Four days in Herzl’s footsteps

When we reflect on those individuals who have influenced and shaped our lives, they are often those who are closest to us. A parent. A teacher. A coach. A boss. A mentor.

They are generally those whom we have gotten to know through shared experiences.

But rarely do we get an opportunity to gain intimate insights and personal perspectives on a giant figure who literally changed the course of Jewish history, especially one who passed away over a century ago.

Theodor Herzl was such a figure.

Theodor Herzl in advance of the First Zionist Congress

It was with this goal in mind that the World Zionist Organization, the organization founded by Theodor Herzl, conceived of a special journey in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary. Gusti Braverman, head of the WZO’s Diaspora Affairs, assembled a small and diverse delegation of thought leaders to walk in the footsteps of Theodor Herzl and imagine the future of the Jewish state. It was an intense and ambitious endeavor.

21 people. 4 days. 3 countries.

We spent two days in Budapest, the city of Herzl’s birth.

We travelled for a day to Vienna, where Herzl was educated.

And the trip culminated in Basel, host to the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

At first, I wondered whether this would be an effective use of time. 21 strangers, representing the mosaic of Israeli society, crammed together for 4 days.   We were a group with views and backgrounds as diverse as the rainbow’s colors, representing Habayit Hayehudi to Meretz, ultra-Orthodox to passionately Reform. In Israel, this artificially aggregated assembly can hardly agree on anything. How would this group coalesce to imagine a shared future? And apart from the intense itinerary, how does one fathom the depths of a deceased leader by simply visiting his former homes and cafes?

Fortunately, we were ably guided by Prof. Ariel Feldstein, a world-renowned expert on Herzl and his family.

Listening to Professor Feldstein characterize Herzl’s ideological journey from informed Jew to assimilated Viennese intellectual to passionate Zionist, one could feel the identity angst that had gripped Herzl and compelled this most unlikely of Jewish leaders to emerge as a visionary for the modern state. Passion is contagious, and Feldstein infected us with his encyclopedic ebullience that enabled Herzl to come alive.

On the steps at the Doheny synagogue in Budapest.

We sat quietly in the Doheny Synagogue in Budapest in the row where Herzl’s family sat, trying to imagine Herzl celebrating his bar mitzvah. We stood on the bank of the Danube and recited Yizkor at the harrowing memorial of orphaned shoes. We felt the anguish that had torn Herzl’s mother with the sudden death of his older and only sibling Paulina and the family’s decision to relocate to Vienna.

At the Danube river where Jews were shot and thrown into the river.

A short bus ride from Budapest took us to the stately chateaus and cathedrals of Vienna. The cobble-stone streets and horse-drawn carriages helped us travel back in time to the 19th century as we sat and ate strudel at Cafe Central, the legendary meeting place of the Viennese intellectual scene, including regulars: Theodor Herzl, Alfred Adler, Sigmund Freud, and Leon Trotsky.

Prof. Feldstein explained how Herzl transitioned from his studies in law to pursue a career as a writer and journalist. While Herzl’s family was not impecunious, we learned that Herzl afforded his lifestyle through the family fortune of his wife, Julie.

As we sat on the stairs in what was once the Jewish ghetto of Vienna, mere steps from the glorious but hidden synagogue, we learned of Herzl’s first encounters with anti-Semitism as a student.  It is unclear how or if these early incidents impacted Herzl. In Vienna, Herzl and his wife built a family with 3 children and he thrived as a journalist, assigned at the time to the premier post in Paris. While covering the news, Herzl experienced the naked anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus trial that would change his life and set him on a course of destiny.

It was a quick flight from Vienna to Basel, Switzerland, but a giant leap in terms of Jewish history. We woke up the next morning and ascended the regal staircase at Hotel Les Trois Rois (“The Three Kings”) to room 117. On the balcony off of this room is where the legendary image was captured of a pensive Herzl standing overlooking the Rhine river. Standing on that balcony amidst this Israeli rainbow coalition was a moment to cherish.

While the views and the hotel were indeed majestic, there was a palpable sense of destiny in that pose.

Outside room 117 at Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel.

