Middle Israel: The Arab Herzl

Only Theodor Herzl’s "ism" has bucked the trend, remaining fresh, relevant, and a very big success 120 years after its launch.

THE BIRTHPLACE of the ‘ism’ that has survived: Basel, Switzerland, scene of the First Zionist Congress, 1897 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE BIRTHPLACE of the ‘ism’ that has survived: Basel, Switzerland, scene of the First Zionist Congress, 1897
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the era of “isms,” Zionism has defeated all the rest. Maoism, Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Nasserism and fascism have all come and gone, having delivered their believers calamity and despair. The current totalitarianism, fundamentalism, has served its followers no better and will ultimately end up similarly extinct.
Marxism has been reduced from dream to nightmare, especially where it was tried. Socialism, after having floored healthy economies, has been elbowed by capitalism which, after brief universal applause, is now something between a moral monstrosity and an aristocratic plot.
Even pacifism, fashionable a century ago when war was the business of idiots, lost currency once the following war became the business of madmen.
Only Theodor Herzl’s ism has bucked the trend, remaining fresh, relevant, and a very big success 120 years after its launch.
THE 200 JEWS who convened in Basel 120 years ago this week spoke softly, but effectively they declared war: war on fatalism; war on the fatalism that had paralyzed their nation for nearly 2,000 years.
Gone was the submissiveness with which a luminary like Rashi responded to the Crusader massacres, admonishing the Torah to “Demand the insult of your followers... At the hands of sons of whoredom,” but demanding neither justice from the gentiles nor revolt from the Jews.
Gone was the culture of lamentation with which Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who after having been forced to attend the public burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1244, decried the Jews as a nation “breathing the dirt of the Earth” while “walking in the moonless dark, craving the light of day.”
And gone was the mystical escapism with which Don Isaac Abravanel, Spanish Jewry’s leader, wrote that the Spanish Edict of Expulsion was Jewish suffering’s lowest ebb, because a numerological study he made indicated that the Messiah was on his way and would arrive by 1533 – at the latest.
In 1897 some 200 Jews said enough to all this political recklessness and effectively set out to end their nation’s historic outsourcing of its fate to God.
THE CHOICE was between the Talmudic promise that the gentiles would never “excessively” persecute the Jews and Herzl’s warning that catastrophe was well on its way.
“I cannot imagine what appearance and form this will take,” he wrote. “Will it be expropriation by some revolutionary force from below? Will it be proscription by some reactionary force from above? Will they banish us? Will they kill us? I expect all these forms and others.”
And moreover: “the longer it takes to come, the worse it will be... the more bestial will it be.”
Herzl was vindicated in forecasting this catastrophe, as he was in his forecast that the Jewish state would emerge within 50 years of 1897.
Yes, he wrongly predicted that the Jewish state’s emergence would end antisemitism. Even so, he equipped a helpless nation with the spirit that its previous leaders had snuffed. “A people can be helped only by itself,” he told the delegates in Basel, “and if it cannot do that – it cannot be helped.”
One hundred and twenty years on, Herzl’s vision is largely realized.
The Jewish state has emerged, it is home to the world’s largest Jewish community, and it is vibrant, resourceful and confident.
Yes, Zionism still has enemies, but its followers – unlike pretty much all of those other isms – are satisfied customers. No longer at the behest of the kings, czars, bishops, sultans, and caliphs who ruled their ancestors – the Jews have seized control of their fate. The ones who have not seized their fate are the Jewish state’s neighbors, whose enmity Herzl failed to foresee.
UP TO ITS NECK in the bloodshed of multiple civil wars, invaded by the Persians who now control four of its capitals, and occupied by the Russians who now control one of its coastlines, the Arab nation is even more desperate than the Jewish nation was when Herzl showed it the future.
Like the Jews in the Pale of Settlement, most Arabs are politically oppressed, economically impoverished, and socially robbed of the opportunity to get ahead.
Muammar Gaddafi has been lynched, but his Green Book’s dictum that “a parliament is a misrepresentation of the people” lives on. Everyone else, from Brazil to China through Vietnam and Mozambique is creating jobs, making money and getting a life; everyone but the Arabs. Their future has been hijacked.
Underlying this is a culture of self-pity and accusation fed by two prophets: Islamism’s Sayyid Qutb, whose Milestones (1964) blamed Arab stagnation on Western infidelity, and Arabism’s Edward Said, whose Orientalism blamed the same scourge on Western imperialism – first the military and political, then the intellectual.
Yes, the Arab culture of blame was the inversion of the Jewish culture of guilt, echoed in the liturgy as “because of our sins we have been exiled from our land.”
Yet like Qutb and Said, the Jewish sages understood their nation’s political disaster as someone else’s doing: What they portrayed as divine will, Arab thinkers painted as a Western plot.
What national escapism does to one’s mind we Jews know all too well. It makes one escape political responsibility, deny historical facts, and sabotage the intellectual search for truth. That is why Arab media, academia and judiciaries are mostly unfree, and that is why the rabbis who fought Herzl’s gospel fought the Enlightenment with equal zeal.
Now, poring above his desk somewhere between the Nile and the Euphrates, the Arab Herzl – perhaps a journalist, an author, or a playwright like the original – is dreaming of an Arab nation seizing its fate, as the real Herzl’s silhouette emerges in the window while his whisper descends from midnight’s stars to the laptop’s screen: “If you will it, it is no dream.”