Jabotinsky, Herzl and the Poetics of Zionist Policy

“He was therefore dumbfounded at the effect of the word ‘Palestine.’ The laughter ran every gamut…”

(Theodore Herzl, “Old Land, New Land” 1902)
In a recent interview with Mashav Balsam, an edgy but educated Tel Avivite and leading scholar of Theodore Herzl, (seen below, translated from Hebrew), we sat in front of our computers and pondered the poetics of Zionist policy.
Herzl who came from the cosmopolitan, bourgeoisie of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, foresaw an almost socialist vision for a Jewish state in the homeland. He also wrote comedies for the stage. The novella called “Old Land, New Land,” (1902) proposes a peaceful country of Palestinian Arabs and Jews; Jabotinsky, on the other hand, concerned himself more with military affairs and building a defense for the Jewish state in the homeland. He was a utilitarian, pragmatist and a realist. He also wrote novels.
To propose that the political leaning of these authors is encoded in their art, grandiose Herzl writing for the stage, and the more private experience of reading the novels of Jabotinsky, is not far-fetched…

imgresLike [Vladamir] Jabotinsky, [Theodore] Herzl was an artist of the written word. But his real legacy is the founding of the World Zionist Organization. Are there any hints of politics and Zionism in his plays? Do they at all reflect the world of Yiddish theater? And does this at all contrast with Jabotinsky’s fiction, which are written as novels? 

mashavThe reference to Herzl and Jabotisky, in the same breath, as in your question here, is misleading.

Herzl and Jabotinsky do not share much in common – they didn’t live and work at the same time – the first Zionist congress Jabotinsky attended, was Herzl’s last, and as far as I know, Herzl didn’t know Jabotinsky at all.

Furthermore, they don’t share the same background, Herzl was an Austro-Hungarian writer (to be more precise, Viennese), while Jabotinsky was Russian.


To be precise, Jabotinsky is from Odessa, the city in the Ukraine which he writes about in his novel “The Five,” and where he founded a Jewish defense militia, preceding the Irgun, etc. 


As for artists of the written word, who were as well leading figures in the early days of Zionism, I guess one could mention Nordau, Zangwill, or from eastern Europe – Nahum Sokolow or Ahad-Ha’am.

As for Herzl’s dramaturgy: all Herzl’s plays, besides “The New Ghetto” (written in 1894), don’t have any characters which one can say are Jewish.

Usually the religion or the nationality (two of the traits of ‘Jewishness’) of the characters is blurred. The social class of the characters is far more important, as in many of the salon comedies, which most of Herzl’s work for the stage can be referred to.

However, some of the ideological principles that are part of Herzl’s Zionist vision – as the importance of labor and productivity, the fundamental humanism of the bourgeoisie and more – exist clearly in Herzl’s comedies.

Regarding politics, I think Herzl’s 1895 book “The Bourbon Palace“, which contains Herzl’s feuilletons from Paris, might reveal more of Herzl’s political views prior to the founding of Zionism and Herzl’s fascination for democracy.

Herzl resented the Yiddish world and culture. On a journey to Turkey, he watched a play in Yiddish by Sigmund Feinman, and wrote in his diary that the cultural stage of the Yiddish speaking mass is too low, and he was disgusted by the play (written in October 10th 1898).

It sounds horrible [to our ears], and it is a problematic statement even back in Herzl’s times.

However, it was way too common, even for open-minded liberals in Middle and Western Europe, to feel superior to the Ostjuden (Jews from the east) – so it should be regarded in the right context.

[Disregarding Herzl’s detest for] …the interest in Yiddish culture and Yiddish theatre had begun later, mainly after World War One, with more positive views as from Franz Kafka or Arnold Zweig.


How much of a push has there been for translating these works and into what languages? Can we find Herzl’s entire canon translated today into English? 


…Herzl’s work for stage was not translated to English nor to Hebrew, with two exceptions: “The New Ghetto” and “Solon in Lydia“. It’s not surprising that those plays were the only to be translated from Herzl’s 16 plays.


A quick read through the essay “Jewish State,” and Herzl’s economic-mindedness becomes apparent. He writes much in the manifesto about upper-class Jews leading the way for lower-class Jews, etc. etc.. (the industrial revolution being a key factor in the first Zionist settlements and Zionist economy). 

 But he “blurs” as you say, the emphasis on nationality and religion. 

Is the “fundamental humanism of the bourgeoisie” apparent in Herzl’s dramas? Does it reflect an outright resentment of Yiddish culture? 


The interest in Herzl outside of the German speaking world was only due to Herzl’s role as the founder and the leader of the Zionist movement. During my research I was overwhelmed to see the attempt of Zionist leader in the 1940s (and after) to conceal Herzl’s plays from the public eye.

Trying to make Herzl the shadeless icon of Zionism, some found it inappropriate to show texts about unfaithful women, betrayal and hypocrisy.

The two exceptions, as I’ve mentioned, are “The New Ghetto” – which was Herzl’s first public attempt to discuss the Jewish existence in the Diaspora. The play is considered as Herzl first step toward Zionism. The play led him to write “The Jewish State.” Furthermore, “The New Ghetto” is the only play by Herzl with characters that are explicitly Jewish.


Can you speak about the socialist influence, specifically in Herzl?


Solon in Lydia” is an allegorical play [which] occurs in ancient Greece; it deals with the importance of labor for the human soul and public order. The play is, again, exceptional in consideration to Herzl’s work to stage, and the didactic mood promotes well the ideology that Herzl expressed regarding Zionism and the dream of regeneration.


It seems a touch idealistic to use the dramatic form of COMEDY to reflect the bourgeoisie factory-economy of early Zionism (everyone is happy, has money, gets along despite cultural and religious factors) and of “The Jewish State.” Can you comment on the use of the comedic form to dramatize this vision for Zionism?


You are asking about the comedy and Herzl’s vision of Zionism – I first have to distinguish, Herzl was a playwright who wrote mainly comedies, he was not a comedian. Quite the contrary, Herzl took himself very seriously, discussing in his diaries and letters about his place as a German author etc. It is very typical to the time and place, but it is quite different than how it works today.

In Herzl’s play “His Majesty” (“Seine Hoheit“), Herzl mocked greed and how everything by the middle class is around money, in a way this socialist tendency appears more clearly in Herzl’s ‘new society’ in “Altneuland“.

In Herzl’s “Our Kathy” (“Unser Käthchen“) Herzl says that true love could be found only among working class couples. This romanticizing of the working class, which is typical to the era as well, appears in Herzl’s Zionist vision, just as vividly.

However, some of the ideological principles that are part of Herzl’s Zionist vision – as the importance of labor and productivity, the fundamental humanism of the bourgeoisie and more – exist clearly in Herzl’s comedies.


About the Author
Scott Krane has been blogging for The Times of Israel since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, The Jerusalem Post and the Daily Caller, among others.
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