Facts matter. This is always true, but in teaching about the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in Israel this is especially so. There are many facts, and some are inconsistent, so what is a good way to tell this story?
It is the thesis of “The Herzl Project” that the life and work of Theodor Herzl is an excellent vessel through which to tell the story of Israel and Zionism, and that an effective tool to illustrate these lessons are collectibles related to Herzl and his work. It is quirky and weird, and seems to resonate.
Like Maria sings in The Sound of Music “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”, Herzl invites a discussion about the origin story of the Jewish state which was a solution to the antisemitism that Herzl saw and feared. Herzl’s work demonstrates his use of branding and marketing to communicate his ideas, long before this was a scientific discipline. His writings show the progressiveness of his ideas: the seven hour work day, free education through to university, free medical care and concern for the plight of other oppressed peoples. Since Herzl did not live that long ago, there are artefacts that support whatever is said about Herzl, resulting him being real and relatable.
Although Herzl envisioned a Jewish state, he is an example not just for Jewish people and enables a discussion of the universality of what he was trying to do. This lesson is driven home by The Theodor Herzl School of Excellence in North Lawndale (West Chicago) which was once in a Jewish neighbourhood, but now the local population is predominantly Black. In this school’s auditorium there are two portraits: Herzl and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The students learn that Herzl is an inspiring figure who sought to improve the condition of his people, and that it is possible to do so. We share the same dreams as the Herzl school students. Herzl elicits this discussion.
The website of The Herzl Project is https://herzlcollection.com/ . It includes various resources that are all available free of charge including the documentary film My Herzl, the book Collecting the Dream, a six part series of three minute videos produced by Canada’s Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and links to various webinars, articles and programs. There are photos of many items of memorabilia that can be accessed free of charge to illustrate any possible lesson about Herzl.
Of course, Herzl’s dream did not die when he did in 1904. The effort continued, and there exists tangible items that show the work that continued. The Herzl Project website also includes a link to the weekly Treasure Trove segment in the Canadian Jewish News (https://thecjn.ca/arts/treasures/) in which one collectible is hilighted with a description that is not longer than 125 words. Individually, each contains a nugget of information as well as a photograph. Together, they tell our story. They are available to be used and shared.
Also on the website is material relating to the presence of Zionism and Eretz Yisrael at world’s fairs in the 1930s. Pavilions of Promise (https://herzlcollection.com/worlds-fairs) shows how supporters of Herzl’s dream used every possible opportunity to will the State of Israel into existence. This is one example of marketing the dream. There were many others, and many more are still needed. Looking at what was done invites us to consider what more can be done now.
- That Israel did not just fall out of the sky in 1948, you have to roll the film back, and if you do not wish to go as far back as the Roman conquest of 70 CE, then you can start with when Herzl became dedicated to the cause of Zionism in 1896.
- Anything is possible. As Herzl said, if you will it, it is no dream. If the dream of a Jewish State can come true, anything can. So…pursue your dreams.
- Herzl used his skills and talents as a lawyer, playwright and journalist to advance a cause he cared deeply about: the future of the Jewish people. We should all do the same with the unique skills and talents we each have.
- Herzl famously said that Zionism is not only about having a land for our people, but building a model society in that land. That work is ongoing and will always be ongoing.
There is much to learn from Herzl. Consequently, there is much about Herzl to teach. The Herzl Project website provides various free tools to be used in school and other group settings (both in person and virtually) that can be customized for the audience (participants in Herzl Project programs have ranged from seven to seventy years old).
I am a collector and so have chosen to use my collection as the vehicle to tell this story. Each reader of this article will have a unique skill, interest and talent. Use that! Your special spin will cause the story you tell to resonate and be remembered.
David Matlow is a partner at Goodmans LLP in Toronto. He owns the world’s largest private collection of Theodor Herzl memorabilia (over 5,000 items) which he has exhibited across North America. He speaks regularly to schools, synagogues and other groups about Herzl and his continued relevance. David is a past Chair of the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto and was the co-chair of Toronto’s 2015 Campaign for the United Jewish Appeal. He is a member of the board of directors of the iCenter for Israel Education and the Ontario Jewish Archives.