Have Israelis forgotten Herzl? Has the man been eclipsed by his famous black beard? Become a kind of George Washington, known but not appreciated? Little more than a street name? Just a mysterious, scowling figure whose image, plastered to the side of a water tank, young sabras pass on their way to the beach at Herzliya?
A group of Israeli intellectuals apparently thought so, and last year, in time for the centenary of Herzl’s death, they helped draft and push through the Knesset a law instituting a national holiday to mark his birthday: Herzl Day. The goal, according to the law, was to “instill in future generations the vision and heritage of Theodor Herzl, to commemorate his life’s work, and to shape the State of Israel and its institutions, objectives, and character in accordance with his Zionist vision.”
The spokeswoman at the Shalem Center, the Jerusalem think tank that had strongly driven the initiative, put it even more dramatically. “Remembering Herzl’s legacy,” she said, “was a matter of national security.” In Israel, it doesn’t get more serious than that.
But what is Herzl’s legacy, really? He’s responsible, of course, for turning a scattered movement of dreamers into an organized struggle, for forcing statesmen and diplomats to deal with Zionism in earnest, for giving birth to the practical institutions that would lead to statehood. But this is all still part of the beard. What about Herzl’s “Zionist vision” for the Jewish state, the piercing eyes behind the beard? What did they see and what message does that vision hold for Israelis today?
I paid a visit to the new Herzl Museum, inaugurated in May. The museum is a key part in the effort to educate Israelis about the visionary’s importance. The $3.2 million project, on Mount Herzl, was funded mostly by the Jerusalem Foundation and, strangely (and sadly, the new Herzlians probably would add), by the Austrian government. The centerpiece of the new museum is a restored version of “Herzl’s room,” a decades-old attraction on Mount Herzl that contains the original writing desk, rugs, clock and paintings from Herzl’s Viennese office. In recent years, it had become the dwelling place of some very hungry moths, a situation that apparently concerned Austrian officials more than it did their Israeli counterparts.
Everything that leads to his room, however, is new, very new. The brainchild of Orit Shaham-Gover, who also created the kitschy Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv, the Herzl Museum is the kind of multimedia, light and sound experience that is popular these days as a replacement for those older institutions — you know, the ones with objects under cases and writing on panels — that assumed that the typical visitor had more than a 10-year-old’s attention span. The narrative that guides the viewer through the four rooms of the museum is told through video screens. We are presented with a young actor (actually a popular Israeli soap star, Zak Berkman) who is preparing, with the help of a gray-bearded director and a Herzl scholar, to play the role of Herzl. The actor is a stand-in for us, the visitors. He is ignorant about who Herzl is (“the guy with the beard on the balcony, right?”), and it is through his education that we are told Herzl’s story: his failure as a playwright; his realization of antisemitism’s tenacity while covering the Dreyfus trial; the writing and subsequent wide popularity of his treatise, “The Jewish State” (“like a sensational television program,” the young actor adds helpfully); the founding of the Zionist Congress; the splits within the movement; the Uganda crisis, and Herzl’s early death at 44.
Before I knew it, I found myself in a room that was supposed to be the Basel Municipal Casino, where the first Zionist Congress took place in 1897, sitting next to a yellowish fiberglass figure that I guessed was supposed to be a fellow delegate. On the screen, Berkman was rehearsing Herzl’s first address. “In Basel, I founded the Jewish state,” he kept repeating, trying to hit the right level of confidence. “You mean this guy just decided he was king of the Jews and that’s it?” the actor asked his two tutors, incredulous. And before really being able to take in this rare insight into the man, we were herded into the next room. There, against a backdrop of sweeping aerial shots of Israel’s landscape (stock footage, it seemed, from a tourist agency video) — the farms, the factories, the skyscrapers, the desert, the coast, the Sea of Galilee, the Western Wall — stood the now fully Herzled-up young actor (beard and all) reading passages from Herzl’s “The Jewish State” and “Altneuland,” the novel set in his imagined Jewish utopia, that were supposed to sound prescient, mostly about how successful the new state would be.
