Friday, August 26, 2022 – כ״ט אָב תשפ”ב
From the David Matlow Herzl and Zionism Collection (www.herzlcollection.com) Photos: Kevin Viner, Elevator Digital, Toronto
“At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly, in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.”
(Theodor Herzl, 3 September 1897)
At the risk of stating the obvious, the State of Israel is an unparalleled success story. What has been created in 75 short years since the establishment of the State of Israel is like something out of a Hollywood movie – a country that revived an ancient language, built an advanced industrial democracy, and created a new Jewish national reality in our ancient Homeland.
From August 29-31, 1897, in Basel, Switzerland, Theodor Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress. It was a remarkable meeting that founded the World Zionist Organization, defined the political goals of the Zionist movement, adopted the Jewish people’s national anthem, created the legal and financial institutions that would lead to statehood, and ushered in the reentry of the Jewish people into political history. It was there in Basel that Herzl, the man some praised and some mocked as the new Moses, became the leader.
The Basel Congress was a decisive milestone in transforming a popular phenomenon into a political movement the aim of which was to establish a modern state based on the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in its historic Homeland – like all other nations.
Next week, 125 years later, a group of us will represent the Reform Movement in Basel to celebrate Herzl’s vision and everything that came from his Zionist Congress. It will be an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and successes of the Jewish State, of which there are so many. We will affirm that Herzl is as relevant today as ever before.
However, in thinking about Herzl’s dream and modern Israeli reality, I find that we too often focus on the wrong question. Nearly every trip I lead in Israel ends at the Mt. Herzl cemetery where we pay homage to the great leaders of our nation.
I gather students around Herzl’s grave and ask them, as their time in Israel comes to an end, what they imagine Herzl might think about the modern Jewish and democratic state – the fruit born of his labors.
While some call this ‘leading the witness,’ they largely agree that the State as a project is successful, but Herzl would be appalled by two things: the religious monopoly and coercion over Israeli society by the ultra-Orthodox, and the ongoing military rule/occupation of approximately 4 million Palestinians.
Regarding the growth and influence of the ultra-Orthodox Haredim Herzl did not anticipate what was to come in our era. He wrote:
“We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks. Army and priesthood shall receive honors high as their valuable functions deserve. But they must not interfere in the administration of the State which confers distinction upon them else they will conjure up difficulties without and within.”
Herzl also did not envision the Jewish-Arab conflict or the need for a strong defense force.
Asking what Herzl might think about Israel today is an intriguing exercise. Though Herzl outlined his vision for the State in his 1902 fantasy novel Altneuland, I believe he was addressing the wrong question.
Rather than, or in addition to asking if Herzl would be satisfied with the modern State of Israel, the question that we should be asking is:
If Theodor Herzl came to North America today, would he have come to a similar conclusion about the need for a Zionist Movement and a Judenstaat (a Jewish State)?
Herzl was clear on this, as he wrote in his pamphlet Der Judenstaat:
“The Jewish Question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it does not exist, it is dragged in by immigrating Jews.
We naturally move to places where we are not persecuted; and by our presence, the persecution then comes about. This is true and must remain true everywhere … as long as the Jewish Question does not find a political solution. The poor Jews are now carrying the seed of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.” (Translated from the German by Sylvie d’Avigdor and Jacob De Haas)
Herzl felt that wherever there are Jews, there is antisemitism, and the solution to the Jewish Question/Problem of antisemitism is not to expect that we can ever be integrated fully into general society – even if we stopped being Jewish altogether! Therefore, his last resort solution to the “Jewish problem” of antisemitism and the refusal of high society to accept Jews, was that we needed our own sovereign entity where we could be a “nation like all of the other nations.”
The Jewish story in America proved Herzl both right and wrong. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, despite our efforts to assimilate and become American, there were many spaces in which we were prohibited from doing so. This includes not only restricted country clubs and neighborhoods, but professions, universities, hospitals, and more.
Today’s antisemitism comes in different forms, including the hate of White Supremacists who marched against us in Charlottesville, VA, and murdered Jews in shul, Holocaust deniers, and perpetrators of conspiracy theories and vicious antisemitic tropes. Antisemitism also manifests in less obvious ways – like a growing sentiment that denies the right of the Jewish State to exist – building steadily but not at an alarming rate.
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt explained that
“…right-wing antisemitism is the lethal category-5 hurricane threatening to bring immediate catastrophe. Antisemitism on the left, however, is more akin to climate change: Slowly but surely, the temperature is increasing. Often people don’t perceive the shift, or they choose to ignore it even in the face of once-uncommon storms. But the metaphorical temperature is rising, and the conditions threaten to upend life as we know it.”
Despite Herzl’s focus on antisemitism, he might have been baffled by Jews’ success, affluence, and influence within American society. Even with the documented rise in the number of antisemitic events in America over the past few years, Jews are better integrated into American life than anywhere else in the Western world. Jews occupy some of the most influential positions in government, diplomacy, politics, business, education, entertainment, and the arts demonstrating that America’s Jews have integrated well into American life so much so that Herzl may well have found his solution to the problem of the Jews (i.e. antisemitism) here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., and not in a Levantine malaria-infested land to which, incidentally, he was not all that committed (he was willing to establish a Jewish State in Uganda or Argentina).
Theodor Herzl was a product of a different era of sweeping ethnic-Nationalism, colonialism, and post-colonial liberation. He regarded Zionism as the Jewish liberation movement. However, the majority of today’s Jews in North America regard their national identity as American/Canadian. They do not see themselves as part of a (Jewish) People nor a (Jewish) Nation. In our post-assimilationist reality, many younger North American Jews do not relate to the concept of Jewish Peoplehood.
Does this mean that Herzl, Zionism, and Israel have lost relevance?
The contrary. We have many particular (i.e. tribal) and universal lessons to learn from Herzl on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the World Zionist Organization that came to be known as the “Parliament of the Jewish People” in Basel.
I will offer four distinct lessons to be learned from Theodor Herzl’s life and work next week…