a State of unity. All Herzl wanted was a piece of land and Jewish sovereignty, “the rest we shall manage for ourselves.” He considered “the Jewish question neither a social nor a religious one, even though it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question.” The Jewish people are a nation bound by their distress and history. “United, we suddenly discover our strength.”
Herzl’s vision of the realisation of Zionism was working the land. He was under no illusion that work needed to be done and that Jews would not flood to the State en masse before it being fully functional. Instead, immigration would be “gradual, continuous, and will cover many decades. The poorest will go first to cultivate the soil. In accordance with a preconceived plan, they will construct roads, bridges, railways and telegraph installations; regulate rivers; and build their own dwellings; their labour will create trade, trade will create markets and markers will attract new settlers.”
He believed that sovereignty would come first before immigration, otherwise natives would feel threatened and immigration would be curbed. This sadly became true when, because there was no Jewish sovereignty during the Mandate era, the White Papers imposed by Britain as the mandatory power prevented European Jews escaping to Israel from the Holocaust.
Herzl’s dream was one of a utopia. He imagined peaceful negotiations and land acquired within this framework. He imagined the Jewish State as a neutral one, requiring “only a professional army, equipped, of course, with every requisite of modern warfare, to preserve order internally and externally.” The army was for show. I don’t think Herzl ever imagined the utmost need for a Jewish army protecting Jewish lives daily.
Herzl imagined “a white flag, with seven golden stars.” The flag the State of Israel flies may be different (still with a white background and a star) but the flag we wave is in thanks to Herzl, who never stopped trying to make his dreams a reality so the Jewish people can have a State of their own, something we can all learn from and salute.