The Political Legacy of Theodor Herzl

By Natan Sharansky

Before the melting pot, a different vision of the Jewish state.

That was before 1967. In the months leading up to the war, animosity towards us reached a fever pitch. Then, in six dramatic days, everything changed for us. The call that went up from Jerusalem, “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” penetrated the Iron Curtain and forged an almost mystic link with our people. And while we had no idea what the Temple Mount was, we did know that the fact that it was in our hands had won us respect. Like a cry from our distant past, it told us that we were no longer displaced and isolated. We belonged to something, even if we did not yet know what, or why. Of course, we still suffered from anti-Semitism, but even that assumed a new character. Jews were no longer cowards. Instinctively, and without any real connection to Judaism, we became Zionists. We knew that somewhere there was a country that called us its children, and this knowledge filled us with pride.
This pride, born of a newfound connection with Israel, was the source of hope to which I clung during the long years of my imprisonment. I knew without a doubt that contrary to what my interrogators said, I had not been abandoned. Nor would I be: Unlike my cellmates—Ukrainian nationalists, Protestants from Siberia, Church activists from Lithuania—I had a country that wanted me, and a people that stood behind me. It was the same country that sent its soldiers to rescue its kidnapped citizens and other Jews in Entebbe, and so would they also come, I believed, to rescue me as well. I imagined that I heard the beating hearts of my rescuers in every plane that flew through the skies of the Urals. I knew that even if it took a long time, one day I would be freed.
For Jews in the Diaspora today, identification with Israel is not as straightforward. The State of Israel has long ceased to be seen in the West as the courageous underdog, and is instead increasingly portrayed by the international media as an anachronism, an illegitimate relic of colonialism, even an enemy of humanity. Nonetheless, I realized on a recent visit to Europe that identification with Israel still imbues Diaspora Jews with a sense of empowerment. Indeed, the stronger the link with Israel, the greater the Jewish pride, even in small communities and even when Jews are subjected to harsh recrimination by those hostile to Israel. Conversely, when the connection to Israel is weak, Jews in the Diaspora are inclined to downplay their Jewish identity as well. This pattern emerges most clearly in the context of programs such as Birthright Israel, in which the strengthening of Jewish identity is directly correlated with pride in the State of Israel. With few exceptions, Israel has become a nearly universal basis for Jewish identification.
Thus, while the establishment of Herzl’s Jewish state did not eliminate anti-Semitism, it did fundamentally alter the identity of the Jewish people. Israel became a source of strength and pride for world Jewry, and identification with the Jewish state became a remarkably potent weapon in the struggle against anti-Semitism.
But what about the Jewish identity of Israelis? What was Herzl’s vision regarding the future citizens of the Jewish state? And how were they affected by the establishment of the state?
At first glance, Herzl does not seem to have been particularly concerned with this question. His principal aim was to alleviate the suffering of the Jews. The future of Jewish identity and culture was naturally subordinate to the overriding goal of averting catastrophe and establishing a state in which Jews around the world could together rebuild their lives. With what values would that new nation identify? On what foundations would its citizens be educated? In The Jewish State we find only the most vague of answers. Indeed, Herzl’s supposed indifference to the fate of Judaism and nearly exclusive focus on improving conditions for the Jewish people had earned him the fierce opposition of Ahad Ha’am, the leader of cultural Zionism who believed that the Zionist effort should be devoted to the revival of Judaism and the establishment of a center of Jewish spirituality.
But a closer reading of Herzl’s writings leads to a different conclusion. He was not indifferent, but rather offered a conservative approach to Jewish culture in the new state. He repeatedly emphasized the central role that classical Jewish identity would play in the national identity of the Jewish people. “Zionism,” he declared at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, “is a return to the Jewish fold, even before it becomes a return to the Jewish land.”9 Herzl saw the Jewish religion as the common denominator among all the prospective state’s diverse Jewish communities. “We identify ourselves as a people on account of our religion,” he wrote in his journal. Elsewhere he said, “Our community of race is peculiar and unique, for we are bound together only by the faith of our fathers.”10
Herzl did not, in fact, overlook the nature of the future Jewish state and the culture that would come to characterize it. Rather, he sought to preserve the Jewish culture of his day. For it was from within this culture, he believed, that a new Jewish culture would emerge:
But we will give a home to our people—not by dragging them ruthlessly out of their sustaining soil, but rather by transplanting them carefully to better ground. Just as we wish to create new political and economic relations, so we shall preserve as sacred all of the past that is dear to our people’s hearts.11
For this same reason, Herzl opposed the creation of a new language. “Every man can preserve the language in which his thoughts are at home,” he wrote. “We shall remain in the new country what we now are here, and we shall never cease to cherish with sadness the memory of the native land out of which we have been driven.”12 So how were the citizens of this new country to communicate with each other? “The language which proves itself to be of greatest utility for general intercourse will be adopted without compulsion as our national tongue.”13 Herzl saw no problem in transporting the best of the old world into the new land. “There are English hotels in Egypt and on the mountain-crest in Switzerland, Viennese cafés in South Africa, French theaters in Russia, German operas in America, and the best Bavarian beer in Paris…. When we journey out of Egypt again we shall not leave the fleshpots behind.”14
Herzl’s attitude toward Jewish culture is graphically expressed in his novel Altneuland, a fictional representation of the vision he described in The Jewish State. There he repeatedly describes how the new country would incorporate the best of what each of its citizens’ lands of origin had to offer: City parks constructed in the English style, the Health Ministry headquarters built in the German manner, and the streets like those found in Belgium. The finest of the world’s technology, culture, and economics would be transplanted to the new country in an effort to preserve everything worth saving.
Yet alongside these imports, Herzl also wrote about the Jewish “phenomena”: Theatrical and operatic performances on Jewish themes, for instance, and a special nationwide atmosphere on the Sabbath. Jewish religion, too, would play a decisive role: Herzl proposes in his diary that rabbis would be a “supporting pillar” of the future state, and insists that in every neighborhood the synagogue “be visible from long distances, for it is only our ancient faith that has kept us together.”15
Herzl, in other words, was most certainly interested in Jewish culture—he simply believed that it would spring from the rich mix of already existing Jewish cultures, forging what one of Altneuland’s heroes calls a “Mosaic mosaic,” a Jewish patchwork combining old with new, the traditions and experiences of history with the vision and enterprising spirit of the modern era.16
Herzl was uninterested in the creation of a new Judaism or a “new Jew,” or in the erasure of that which had sustained the Jewish people during thousands of years of exile. Rather, he believed that these same Jews, with the languages and cultures that molded them, would create in their new country a splendid mosaic that would, in itself, be sui generis. This would happen not through revolutionary force, but as the natural result of the Jews’ living free and creative lives in their own state. As Herzl’s hero in Altneuland puts it, where in the past “Jewish children were weak, pale, cowed,” they would become like plants that are “saved, if they are transplanted to the right soil.”17

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