No matter his or her age or ideology, each member of the delegation took a turn photographing him/herself in that pose. There was a childlike excitement in the air, an unspoken understanding of being in a transformative place. As I stood and observed the frenzied photography, I couldn’t help but marvel at the collective exhilaration as each person stood in the footsteps of the founding father of modern Zionism. Each person bringing his or her own ideology and innocence. Each connecting to that link in our history that propelled us out of Diaspora to imagine a return to our ancestral homeland.

As we each struck that pose, it signified a reaffirmation that, despite our differences, we still believe in the promise of Zionism. We may approach this belief in different ways but we nevertheless approach it.

Along the banks of the Rhine and in the shadow of that hotel, we sat and heard about Herzl’s premature passing at the age of 44. We learned of the sacrifices Herzl’s family endured for the sake of his vision and the squandering of the family fortune to pursue his dream.   Herzl’s wife died 3 years later leaving their 3 children destitute with not enough funds to provide for proper burials.   We were captivated to hear Prof. Feldstein’s firsthand account of his personal struggle to locate the burial sites and ensure that Herzl’s children were eventually brought for interment in Israel on Mt. Herzl.   It is a riveting, surreal and relatively unfamiliar story, likely because it reflects poorly on Israel’s leadership, who on the one hand exalted Herzl but on the other abandoned his children (in some ways, much like Herzl himself). I can imagine a cinematic version with Feldstein as the protagonist entitled, “Indiana Jones and the lost graves of Herzl.”

We concluded the trip with a festive lunch at the synagogue and Jewish community center in Basel where we read Israel’s Declaration of Independence with a fresh set of eyes. We then broke into groups to try to imagine and formulate a modern vision for the state.

The issues are as complex as ever and the group’s diversity and divisions only sharpened the challenge of agreeing upon and articulating a joint statement.  Indeed after 4000 years of Jewish history, unity still eludes our people. Our nation still has not arrived at a clear consensus as to our identity and our destiny.

As we approach Tisha B’av, we can’t help but acknowledge what our people have lost with the destruction of our two temples and the resulting exiles. For 2000 years, a return to Zion was but a dream. And in the blink of an eye, our State is now 70 years old. Yet, in the long arc of Jewish history, the work that Herzl started has only just begun.

As Israelis, we have much to work on regarding respecting one another and respecting our brethren overseas. One of my favorite moments of the trip was when one of the more right-wing participants, who lives beyond the Green Line, turned to one of the participants from the Peace Now movement at the concluding lunch and said, “since I’ve gotten to know you, from now on, I shall not see Meretz merely in its ideological costume, but rather as you, an individual whom I love.”

I drew two critical conclusions from this trip. The first is that as a nation we must spend less time fighting about the destination and focus more on the journey. We survived for 40 years in the desert and 2000 years in exile. And now we must learn to celebrate our diversity and not let it divide us. We need an ideological “Waze” to help us navigate this continued Jewish journey.

My second conclusion has to do with action versus analysis. Today we need less hyper-obsessive reflection on the porous borders of our ever-evolving identity and more resolve and concrete actions that will actually define our identity.

In short, we need less theory and more action. Less Alkalai and more Herzl.

The state has been built and it is largely secure. To build a model society requires action, not just words. Although many came before him with far more impassioned pleas for a return to Zion, Herzl is credited as the father of Zionism because he translated the dream of centuries into a pragmatic plan (in Der Judenstaat – “The Jewish State”) and then led the practical implementation of his “start-up.”

What a difference one person can make.

Now imagine a world where each of us has committed to actively supporting at least one initiative, be it working with youth at risk, protecting agricultural farms and ranches, spearheading inclusive Jewish renewal, helping families struggling with adversity or disabilities, providing food security and equal education and rights for all citizens in Israel, preserving and protecting our natural resources and parks, or sharing Israeli technological advances with the developing world.

That is the shared journey we are all on. Whether we come from Budapest, Beersheva, or Boston, this is the journey we face. Together.

We have the dream. Now we need the will.

About the Author
David (Borowich) Ya'ari is the Chairman of A.B. Ya’ari Holdings Ltd., an international holding company focused on technology in Israel, Africa and the United States. He is an active social entrepreneur serving on the Board of Directors of Israel's Nature and Heritage Foundation and Hashomer Hachadash and is the former CEO of Hillel Israel and the Founder and past Chairman of the Council of Young Jewish Presidents and Dor Chadash.