A journey in Herzl’s footsteps

In contrast to some errant reports, the World Zionist Organization is renewing the quest of its founder and spiritual mentor.

Herzl's portrait at Independence Hall 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Herzl's portrait at Independence Hall 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A Zionist organization that takes itself seriously is going to grapple honestly with the realities of Jewish life in the Diaspora and the meaning of the Jewish state for the Jewish people today. That is what the recent journey in Herzl’s footsteps organized by Habonim Dror and the World Zionist Organization was all about.
Unfortunately, an erroneous report on the experience by JTA reporter Alex Weisler (World Zionist Organization, Habonim Dror embark on journey to show Israeli Jews Diaspora life’s value, October 1) suggested otherwise, that our purpose was to champion Jewish life outside of Israel, “to show Israeli Jews that Israel isn’t the only place where Jews have a future.”
In doing so, the article entirely distorted the educational concept behind the Herzl journey, completely misrepresented the impact of the experience, which was thoroughly Zionist by any reasonable standards that might be applied, and did a terrible disservice to the participants in the program – all youth movement leaders engaged in a variety of Zionist ventures in Israel. Furthermore, about half of those who partook in the trip were themselves recent immigrants to Israel from North America, South America and Europe who left the Diaspora behind for idealistic and ideological reasons in order to engage fully, consciously and actively in the realization of the Zionist idea. The others work day-in and day-out with Diaspora Jews participating in Habonim Dror programs in Israel. In short, all of them are hard-core Zionists, the likes of which are hard to come by, who didn’t need a trip to Europe in order to consider the possibilities of Jewish life outside the Jewish state.
What, then, did they need the trip for? The fundamental objective of the study tour was to familiarize the participants even more fully with Herzl’s vision for a Jewish state that would also be an exemplary society. To stimulate them to become even more involved than they already are in bringing about the fulfillment of that dream, and to provide them with ideas and tools to enhance their capacity to effectively convey their own passion to the next generation. The idea was that by bringing them to the same places that marked crucial milestones in Herzl’s life, and recreating there the atmosphere and times in which he lived and toiled, we could more effectively engage them in wrestling with the same issues that occupied Israel’s founding father.
Issues such as the quest for a personal Jewish identity, the “Jewish problem” of the day, the relationship between Diaspora Jewish communities and the societies surrounding them, the meaning of the Land of Israel in our own lives, and the nature of the Jewish state – the one we dream of, the one we have, and the one we might fashion. And that is precisely what happened.
Surely the answers the participants came up with were as diverse as the questions were complex, but fundamentally they all reflected a particular Zionist ethos: that nothing we were experiencing would have been possible if the State of Israel had not come about.
The JTA reporter – who chanced upon our group at a Jewish coffee house in Budapest and spent only a single hour with us at the very beginning of an intensive five-day experience – chose to focus on the vitality of a population of remarkable young Jews only now becoming aware of their Jewish roots.
He left out the hours-long discussions that went on late into the night that included lively debates about the relative advantages of living in Israel, the fragility of Jewish life in Hungary, and the necessity of creating more opportunities for meaningful Israel experiences for an emerging generation.
While he correctly ascribed to me the belief that Zionism encompasses a fundamental concern for Jewish peoplehood, he completely distorted the meaning of my words by leaving out the rest of the sentence: that there can be no future for our people without a strong and dynamic Israel at our center – the upbuilding of which must constitute the action plan of the Zionist movement to which we must all be committed.
This is exactly what the WZO – and all the Zionist youth movements affiliated with it – are up to, despite accusations in the wake of the JTA report that we had lost our ideological bearings. Following a radical restructuring that took place at the 36th Zionist Congress a little more than a year ago, this 114-year old body is now more involved than it has been for a generation in encouraging aliya, promoting Zionist education and engaging a new cohort of university students and young adults both in Israel and abroad in contemplation of the Zionist idea and the demands it makes upon us. To this end, it has recently launched an extensive network of emissaries abroad and an array of educational and cultural activities in Israel in order to realize these objectives.
I have no doubt, then, that today’s WZO and the Herzl journey it promotes are authentically Zionist in both orientation and deed, and would make the founder of our organization proud. That doesn’t mean we can’t continue arguing over the viability of Jewish life in the Diaspora. The debate is as old as the Zionist movement itself, Ahad Ha’am having taken one position and Herzl the other. It has even been suffused with a certain permanence. Today, in the very heart of Tel Aviv, the city named after Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland, one need still decide which way to turn while approaching the intersection of the streets bearing the names of these ideological adversaries.

The writer is vice-chairman of the World Zionist Organization.