Yes, we can

An exclusive interview with Theodor Herzl.

Theodor Herzl great 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Theodor Herzl great 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This month marks the 110th anniversary of Theodor Herzl's visit to Palestine. In honor of the occasion, we conducted a special interview with the visionary of the Jewish state. His wide-ranging responses to our questions contain a message for the new mayor of Jerusalem, for today's Israel on the eve of elections and for the thousands of Jews from the Diaspora here to participate in gatherings of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Communities. Q: It is 60 years since the Jewish state you dreamed of came into being. Given... Herzl: Excuse me. This is not the Jewish state I dreamed of. Q: Pardon me? Herzl: More than a century ago I declared, "Those of us prepared to hazard our lives for the cause would regret having raised a finger if we were able to organize only a new social system and not a more righteous one." Q: We haven't done that? Herzl: Please. Long ago I charged the Jewish people: "Fashion your state in such a manner that the stranger will feel comfortable among you." The recent riots in Acre, your treatment of foreign workers... Q: But look at what we have managed to do. The technology, the desert in bloom... Herzl: Listen to my leaders in Altneuland. "All you have cultivated will be worthless and your fields will again be barren, 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." Q: I understood you only wanted a safe haven... Herzl: Absolutely not! My vision was much nobler. "I truly believe," I wrote, "that even after we possess our land, Zionism will not cease to be an ideal, for Zionism includes not only the yearning for a plot of promised land legally acquired for our weary people, but also the yearning for ethical and spiritual fulfillment." I expected a great deal more from you. Q: Are you suggesting the Zionist undertaking was a failure? Jews from across the Diaspora are in Israel this week for meetings of the same World Zionist Organization you founded more than a century ago. Would you have them disband it? Herzl: God forbid! I may be disappointed, but I'm not a defeatist. This is not the time to forsake the ideal, but to embrace it, to inspire the next generation to take up the task of their forebears. I have said it before but I will say it again, "A community must have an ideal, for it is that which drives us. The ideal is for the community what bread and water are for the individual. And our Zionism, which led us hither and which will lead us still further to yet unknown heights, is but an ideal, an infinite endless ideal." Q: You believe we are capable of regaining that sense of vision? Herzl: The leaders of the WZO seem to think so. I remind you that on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of my death they adopted a new Jerusalem Program, an up-to-date revision of my Zionist manifesto from 1897. It calls for "strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multifaceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world." Is that not vision? Q: Fantasy might be more accurate. Are we really up to the challenge? Herzl: "All the deeds of man have begun with a dream, and dreams shall they become." Q: Was that an answer to my question? Herzl: Look around you, all these accomplishments you take such pride in. A vibrant, full-color rendition of my black-and-white dream. But as deeds, they will ultimately amount to nothing if they do not become the foundation of dreams of your own. Q: We have dreams all right, but not the sort you're talking about. Ours are a nightmare, filled with scandals, corruption, the machinations of... Herzl: "That objectionable class of person, the professional politician" that the people of Altneuland eschewed entirely. Q: Actually, the new mayor of Jerusalem claims to come from another mold. What advice have you for him? Herzl: He should begin by reading my diary: "If Jerusalem were ever ours," I wrote, "I would begin by cleaning it up." But I went far beyond that, and I suggest he do the same. In my Jerusalem's Old City, "all the buildings were devoted to religious and benevolent purposes. Muslim, Jewish and Christian welfare institutions, hospitals, clinics stood side by side. And in the middle of a great square was the splendid Peace Palace, where international congresses of peace-lovers and scientists were held, for Jerusalem was now a home for all the best strivings of the human spirit: for faith, love, knowledge." Q: Rather universalistic, no? Herzl: But also very Jewish. Not many people know it, but alongside the Peace Palace, I also rebuilt the Temple, and even made sure it was well attended! What did my hero experience on his first Friday evening in Jerusalem? "The streets which at noon had been alive with traffic were now suddenly stilled. Very few motor cars were to be seen; all the shops were closed. Slowly and peacefully the Sabbath fell upon the bustling city. Throngs of worshipers wended their way to the Temple and to the many synagogues in the Old City and the New..." Q: And suggestions for those hoping to be Israel's next prime minister? Herzl: The social agenda must take priority. My Altneuland must become a model for your Tel Aviv, Sokolov's brilliant translation of my novel. In it, "We neither reward nor punish our children for their fathers' business transactions. All our educational institutions are free from the elementary schools to the Zion University. All the pupils wear the same kind of simple clothing... We think it unethical to single out children by their parents' wealth or social rank." Q: Perhaps your standards are too high for us? Herzl: Nonsense. You are still capable of grand things. I only wish I could electrify you as I did Barack Obama. We met only briefly, but I know what I said influenced him greatly. Q: What was that? Herzl: Im tirtzu, ayn zu aggada. Q: Why are you convinced that impacted on him so profoundly? Herzl: I heard the translator render the phrase into English. Q: I don't understand. Herzl: "Yes, we can," he said. Not a bad translation. I suggest you take it to heart. The writer is founding chairman of the WZO's Herzl Center and a member of the Zionist Executive, where he represents MERCAZ Olami, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. All quotations attributed to Herzl are authentic.