Celebrating Herzl

Herzl took about finding a solution to the Jewish Problem, acutely analyzing both its positive and negative aspects.

Herzl (photo credit: Cortesy)
(photo credit: Cortesy)
Last week marked the 153nd anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s birthday on May 2, 1860. As a small child, upon first seeing the picture of Herzl, I was saddened, realizing I would never meet the man who was gazing at me.
I became a big fan of Herzl, my admiration at first based on feeling rather than knowledge.
With time, though, I started reading what he wrote: The Jewish State, Old-New Land, his stories and letters, and my admiration for him grew.
Whenever I would ask myself which three people that I’ve never met I would most like to, Herzl was always among them. His importance to our life cannot be overstated, for our entire being and identity as Jews and Israelis, as citizens of the Jewish state and of the modern world, are built upon Herzl’s Zionism. Today, his creation is the reference point by which the Jewish people of all colors identify themselves. This includes also opponents of Zionism – such as those haredi Jews who vocally support Ahmadinejad, or anti-Zionists secular Jews, who carry out anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activity.
Herzl took about finding a solution to the Jewish Problem, acutely analyzing both its positive and negative aspects.
The negative one, modern anti-Semitism, he saw as being a new and different outgrowth of the anti-Semitism practiced in earlier periods of history. Herzl believed that the source of this new anti-Semitism was rooted in the Emancipation, i.e., the granting of equal rights to the Jews. Once allowed to enter society’s various strata that had been previously closed to them, fierce competition to the Jews from the local population arose. Emancipation also created, in those instances where integration was deemed by the Jews to have failed, bitter frustration, leading to fomentation by Jews of social unrest, which brought upon even more hatred. Herzl foresaw that as Jews tried to gain further inroads into non-Jewish society, anti-Semitism would grow and eventually manifest itself in horrendous ways.
Herzl was certainly right about this.
THE POSITIVE side to Herzl’s analysis of the Jewish Problem was its solution – Political Zionism. It would cause a revival of the life forces in the Jewish nation which lay dormant for centuries.
In Herzl’s words, “Zionism is our return to Judaism, which must occur before we can return to the Land of the Jews.”
In other words, Zionism would return to the Jewish awareness its national existence, which until then took a far second to its religious existence. He was right about this too, knowing that the will to nationhood was still very much in existence, even if dormant.
The end goal of Herzl’s Political Zionism was of course the creation of a Jewish state. Herzl did not claim to be the originator of this idea. In fact, he said that it was “an age-old idea – as old as our people.”
But his methods to bring it to fruition were new: The implementation of full sovereignty (i.e., control of all national institutions), the formation of an army of citizens to protect the state, and the bringing about of international guarantees to the state’s formation and survival.
Herzl was right about this basic pathway as well. While trying to implement it, he succeeded in the eight short years allotted him until his death in achieving something that has no parallel in human history.
Above all, Herzl understood the importance of the human spirit. He knew that just as it had the power to defeat us, it equally had the power to revive us as a nation. He was well aware of our Jewish sense of inferiority, born of exilic existence, but believed in our ability to rise above it and establish an independent state. He understood our fear of exercising our right to statehood, yet called upon us to gather the courage necessary for the creation of such a state. And just as Herzl recognized the lack of desire among many to return to a life of independence, he also knew that such desire was there and was the driving force for achieving nationhood.
DESPITE ALL his “prophetic” ability, Herzl was wrong in thinking that with the creation of a Jewish state, the negative manifestations of the Jewish Problem would disappear.
He thought anti-Semitism would weaken, possibly disappear, following the Jewish state’s establishment, because the nations of the world would recognize the benefits they would have by it – both allowing the Jewish genius to fully flourish under an independent state and thus benefiting also the entire world, and causing a lessening of European destabilization, which to a large measure was brought about by Jewish frustration born of anti- Semitism. This lessening of anti-Semitism did not happen, and in fact today we are witness to a dangerous world-wide rise of it.
As to the solution, it is hard to imagine that Herzl would have believed that after the establishment of the Jewish state, the desire for national existence would not encompass all Jews.
Yet there are many among us who are actively trying to weaken this desire, to instill in us a feeling of guilt for our very existence as a nation, and who want to share our country with those who also wish to “solve” the Jewish Problem – by the destruction of the Jewish state.
It could be, though, that Herzl’s mistakes were not really his, but ours. For not only did we not truly follow the path Herzl laid out for us, we also added to it much that was extraneous and harmful: Socialism, universalism and such like, which Herzl was opposed to and which have caused us so much harm and delays along the way. They were no doubt a deviation from Herzl’s revolutionary core Zionism, and so perhaps for the continuing survival of the Jewish state, a permanent Zionist “revolutionary” state of mind is needed, one that constantly renews the Jewish national idea and confronts those who try to weaken and silence it.The writer is the editor of the weekly online magazine Maraah-magazine.co.il.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.