HERZL DIARY Day 2: Learning to ask the ‘Jewish Question’

Has Herzl’s “Jewish Question” – how to end the stubborn scourge of anti-Semitism – really been answered?

Theodor Herzl great 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Theodor Herzl great 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
PARIS – It was in Paris, the picturesque home of French republicanism, that Theodor Herzl became incurably pessimistic about the future of Europe’s Jews.
During his years working as the Paris correspondent of the respected Austrian daily Neue Freie Presse from 1891 to 1895, Herzl came to believe that the “Jewish Problem” – the most stubborn and virulent hatred of a fractious Europe for a millennium – would not be solved by liberalism, socialism or even outright conversion to Christianity. Even in the lofty and pure republicanism of fin-de-siècle France, a hundred years after Napoleon let the Jews out of the ghetto, they remained trapped behind invisible but impregnable walls of prejudice and social exclusion.
In September 1899, at the height of his role as Zionism’s chief organizer and spokesman, Herzl wrote of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain whose 1895 conviction and later acquittal for espionage set France ablaze, that he was “nothing more than an abstract symbol.”
Dreyfus, he wrote, “is the Jew in modern society, who tried to adapt to his surroundings, speaks its language, thinks its thoughts, sews its ranks on his coat – and here they come and tear those ranks off by force. Dreyfus is a stance that many have fought for, and continue to fight for, and which is – let us not fool ourselves – a lost cause!”
Once a believer in the promise of European liberalism and rationalism, Herzl discovered in Paris that the exclusionary – and deadly – urges of European nationalism would not be quenched by anything short of the removal of the Jews from Europe into their own sovereign homeland.
On Tuesday and Wednesday last week, about 100 Jews from around the world explored the Paris of Herzl’s life, from the military headquarters where Dreyfus lost his military insignia to the hotel where Herzl in 1895-6 sat down to write, feverishly as a man possessed, his proposal for Jewish statehood in a pamphlet titled Der Judenstaat.
A week is not enough time to bear witness to a life lived in frantic pursuit of salvation for a nation. Yet, just a day into the trip, we were already hearing the echoes of a century earlier. While the world has changed, Herzl’s questions continue to matter.
Has Herzl’s “Jewish Question” – how to end the stubborn scourge of anti-Semitism – really been answered?
“We’re wondering if the situation isn’t exactly the same now as in Herzl’s time,” says British-Australian participant David Cohen as we stand in the chilly Parisian afternoon at a tiny plaza named after Herzl – only after controversy over whether the father of Jewish political freedom deserved such an honor.
“The Jews are not accepted today either” in many parts of the world, believes Cohen.
In seeking a solution to anti-Jewish hatred, Herzl took a hard look at Jewish identity. At the heart of his Zionism lies the belief that the Jews are first and foremost a nation, and thus deserving of statehood. This, too, stands today as a question that sharply divides some in the Diaspora from their own communities and from Israelis.
Herzl came to Zionism as a last resort, after concluding that abandoning Judaism altogether simply couldn’t work. (He first turned to international socialism and mass-conversion to Catholicism as possible solutions.) Once there, however, he called for a flowering of the Jewish spirit and wrote of an idealized Jewish state steeped in Jewish religiosity.
Is Herzl’s Zionism, then, also a clarion call for a Jewish cultural renaissance? Is such a cultural rebirth necessarily a religious one? Herzl didn’t shy away from the difficult question of the relationship between the Jewish state and the Jewish religion. Two translation of Der Judenstaat were approved by him, the English one titled The Jewish State (where the state itself is Jewish), and the Hebrew titled Medinat Heyehudim, “The State of the Jews,” suggesting that it is the inhabitants who are Jewish. What did he intend? What do we, in today’s fractured Israel, actually want?
Day 3, in Basel: Young, Zionist and confused
To be a young Zionist isn’t easy.
On the one hand, you face the shrill campus ideologues who would condemn to oblivion a country they usually have not had the courtesy to visit. On the other, you face a Zionist movement more taken with its own conferencing than with real intellectual debate and political action.
