The Political Legacy of Theodor Herzl

By Natan Sharansky

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

It takes stones to make a mosaic, but also cement to hold it together. Herzl believed that Judaism would be the cement. But Judaism as a binding force was rejected by Ben-Gurion and his generation of Zionist leaders, who replaced it with the “Hebrew” or “sabra” ethos. Though this newly crafted identity may have fulfilled an important role in the early years, it proved too insubstantial to hold together the very different groups that constitute Israeli society. It was gradually rejected, leaving in its wake a cultural void. As a result, the last few decades in Israel have witnessed the breakdown of the Jewish mosaic into a mere collection of stones.
Russian immigrants have sensed this keenly. For in contrast to what is generally thought, most of them, at least in the early years of the immigration, wanted to be part of the Jewish-Israeli experience as they imagined it. They came here with no knowledge of Judaism, yet they were acutely aware of what they lacked. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, its former citizens once again returned to their various ethnic-religious identities. Jews, however, knew almost nothing of their roots. They found themselves lacking any clear identity, and began searching for one. They yearned to find out about the Jewish calendar, Jewish history, Jewish heritage and culture. But when they came to Israel, they discovered that they did not have to assume a Jewish identity in order to be Israeli. They very quickly realized that for many Israelis, to be Jewish it was enough simply to serve in the military. A friend of mine, new to Israel, described it strikingly: “I thought I would be giving my children three thousand years of history,” he told me. “After all, I was taking them from a country where history began in 1917 to one with a tradition spanning thousands of years. But I soon discovered that instead of giving them an extra three thousand years, I had taken away thirty: History began here in 1948.”
Without Jewish history, and without Jewish culture, it is impossible to make a mosaic. What is being produced in Israel instead is a society made up of distinct groups that tend to keep mostly to themselves, put sectarian interests above national ones, and compete for control of the country. For a society that is still very much in its formative period, and in many ways still fighting for its survival, this does not bode well.
This trend is all the more dangerous because the cultural vacuum is increasingly being filled by a post-Zionist vision of society, in which religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Jews and Arabs will all live side by side—but with nothing to bind them together. Israel will be a “state of all its citizens,” with no specific national identity. It will no longer consider itself responsible for the fate of Jews everywhere, nor grant Jews the unconditional right to immigrate to Israel. It will certainly not try to promote Jewish culture and heritage or the Hebrew language among Jews around the world. It will provide education, health, and social services to its taxpayers, and little else. And just as in the exile, Jewish identity will gradually be relegated to the confines of the kehila, detached from the affairs of state.
This dream—some would call it a nightmare—is beginning to become a reality. Although the majority of the country’s leadership is not prepared to sign off on the “state of all its citizens” idea, it is clearly the ideology behind, for example, the Supreme Court’s landmark Ka’adan decision of 2000, in which the court ruled that the settlement of Jews in Israel, upon which practical Zionism was based since the early twentieth century, was inherently discriminatory and therefore could not be the official policy of government institutions; or the IDF code of ethics, which makes no mention whatsoever of the army’s commitment to assisting Jews in the Diaspora or building a Jewish state; or the ruling this year by the attorney general, Manny Mazuz, prohibiting JNF land from being used for the creation of specifically Jewish communities. In all these cases, the principle of absolute equality was considered to trump all considerations of the state’s Jewish character. Another example is the establishment in 2003 by the prime minister and education minister of a “national task force for the promotion of education in Israel,” whose conclusions were included in the Dovrat Commission Report this year. While no one would consider the members of the task force post-Zionists, a simple reading of the task force’s letter of appointment will reveal that the terms “Jewish state,” “Jewish people,” “Jews,” or “Judaism” are nowhere to be found. Instead, it mentions only “civil society,” “mature, educated citizens,” and “civic duty.” The task force was aimed at helping rebuild the national education system, which is the government’s central means of instilling social values, fostering social unity, and connecting Israel’s children with their heritage. For those who commissioned the report, however, these fundamentals seem to have little to do with Judaism, and everything to do with the secular discourse of democratic citizenship. In a truly “Jewish and democratic state,” however, one would expect both sides of the equation to get a fair hearing.
To turn the State of Israel into a “state of all its citizens” is nothing less than to declare the failure of the Zionist dream, to advocate the assimilation of the State of Israel into the rest of the Middle East, and ultimately to bring into being an Arab country with a sizable Jewish minority, which itself would be just another Diaspora community—albeit a less attractive one. The only way out is to return to Herzl’s vision of a state that enables its various communities to give voice to their unique heritage and culture, on the one hand, but carefully preserves their Jewish commonality on the other. It is a difficult undertaking, but Israel’s future as a Jewish state cannot be ensured without it. It will be built on our common Jewish history, on our common Jewish tradition, and on an unseverable bond between Israel and the Diaspora.
A hundred years have passed since Herzl’s death, but his vision seems more relevant today than ever before. It was neither simple nor easy to carry out, but given the collapse of the classic Ben-Gurionite vision and the rejection of Zionism among influential Jews and Israelis, it has never seemed more urgent.

Natan Sharansky is a Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center. He is former minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs. His latest book was The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, with Ron Dermer (Public Affairs, 2004).
The author would like to thank Roman Polansky and Tehila Nachalon for their assistance in preparing the present essay.
1. Menachem Begin, quoted in Harry Zvi Hurwitz, Begin: A Portrait (Washington: B’nai B’rith, 1994), p. 43.
2. Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, trans. and ed. Jacob M. Alkow (New York: Dover, 1988), p. 75.
3. Herzl, The Jewish State, pp. 79-80.
4. Herzl, The Jewish State, pp. 75-76.
5. Herzl, The Jewish State, p. 80.
6. Theodor Herzl, Letters and Journals (Jerusalem: Mizpa, 1928), p. 129. [Hebrew]
7. Theodor Herzl, Letters, trans. Y. Yavin (Tel Aviv: Hotzaat Medinit, 1937), p. 266. [Hebrew]
8. I do not wish to enter here into a full analysis of the sources of anti-Semitism, which I have explored in depth elsewhere. See Natan Sharansky, “On Hating the Jews,” Commentary (November 2003), pp. 26-34.
9. Theodor Herzl, welcome address at First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, August 29-31, 1897.
10.Herzl, The Jewish State, p. 146. For a full treatment of Herzl’s vision of Israel as a Jewish state, see Yoram Hazony, “Did Herzl Want a Jewish State?” Azure 9 (Spring 2000), pp. 37-73.
11. Herzl, The Jewish State, p. 123.
12. Herzl, The Jewish State, p. 146.
13. Herzl, The Jewish State, p. 146.
14. Herzl, The Jewish State, p. 135.
15. Herzl, The Jewish State, p. 102.
16.Theodor Herzl, Altneuland, trans. Paula Arnold (Haifa: Haifa Publishing Company, 1960), p. 201.
17. Herzl, Altneuland, p. 62.
18. As per the proposed phrasing in his party’s manifesto. From Ben-Gurion’s Archives, Letters, January 9, 1949.
19. David Ben-Gurion, The State of Israel Restored, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1969), pp. 432-433. [Hebrew]

From the

Levi Eshkol, Forgotten HeroIsrael’s third prime minister offers a different model of Jewish leadership.
Zohan and the Quest for Jewish UtopiaAdam Sandler's hit comedy reflects a deep divide between Israeli and American Jews.
How Great Nations Can Win Small WarsIraq, Northern Ireland, and the secret strength of democratic peoples.
Locusts, Giraffes, and the Meaning of KashrutThe most famous Jewish practice is really about love and national loyalty.

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2022