Michael Brenner

Herzl to Heritage Minister Eliyahu: Have you actually read my books?

A missive from the father of modern Zionism to the politician who quoted him: I like to keep religion and state separate
Portrait of Theodor Herzl in 1898 (via Wikipedia)
Portrait of Theodor Herzl in 1898 (via Wikipedia)

Honorable Minister of Heritage, dear Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu:

I assume my portrait adorns your government office, and that you occasionally embellish your speeches with my quotes. In fact, you did so just recently in The Times of Israel. As minister of heritage, I expect you would surely have read my main books, The Jewish State and Old New Land. After all, you bemoan the “shocking disconnect from our traditions,” and I would hope that the writings of the founder of Zionism belong to the country’s heritage. But it seems the honorable minister may have forgotten one or two details of my major Zionist writings, so let me refresh your memory.

In The Jewish State (which would accurately be translated from my German original as The Jews’ State), I drafted a detailed plan of a secular “Society of Jews,” in which I made clear that this society was to be an entirely secular state: “We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks. Army and priesthood 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.” So, please, honorable Rabbi, respect my wish and do not interfere in politics.

The present government should also read these thoughts of mine carefully: “Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.”

Oh, and here’s another suggestion I made that your government might finally respect: “One of the great commissions which the Society will have to appoint will be the council of State jurists. These must formulate the best, that is, the best modern constitution possible.”

As for the Jewish religion, I admit that there is very little you will find in my books. To be sure, I made it clear that members of all religions shall be treated equally. I also spoke of the building of the temple, but of course, I had in mind the temple as I knew it from the Vienna synagogue in Seitenstettengasse and not the ancient Jerusalem temple on Mount Moriah. I suggested a lute rather than an organ would accompany the prayer.

‘I’d gladly strangle him’

Now, if you read my books you will notice that I like to keep religion and state separate. Remember the arch-villain in my Old New Land? He is an Orthodox rabbi called Dr. Geyer, who is an advocate for an exclusivist Jewish state. He has no place in my vision of a New Society. Here is how I described this Rabbi Geyer: “He is a damned hypocritical minister, a bigoted pietist, a sanctimonious demagogue, a liar and impostor. He wants to introduce intolerance into our ranks, the blasted scoundrel. I’m not easily roused, but when I see such an intolerant fanatic, I’d gladly strangle him with my bare hands!”

Does this sound too harsh? Well, I had a sense even then that one day those Orthodox Jews who did not share the original secular version of Zionism but only became Zionists once the New Society was established would want to claim the whole enterprise as their achievement and discredit the founders of this experiment. Thus, I wrote that Rabbi Geyer will make people believe that he “is the patriot, the superpatriot, the truly nationalist Jew while we others are the xenophiles, the friends of the stranger within our gates; and if we let him talk long enough he will make us believe that we are the bad Jews, if not the strangers in his Palestine!”

Don’t get me wrong, I am not equating you, honorable rabbi and minister of heritage, with my fictional Rabbi Geyer. After all, he was not just a rabbi learned in our religious traditions but had also obtained a doctorate degree. But when you accuse former Prime Minister Yair Lapid of supporting the enemies of Israel in the BDS movement or when your ultra-Orthodox cabinet colleagues want to teach Zionism to former chiefs of staff, supreme court justices, and prime ministers who are out on the streets to fight for our original Zionist values, I know why I invented a figure like this Dr. Geyer.

Maybe the time has come to implement one last measure I suggested in my Old New Land: I was convinced that the Jewish state was so important and so unique that it should regularly be evaluated by the outside world. Thus, I proposed to appoint an international jury of 500 ladies and gentlemen: “The men and women whom we had invited to be our guests on this six-week spring cruise to the Levant were the finest intellects of the civilized world. A committee of writers and artists chose them from amongst the best brains in the world, of course without regard to nationality or religion. The best were invited, and they came gladly…” These “noblest minds of humanity” arrive at the coast of Palestine onboard a luxury steamer named Futuro, which brings them from Genoa to Haifa. Starting in Haifa they examine the whole land. The geologists, botanists, technicians, architects, and artists render their expert opinions on the areas of their expertise. The politicians of the New Society promise to show them the real society and not “Potemkin Villages” – and they promise to respect the verdict of the international judges.

Even though Old New Land is a utopian novel, I intended it to be taken seriously, as I wrote in a letter to German Chancellor von Bülow: “In fact, I wrote the Utopia only to show that it is none.” I told my readers it is up to them if my message remains a dream or if it becomes reality. What I did not dare to say was that instead of a dream, in the hand of the wrong people, my vision could also turn one day into a nightmare.

Honorable Minister, I am looking down at your desk and the desks of your colleagues every day and I want you to take me seriously and ask you to finally read my books. But on second thought, maybe I should give you different advice. Maybe it is better that you and your colleagues never open any of my books. You might find them so shocking that you will call for a new committee to ban or censor the writings of the founder of the Zionist movement. As minister of heritage, you might decide to remove my books from the heritage of the Jewish people. So, here then is a more modest piece of advice: for the sake of honesty, I suggest that you just take my portrait off your office walls. At least that way, I may rest in peace.

About the Author
Michael Brenner is Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University in Washington, DC. He is author of ten books, among them In Search of Israel: The History of an Idea.