With the anti-Zionists arrayed against you, and the Zionists not much help, it’s not a happy thought to realize that “Zionism” itself is a troubled idea.
Making our way through Europe, a group of about 100 Jews from around the world are “walking in Herzl’s footsteps,” visiting the places where he lived, worked and thought about the Jewish condition, and trying to understand what led him to conclude – sadly, correctly – that there was no future for Jews in Europe.
What we expected to be an eye-opening glimpse into the thinking of Zionism’s most important intellectual has turned out to be a surprising exercise in confusion.
When one peels away the layers, the rhetoric, what, specifically, is left? Is there even one agreed-upon definition or idea that is Zionism today? Everyone has seen the famous photograph of the First Zionist Congress of 1897: rows of serious men arrayed in a semicircle around a podium where a bearded Theodor Herzl is speaking. The photograph conveys a sense of mobilization, organization and confidence, a kind of deterministic gathering whose results were known in advance.
But visiting the place today – the original concert hall of the Basel Municipal Casino remains nearly unchanged – is to experience the very opposite. The hall is smaller in real life, poorly lit, tinged orange and red. The Zionist movement had its start in a minor event hall in a small European town.
Herzl, one suddenly realizes, could not have known he would succeed. His own clear vision of the danger and growing relationship with his Jewish identity and religion must have been powerful indeed to overcome the shabbiness of the movement’s earliest days.
Yet for all its unexpected and unparalleled success, understanding the Zionist movement of Herzl might not be much help for understanding the importance of today’s Zionist institutions.
Herzl’s Zionism was successful precisely because it was clear and actionable: European modernity would not be kind to Jews, and the only viable solution is escape from Europe to a distinct, self-reliant Jewish nation-state.
“We need to remind ourselves that Zionism, like other national movements in history, is an expression of the right of the Jewish people to be free, to govern their own lives and base their lives on their values,” said Daniel Shek, Israel’s ambassador to France, as we gathered at the Holocaust memorial in Paris’ Marais district.
The memorial, a small affair with the names of 76,000 deported and murdered French Jews etched in stone walls, is also an indirect but fitting tribute to the Zionist analysis. It was here, in the capital of European progress, that Herzl concluded that the promise offered by Europe’s liberal ideals would be broken. The Holocaust didn’t launch Zionism, nor is it the “justification” for the Jews’ right to self-determination. But it did fulfill Zionism’s nightmarish expectations (though on a scale no one could foresee) for those Jews who chose to remain minorities scattered among the nations of Europe.
Herzl’s Zionism cannot be taken lightly – it predicted too well the tribulations of the Jews. Yet his Zionism, the strategic reorganization of the Jewish people for the sake of survival, is now “finished,” according to one tour participant. The Jews have a land, a state and a robust army. Herzl’s call for Jewish emancipation and self-reliance has been answered.
“We need something more than Israel to connect us [Jews],” believes a participant who asked not to be named. “Maybe Judaism is best sustained in the Diaspora. It doesn’t really develop well in Israel.”
For participant Diana Diner, Zionism “needs to be redefined. Everyone wants to be in 1904, sowing sand and building Israel. But what are you building now?”
Zionism, for her, is “a love of Israel even with the understanding that there’s sometimes excrement in the milk and honey. It’s like familial love – your kids can screw up, but they’re still your kids.”
Israel is “a comfort zone for Jews, part of Judaism and Jewish culture,” says Kim Wolfson from Chicago.
But whatever it is, it cannot be primarily a Herzl-like response to persecution, believes Eliza Baron.
“I don’t come from a place where persecution is a big deal. I was bornto Zionist parents, to three generations in the Zionist movement. Butif [Israel] is just a safe haven, I don’t know how I feel about that.For a lot of Jews, Israel is not the heart of Jewish culture andreligion.”
What, then, does Zionism mean today? And what is the point of the“World Zionist Organization,” the small Jerusalem-based group foundedby Herzl that played midwife to the state but struggles today to defineits purpose?
Our journey continues – to Vienna, where Herzl lived and worked at theintellectual summit of German-speaking society, and Budapest, in thepoor Jewish quarter where he was born.