Meeting Herzl again, for the first time

New WZO initiative examines his life and vision.

April 14, 2010 04:09
3 minute read.
US VICE PRESIDENT Joseph Biden and his wife Dr. Ji

herzl biden 311. (photo credit: AP)


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Theodor Herzl, born exactly 150 years ago on May 2, is a towering figure in the modern Jewish consciousness. The “visionary of the state,” he is known to most Israelis as the genius who came closest to solving Europe’s “Jewish problem,” thus saving millions of Jews and launching one of the most remarkable eras of cultural creativity in Jewish history.

It is fair to say that the passage of time has been very kind to the man’s memory. Perhaps too kind.

For Herzl was not the legendary giant of the popular imagination, nor the staid yekke (German-Jewish) gentleman usually encountered in modern Israeli depictions.

In reality, Herzl was the Jewish world’s most sophisticated radical, hated by the Jewish establishment for being a self-styled butcher of its sacred cows. Dead at 44 in 1904, he went to his grave having known only rejection from world leaders and bitter strife in the institutions he helped to found.

Now, the aging – some would say moribund – organization that Herzl established, the World Zionist Organization, is taking a careful look at the legacy of Zionism’s most famous founder, asking whether Herzl might still bear a message for the world’s Jews, and whether the century-old organization that played midwife to the Jewish State can once again become his messenger.

On Tuesday, a weeklong tour began through Herzl’s life and work, in which 120 Jewish leaders, activists, thinkers and politicians are travelling to Paris, Basel, Vienna and Budapest, visiting the landmarks of Herzl’s life and contemplating the ideas that transformed – and thus preserved – so great a swath of world Jewry.

For the WZO, the trip is not just the 150th birthday of political Zionism’s most important figure. It is an expression of faith in the vastness of the Herzlian vision for Israel, and of hope that in the deep and radical thought of its founder, the WZO, whose function in the Jewish organized world has become increasingly difficult to articulate, might find new cultural and political energies – and a purpose.

“We don’t know if this will work,” says the trip’s initiator, WZO education department head David Breakstone. “Either this will be a respectable burial for the organization Herzl founded, or it will be the start of something more.”

For Breakstone, “something more” is the rediscovery of the real Herzl, the social thinker, the radical.

In his 1902 utopian novel Altneuland, Herzl envisioned his ideal Jewish state as a democratic, liberal institution that reflects the national right of the Jews to freedom and self-determination.

It was a state in which minorities were respected, their economic development guaranteed and their representatives in government, a state in which those who would disenfranchise the Arab minority were soundly defeated at the ballot box.

It was also a state with a healthy distinction between synagogue and state – where the synagogues were full on Shabbat and religion held influence in public discourse, but where rabbis did not seek direct political control.

What would Herzl say about modern Israel’s political culture, about the parties, institutions and politicians that aim to lead the Jewish State? What would he make of the Chief Rabbinate, the official exclusion of non-Orthodox religious streams and the religious monopoly on marriage, divorce and burial? What of the educational gaps between secular Israelis and the Arab and ultra-Orthodox minorities, or the shortage in state funds for even the loyal Druse?

Herzl imagined a country that knew how to combine particularism and universalism, that rebuilt the Third Temple but also internationalized Jerusalem, that was steeped in Jewish religiosity but also established the world’s largest foreign aid organization.
If the Jewish world read Herzl seriously, would it tolerate the enormous gap between his vision and the Israeli reality?

The real Herzl was a frustrated political leader bearing a dream that reached far past even the achievements of modern Israel. He did not live to see the achievements of the immense project he had helped launch. And he did not live to criticize it.

Perhaps, some WZO leaders believe, his voice needs to be heard again in Jewish public affairs.

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