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‘The Jewish State’ at 100

By Yoram Hazony

Does anyone remember the ideas that founded the Jewish state?


For Herzl, national strength was not primarily a matter of acquiring physical assets such as armed forces, farms and factories, as his opponents, the forebears of Labor Zionism, argued. While he did of course believe that the Jewish state would acquire these, they could never be the source of true national strength: Rather, it was the idea of the nation in the mind of the people that was the source of the nation’s real power. Far from basing himself on today’s materialistic conception of “nation-building”—the security services, bureaucracies, foreign aid, technology transfers and state economic projects which supposedly indicate that a country is “developing”—Herzl believed that nations are built by acquiring those assets of mind which will serve to deepen the people’s interest in the nation’s existence and their desire to take part in it.
In The Jewish State, Herzl wrote of developing three such assets of mind—entrepreneurial, religious and cultural—arguing that the state must become a dynamic “center” for each. It was the creativity of the Jewish mind that would create a state whose power would reside in its attractiveness, its magnetism as an idea, for the Jews and for all mankind: The desire for individual achievement would be drawn by the nation’s entrepreneurial centers; the desire for unity with one’s people and tradition, its past and future, would be drawn by the religious centers; and the desire for the universal and supranational would be satisfied by the strength of the state’s cultural centers. If this effort were successful, the Jewish state would become an attractive “home” in the mind of every Jew, and all Jews could be expected eventually to immigrate and make their lives there; if it failed, it would be impossible to win the loyalty of the Jewish people on a permanent basis.
With regard to the first center, The Jewish State is fairly clear as to what Herzl was proposing. He was outspoken in his belief that the key to creating economic strength lay in constructing an environment that would attract the creative abilities of private enterprise, for“all our welfare has been brought about by entrepreneurs.”7 In particular, he believed in the existence of a “Jewish spirit of enterprise”8 which characterized the Jews as a people, and which made them capable of gathering “terrifying financial power” whenever permitted by law to conduct business freely.9 Indeed, it was each Jew’s desire to unshackle his own abilities that Herzl believed would bring most of the Jews in the world to come to the new Jewish state: “The Jews will soon realize that a new and permanent field has opened up for their spirit of enterprise, which has hitherto been met with hatred and contempt.”10 Far from being a nation like all others, Herzl believed this awesome Jewish economic power would make Israel “a land of experiment and a model country”11 that would enlighten the world with ideas, discoveries and achievements. “Ours,” he wrote, “must truly be the Promised Land.”12
The second asset of the mind that Herzl believed necessary for empowering the new state was the flourishing of the Jewish religion. He considered Judaism to have been indispensable in nurturing the national idea in the minds of the people in the past (“All through the night of their history the Jews have not ceased to dream this royal dream: ‘Next year in Jerusalem’”),13 and he believed it would continue to be essential in the future (“we recognize our historic identity only by the faith of our fathers” ).14 For this reason, Herzl insisted that the national awakening of the Jews and their ingathering into Israel should be led by rabbis, and that the synagogues in the newly built Jewish state “be visible from afar, since the old faith is the only thing that has kept us together.”15 But he considered the most important expression of religion in the Jewish state to be the establishment of centers of faith—not synagogues, but national holy places to which the Jews could come in pilgrimage, and which would ignite the imagination of the people, inspiring in them an attachment to their Jewish past and their common destiny.16
On the nature of cultural centers, the third type Herzl mentions, The Jewish State is nearly silent, a failing for which he was to suffer outspoken criticism at the hands of Ahad Ha’am. But from his other writings it seems clear that Herzl believed in the importance of cultural institutions—not, as Ahad Ha’am instinctively grasped, because these institutions have a direct and decisive effect on politics—but because people will no more live without “amusements” than without food and faith. As he once replied to the Viennese author Richard Beer-Hofmann, who had insisted that there would be nothing for him in the wastes of Palestine: “We will have a university and an opera, and you will attend the opera in your swallow-tailed coat with a white gardenia in your button-hole.”17
Once carefully assembled, these centers would become “home” in every way and for every Jew, and the affinity for them would itself be the Jewish national idea, the whole Jewish nationalism that would bring the Jews of the world to make their lives in the Jewish state: “For all these centers taken together constitute a long-sought entity, one for which our people has never ceased to yearn...—a free homeland.”18
Remarkably, Herzl’s theory of national power was based almost entirely on the power of ideas, with precious little left to physical power. Although Herzl believed the Jewish state would have an army and a strong diplomatic position based on the ability of this army to contribute to the defense of the West—in this he preceded aipac by more than six decades19—the fact remained that no amount of military power could secure the state without the internal strength mustered by a compelling national idea in the public mind; if the political leadership did not secure the flourishing of the Jewish mental state and the three powers that flow from it, the Jewish state would end up being of only “temporary” interest to the Jews20 and would not endure.
Herzl died in 1904, a mere eight years after the publication of The Jewish State,and in many ways Zionism has still not recovered from this loss. The Zionist Organization he had founded to implement his ideas rapidly lost touch with what was in The Jewish State. Increasingly dominated by Herzl’s opponents, the ZO became obsessed with the “practical” work of fundraising to subsidize farms and factories in Palestine—in effect substituting the materialist aims of Russian socialism, and of the Labor Zionism that was its ideological stepchild, for the goals of mind that Herzl had prescribed.
 
