'Zionism was always about building an exemplary society'

Dr. David Breakstone on why the aging World Zionist Organization, contrary to popular opinion, should continue to exist.

January 21, 2010 16:12
Dr. David Breakstone. "My job here is to be a drea

Dr. David Breakstone 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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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 survival itself.

"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."


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 society."

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 he 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 aid."

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 about it."

But Herzl was also, profoundly, a Jew.

"People who criticize Herzl for caring about these international aspects forget that in Altneuland this 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 go 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 fiction.

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," Breakstone says.

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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