What would Herzl think of today's Israel?

Marking the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress.

David Ben Gurion at the center as the state of Israel is declared May 14 1948 (photo credit: SCHERSCHEL FRANK/ GPO)
David Ben Gurion at the center as the state of Israel is declared May 14 1948
(photo credit: SCHERSCHEL FRANK/ GPO)
On September 3, 1897, Theodor Herzl famously concluded the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland by stating in his diary, “At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it.”
During the congress, the participants, some 200 people, devised policies, strategies and action plans.
They established a newspaper, a congress that would meet annually and laid out the financial and diplomatic infrastructure for creating a state in the historical Land of Israel. This congress sparked the beginning of the Jewish national movement, which eventually, almost exactly 50 years later as Herzl intuited, established the State of Israel.
The milestone of 120 years since the congress is a good opportunity to contemplate the vision of Herzl and the early Zionist leaders against the reality of contemporary Israel. Was the original vision realized? Did the Zionist leaders of that time share the same vision as today’s leaders?
Ilan Troen, emeritus professor of Israel studies at Brandeis University, spoke to The Jerusalem Post from his home near Beersheba.
“Herzl appealed to the imagination of the participants… they imagined something in the Ottoman Empire. They didn’t foresee that the Ottoman Empire would so soon cease to exist after a war they couldn’t anticipate. Herzl couldn’t even imagine speaking Hebrew.
The state became very different from his vision.
“He had a much more universal state in mind, one that is less nationalistic. He spoke of a state for Jews, but one that is secular. In his utopian novel Altneuland, Herzl’s distaste for the religious aspect of Jewish political leadership comes alive in Dr. Geyer, a rabbi and head of a political party. Geyer is German for vulture.”
Where would he feel at home in Israel?
“His capital city was Haifa. It doesn’t have real sacred sites [for Jews]. Should he arrive here today, he wouldn’t go to pray at the Western Wall. No, no. He would have wanted to sit at a cafe or visit the opera house; he’d look for a salon and go to the blue cosmopolitan Mediterranean, not black Jerusalem.”
DR. ESTHER Carmel-Hakim of the Department of Jewish History in the University of Haifa is an expert on the role of women in Zionism. She emphasized that women were not equal participants in the first assembly.
“There were some 19 women observers, students, wives or daughters of the participants. That said, starting from the Second Congress, they were admitted as equal members with voting rights.
“The Zionist movement gave women an elevated status. Women who were educated in Europe were given opportunities in Mandatory Palestine under the umbrella of the Zionist movement – in agriculture, architecture or dance.
“I do think that it is a great disappointment for women’s rights that Zionism granted [religious] Orthodoxy a monopoly on faith. It became harder to imagine Zionism as a progressive movement with so many restrictions on what women are allowed and not allowed to do. I think that the women who were there during the First Congress would have been super happy with Israel today. There is still much work to do. It’s still a patriarchal society. But women are fighting this fight.”
DR. DMITRY Shumsky, senior lecturer at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, carefully qualified his remarks.
“The question, as I understand it, is whether Basel’s goals were realized or not. The explicit and hidden aims of the congress were to turn the Jews into a normal political nation ‘like the other nations,’ and with a territory and defined borders… I’m uncertain to what extent this ‘normalization,’ so to speak, was realized.
We still don’t have recognized borders.
“We are half a democracy. I’m not speaking of human rights issues; this wasn’t a concern of the Zionist leaders. They didn’t want to be ‘a light unto the nations’ or the most moral people in the world. But that we don’t have clear borders and that the system of government is shaky leads to ambiguities… “The leaders who gathered in 1897 wanted something basic: to turn the Jews into a political nation with a movement that would establish a nation state.
In this regard, 1967 was a step back. We keep imagining ourselves as a movement, as a state that is still in the making, an incomplete project. On the one hand we have a sovereign state, but on the other hand it’s a hybrid creature between state and movement.
“Zionism had some messianic elements to it, but I don’t think that this part should be overly belittled or exaggerated. The essence of a messianic movement is that the aspiration never ends since the messiah never arrives. The leaders then had an aim, an end-point for their vision: creating a state.”
Shumsky also relates to a recent comment by Culture Minister Miri Regev.
“She wrote on Facebook that Herzl envisioned having a Temple. But Herzl’s Holy Temple wasn’t on the Temple Mount,” he stresses. “Herzl knew that was the historical location and deliberately placed his imaginary one elsewhere. So perhaps he hoped for a Temple, but he was also aware of the dangers of false messiahs and wanted to neutralize something of this messianism.”
Where would Herzl feel most at home?
“It’s hard for me to decide, but my natural inclination is to say Tel Aviv. Herzl would have felt at home in some specific places in Jerusalem though.”
YOSSI YONAH, professor of philosophy, formerly at Ben-Gurion University, and today a Zionist Union MK, told the Post, “The Zionist leaders would at first be overwhelmed with joy witnessing this miracle: an independent Jewish state with economic and military power, a regional superpower with vibrant social and cultural life.
“They would also not overlook the downsides. We don’t live in the liberal democratic state they envisioned.
Herzl would probably not be too happy with the exclusive dominance of one specific conception of the Jewish religion in the state. He wanted a Western, liberal and pluralistic state in the heart of the Middle East.”
If the Western countries were in fact liberal and pluralistic he would have never come to think of a Jewish State
“True. That’s the paradox. Europe was never truly enlightened. The country he imagined was built around the ethos of an ideal of a state, not one that physically existed in Europe. They wanted to create this state here.”
