My first encounter with the name of Theodor Herzl came around 1960, when I was still in my early teens, growing up in the predominantly Irish working-class neighborhood of Kilburn in North-West London. Our address was 24 Oxford Road, a street which had suffered badly from German bombing during World War II.
One day, two portly gentlemen from the English Zionist Federation arrived at our house and asked for permission to put up a plaque in honor of the man who had created modern political Zionism. My father, a native of Cracow and a sympathizer with Zionism since his adolescent days in Poland, enthusiastically agreed.
The plaque asserted that the idea of modern Zionism had actually been born in our modest Victorian home during a meeting between Herzl and the famous Anglo-Jewish writer, Israel Zangwill. This was certainly a slight exaggeration, but it did contain a grain of truth.
Herzl arrived at Zangwill's residence on November 24, 1895 during the course of a visit to England which proved to be of crucial importance in launching him on the path to independent political action. The visionary founder of the idea of a Jewish state left a graphic account in his diaries of this meeting, and of Zangwill's semi-"negroid" physiognomy, which helped to convince him that there was no such thing as "uniformity of race" among Jews.
Zangwill, for his part, tersely summed up his astonishment at Herzl's bold performance: "An unknown Hungarian dropped from the skies and gave to the world the first exposition of his scheme in an eloquent mixture of German, French and English."
TWENTY YEARS after the plaque was installed (it was later desecrated and then removed) I made aliya to Israel. One factor in that decision was a long-standing fascination with Herzl's life and example, which I have sought to communicate in my own research, writing and teaching.
But after watching and listening to some of the sadly superficial and kitschy commentary on offer in the Israeli media on the newly instituted "Herzl Day," I have some serious reservations about its educational value at the popular level. Every clich , half-truth and myth seemed to be mobilized by the media in a comic-grotesque effort to "actualize" Herzl and make him relevant to Israel's sound-bite TV culture.
Spin-doctors were called in to explain that Herzl was a public relations genius, psychologists to remind us that he was a walking bundle of neuroses with an unhealthy mother-complex. (Freud, who admired Herzl as a poet and "fighter for human rights of our people," would not have approved of such reductionism.) Herzl was casually referred to as a "megalomaniac," a "fantasist," a frustrated writer and failed dramatist, as if this explained his conversion to Zionism, or illuminated his subsequent impact on history.
On the other hand, there were also some exaggerated claims made concerning his greatness and charisma, as if he single-handedly embodied Zionism. Then there were echoes of the "post-Zionist" and rather "un-Jewish" Herzl much beloved of certain left-wing Israeli academics, who see him as a cosmopolitan, humanist liberal dreaming of a society without frontiers, detached from any tangible Jewish state.
THE TRUTH is surely more complex and contradictory than any of these partial interpretations would indicate. Above all, Herzl's ideas deserve to be taken more seriously than is currently allowed for in a ratings-obsessed Israeli entertainment industry.
At a time when Israeli and Jewish existence is once more being openly threatened, Herzl's prescient warnings about anti-Semitism need to be carefully studied. So, too, his astute reflections on Jewish social policy, science and technology, the relations between religion and state, Israel and the nations, art and morality deserve more critical attention.
Above all, Herzl's legacy should be used to restore confidence among Israelis in the fundamental ideals of freedom, national independence and human creativity that underlie the Zionist project.
The writer is director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His latest book,
Laboratory of World Destruction: Germans and Jews in Central Europe, will shortly be published in Hebrew.