Theodor Herzl: The founder of Zionism was ahead of his time - excerpt

Well before OurCrowd, Herzl undertook the second crowdfunding campaign in Jewish history – the Tabernacle in the desert 3,700 years earlier was the first.

 ‘HERZL UNDERSTOOD the value of a great photo’: Theodor Herzl in Basel, 1897.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘HERZL UNDERSTOOD the value of a great photo’: Theodor Herzl in Basel, 1897.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The following essay is excerpted with permission from the forthcoming Herzl’s Vision Today by Artist Choice Editions, 2022. The book includes seven essays and original artwork, including this chapter by Yosef Israel Abramowitz on “The Art of Being Herzl, the Futurist.” The writer is a climate activist who draws inspiration from the Zionist icon. It is particularly timely, given that the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress will be celebrated on August 28-29 at the original congress location of Basel, Switzerland.

Herzl, the Futurist

The Steineck Institute is housed in modest buildings on the lush southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Its mission is to eradicate pandemics for the Jewish state, Africa and the world.

Sixteen years before the outbreak of the Spanish Flu, which killed roughly 50 million people, and COVID in our day, Theodor Herzl’s pen hit the page of his Altneuland manuscript with this astounding and relevant vision. Not only was the future state of the Jews going to be a center of technology, including immunology, it would be a model country that would contribute to the betterment of the world.

As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress this month and also the 120th anniversary of Herzl’s novel, Altneuland, the Moses of the Zionist movement beckons us anew. The picture that emerges, carefully crafted by the artist himself, is of a man who sought to heal the brokenness in his own personal life by ending the powerlessness of the Jewish people. And through this empowerment, the Jewish people would then cure the social and environmental ills of the world.

The art of being Herzl the futurist, though, starts with personal pain and unmet aspirations.

 Herzl's Vision Today (credit: David Nipo) Herzl's Vision Today (credit: David Nipo)

He did not find a place to belong. He was a cultural Jew and a leading intellectual in Vienna. He suffered immense personal losses. His marriage was cold. He initially sought the attention of the non-Jewish aristocracy and theatre reviewers. When that mostly failed, he turned to the Jewish question. He panned a play on Zionism, considered mass conversion to Catholicism, mass assimilation and then mass emigration to El-Arish, Uganda, Argentina and elsewhere as a solution to anti-Semitism. Again, to no avail.

His standing ovation, finally, came at the start of his public Zionist journey in Basel, in 1897, capping a tumultuous intellectual and emotional journey for the 36-year-old playwright and journalist. As he approached the podium, the assembled in-gathering of the lovers of Zion greeted a tuxedoed Herzl, according to one observer, with “prolonged and forceful clapping, cheering, foot-stomping and cane-pounding” lasting 15 minutes. The 204 delegates and smattering of observers recognized that Theodor Herzl’s audacity and ability to bring them together had already changed them and the course of Jewish history.

Well before Instagram and Photoshop, Herzl understood the value of a great photo: on the balcony of the Three Kings Hotel in Basel, for example. In Israel, when the camera of his companion failed after taking what should have been the historic photo of Herzl conversing, standing below the mounted German Kaiser, he released a doctored photo of the same.

Herzl gifted two playbills of his future state: The first, The Jewish State (1896), is a call to action to form a progressive society on the Eastern Mediterranean. The second, Altneuland (1902), the novel he raced to write as his breath shortened and his heart murmured, recounts the experiences of two passengers on the boat Futuro, who visit Israel at two intervals, 20 years apart, marveling at what the Jewish people were able to accomplish in a generation.

At the heart of Herzl’s hope for the future are humanistic values (with a Jewish flavor) and the promise of technology, for which his imagination was astonishingly prescient. As Herzl tired of long train rides in Europe, he looked out the window of his carriage and imagined the future airplane, penning the play The Steerable Airship. Well before radio, Herzl imagined a newspaper-phone that would bring news and music into people’s homes. He had the uncanny ability to take a prototype of an idea, ideological or technological, and quickly extrapolate to full-scale implementation in his future state.

In Herzl’s imagination, 120 years ago, the future state is a technological wonderland. Electric and telephone lines exist in every home, fast electric trains crisscross the country and even the region, electric boats skim the Kinneret, electric farming equipment powers agricultural collectives, electric cable cars whirl above city streets to avoid creating traffic jams below. The land is filled with electric cars with battery swap stations, all managed by cooperatives of drivers – over 100 years ago. This happened before Shai Aggasi introduced the same concept via Israel’s (failed) Better Place venture.

And Herzl shared the astounding vision that the future state would be 100% carbon-neutral in its power production, replacing the need for burning polluting fossil fuels. About 116 years after Herzl published his fictionalized vision, Elon Musk said to then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, “You know, your entire country could be powered by solar power. The Negev is Israel’s energy future. You can deploy solar systems here that will give you more energy than you need – clean energy. Israel is a technological superpower.”

“You know, your entire country could be powered by solar power. The Negev is Israel’s energy future. You can deploy solar systems here that will give you more energy than you need – clean energy. Israel is a technological superpower.”

Elon Musk

Musk, a master of the electric car, solar energy, battery storage and Space X, is the kind of investor that Herzl thought he would find in the Rothschilds and de Hirsches of his era. But when they turned him down, he wrote them long letters in the hope that his pen was mightier than their fears. And he pivoted his financial model for creating the state.

Well before OurCrowd, Herzl undertook the second crowdfunding campaign in Jewish history – the Tabernacle in the desert 3,700 years earlier was the first. Herzl sold shares in his dream via the Jewish Colonial Trust, which trades today on the Tel Aviv stock market as part of the holdings of Bank Leumi. The Jewish bankers of his time thought he was crazy.

Herzl, himself manic depressive, understood the fine line between madness and prophecy.

“During these days, I have more than once been afraid I was losing my mind,” said Herzl. “This is how tempestuously the trains of thought have raced through my soul. A lifetime will not suffice to carry it all out. But I shall leave behind a spiritual legacy. To whom? To all men. I believe I shall be named among the greatest benefactors of mankind.”

Herzl’s ability to see the future was also a curse. He understood the mental illness he and Julie had bequeathed their children, whose lives all ended in heartbreaking tragedy. Therefore, immortality and celebration of his genius would not be attained through blood or writing plays and articles, but by crafting the movement that would achieve enlightened statehood. 

The writer serves on President Herzog’s Climate Forum and is CEO of Energiya Global Capital. On Twitter: @Kaptainsunshine

To order the book: contact [email protected]