The World Zionist Organization will turn 113 this
August. And while its past may be the stuff of legend, its future is
widely seen as the bleak twilight of an organization that can neither
disband nor achieve anything worth the trouble.
Founded at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in
1897, the WZO was the parent organization of such bodies as the Jewish
Agency and the Jewish National Fund. It was, in effect, the
implementation agency for the Zionist plan to rescue the Jewish people
during the bloodiest century in Jewish history. Outside North America,
few Jews are not the direct products of, or directly protected by, the
state and the idea to which the WZO played midwife.
But fast forward to 2010: The state is born, the Hebrew
language thrives, and Jews are - more or less - safe from the whims of
genocidal dictators. So what now?
In April, in honor of WZO founder Theodor Herzl's 150th
birthday, the organization is mounting a spectacular cross-European
trip tracing the life, political struggles and ultimate posthumous
triumph of the "seer" of the Jewish home-to-be. From Paris to Basel,
Vienna to Budapest and on to Jerusalem for Israel's Independence Day,
this is more than just a birthday party. For the WZO, it may be about
"This trip is either about giving Herzl the birthday
present he deserves, a new and meaningful WZO, or giving the
organization a respectful burial," says Dr. David Breakstone, the
trip's planner. Breakstone is head of the Department for Zionist
Activities in the WZO, in charge of creating a Zionist conversation in
a world that is profoundly skeptical about whether the old organs of
political Zionism have anything new to say.
Israel is now a self-sustaining Jewish nation. What's left to talk about? "Have you read [Herzl's 1902 utopian novel] Altneuland
?" Breakstone asks. I hadn't.
"Nobody has. But that's a very important starting
point" to answering the question, "because it tells us that when we
talk about Zionism being not just about the founding of Israel, but
about what kind of Israel we're building, then we're not inventing this
as a new agenda. Making a better society, talking about the issues that
face us - that is the heart of Zionism itself."
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Instead of talking only about the "crisis Zionism of [Herzl's political manifesto] Der Judenstaat
- that Jews need a shelter, a safe place to live" - the WZO must start talking about "the positive Zionism of Altneuland
- about creating a model society."
Breakstone's job, as he sees it, "is to prove that this goal is
not new or a result of pressure from outside groups or criticism of the
Zionist movement, but that it is authentic and genuine Zionism going
back to Herzl himself." Zionism, Breakstone insists, is "about
something good, about confronting the problems of creating a good
SO WHAT is Zionism's good society? "Herzl was apolitical in the
sense that everybody today can claim Herzl as their own. People often
say, 'If he were around today, he'd be in our party. He'd send his kids
to my school,' or whatever. Maybe the blessing of his early death [in
1904 at 44] was that he was able to descend from the stage of history
early," before becoming identified with one Zionist party or another.
But that doesn't mean he was not opinionated. In Altneuland
tried to tackle every foreseeable trouble the new Jewish state would
encounter, from religion-state tensions to Arab minority rights to
sensible public transportation policy.
Set in a glittering future 1923 and framed as a visit to the
new Jewish state by two friends, one Jewish and the other Christian, Altneuland
is a work bound up in the tension between a strongly universalist vision of society and a very Jewish one.
"For one thing, he internationalized Jerusalem and established
there a Palace of Peace," a kind of international aid organization,
Breakstone explains, "where donations are received all the time from
all over the world, because people know that if they are struck by a
natural disaster, they can turn to the Peace Palace in Jerusalem for
Similarly, "an Arab minister sits in the government of the
Jewish state." Jerusalem, in Herzl's vision, becomes a kind of
universalist hub for the world.
"So is that part of Zionism? How do we understand that? Does
that mean Ehud Barak's offer to share sovereignty over Jerusalem with
the Palestinians is Zionism? I don't know, but we can certainly speak
But Herzl was also, profoundly, a Jew.
"People who criticize Herzl for caring about these international aspects forget that in Altneuland
secular - or let's say nonobservant - Jew also rebuilt the Third
Temple. Not only that, he filled it up with worshipers. In his
idealistic vision, he described Jerusalem on Friday evening with
thousands of people wending their way through the streets to the Holy
Temple and to the synagogues."
