When Theodor Herzl granted me the rare opportunity to interview him for this newspaper two years ago, I didn’t imagine I’d have the opportunity to do so again. Recent events, however, have so aggravated the visionary of the Jewish state that this time it was he who initiated our conversation.
Sitting in the recently renovated Mamilla café where he had stayed during his visit to Jerusalem more than a century ago, I reminded a very troubled-looking founding father that he had been rather reluctant to meet me when I had last asked him to. So why had he now approached me?
Uncharacteristically exhibiting signs of distress, Herzl responded that he was infuriated by the student group Im Tirtzu, which had taken the Zionist movement’s catchphrase that he had coined – “If you would but will it” – and turned it on its head.
I had never seen Herzl so agitated as he denigrated the organization for sullying his name and tarnishing the entire Zionist enterprise in the process. He told me he was contemplating suing Im Tirtzu for defamation of character, incensed that these pretenders to the Zionist mantle were on the verge of destroying everything he had given his life to achieve. It was bad enough, he told me, that Israel’s detractors abroad were distorting the principles on which the Jewish state was founded and the values for which it stood. It was intolerable that those at home who self-righteously claimed to be its most ardent defenders should supply them with ammunition with which to bombard us.
OUR CONVERSATION took place against the background of Im Tirtzu’s very public campaign to impugn the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University. The organization had begun demanding of donors to the institution that they redirect their contributions until such time as the purportedly leftwing “bias that exists in the department, as expressed in the faculty makeup and the syllabus content, is remedied.”
In an attempt to mollify Herzl, I informed him that the university’s president, Rivka Carmi, had indignantly rejected the organization’s position, issuing a statement that “demands that we ‘balance’ faculty members according to political views reek of McCarthyism and stand in direct opposition to the democratic values Israel is based on.” Furthermore, I told him, as reported in this paper, “Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar categorically rejected any attempts to block or condition donations to Israeli universities.”
This was not going far enough, Herzl insisted, arguing that it was not only democracy and freedom of speech that were being threatened, but the Zionist ideal itself. While admitting he didn’t know much about McCarthyism, he was adamant that there was no one more familiar with Zionism than he.
The public must understand, he told me passionately, that Im Tirtzu, rather than promulgating the Zionist ethic, is undermining it. “All you have cultivated will be worthless and your fields will again be barren,” he warned me, quoting from his utopian novel Altneuland
, “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.”
Cultivating the mind and sowing the fields of intellectual discourse were no less important than making the desert bloom, he maintained.
Throughout our conversation, Herzl appeared more troubled than at any time I had seen him since the United Nations resolution a generation ago equating Zionism with racism. At the same instant when the very legitimacy of the Zionist idea is being challenged as never before, he told me, when we are confronted with demands around the world for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel in general and against Israeli universities in particular, he was livid that a group of extremists would come along and – in his name yet! – justify the vilification of our institutions of higher learning on the grounds of political partiality.
PROMISING TO do my best to convey his outrage, I asked if I might take advantage of our meeting to hear his perspective on other current events, particularly the impending deportation of the children of foreign workers. Herzl sighed and shook his head. “Fashion your state in such a manner that the stranger will feel comfortable among you,” he responded, reminiscing about the charge he had given to those building that state in his dreams.
“But your novel included a xenophobic leader who would deny equality to foreigners,” I reminded him.
He reminded me, quite correctly, that this character was categorically dismissed and roundly defeated by another leader who upheld a far more universalistic ideal. “If you adopt that stupid, narrow-minded policy, the land will go to rack and ruin. We stand and fall by the principle that whoever has given two years’ service to the New Society... is eligible for membership no matter what his race or creed. I say to you, therefore, that you must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance, love of humanity. Only then will Zion be truly Zion!”
No sooner had Herzl left off speaking, when a figure who might have been suffering from Jerusalem syndrome interrupted us, staff in hand. “Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land. The children of the third generation that are born unto them may enter into the assembly of the Lord.”
We both turned our heads, glimpsing the back of this character in
flowing robes and of royal bearing as he headed off into the Torah
reading of the very week in which we met. “Thou shalt not pervert the
justice due to the stranger, or the fatherless...,” he intoned. When
thou reapest thy harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf... thou
shalt not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the
fatherless, and for the widow... And thou shalt remember that thou wast a
bondman in the Land of Egypt.”
“My God, where did he come from?” I asked. Herzl was far more interested in where we were heading.
The writer is vice chairman of the
World Zionist Organization, founded in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, with whom
he remains in regular contact.