III
Labor Zionism originated in Russia at the time when Marxist dialectical materialism was at the peak of its influence, and it is from there that Ben-Gurion’s movement inherited its messianic materialism—the idea that it is physical things such as the body, the land and the means of production which hold the keys to human redemption. As Ben-Gurion described it, Labor Zionism meant bringing “masses of feeble, unproductive, parasitic Jews to fruitful labor.... We intend to transform the entire nation, without exception ... into workers in Palestine. This is the essence of our movement....”21 Labor Zionism therefore sought to create a “new Jew”—the coarse, powerful, anti-intellectual “Sabra” of whom Yitzhak Rabin was the epitome—and it was this man whom Labor Zionism held to have been redeemed.
Implausible as this doctrine of materialist salvation may have been, both its Soviet Russian and Labor Zionist versions succeeded in plodding on for decades, propped up by the constant threat of imminent war and the constant promise of imminent victory. When finally the tension eased somewhat, each of these ideologies independently proved incapable of transmission to the next generation—and collapsed. In Russia, it was only a matter of decades before the Soviet itself followed suit. In Israel, the consequences of the end of Labor Zionism are still unfolding, but the direction is the same.
It is of course no simple matter criticizing David Ben-Gurion and the Labor Zionists who had come to dominate life in Jewish Palestine by the 1930s. It is undeniable that without their intransigent and heroic administration of the Jewish settlements in the face of anti-Semitic regimes in Eastern Europe and Germany, Arab pogroms and the British repudiation of the idea of the Jewish state, Israel would likely never have been born. Yet it is also a fact, with which we must today come to terms, that one may read Ben-Gurion’s writings and speeches by the hundreds of pages without finding any indication that he recognized the long-term importance of building up the assets of mind which would deepen the Jewish state as an idea and gain it strength in the minds of the Jews. Unlike many of his compatriots, Ben-Gurion avoided the language of materialism, and he frequently used terms like “spirit,” “culture” and “the visions of the prophets” in exhorting to the nation-building tasks at hand. But a glance at the context invariably reveals that these things served as little more than levers for securing ever more physical power. For example, in a fifty-page essay written in 1951 summarizing the aims of the fledgling state—principally the building of new farming settlements, a greater armed forces and an effective bureaucracy—the following is found in the minuscule section devoted to the importance of the Bible and the Hebrew cultural revival:
[T]he first years of resurgence have braced and reinforced Jewish power and built up the vigor of Israel. Plows and tractors, mattocks and bulldozers, machines and forges, rifles and machine-guns, aircraft and ships, farms and factories, transport and laboratories, stables and granaries, installations and shelters, barbed wire and trenches, roads and plantations—for our survival, we must assure the proliferation and perfection of these without remission or surcease. Therefore must the spirit abide within us, in our heart and soul, wonderful, invisible.22


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