A Third Temple stands in Herzl's imagined Jewish capital, but a
Chief Rabbinate does not. "Herzl wrote that the place of the rabbi is
in the synagogue. He's terribly misquoted about that; he never meant
that we don't want to hear the rabbis. He specifically wrote that the
rabbis have a critical role to play in strengthening the moral fiber of
society, but not by getting involved in the political aspects of it.
One of the most heroic characters in Altneuland, portrayed incredibly
sympathetically, is Reb Shmuel."
But Herzl's idealism was not limited to the lofty realms of identity and religion.
The treatment of Israel's poor workers was part of Zionism from
the start, Breakstone says. Herzl's national flag was composed of seven
gold stars, one for each hour of the working day.
He also worried about desertification and water. "The visitors in Altneuland
down to the Dead Sea and there's this deafening noise of generators.
The Jewish state built a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea
that created green areas and waterfalls and hydroelectric power in the
desert." His imagined Jewish state is also worried about
transportation and pollution. "The visitors get off the boat in Haifa,
and there are hardly any cars. They look up and see a kind of monorail
system," the height of fin-de-siècle public transportation science
Herzl "found a way to live with the tensions we
feel of wanting to be universal on the one hand, while protecting and
nurturing a Jewishness that we can live with. Herzl predicted these
problems 100 years ago. I'm trying to show that Zionism, and by
extension the WZO, is authentically and originally about the problems
of creating a good society," insists Breakstone.
So should the WZO take a stand on Arab integration policies or
the public railway system? "It's not about agreeing with Herzl, but
about raising these fundamental issues that we have to confront,"
AT THE Herzl Museum in Jerusalem, Breakstone is in charge of
filling thousands of young visitors' minds each year with these vast
questions. Many thousands of schoolchildren and soldiers visit the
museum, as well as tourists from abroad.
For them, "Herzl, properly used as a mirror for looking at the
current Israel, is effective in engendering debate. The kids don't
agree with everything, but it's a starting point for them to say,
'That's interesting,' or 'I reject that.' And it's a way of engaging
Jews in the Diaspora with the process of state building going on here."
A trained educator with a PhD in the subject from the Hebrew
University, Breakstone laments that the children and soldiers "haven't
dealt with these kinds of questions before. Even the teachers haven't.
When I do teacher seminars, I ask how many have read Der Judenstaat or Altneuland. A few have read the former, but I don't think a dozen have read the latter out of hundreds and hundreds that I've asked."
Before the WZO takes any stances on what
yesteryear's Zionism demands of modern Israel, it has the
responsibility to educate Israelis about the vision the founding
fathers had for their country.
This vision - or rather, these competing visions - were not
mere moralizing. "Herzl," for one, "really went into detail as to how
this was going to work. That's what the WZO should be about. Who is
going to put these issues on the agenda of the Jewish people if not us?
Substance and ideology and education are our raison d'etre."
Can the current WZO, made up of warring political factions,
often defunct overseas Zionist associations and scheming local
politicians usually devoted to vying for easy salaries, be a vehicle
for serious educational programs?
"You're right. I'm frightened about the situation of the WZO;
it isn't up to these challenges in its current structure. But we
shouldn't disband it. Instead we have to go through a radical
reorganization, streamlining, re-thinking our operational composition
and developing the Herzl Center as our ideological educational
flagship." But "we should continue to be part of the Jewish Agency
system, and once in a while actually meet and talk about what the
agenda of the Zionist movement is, and be heard."
And most importantly, the WZO should bring the message of the
complexity and idealism of Herzl - and thus of Zionism itself - to the
Israeli and Diaspora education systems.
"My job here is to be a dreamer. If my job is just to push
papers and not to try and think beyond the limitations about the
organization, then what am I here for?"
The beleaguered WZO stands at a crossroads, Breakstone worries,
between oblivion and transformation into a meaningful educational
vehicle. "I'm trying to say that we still have challenges before us."
And a challenge, Breakstone believes, is also a purpose.
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