Were they successful?
“No. The opposite. They didn’t envision such an overly nationalistic messianic state. They would have been appalled.”
They did toy with these messianic themes, didn’t they?
“Some scholars, such as Gershom Scholem, say that we cannot ignore the messianic elements hiding already in the earliest Zionist thought and rhetoric.
That the messianic element will reveal itself and swallow modern Zionism. It might be the direction we are heading, but I don’t think we have yet reached the point of no return.”
Yonah also mentions the Six Day War as a landmark in this context.
“I think that 1967 was a critical turning point in this regard that encouraged the messianic understanding of the Zionist project. There are two complementing elements to this. We perceived this victory as a miracle – a combination of military force and divine intervention.
Today, [some] scholars reread history and underline how Israel started the war and that Israel was better armed and supported by superpowers. But the way that it was felt here remains the same. The second element is that 1967 made holy places such as Hebron and the Western Wall accessible, which transformed the way people see their relationship with this land.”
ORTHODOX RABBI and Likud MK Yehudah Glick is convinced that “even the most optimistic participants of the First Zionist Congress never imagined we would have, so soon, a country venerated by world leaders and that is so developed in terms of education, culture, security, technology and science. They thought that it would take much longer for the idea to come into fruition.
This shows that on every parameter God is the best author – better than Shakespeare – and the best movie director, bypassing any Hollywood director.
The creation of the state is the greatest miracle in the history of humanity.”
You are pushing for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. Do you think they would have been on the same page as you? "Hundreds of people participated in the congress. Each had his own ideal, and thought differently. Herzl and Rabbi [Abraham Isaac] Kook didn’t hold to the same opinions,” Glick states, although Kook wasn’t part of the 1897 Zionist Congress.
“Herzl, too, mentioned the Temple in his utopian novel,” he adds.
SHLOMO AVINERI, professor of political science at the Hebrew University and author of a 2014 biography of Herzl wasn’t willing to answer the question since it’s ahistorical. However, he consented to say, “In retrospect we see a glass half full and a glass half empty. The half-full glass is that there is a Jewish state with eight million people, more than six million of whom are Jewish, and its very existence means that never again will the Jewish people feel defenseless.
“The half-empty glass is that Israel is not at peace with its neighborhood. At the time of the congress there was no effective Arab national movement. While Herzl insisted that the Arabs in the Jewish state would be equal citizens, and this was an important point in his vision, he didn’t foresee the coming of a strong militaristic Palestinian national movement.
For all of Israel’s achievements and strengths this is still a challenge we are facing.”
PROFESSOR LILACH Rosenberg-Friedman of the Land of Israel Studies and Archeology department at Bar-Ilan University, qualified her answer by saying that “as a historian I don’t deal with ‘what if’ questions.
“As a person, I can give it a shot…” she agreed eventually.
“In my opinion, Herzl was the most fascinating person in that congress. We usually think of him as a visionary, but he was much more than just that. He was a man of action. He took the national idea and put it into practical action. He organized the congress so that he would be at its center. The aim was to make him the leader of the movement, elected by the congress he brought together. I’m in love with him.
Many were taken by his charm. He had incomparable charisma.
“He met German and British leaders – as what exactly? Who did he represent? No one. He fabricated a facade as if he was their equal. As if he, too, was the leader of a country. His approach was very innocent: there is antisemitism, so the Jews need a state.
“He was funny on certain things. For instance, he asked himself what language should be spoken in the Jewish State. Obviously, he answered himself, not Hebrew.
People need to buy train tickets, that’s impossible to do in an ancient dead language. He thought each person would speak a different language here… “It’s commonly said that if the Zionist leaders of that age could see Israel today, they would turn over in their graves. I think that they would be super happy. I still see it as a miracle. Herzl and probably many others wouldn’t be as content with the religious turn this A MAIN road runs near apartment blocks and high-rise towers in this cityscape of Tel Aviv last month.
“Herzl was blind to the Arabs living in this country,” she adds. “I cannot recall any reference to them in his writings. They were influenced by the Western approach that sees Arabs as ignorable natives. Herzl just wanted to solve the Jewish problem. He wasn’t a human rights activist.”
Where would you take Herzl, were he your guest here?
“Tel Aviv. Without a second guess. It’s cosmopolitan. He wouldn’t feel comfortable in Jerusalem.”
ZIONIST UNION MK Stav Shaffir thinks that the Zionism envisioned by the leaders in Basel is still relevant in Israel today.
“There is a dispute today in Israel about the path the founders of the movement were envisioning. They wanted to build an exemplary society, one that is centered around principles of humanism and true peace and equality among its citizens. Instead, what we see today is a political system that is willing to rip each other apart for political gains and personal interests.
The discourse around where this country should be heading is shallow and sidelined.
“My generation only hears about what isn’t possible.
Why we cannot do things. It’s politics of ‘no option.’ What I expect to see is a return to the real Zionism.
The Zionist story is about dreaming big and making miracles. It’s about facing the challenges, not avoiding them. Israel is a strong country with devoted citizens.
It can cope with any challenge. It’s time to deal with the hardships lying ahead and get back on the track the founding mothers of this movement inspired us to take.”
Is this sort of Zionism still relevant in our day?
“David Ben-Gurion once said that the mission of Zionism has yet to be completed. I second that notion.
We have a strong country. A successful economy. But we still don’t live in full security. We haven’t defined our borders properly. We are still in an ongoing inner conflict about the identity of this country.”