Jewish state would disappoint Herzl, 39% of Israelis say

Substantial minority of public thinks Israel has strayed of original vision of Jewish commonwealth in Land of Israel.

May 15, 2011 03:28
2 minute read.
Herzl's portrait at Independence Hall

Herzl's portrait at Independence Hall 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

If the founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, were alive today, he would be disappointed with the country that emerged from his writings and political activism, a large minority of Israelis said in a poll whose findings were released on Saturday.

In a survey conducted on behalf of the World Zionist Organization on the occasion of Herzl’s 151st birthday, marked last week, some 46 percent of respondents said the man who set the Zionist political movement in motion would either be pleased or very pleased with Israel, while 39% said the opposite.

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While a plurality of the public believes that Herzl would take pride in the country he helped create, a substantial minority thinks the nation has strayed from his original vision for a Jewish commonwealth in the Land of Israel.

Older respondents were more likely to think Herzl would look with favor on the outcome of his efforts. Among the 66-plus age group, some 63% said Herzl would be pleased with Israel, while 46% of the 18-to-35 age group thought the same.

Prof. Ariel Feldstein, a historian and expert on Herzl’s life and work, said the poll should be taken with a pinch of salt.

According to the academic, tasked by the Prime Minister’s Office with presiding over state commemorations of Herzl, only 20-30% of the public is truly knowledgeable about his work.

“And that’s being optimistic,” Feldstein said. “If they knew about his liberalism, his approach to religion, the relation between the army and the state... the public would react differently to the question,” he said.

“On the religious level, he saw the relationship between rabbis and the public as being more similar to the situation which exists in US Jewry. Although Israel has many achievements, in some aspects it stands opposed to the Herzlian ideals.”

Since Herzl’s death in 1904 at the age of 44, the Austro-Hungarian journalist-turned-visionary has loomed large over the Zionist movement and the state.

His bearded image adorns the walls of countless government office and classrooms and is used by companies to sell products. For instance, a cellular phone company is currently running an ad campaign using a famous photo of Herzl standing on a balcony in the Swiss city of Basel to sell subscriptions.

To mark Herzl’s 151st birthday, the World Zionist Organization – founded at the First Zionist Congress held in 1897 at which Herzl presided as chairman – organized a gathering at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on Saturday night attended by 1,500 youths. The event included a “flash mob,” a coordinated group dance.

While such educational events help teach young Israelis basic facts about the life and times of the founder of modern political Zionism, they frequently fail to transcend the superficial.

“I often relate the story of how one of my children once came to me and asked me what Herzl’s surname was,” Feldstein said. “In many ways, Herzl has become an icon like Madonna – or even, dare I say, Jesus.”

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