Herzl at 150: Mulling It Over

Article excerpt

So the land of our fathers still exists. It is not at the bottom of some ocean. People live and joyfully work there. The old earth is rejuvenated by nimble hands. Once again the ancient soil bears flowers, bears fruit, and perhaps one day, one fine day, it may bear the happiness and honor of the Jews. (1)

I n Israel, iconic images of Theodor Herzl, arms tightly folded, wearing a no-nonsense gaze and a formal black morning coat, abound mainly in and around government buildings. Probably because Israeli public life since its founding has been so dominated by animosity between the party of Ben-Gurion and the party of Jabotinsky, the founder of political Zionism, born in Budapest on May 2, 1860, has received less public notice than one might expect. Tellingly, Herzl Memorial Day (10 Iyar), a national holiday only since 2005, has scarcely begun to penetrate the national consciousness.

A journalist and man of the theater, Herzl surmounted inner uncertainties by embracing the audacious, almost messianic role he scripted for himself. In order to press home his scheme for a Jewish national homeland, he maneuvered to be received by the Turkish Sultan, the German Kaiser, the King of Bulgaria, and Pope Pius X. Although he put on dazzling performances, presentations born of chutzpah and histrionics, nothing more tangible than vague encouragement was ever forthcoming from heads of state. Yet Herzl did catch fire with some elements among the Jewish masses. At the start, representing only this minority and historical necessity as he understood it, Herzl's bearing was so imposing, his beard and attire so meticulous, his belief in the inevitability of his cause so compelling that he seemed to tower over Jews who flocked to catch a glimpse of him on his travels in Eastern Europe.

If Washington stood at 6' 3" and Lincoln at 6' 4", Herzl stood ten feet tall, or so it seems in photographs and drawings of the period; in actuality, the secular prophet of Jewish nationhood stood at 5' 6". This "deception" was emblematic of his stature as a public figure. In action, Herzl parlayed opportunities, exaggerated resources, and kept on the move not only to probe every avenue for support but, one judges, as much to buoy himself as well as others, to maintain the illusion of progress. Only in retrospect is it now clear that "If you will it, it is no dream" was the maxim of an inspired leader rather than the mantra of a self-deceived con man.

After 34 years as an Israeli, only this year--the 150th anniversary of Herzl's birth--am I moved to take the measure of the indispensable man, the galvanizing force of political Zionism whose efforts so altered the course of my life. Since a few vestigial details embedded in memory testify to an early acquaintance with Altneauland, I must have perused Herzl's novelistic utopian blueprint in my adolescence during a stretch when I was binging on utopian fodder. Its impact, however, was nebulous, and unless this unremarkahle early encounter predisposed me later to hearken to the call of Zion, coming upon Zionism as a teenager left no impression on me. Neither at 13 nor at 19 was I any sort of Zionist, and when at 26, I was led by events in Southeast Asia to visit the Aliyah Center in San Francisco, Israel represented little more than an escape hatch. It would take another twelve years for that germ of an idea to come to fruition. No longer in need of expedient refuge from LBJ's folly, had I now become a born-again Zionist? Hardly. The text that gave me heart for aliyah was not Altneuland but "An Experiment that Did Not Fail," Martin Buber's paean to the communal ethos of the kibbutz. As I write, a battered Meridian Publishers paperback edition of Buber's writings, open to my interlinear notes and underlinings, made more than three decades ago, evoke what was the most pivotal decision of my life. It is plain that on the cusp of making aliyah, I was less a Zionist than a would-be communard taking my stand with social democracy in its most successful incarnation. …