Theodor Herzl – Back to the Future

Science fiction attempts to portray the future. Strange-looking characters, bizarre physiognomies, stunning technologies, are all intended to create a sense of glimpsing into the future. Yet often, all these produce the opposite effect. Readers and spectators feel that they are dipping into a fantasy, utterly remote from any realistic prediction of future events. A true understanding of historical developments, a forecast of events that are likely to happen in the time to come, is extremely difficult, well beyond distorted physical appearance or fantastic machines; shaping the future is even more arduous.

When Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, began spreading his ideas in the late nineteenth century, they must have seemed like science fiction. The vast majority of Jewish communities found his scheme for transforming the Jewish people into a political entity and returning to Zion to be sheer fantasy. Only few Eastern European families were willing to adopt it. Herzl, a man of both vision and practical insights, comprehended that the main obstacle to fulfilling his vision was the notion that Zionism was quixotic. What was needed, he thought, was to create a different state of mind; bridging the natural human distinction between a known past and present – and an obscure future.

In The Jewish State (Der Juderstaat, published in 1896), Herzl presents a detailed plan for the future state: legal status, borders, institutions, social principles. Though it is a fascinating pamphlet, certainly a defining text of Zionism, I find that its most interesting part is the preface. It is there that Herzl presents the psychological mechanisms he is using in order to familiarize the term ‘Zionism’, to make it part of the spiritual world of European Jewry.

It begins with a vehement objection to any description of his political vision as ‘utopia’: “I must, in the first place, guard my scheme from being treated as Utopian by superficial critics who might commit this error of judgment if I did not warn them”. Calling Zionism a utopia would be counterproductive; utopia is a near perfect vision of the future, one that by its very nature couldn’t be fulfilled. His explicit differentiation between his vision and the popular utopias of the time prevents the reader from sighing quietly and thinking that perhaps, in the very far future, this improbable plan might come true. It is a practical plan, argues Herzl, and it is about to take place in the foreseeable future.

Utopias direct the reader’s attention to the future. Like science fiction, the world to come must appear so alive that its various details will be credible. Yet Herzl, unexpectedly, turns the reader’s attention the other way around – to the past. The emotional intensity that the Zionist idea should evoke does not derive from a bright promising future, but from a dark, depressing present and past: “Everything depends on the propelling force. And what is that force? The misery of the Jews… I believe that this power, if rightly employed, is powerful enough to propel a large engine and to move the passengers and goods; the engine having what form men choose to give it”.

If his revolutionary idea should ever come true, it will not be a result of his promising a bright future; Herzl was very clear about that. It will spring from the acknowledgement that Jewish life in the Diaspora is miserable, and it isn’t about to improve. The ‘engine’ of Zionism is the deprivation of the past, not the benefits of the future. He later adds: “…am I stating what is not yet the case? Am I before my time? Are the sufferings of the Jews not grave enough? We shall see”. Sadly, this pessimistic view came true in the Holocaust.

Finally, if the reader is not yet willing to admit that Zionism is the natural evolvement of the past into the future, Herzl wisely turns to the one place where a detailed forecast always appears rational: money. “Every Chancellor of the Exchequer calculates in his budget estimates with assumed figures, and not only with such that are based on the average returns of the past years, or on previous revenues in other States, but sometimes with figures for which there is no precedent whatever; as for example, in instituting a new tax. Everybody who studies a Budget knows that this is the case. But even if it were known that the estimates would not be rigidly adhered to, would such a financial draft be considered Utopian?”

Who can refute such an argument? Emotionally, it makes perfect sense. It agrees with the basic human instinct to provide for the future. Both individuals and societies make monetary plans ahead and never feel they are ‘utopian’, even if they are somewhat extreme. Zionism, he says, is like an investment; very poor people should grab it without hesitation, no matter how risky it is.

Theodor Herzl, a man of charisma and talent, knew well how difficult the future would be – so different in essence from Jewish life in the Diaspora at that time. He was well aware that in order to create a Jewish state, huge obstacles must be surmounted. Yet he had no doubt that the most important vehicle for making the dream come true could only be a new, different state of mind, a fresh attitude to the future.

There is an old Jewish saying “A person worries about the past, distresses about the present, and fears the future”; with this mindset, the Zionist vision would never have come true.


About the Author
Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein is an author, academic in the Humanities, and a blogger. She wrote Five Selves, a collection of five stories published in the UK. Her academic books deal with cultural interpretations of Nazism. She runs a blog on cultural themes and Israel:
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