The Political Legacy of Theodor Herzl

By Natan Sharansky

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

With time, Herzl’s conservative approach would be upstaged by a more revolutionary Zionist approach, which called for a dramatic change in Judaism and the Jewish character. The great proponent of this view was David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. He called for new, “Hebrew” forms of cultural expression and festivals; for the repudiation of European-sounding names and their replacement with Hebrew ones; and for the importance of Jewish labor, Bible study, and the connection to ancient periods of Jewish independence. All these would effect, as he put it, “the integration of Diaspora Jewry into one homogeneous Hebrew brigade.”18 In describing the early years of independence, Ben-Gurion wrote,
There has been a profound and fundamental change in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews here… a wholesale revolution in a Jew’s image and his way of life… with their arrival in their homeland, this Jewish dust (avak adam), living among strangers, dependent on vagrancy and serfdom, coalesces into an independent, national brigade, attached to and rooted in its great history and sharing the end-of-days vision of national and human redemption… on the trunk of ancient Hebrew culture the prospect of a new Hebrew culture is sprouting, permeated with human and Jewish values, and it makes no division between man and Jew… it is difficult to find any other example of such a transformation of man and it happens to all who return to Zion, whether they come from European countries or America or are returning from Asian and African countries.19
This is not so much an account of Israel’s early history as a summary of Ben-Gurion’s entire worldview. He sought to create a new Jew out of the Diaspora “Jewish dust,” to craft a nation rooted in the Bible and in the ancient kingdoms of Israel, its landscapes bearing witness to the return to Zion. As for the millennia that had passed between the glorious biblical period and the still-greater future, these offered very little that one could take pride in, and would be pruned from the tree of history and discarded.
Anyone mildly familiar with the development of Russian socialism in the nineteenth century will quickly recognize the source of Ben-Gurion’s outlook: The revolutionary ethos, seeking to create a new world, and a new man, on the ruins of the old. In contrast to the careful replanting Herzl envisioned, Ben-Gurion sought to forge the new nation in a fiery melting pot, whose principal means would be the school system, the military, and a battery of ceremonies, myths, monuments, military parades, and army bands—all of which would turn Jews into an “Israeli nation” whose history begins with the Bible, continues through the Hasmonean and Bar Kochba revolts, and then, after a long hiatus, resumes with the First Aliya in 1882. A nation, to use Moshe Shamir’s phrase, “born from the sea,” without a tradition, freed from the yoke of generations. All the experience of exile would be left at sea.
Today, with our experience since the establishment of the state, we can judge Ben-Gurion’s vision against Herzl’s, and ask whether it was indeed prudent to try to recreate the Jewish people in a new image. I, for one, harbor a deep antipathy to any attempt to create a new man or manipulate history by forcibly halting its natural progress. My antipathy grows out of experience: I grew up in a vast laboratory of such an attempt. I was one of its guinea pigs.
At the same time, I do not deny the historical imperative to create a melting pot in the Jewish state. Maimonides taught that he who wishes to escape one form of extremism should adopt its opposite. It is possible that in order to overcome the extreme circumstance of a people scattered around the world, it was necessary to adopt a countervailing extremism—an unrelenting drive toward uniformity. Herzl’s vision of diverse communities living alongside one another, without even a common language to bind them, could not have formed the basis for a citizenry capable of establishing a state, winning a war of independence, or absorbing hundreds of thousands of new immigrants in a very short period of time.
But as Maimonides also teaches, after passing from one extreme to the other, one must then return to a middle path. Even if the sabra melting pot was justified at the outset of the Zionist enterprise, I do not think it continued to be valid in the 1960s and 1970s. Why did the immigrants of those two decades need to forsake their traditional Jewish identity, assuming the posture of a Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, or Yitzhak Rabin in order to be accepted in Israeli society?
The results of that attempt to create a “new Jew” are well-known: Orthodox Jews, refusing to give up the religious observance that Ben-Gurion considered a vestige of exile, were removed from the centers of influence. Worse, Jews from Arab lands, asked to jettison their traditions like an old suit, felt humiliated and marginalized. The discrimination resulted in the predominance of Sephardi Jews in impoverished development towns and the creation of Sephardi movements like Shas, the Black Panthers, and Tami, which built their popularity on deep resentments. To this day, Israel continues to pay the price.
At the beginning of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and a million new immigrants poured into Israel, their leaders—myself among them—looked for ways to revive Herzl’s more conservative vision, even if we were unaware of its existence. We did not believe in the melting-pot model for absorbing immigrants. We did not believe in expunging everything “old,” but rather in preserving everything worth preserving. This was the guiding ideology behind the establishment of those organizations that sought to represent the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, culminating in the Yisrael Ba’aliya political party. We insisted that we did not want to wait decades to be assimilated, decades in which feelings of discrimination and exclusion would be allowed to fester. We wanted our own generation of immigrant Jews to stake their claim to Israeli politics and society. This view was also the force behind our insistence on establishing Russian-language radio stations, television channels, and newspapers. We recognized that these media would be the only way for the older generation of immigrants to know what was happening in, and identify with, their new country.
This is also the story behind the Russian-language Gesher Theater, perhaps the most striking example of what we were trying to achieve. It began in 1991, when I received a call from two friends in Moscow, professional actors, who were having doubts about immigrating to Israel. Acting was their life’s calling, and therefore the source of their concern about aliya. Did I think that they could set up a Russian-language theater in Israel? And could I, as head of the Zionist Forum, help?
I was immediately taken by what struck me as an opportunity to attract a segment of the Russian-Jewish cultural elite to Israel. I took the proposal to the Ministry of Education and to the leaders of the theater community in Israel. They rejected it out of hand. They had refused to set up theater here in Bulgarian or even Yiddish, I was told. They were trying to develop a Hebrew culture, and therefore certainly would not create a Russian theater. It was, they felt, an anti-Zionist idea.
Seeing that I would get no help from the Israelis, I went to New York in search of funding. I was able to raise enough funds to bring the troupe of actors for six appearances in Israel. Later, the Zionist Forum agreed to provide additional funds, and so, step by step, the Gesher Theater came together. It quickly became a success: Audiences flocked to it, and Israeli institutions were eventually compelled to support it. At first, performances were only in Russian, and the audience consisted solely of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. With time, however, its actors began performing in Hebrew as well. The Gesher Theater now features both immigrants acting in Hebrew and sabrasacting in Russian, and has earned acclaim from audiences and critics alike. It is hard to argue that this is not a cultural, economic, and even Zionist success.
On the face of it, the story of the Gesher Theater—like that of the Mofet schools specializing in math and the sciences, as well as any number of other examples—is the perfect realization of the Herzlian vision of preserving a particular culture even as it gradually becomes absorbed into the general one, all the while taking care to retain its distinctiveness. But while this was clearly helping form a cultural mosaic, we may still ask whether it is a “Mosaic” mosaic—that is, not only an Israeli achievement, but also a Jewish one.

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