Arieh Saposnik

Theodor—Vision and Counter-Vision

This past Friday, my daughter took me to see the Israeli Opera’s Theodor—an opera based on the crucial years in the life of Theodor Herzl. The focus of the opera is on the founding father of Zionism and on the anguish that was so central and foundational a factor in stirring him to develop the ideas that would become Zionism. For many Jews of the time, angst, desperation, pain, and a sense of humiliation were central to creating the impetus that would make them Zionists. This focus was made particularly poignant and contemporary by the fact that on our way in, we visited the nearby tent encampment of the families of hostages taken by Hamas.

But the opera highlighted not only the anguish experienced by so many late nineteenth-century Jews, or the heartache and dejection experienced by Israelis in the past two months. It was also particularly evocative in the way it brought into focus Zionism’s tremendous achievements. The seemingly quotidian nature of the event was for me a camouflaged reminder that it in fact represented a feat that Herzl himself could hardly have imagined: an original Hebrew-language opera held in the hall that is home to the Israeli Opera, located in the city of Tel-Aviv—the “first Hebrew city”, as it was once popularly known. The seeming banality of fighting traffic to get there can obscure our recollection of the fact that the city’s name itself stems from Nahum Sokolow’s Hebrew translation of Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland, at a time when there was little more than sand where one of the world’s most vibrant and culturally lively cities today resides.

The opera was originally performed this past spring—in a different Israel, a different global reality. Being there in our current reality, one could not ignore the contemporary resonances of the opening scene, for example, which places Herzl in Paris in 1895, at the early stages of the Dreyfus affair, with crowds shouting “death to Dreyfus”, “death to traitors”, “death to Jews”. Indeed, if the very existence of the opera is testimony to Zionism’s tremendous achievements, the contemporary resonance of such cries is in some sense indicative of what is arguably Herzl’s greatest blind-spot and failing: his conviction that the establishment of the state he envisioned would be a fail-proof recipe for the elimination of antisemitism.

The late-nineteenth century context in which the opera is set reverberated in our own contemporary reality not only in terms of the resurgence of anti-Jewish sentiments and acts, however. Toward the end (and crescendo) of the opera, as Herzl begins to pour out the ideas that will soon become his blueprint for the Zionist idea and how to achieve it, he writes (or sings), for example, that ethnic and religious minorities in the state will be fully equal before the law. The audience erupted into vigorous applause. This was repeated at the end of the performance, which received an extended and enthusiastic standing ovation.

As the actors playing Herzl came center stage to take their bows, there was a distinct feeling that although the audience began applauding them, we were soon also applauding Theodor Herzl himself. We had all come in to the opera hall from the outside, where we shared the pain of the hostage families’ encampment. An announcement preceding the show informed us of what to do should there be rocket alarms. More than this, this powerful and moving rendering of the birth of Zionism inside the hall was juxtaposed with the reality outside, of a government that continues to pour tax-payer money into superfluous ministries at the expense of evacuees from North and South and ignores the families of the hostages and the destroyed communities; a prime-minister who continues to sow poison against political rivals (real and imagined) even as the war against Hamas endures and continues to exact a painful, fatal, daily toll.

But the contrast and dissonance that most struck me had to do with the deeper corruption of Zionism that was recently expressed perhaps most shamefully (and shamelessly) by Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich. Facing criticism for this government’s squandering of tax-payer money in the midst of this war, Smotrich argued last month that the real waste of money was not in the multiple superfluous ministries and offices designed to keep the coalition afloat, but rather in “the study of philosophy, anthroposophic studies [whatever he might have meant by that], or in the study of medieval culture”. Culture and the Humanities, in other words, are the real waste.

I think in this context of Joseph Klausner—one of the intellectual fathers of the Zionist right (but a Zionist right rather than the anti-Zionist right represented by Smotrich and his cohort). A century ago, Klausner was the principal figure in a project that he called “the revival of Hebrew thought” (Tehiyat ha-Iyyun ha-Ivri), the goal of which was to create a Hebrew-language philosophical library. Hebrew philosophy, he and his partners argued, was not only an integral and indispensable element of the national revival that was their (and Zionism’s) goal, it was its very heart. Without Hebrew philosophy, history, and culture, he wrote in 1919, “our renewal today, indispensable to the rebuilding of the nation and the land, will be impossible”. A decade earlier, Yosef Aharonowitz, largely forgotten today, but an important leader of Labor Zionism in at the time, wrote that “the question of culture in the Land of Israel neither adds to nor detracts from [the national revival]; it is the very core of the question, in its sharpest relief”. Even Theodor Herzl himself—the most political of political Zionists, who tended to shun questions of Jewish culture in the Zionist Organization he had created—could write that “Zionism encompasses not only the hope of a legally secured homeland for our people, but also the aspiration to reach moral and spiritual perfection”.

These were the builders, the people who constructed and fashioned what we have—the unprecedented fact of Jewish-Hebrew life in Israel; people whose capacity for vision and for radical hope even in the most impossible of situations propelled Hebrew culture and the Jewish state from the implausible to the real. An institution like the Israeli Opera owes the very possibility of its existence to them, and Theodor is in many senses an acknowledgment of that debt. More importantly, perhaps, it reflects an understanding of the need to recall and to draw on the ideas and ideals that animated those efforts that, almost wondrously, were able to make the implausible real. And then there are those, on the other hand, who scoff at those ideas, who belittle and reject those ideals, and who seek to dismantle their achievements, threatening to make the real implausible once again.

About the Author
Arieh Saposnik is a historian, an Associate Professor at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. He is the author of Becoming Hebrew: The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine (Oxford University Press, 2008) and of Zionism’s Redemptions: Images of the Past and Visions of the Future in Jewish Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 2022). He is a former President of the Association for Israel Studies.
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