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‘The Jewish State’ at 100

By Yoram Hazony

Does anyone remember the ideas that founded the Jewish state?


Anyone who witnessed the two-hundredth anniversary of the American Revolution—the displays of fireworks, the sailing ships and air shows; the performances of the 1812 Overture, the rock concerts, pageants and parades; the live reenactments on battlefields all over the country; the waves of specially minted coins and stamps recalling every conceivable hero of the revolution, from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Crispus Attucks (the Boston black who gave his life in the first skirmishes with the British) and Haym Salomon (the Philadelphia Jew who bankrolled the Continental armies); the endless television documentary coverage on all commercial stations, including the “Bicentennial Minute” in which the nation’s most famous personalities took turns chronicling the twists and turns of the revolution every evening for more than two years; and the general clamor raised by public figures, institutions, schools and businesses, whether out of public-spiritedness or the simple desire to cash in—anyone who saw all of this then, and is now witness to the Jewish state’s observance of its own centennial, the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish national movement as a political organization in 1897, cannot but be struck by the sense of something terribly wrong, of a commonwealth whose health and spirit have fallen to ruin.
Of course, Israel is a small country, and it could never have contemplated approaching the sheer firepower applied to celebrating the founding of the United States. But the commemoration of the American bicentennial was not impressive solely because of its colossal scale. It was impressive primarily because it was so sincere and unforced a reflection of the fact, perhaps submerged somewhat during the Vietnam years, that Americans in every corner of the United States were devoted to, and proud to take part in, the common history and ideas of their republic. That is, it was an expression of commitment, self-confidence and even pleasure—the pleasure that Americans take in the achievements of their nation. One cannot blame the apathy and ambivalence, the utter lethargy which characterize the anniversary of the Zionist movement on a small nation’s lack of resources. If there has been almost no public expression by Israelis of such commitment, self-confidence and pleasure in the achievements of their nation, it is because—as in America during Vietnam—it has been submerged in confusion, and lost in embarrassment. This is, of course, the better case. The worse possibility is that it does not exist.
Let us take as an example the passing this year, with hardly a flicker of public interest, of what should have been a linchpin of the centennial commemorations of the Zionist movement: The hundredth anniversary of the publication on February 14, 1896, of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question. Others might find it odd to think of a country’s history as beginning with a pamphlet, but among the Jews the publication of the first systematic program for the establishment of their national independence had the same kind of effect that the battle of Lexington had in the American colonies: It was “the shot heard round the world.” The pamphlet instantly catapulted Herzl to the leadership of Jewish nationalism, and within eighteen months it had triggered the convening of the first international Jewish congress—the First Zionist Congress in Basel—something which until then had been contemplated seriously only by anti-Semites. There followed a furious struggle which, within six years, had brought about advanced negotiations with Britain over laying the foundations for a Jewish state in Sinai, and which, after Herzl’s death and the British invasion of Palestine, culminated in an agreement to reconstitute Palestine as “the Jewish National Home.” Herzl’s pamphlet was, in fact, the opening shot in the Jewish national revolution.
In Israel of 1996, the drama surrounding the appearance of The Jewish State was virtually without public presence; it would be absurd to say that it even scraped the public consciousness. True, someone did make sure to publish a commemorative edition of the pamphlet, and the daily Ha’aretz, the newspaper of record, did carry one excellent article analyzing Herzl’s diplomatic achievements (although not the contents of the pamphlet itself) on page D3.1
But the only other mention of the anniversary in the national press was a sleazy little column by the notorious Post-Zionist demagogue Uri Avineri in the daily Ma’ariv,listing every bizarre or humiliating “fact” ever discovered or fabricated regarding Herzl’s life; the following week he smugly reported that “the hundredth anniversary of the appearance of The Jewish State passed last week and was not marked anywhere outside this space....”2
The Hebrew University did hold a conference on Herzl about six weeks after the actual anniversary, which merited a second article inHa’aretz—this one made it up to page B4—interviewing Prof. Robert Wistrich, the conference organizer, who actually bothered to address Herzl’s ideas and their importance to the Jewish state. He opined that Israelis “have no time to think twenty years backwards, certainly not a hundred years,” and that Herzl “doesn’t speak to us anymore,” before going on to claim that Herzl overlooked the Arabs as a problem and to express amazement that he is regarded as a preeminent Jewish statesman considering “the fact that all of his diplomatic moves failed.” The interviewer helpfully added, based on his talks with other conference participants, that Herzl’s economic teachings, “although not much discussed, are perhaps one of the only areas of his vision that are relevant to our own day,” and that researchers have recently claimed that Herzl may have been emotionally disturbed.3 Two other articles which appeared in the wake of the conference were even worse, both of them breaking the silence to try and demonstrate that Herzl was not really the father of Jewish nationalism as the history books suppose, but rather a “Post-Zionist” himself (both articles flaunted this epithet in the headline): The journalist-historian Tom Segev averred that had Herzl been aware of the Arab opposition to Zionism, he would probably have chosen to build his state in Argentina rather than Palestine,4 while Rachel Elbaum-Dror of the Hebrew University insisted that the Law of Return granting Jews the right to automatic citizenship in the Jewish state is “certainly not in keeping with the spirit” of Herzl’s ideas.5
With the change of government last summer, there has been one sign of a shift, at least as regards the official treatment of the pamphlet’s centennial by the state. On September 9, the telephone company, responding to pressure from the new, more nationalistically oriented Communications Minister, belatedly issued a commemorative telephone card—Israeli payphones take them instead of coins—with a likeness of Herzl and the name of his pamphlet printed on it. Two months later, someone woke up at the daily Ma’ariv, which published—now eight and a half months late—a weekend section trying to ascertain the opinions of public figures regarding some of Herzl’s teachings. But here, too, the editors could not resist publishing an introductory piece explaining that it’s worth paying attention to Herzl because he once had a Christmas tree, visited brothels in Vienna and “was attracted to young girls, as well,” and, most important, because of the contempt he supposedly harbored for the Jewish crowds who greeted him with the emotional nationalistic cries of “Long live the King of the Jews!”6
Perhaps other such commemorative activities are to follow. But even if they are, this will not alter the fact, in plain view for an entire year, that the vast majority of Israel’s cultural-political leaders have ignored Herzl because he means nothing to them: They were never inspired by him, they know very little of the ideas with which he hoped to equip the Jewish people, and what they do know suggests that were they to dig just a little deeper, they would find someone as unlike them as—Bismarck. The absent centennial of Herzl’s nationalism is more than just an expression of ingratitude and impiety, although it is certainly that. Ignoring The Jewish State is the easiest way to suppress a founding father whose understanding of the needs and goals of the Jewish state were much removed from what has been accepted in Israel for a very long time.
 
II
Like other political conservatives, Herzl believed that the survival and well-being of the state are inextricably connected to building its power. For this reason The Jewish State, which was principally intended as an instruction manual for constructing a Jewish polity, is first and foremost devoted to elaborating Herzl’s unique understanding of how national power is built and maintained.


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