This week 120 years ago Theodor Herzl assembled the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, and famously predicted the creation of the State of Israel. I’m proud to say that this week, 70 years after the country’s birth, it went to the dogs – in the best way possible.
The anniversary of the First Zionist Congress has produced much pontification on what the Zionist visionary would have made of today’s State of the Jews.
Although Herzl predicted an ordinary country like all others, I think we can safely assume that Herzl’s plans did not include a Tel Aviv that would go to town celebrating International Dog Day on August 26 with an event that boasted everything from adoptions of new pets to holistic treatments and alternative medicine for dogs, innovative start-ups benefiting canines and the best the fashion world had to offer our four-legged friends. Similar smaller events were held in Jerusalem and elsewhere, with the proceeds of many events raising money for animal welfare charities. Incidentally, if you’re looking for an all-expenses-paid, five-day trip to Israel accompanied by your best four-legged (smallsized) friend, Vibeisrael.com is inviting submissions by those willing to blog about their experiences.
On Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu took time out from his considerable political and diplomatic headaches and hosted US comedian and media star Conan O’Brien at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Both men, rather than being overshadowed by the family’s pet, admired how the old dog, adopted at the age of eight, had learned a new trick: catching cucumbers.
In today’s environment, Herzl would probably not have been caught on camera leaning on the railing of the balcony of Les Trois Rois hotel as he pondered the future fate and state of the Jews. He would have posed for a selfie.
At the end of the Congress in August 1897, Herzl recorded in his diary, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish state.” Nowadays, he would have tweeted throughout and would have shared his feeling via Facebook.
The existence of social media might not surprise the former journalist were he to be transported into 2017.
The existence of antisemitism on social media platforms, however, would come as a nasty shock.
Herzl’s obsession with creating a state the Jews could call their own was in part triggered by the infamous Dreyfus Affair in 1895, when he reported firsthand on the Jew-hatred that surrounded the court martial of the Jewish French officer falsely accused of espionage.
As Herzl saw it, the creation of the Jewish state would put an end to antisemitism: Once the Jews were a nation like all others, the world would accept them.
He failed to see that the far Right could not abandon its hatred of the Jewish people and the far Left would cloak its loathing in an anti-Israel disguise, allowing it to join, incongruously, with anti-liberal Islamists.
It was strange watching the world panic about one missile launched by North Korea over Japan this week.
When Israel was the victim of 5,000 rockets launched from Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the same world censured the Jewish state.
On the positive side, the man who provided the startup for what was to become the Start-Up Nation would have plenty to be proud about. The country is small, but it has become an international powerhouse. More than six million Jews make up the vast majority of the population of just over 8.5 million. As author Amos Oz has noted, more people now speak Hebrew as their mother tongue than speak Danish, for example. Speak it, work in it, create in it, and win awards in it.
Despite the security situation, it’s impossible to imagine a world today without Israel, or a world without the inventions of Israelis. Just this week, Israeli-founded Kite Pharma, which is developing innovative individualized treatment for leukemia, was bought by Gilead Sciences in a $11.9 billion deal and doctors at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center made an internationally hailed breakthrough when they implanted a new device to treat congestive heart failure. The hardto- miss O’Brien was noticeably impressed by what he saw when he paid a surprise visit to the Tomorrow JLM hackathon, where 40 teenagers spent 24 hours in Jerusalem’s Tower of David, designing and pitching smartphone applications.
Perhaps the greatest success is that while Israel’s enemies still consider the word “Zionist” to be a rude epithet, most Jewish Israelis are so proud of their Zionism that to be accused of lacking it is one of the greatest slurs you could hurl at them.
This week, there was a public spat between the head of the Supreme Court, Miriam Naor, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. (There are women in both those powerful positions, despite the fact that Herzl didn’t grant women the vote at the First Zionist Congress.) Naor told the Bar Association why, although the Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to deport migrants to third-party African countries, it prohibited Israel from placing illegal migrants in indefinite detention or from trying to coerce them into voluntary deportation. Shaked countered with the need for a new platform “for the values of Zionism and its centrality.” In later interviews, Naor was clearly upset that Shaked could cast aspersions on the judges’ Zionism.
In a significant but overlooked ruling this week centering on the municipal zoning of entertainment districts, the Tel Aviv District Court determined that strip clubs are degrading and cannot be classified as entertainment. Herzl would not be the only one to be surprised that sex shows exist in the Holy Land, but the move to ban them is a great step forward for women’s rights and human rights in general.
The discussion on migrants’ rights is also not an exclusively Israeli issue. As refugees and migrants flood Europe, and hundreds die in the attempt, their plight and their impact in “host countries” are being granted more media and political coverage than ever. In Israel, residents of south Tel Aviv in particular have complained that they feel threatened by the influx of migrant men, most of them single, who pass the time hanging out, getting drunk and many of whom will turn to crime as they lack any means of support. Some worry that the migrants, mostly from Muslim countries, will alter the demographic balance of the Jewish state. And the threat of Islamist terrorism, always present in Israel, is now sadly familiar around the world.
Instead of arguing about what to do with the victims of civil war and poverty, it would be better to tackle the problems at source. The global community needs to do more to help prevent the refugee crisis where it is taking place – in Africa. Programs like the Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV project for international development offer training in areas in which the country excels, including agriculture and medicine. But what the people of Africa really need is their own Herzl. A visionary.
A leader. A man whose motto is usually translated as: “If you will it, it is not a dream.”
It’s been 120 years since the First Zionist Congress.
Millions of Jews are now living the dream. It’s not perfect, but it is home. Herzl was barking up the right email@example.com