Michael Brenner
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What would Herzl do?

We can't know who the Zionist leader would vote for, but we can guess who it would not be
Theodor Herzl. (Wikipedia)
Theodor Herzl. (Wikipedia)

As Israelis are getting ready to vote for the 21st Knesset, they might want to know what the man whose image with the long black beard adorns the offices of so many candidates actually thought about elections to the future Jewish state. Of course, we do not know for whom Theodor Herzl would have cast his vote had he been able to go to the ballot boxes on April 9. But we know that he developed a clear vision about what voting would look like in the state of his dreams, and what kind of leader should rule the country. He described it in his utopian novel of 1902, Old New Land.

We have to remember of course that Herzl’s fantasyland had little to do with the Israel of 2019. Herzl described a peaceful society with Jews and Arabs living side by side, with soldiers remaining in their barracks and rabbis in their synagogues; a society that took the best from all European countries, among them English boarding schools, French operas, Italian theaters and Austrian coffee houses; a society in which Hebrew was not spoken. As for its political system, Old New Land is not a monarchy like most European states, but also not a clear-cut democracy. There is a congress which elects delegates, but it is in session only for a few weeks each year and it seems that important questions, like the election of its president, are decided by gentleman’s agreement rather than by fierce party infighting. We have also to remember that this was not really a full-fledged state but a commonwealth he called the New Society: “We are not a state… We are simply a large co-operative composed of affiliated co-operatives. And this, our congress, is really nothing more than the general assembly of the co-operative association which is called the New Society.”

Herzl knew from his own life in Vienna and Paris what elections campaigns looked like. And he characterizes them in terms not so different from today: “The usual election excitement was in full swing. And there was the usual partisan noise, quarrels, jests, tricks, etc.” There are different parties in this New Society, but Herzl singles only one of them out in extremely negative terms. Its leader is a rabbi called Dr. Geyer and the main characteristic of this political party is its demand for an exclusivist Jewish state. The other main party, which rallies the clear majority behind it, propagates a much broader and open society that includes non-Jews with equal rights and duties, even though Jews would constitute a majority.

The central political divide in the elections to Herzl’s New Society is the question of inclusiveness versus exclusiveness. Should the New Society be open only for Jews or also for others? Herzl’s answer is unequivocal. When the Prussian nobleman Kingscourt raised his doubt if he would be able to become a member of the New Society, the novel’s hero David Littwak proclaims: “Let me tell you, then, that my associates and I make no distinctions between one person and another. We do not ask to what race or religion a person belongs. If he is a person, that is enough for us.” Herzl includes the Arab Reshid Bey and the Prussian Kingscourt in the New Society and has Littwak proclaim: “You must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance, love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion!” The only ones who have no place in Herzl’s New Society are those who deny non-Jews equal rights like Rabbi Geyer.

Herzl’s poignant opposition to Geyer’s intolerance is uttered over and over again in Old New Land. Herzl leaves no doubt with whom his sympathies lie. Thus, in the end, the outcome of the elections are clear. Dr. Geyer’s exclusivist party loses in all but one district, and even there the vote is so close that it has to be recounted. When the newly elected congress is about to vote for the president of the New Society, the two candidates are its two most adored representatives: Joe Levy, general manager of the New Society, and Dr. Marcus, president of its Academy. In a noble act both withdraw their candidacy in the last minute to avoid an ugly rivalry between two hardly distinguishable camps. They both agree that the young David Littwak would be the ideal president. The congress then elected Littwak for a seven-year period by an overwhelming majority of 363 out of 395 delegates.

We do not know how successful Littwak was as president, as his election occurs at the very end of the novel and Herzl did not write any sequel. We know, however, that he was based on a very real figure whose first name was David and who was actually a Litvak: Herzl’s close friend and successor as president of the World Zionist Organization, David Wolffsohn. Herzl’s fictional Littwak personifies the ideal of the successful immigrant who rises from great poverty to wealth, from the ghetto to the Jewish homeland, from slavery to freedom. His father was a peddler in Vienna and, after working hard, his son became a wealthy shipping company owner and lives in his Alhambra-like mansion near Tiberias. Littwak also knew what the legacy of his office meant. Before his predecessor, the old president Eichenstamm died, he told Littwak (during an opera performance of Shabbtai Zvi): “My last word to the Jews will be: The stranger must be made to feel at home in our midst.”

While we do not know whom Herzl would have elected in 2019, we are free to imagine who it might not be. Here is Herzl’s description of the ideal leader of the Jewish state: “He whom we elect as the head of the New Society must be one who will concern himself with the ideal and keep aloof from material things. All his thought must be for the Ideal. He must be a quiet man, just and modest, above the strife of current opinion.”

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.
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