Dancing 'round Herzl's grave

He miscalculated that anti-Semitism would end with the rise of a Jewish state.

Theodor Herzl great 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Theodor Herzl great 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dear Dr. Herzl, Happy Birthday. I hope you enjoyed the party we threw you the other night. I'm fairly certain you did. Despite that effort of yours to maintain an eternally stern expression and penetrating gaze, I believe I caught a fleeting smile cross your lips at one point during the celebration, and, if I am not mistaken (don't worry, I won't tell a soul) there was even a moment when tears clouded your eyes. It was when those two young women, the 16-year olds, lit the last of the 12 torches "for the glory of Israel." You remember, the third-generation Holocaust survivor, Orthodox, active in Bnei Akiva, standing side-by-side with the Arab high school student from Jaffa, an activist committed to dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews. No need to deny it. There's no reason to be embarrassed about having been moved. I was too. And unlike you, I didn't lose a daughter in the Holocaust. This proud young Jewess taking part in the formal ceremony ushering in Israel's 61st Independence Day, standing close enough to your tomb that you might have reached out and held her, must inevitably have triggered thoughts as to what the great-great-granddaughter you never had might have become had your own children not suffered the tragic deaths they did. Her partner must have made you proud as well. Your prediction that the Arabs would welcome us Zionists with open arms proved to have been incredibly naïve given the bitter reality we have had to contend with instead. But still, the decision to represent the younger generation in this way, with this sort of hope for the future, at the official celebration of our again having become a sovereign nation in our own land, is testimony to the fact that your profound belief in cooperation and coexistence between peoples and religions has become an integral part of our ethos, internalized by our government despite the blusterous statements of some of our ministers that must have you turning over in your grave. BY THE WAY, as far as graves go, you should know that yours is an impressive one, and the centerpiece of the ceremony. Yes, the staging of this joyous event is built entirely around that solemn black slab bearing your name, the letters embossed in gold glittering in the spotlight for all to see. What, you want to know if there was anything else you were wrong about? Well, if I've already mentioned the Arab response to your dreams, I might just as well inform you that you were wrong about anti-Semitism as well. Your calculation that it would cease to exist once and for all with the rise of the Zionist movement and the creation of a Jewish state seems to have been just a bit off. But don't feel bad; that only adds credence to your fundamental conviction that a Jewish state was an absolute necessity for our future existence - more so than you or anyone else could have even imagined at the time. On a more positive note, there is one more thing you were mistaken about. It turns out one can indeed purchase a train ticket in Hebrew. Remember how you dismissed the idea of reviving the Hebrew language with such a remark? Well, you'd be tickled pink to see how vibrant a Hebrew culture we've gone ahead and created. A Hebrew city, too. In fact, it is in acknowledgment of the 100th anniversary of the founding of that city that we organized the Independence Day festivities this year. By the way, you'll get a kick out of the city's name. No. Not Herzliya, but close. Do you recall approving Sokolov's translation of your novel's title Altneuland into "Tel Aviv"? Well, just a few years after the book was published, we all began rendering your black on white dream of what a future Jewish state could like into a full-color reality. I don't think any of us realized back then just how many colors there are. And Tel Aviv has them all. A city that never stops, that dances till dawn. TALKING ABOUT dancing - what a display of it there was the other night on Mount Herzl. Yes, that's right. The hilltop where we gather to rejoice at the establishment of the Jewish state that only you knew you had already created back in 1897 at the Zionist Congress you convened in Basel, is named for you, along with the boulevard that leads to it. That's correct, and moreover, there's probably not a town in the country without a street named Herzl. Oh, please, don't go feigning surprise. Modesty was never your strong point. But back to the show. Hundreds of young people were dancing around your grave at the ceremony, as they do every year. Granted it might sound a bit jarring, but I do hope you don't take offense. No disrespect was intended. In fact, while the steps were perfectly choreographed, the sparkling smiles were spontaneous, and the manifest joy sincere. But enough about Independence Day. It's now behind us, and Herzl Day is upon us. Yes, Herzl Day! On the 100th anniversary of your death, your Hebrew birthday, the 10th of Sivan, was officially declared Herzl Day by the Knesset. You're now the only one in all of Jewish history to have a date in our calendar bearing his name. Unless, of course, we consider the day on which we commemorate Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, may his memory be for a blessing. But that's a long story, and a tragic one, the end of which is that you prematurely became neighbors. Oy, there are so many things I could share with you that would you would find distressing - but fortunately, there is even more I can tell you about that would make you proud, and given the occasion, let's leave all the disturbing news for another time. It won't hurt to put aside our cynicism, our disappointments and our frustrations for long enough to enjoy your party. We can hold off until Tisha Be'av to bemoan the senseless hatred we must contend with that carries within it the possibility of destroying with our own hands all the wondrous things we have built. But I don't want to end this letter on a sour note, so let me assure you that it wasn't only you and I who were moved by the celebration. One visitor from abroad approached me after the ceremony, full of emotion. "I've got to tell you," he said, "I've been singing 'Hatikva' passionately my entire life back in South Africa, but it has never meant for me what it meant tonight." Thank you, Dr. Herzl, for laying the foundations that have allowed his hopes, and the 2,000 year-old hopes of us all, to be fulfilled. With heartfelt appreciation and deep admiration, we remain sincerely yours, the People of Israel P.S. Next year at this time we'll be celebrating your 150th birthday. I know you join with us all in praying that Gilad Schalit will be among your guests. He's been sorely missed. The writer is a member of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization and founding director of the new Herzl Museum that it established.