In a rare and dramatic appearance, Theodor Herzl speaks his mind on the eve of Israel’s elections.
As happens from time to time, Theodor Herzl contacted me today, only hours before the polls were to open in this hotly contested race for Israel’s soul. Deeply concerned about policies some were espousing for what to make of his dream, he told me there was too much at stake for him to remain silent at this critical juncture in the Zionist venture. Eager to receive his counsel on whom to vote for, I accepted his request to be interviewed. Every word of the answers to my questions that follow are genuine quotes from his writings and speeches.
I wanted to start by asking him whom he would prefer as Prime Minister but he insisted on saving that question for last, adamant about addressing the issues first. So I began by tackling one of the thorniest ones facing us today, which the party leaders have conspicuously refrained from speaking out about.
What are your thoughts on bringing home the remnants of Ethiopian Jewry still stranded in Gondar and Addis Ababa?
That Jews themselves should be devising means for excluding their own people is monstrous. In principle they are pursuing the same policy as those who favor a restriction of alien immigration.
Would you open our doors then as well to the asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea?
My testament to the Jewish people: Build your State such that the stranger will feel at home among you.
But doesn’t your own Zionism show partiality for the Jewish people?
My associates and I make no distinction between one person and another. We do not ask to what race or religion people belong to. It is enough for us that one is human.
What, then, should guide us in regard to the Nation-State Law, which affirms that Israel belongs first and foremost to the Jewish people?
Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his belief or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should come to pass that men of other creeds and nationalities live among use, we shall accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.
But it was you who put the very idea of a Jewish state on the agenda of our scattered people. Have you changed your mind?
Zionism is a return to the Jewish fold even before it is a return to the Jewish land… It is true we aspire to return to our ancient land but what we want to see in that land is a new blossoming of the Jewish spirit…
Then you do believe there is a place for religion in the society we are creating. Would you go so far as to support the closure of businesses and the prohibition of public transportation on Shabbat? Share your ideal vision of Jerusalem on a Friday evening.
The streets which at noon had been alive with traffic were now suddenly stilled. Very few motor cars were to be seen; all the shops were closed. Slowly and peacefully the Sabbath fell upon the bustling city. Throngs of worshipers wended their way to the Temple and to the many synagogues in the Old City and the New, there to pray to the God Whose banner Israel have borne throughout the world for thousands of years… Whatever a man’s attitude towards religion he could not escape a reverent mood in the streets of Jerusalem when he saw the quiet multitudes exchange Sabbath greetings as they strolled past one another.
Your view, then, on the matter of religion and state?
Shall we end by having a theocracy? No, indeed. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our rabbinate. We shall keep our rabbis within the confines of their synagogues in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks. Army and rabbinate 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.
Which brings us to the issue that threatened to topple Netanyahu’s coalition just before he called early elections, the matter of drafting the ultra-Orthodox. How would you have handled that – and the idea proposed by some that non-Jews as well should be required to serve?
All members of the New Society, men and women alike, are obligated to give two years to the service of the community. We stand and fall by the principle that whoever has given two years as prescribed by our rules, and has conducted himself properly is eligible to membership no matter what his race or creed.
Knowing that our time was limited, I moved on to other issues. Thoughts on the state of our health care?
We should be ashamed to send a patient from one hospital to the other as used to be done in the old days. If one hospital is full, an ambulance in its courtyard will at once take an applicant to another where beds are available.
And our educational system?
All our educational institutions are free from the elementary schools to the Zion University. All the pupils must wear the same kind of simple clothing… We think it unethical to single out children according to their parents’ wealth or social rank. That would be bad for all of them. The children from well-to-do families would become lazy and arrogant, the others embittered.
What about our growing social gap, the racism and prejudices expressed by some, the rampant corruption? Do we need to reconcile ourselves to these being the inevitable outcome of the normalization of our people that you championed?
Those of us who are today prepared to hazard our lives for the cause would regret having raised a finger if we were able to organize only a new social system and not a more righteous one… For Zionism includes not only the yearning for a plot of Promised Land legally acquired for our weary people, but also the yearning for ethical and spiritual fulfillment.”
Do you regret, then, having entrusted us with the realization of your dream?
I have thought of an appropriate epitaph for myself: “He had too good an opinion of the Jews.”
I am not better or cleverer than anyone of you. But I remain undaunted… In darker moments than the present I did not lose courage – indeed I made still greater sacrifices.
Do you believe there are yet among us those who have the capacity for that?
We have the most wonderful human material that can be imagined.
What will it take to overcome the stark divisions among us that have come to the fore over the past several weeks?
An ideal is indispensable, for it is that which motivates us… The ideal is for the community what bread and water are for the individual. And our Zionism, which led us hither and which will lead us still further to yet unknown heights, is but an ideal, an infinite endless ideal.
And which party is it that best expresses the Zionist ideal today?
Zionism is not a party. Members of all parties may ascribe to it as Zionism encompasses all aspects of Jewish life. Zionism is the Jewish people finding its way.
Ever the elder statesman, I rejoined. But tell me, what would you say to those who argue that experience is an all-important element to factor in when making our choice at the ballot box?
The institutions exist. We have made an effort to establish them with no personal affinity. Only such a thing is sustainable. There is no person amongst us that can be claimed as irreplaceable.
But surely you believe good governance requires political acumen and that skills honed through years of service count for something. Is that not the case in the Old New Land you envisioned?
Politics here is neither a business nor a profession. We have kept ourselves unsullied by that plague. People who try to live by spouting their opinions instead of by work are soon recognized for what they are. They are despised, and get no chance to do mischief. Our courts have repeatedly ruled in slander suits that the term “professional politician” is an insult.
You appear adamant about not endorsing one party or another, nor revealing your personal preference for Prime Minister, but intent instead on reminding us of the values you believe are fundamental to the Zionist idea that you would have us take into consideration in casting our ballots. Any final words you would have us keep in mind as we head to the polls?
All that you have cultivated will be worthless and your fields will again be barren, unless you also cultivate freedom of thought and expression, generosity of spirit, and love for humanity. These are the things you must cherish and nurture…
Zionism may not be a party. But whatever my degree of joy or distress over the election results, I, for one, shall awake the morning after ever appreciative of the gift we have been given by those who came before us and redouble my efforts to ensure that Zionism continue to be something to celebrate.