Above the podium of the Speaker of the Knesset hangs a handsome portrait. A bearded visage watches the proceedings. A stranger could not be blamed for thinking that the beard provides a rabbinic look. Someone else might be reminded of the hipster beards that are all the rage among Tel Aviv’s trendy and stylish. The striking portrait of Theodore Herzl seems to observe Knesset proceedings, perhaps taking stock of Israel’s leaders and the nation’s successes and failures.
Nations do not only live by the nuts and bolts of security and economics. All nations and peoples grow from a soil of symbol and image, and dreams not yet fulfilled. And in the case of communities oppressed and silenced, figures both historical and mythical loom large as exemplars of agency and resilience. Often the line between history and myth is blurred as communities tell the stories of their respective heroes and founders. At the foundation, such larger-than-life people say no to indignity and attack when others tend to surrender and capitulate. At the core, these heroes offer a path – albeit long and arduous – towards the possibility that hard work, a coherent plan, and a solidarity born of oppression and activated by vision can alter what appears to be a crushing past and shift it towards a repaired future.
Theodore Herzl was not the first Zionist. He was not the only one to articulate a political plan for Jewish national liberation. However, his decade-long campaign (1894-1904) as publicist and activist was instrumental in the consolidation of the Zionist movement as the most dynamic vanguard of the Jewish experience in the 20th Century. A hundred and twenty-five years from the convening of the 1st Zionist Congress on 29-31 August 1897, and a century since the publication of his utopian novel ‘Altneuland‘ (1902), what can be learned from the life, work, and image of Theodore Herzl – regarded as the father of modern political Zionism?
Herzl’s ‘State of the Jews’ (1897) moves from vision to practice. It is not empty sloganeering and pipe dreams. The pamphlet lays out a series of concrete institutional and organizational steps toward the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people – an executive and congress, frameworks for purchasing land, for construction, and for immigration.
At the same time, ‘The State of the Jews’ puts forth a vision of society based on social solidarity, freedom of faith and conscience, and linguistic diversity. Herzl belittled the possibility of a solely or mainly Hebrew-speaking society. He also decried theocratic influence in public affairs and called for a separation of ‘church’ and ‘state.’
In ‘Altneuland’, Herzl paints a more detailed portrait of life in the future ‘State of the Jews.’ His Old-New Land is a place of technological and scientific progress. ‘The New Society’ demonstrates the highest levels of modern sophistication in all areas of life – from transportation to agriculture to settlement and development. Most dramatically, the fictional tour of Herzl’s utopia includes the description of a Mediterranean-Dead Sea Canal for the generation of hydroelectric power.
“Before them extended the Dead Sea spread out like a deep blue mirror, their ears assailed by the thunder of the canal waters, led hither through tunnels from the Mediterranean, rushing down to the depths … Below stood the power plant and beyond, as far as the eye could see, numerous large manufacturing plants. The canal had brought the Dead Sea to life!”
Socially and politically, Herzl’s vision was progressive in the context of his time. As was the case in the Zionist organization from 1898 and in the organized pre-state Jewish community from 1923 (the Yishuv), Altneuland envisions a society where women have the right to vote. The flag that he proposed features seven stars representing a seven-hour working day and a technological-social optimism that advances in science and industry would free all of us to reach a healthier positioning of work in our lives.
Herzl was confident that Jews and Arabs would live together on equal footing in what might be called today a ‘Jewish & Democratic state.’ A central plot line in ‘Altneuland’ follows the public struggle of progressive forces from preventing a Jewish racist politician from expanding his influence and power. Rabbi Dr. Geyer (Herzl named this character – Geyer – ‘Vulture’ in German.) calls for the removal of all non-Jews from public and political participation in the Jewish national home. Shlomo Avineri points out that Geyer is based on the Viennese antisemitic politician Karl Lueger. Lueger’s rise and the spread of a new vicious, racially based antisemitism were major influences on Herzl’s move to Zionism. Herzl’s vision was emphatically committed to making sure that the Jewish experience of oppression would encourage respect and tolerance for non-Jews and their political and civil rights in the context of ‘The New Society.’
Herzl believed that any Arab opposition to Zionism would be mitigated by the benefits of economic and social development. An Arab engineer, Raschid Bey voices the ‘Arab position’ in the novel and is an enthusiastic supporter of the good brought by Zionist development to all the inhabitants of the country. Asher Zvi Ginzberg (known by his pseudonym ‘Ahad Ha’Am’) – intellectual, educator, and Zionist activist who championed what became known as ‘cultural Zionism’ – decried Herzl and those who failed to understand that an Arab national awakening was taking place simultaneously to the emergence of Zionism. Ahad Ha’Am argued that a clash between the two could not be resolved by promises and advances regarding the standard of living, and material advancement. Two nations sitting on the same small territory, Ahad Ha’Am suggested, could not be easily dissuaded from pursuing their passions for national liberation.
Herzl was no prophet. His skills as a novelist are limited. Parts of his vision are outdated, and demand renewed debate and vigorous reconsideration. With that said, few figures in Jewish history captured generations and symbolized an image of pride and dignity like Herzl. His congress was an act of Jewish peoplehood – bringing together Jews from East and West, liberals and conservatives, traditionalists and secularists. Like all agents of change, his was a minority movement and he and the Zionist cause was widely mocked by Jews and Non-Jews as both Jules Verne style fantasy and potential political dynamite. However, his work and even his striking personal charisma and carriage offered a people who had come to believe that they were locked into a historic cycle of passivity, fruitless longing, and antisemitic abuse that change could be ushered in through a combination of vision and hard practical work.
A return to his writings and activity in our schools would be a great service to enhancing the conversation about Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. And considering the upcoming elections (the 5th time in three years…), voters, candidates and elected officials would be well served to measure their own positions and outlooks against those of the bearded figure watching with both gratification and trepidation from above the podium of the Knesset.
What does it mean to be a free people in our own land? Touring Herzl’s ‘Altneuland’ won’t satisfy all travelers, but it would be a good place to revisit as a key station on our collective journey.