I walked out into the daylight and up the hill to the black marble box inlaid with gold letters that is Herzl’s tomb (his remains were reinterred here in 1949). The museum, in the end, had been just more beard. Besides providing a broad bio of the man — and a slightly airbrushed one at that — there wasn’t much elucidation of Herzl’s vision for the Jewish state.
And maybe that’s because Herzl doesn’t have much to say to Israelis today. The particular version of the Jewish state he dreamed up didn’t seem relevant even in his own day, let alone in our own. Herzl wanted a kind of aristocratic state, a cultural and political transplant of the Europe he loved. He did not, for the most part, foresee any new kind of Hebrew society (he was even opposed to the use of the language). The centrality of the military in Israeli life was far from his thinking. His comments on the army in “The Jewish State” amazingly take up only one sentence. And he opposed the socialist, pioneering ethos that arguably would be the most characteristic feature of the yishuv and the state that followed. Re-creating the “historical Hebrew peasant,” Herzl wrote, would be like arming a modern army with “crossbow and arrow.”
“The Jewish State” mostly contains Herzl’s recommendations for how to carry out an orderly exodus (the poor would go first, then the middle class, etc.). His comments about what the state actually would look like are sketchy and often inconsistent. This is the reason that, today, secularists and advocates of a Jewish character to the state can argue over whether “Judenstaat,” the German title of his book, should be translated as “The Jewish State” or “The State of the Jews.” If Herzl had either proposed a clear separation of synagogue and state, as he seemed to hint at in certain passages, or elaborated on what he meant when he said, at the first Zionist Congress, that “Zionism is a return to the Jewish fold, even before it becomes a return to the Jewish land,” then his beliefs would not be so open to interpretation.
How can we turn to Herzl to guide an Israel whose deepest crisis — the presence of a large Arab population with a claim on the same slice of land — was one he brushed off as a minor, easily resolvable inconvenience?
Herzl’s legacy, the DNA he has passed down to Israelis, is not contained in direct and detailed prescriptions for the contours of the state. His legacy is his character — his ability to ignore reality and throw his huge will into the pursuit of what was clearly an outrageous plan. When he first described it to a friend, he was told he should go get treated for shock. It is this madness that he bequeathed to Israelis (and before I incite anger, remember that it was no less than Chaim Weizmann who said, “To be a Zionist it is not necessary to be mad, but it helps”). Herzl knew it was crazy and that his dream went against all practical considerations, but he pursued it as if it was entirely possible and within his grasp. From the very beginning he was creating facts on the ground — telling the delegates to wear top hat and tails; designing an elaborate flag for the yet nonexistent state; acting as if he were, to borrow Berkman’s words, “king of the Jews.”
In Ernst Pawel’s excellent Freudian biography of Herzl, “The Labyrinth of Exile” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), he describes Herzl’s state of mind while writing “The Jewish State” as “an acute manic episode.” Herzl’s diary entries from the following year, looking back at this period, confirm this. “I wrote walking, standing, lying down, on the street, at the table, at night when it roused me out of sleep… I know now, and was even aware of it throughout this entire period of turbulent productivity, that much of what I wrote was wild and fantastic.”
And if this ability to dream wild dreams is Herzl’s true bequest to the Jewish state, I don’t think it’s blasphemous to wonder if, on the contrary, Israel has had its fill of it. For it’s this legacy, this inherited character trait, that has animated the settler movement for more than 30 years, blind to the reality of demographics and international politics. This same spirit that inspired the opponents of the Gaza withdrawal these past weeks to keep believing that, despite the national majority working against them, “if you will it, it is not a dream.” For Israel now to preserve itself as a Jewish and democratic state, it might be time to put aside elaborate dreaming, to face reality, to be practical, to look squarely at the facts. And maybe it wouldn’t hurt if those burning, inspired eyes, so useful once to building a state, stayed behind that beard.
Gal Beckerman, a regular contributor to the Forward, is writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published by Houghton Mifflin.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman