We Asked 9 Historians: What Would Theodor Herzl Say About The Israel Of Today?

Earlier this month, longtime Forward subscriber David Kaplan asked us to tackle a simple question: “If Theodor Herzl came back to life, what would he say about the Israel of today?”

We put eight esteemed historians to the task:

Anita Shapira, Professor Emerita in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and the Founder of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies:


Israel today is a tale of two cities: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. If Herzl visited Tel Aviv, he would be filled with wonder and joy: a vibrant Mediterranean city, with so many young people, babies and dogs, speaking a strange language, which he was told was Hebrew. They were visiting numerous cafes, restaurants and pubs. The cultural life could match any big city in Europe. It is a very tolerant city, relaxed and welcoming.

But then he had to go to visit Jerusalem, the city that was supposed to host the temple of peace, and his impressions would change: Despite it being the holy city of the three monotheistic religions, it was a city filled with tension and hate, anything but brotherly love. In his utopian novel, “Altneuland,” Herzl described an election campaign between the good guys, humanistic and cosmopolitan, and the bigots, intolerant and hyper-nationalist. In the novel, the good guys won. Jerusalem looked like the bad guys did.

The Israel he would encounter is a success story. But he would worry: which of the two cities would have the upper hand? Would it be Tel Aviv, an improved version of a tolerant Vienna that he had dreamed of, or the current Jerusalem, that looked like all that was bad in Vienna of his time?

Allan Arkush, Professor of Judaic Studies and History at SUNY Binghamton and Senior Contributing Editor of the Jewish Review of Books:


Who else among the visionaries who died more than a century ago would enjoy being resurrected today as much as Theodor Herzl? I can’t think of anyone. It would be easy, of course, to identify the ways in which the actual State of Israel falls short of what he imagined in his utopian novel, “Altneuland” (Old New Land). But when has reality ever caught up completely with such bold and improbable dreams?

“Old-New Land” revolves around the transformation of David Litwak, the son of a poor Galician peddler in Vienna, into a strong and effective leader of a model Jewish society in Palestine. I think that more than anything else, Herzl would be gratified to see how Israel has served over the years as a vehicle for the rehabilitation of countless David Litwaks into proud and productive citizens. This would please him, I believe, more than the knowledge that these same people would prove, when compelled, to be outstanding soldiers. The Jewish society that Herzl envisioned had, after all, no armed forces.

I think that a resurrected Herzl would be surprised and disappointed to see that the achievement of his dream had required the creation of a garrison state and dismayed to see how the Arab-Israeli conflict has continued to fester, preventing the harmonious co-existence of Jews and Arabs that he had foreseen. I would like to think, however, that if he came back he would remain optimistic about the prospects for the fuller achievement of his ideals.

Yael Zerubavel, Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Rutgers University and author of the forthcoming book, “Desert in the Promised Land” (Stanford University Press, 2018):


The idea of bringing the historic Herzl to present-day Israel is fascinating because he passed away when a Jewish state was more of a dream than a doable project. If we focus on the historical figure, we have to keep in mind that he represents the upbringing, mores, and views of an educated, central European, bourgeois Jew at the end of the nineteenth century. But if we are to summon the mythical Zionist visionary, we may end up with a sort of a Rorschach test: a figure on whom we project our views and political persuasions.

What would Herzl say about Israel today? I believe he would be deeply moved to see a Jewish state, with its own government, public institutions, and an army. He would be impressed by the numerous towns and agricultural and residential communities that transformed the country’s landscape, and by Jews’ ingenuity in facing their country’s limited natural resources. He would be surprised, though, that Israel is not European but a country that offers its own blend of Western and Middle Eastern cultures.

Deeply concerned by entrenched prejudices toward ethnic and religious minorities that led European states to treat them as secondary and suspect citizens, he would be shocked to see Israel embracing a similar attitude toward its non-Jewish citizens, especially the Muslim Arabs. He would be abhorred to find the Jewish state in control of territories conquered by military force whose inhabitants are denied full civil rights. And as a former journalist he would find it personally offensive that an extreme right-wing organization, set on curbing academic and public discourse and human rights agenda, coopted his own words im tirtzu (if you wish it) for its name to promote their legitimacy and agenda.

Herzl would be moved by Israeli Jews’ confidence, energy, and creativity, but dismayed to watch the lack of civility on the roads or in the Knesset debates. And when encountering the enforcement of halakhic rules over state institutions or spotting public spaces marked for the separation of men and women, he would turn around bewildered to inquire if a wrong button was pressed taking him back to a past before his own lifetime.

Yaron Peleg, Kennedy-Leigh Reader in Modern Hebrew Studies at University of Cambridge:


Although Theodor Herzl articulated lofty political visions, he also had an eye for smaller details, which often gave a more human touch to his wilder imaginings. Readers familiar with his utopian novel “Altneuland” may remember one of the first crises that Mr. Kingscourt and Dr. Lowenberg meet upon arriving in Haifa after an absence of some twenty years: the empty coast they remember from their first visit has been transformed into a modern, bustling metropolis. Having been invited by their hosts to attend an opera performance on their first night in town, the visiting gentlemen, who were living on a remote pacific island for years, are distressed to discover that they do not have white gloves with them.

Herzl would be hard-pressed to find “white gloves” in Israel today, save perhaps on the hands of Mizrahi drag performer Uriel Yekutiel, aka Arisa, in the clip of his hit song, “It Aint No Europe Here” (Po Zeh Lo Europa). But my guess is that the Zionist visionary’s sense of decorum will likely be offended by the gay clubbing icon, Yekutiel, made up and dressed in a cheap and showy mélange of European period costumes, walking through a disheveled Tel Aviv and singing archly, “Get used to it, missy, it aint no Europe here, we are a total mess, an Arab Middle East.

Sara Yael Hirschhorn, University Research Lecturer in Israel Studies; Sidney Brichto Fellow, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies


First and foremost, Theodor Herzl would find the Israel of 2018 unrecognizable to the most un-Jewish fin de siècle Western European intellectual who as an accident of history was the unlikely founder of the political Zionist movement — he might even had been surprised to find that Jewish self-determination had been secured in the Middle East and not Uganda! Herzl died long before the Zionist dream was realized — the living, thriving, prolific, successful, divided, wracked, traumatized but oh so undeniable embodiment of Jewish sovereignty is a reality that even a consummate, perhaps pathological, idealist like Herzl would find remarkable. While Herzl’s vision of a Vienna on the Mediterranean has mostly been substantiated today (if this Israel has departed significantly from its early socialist years), an ideologue that hoped to keep priests in their temples like soldiers in their barracks would be shocked by the transformation of his “State of the Jews” into a “Jewish State” and would certainly have been an opponent to the new Nation-State law, the apotheosis of Herzl’s aspirations. Had Herzl been alive today, perhaps he once again may have taken on the mantle of Zionist leadership to bring about his ideal — Im Tirzu Ein Zo Agadah?

Moshe Zimmermann, director emeritus of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem:


Herzl’s Utopia “Altneuland” (1902), describing Jewish future life in Palestine, opens with the famous dictum: “If you will, it is no dream.” Today Herzl would have concluded: “Indeed, it is no dream, but a nightmare.”

More than a century ago, Herzl proposed Zionism, i.e. Jewish nationalism, as the solution for the “Jewish problem,” to substitute the allegedly abortive solution of emancipation and integration into European society. A Jewish nation in its own territory, he believed, would make anti-Semitism, the hard core of the “Problem,” irrelevant. Instead, the Jewish state has become a further incentive for anti-Semitic propaganda, and anti-Semitism a major concern for Israel and its politics. Not exactly Herzl’s dream come true.

Moreover: Herzl expected his nation to create a new, benevolent nationalism — liberal, tolerant and anti-bellicose, so different from the European Nationalisms he knew. Nothing of the kind emerged after 1948. Had Herzl, who expected Zionism to pave the way out of the discrimination of the Jewish minority in Europe, come back to life, he would have been horrified by Israel’s attempt at legalizing the discrimination of the Arab minority through the recent Nation-State Law).

And finally: Herzl believed in secular Jewish nationalism, leaving religion a private matter. Instead the most reactionary form of Jewish religion deconstructed his Zionism and gained control over the Jewish state.

Herzl in 2018 would say, “I had a dream.”

Rabbi Yotav Eliach, Principal of Rambam Mesivta and author of “Judaism Zionism and the Land of Israel”:


Those who focus on Herzl as the father of Zionism forget the 4,000-year Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. That is not to say that Herzl was not a visionary who played an enormous role in the re-establishment of the third Jewish State; Herzl was a very important link in a 4,000-year-old chain, but he was not the first link, nor was he the last.

The father of the idea that Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) is the homeland of the Jewish nation was the biblical Patriarch Abraham. Several generations later, the visionary who led the Jewish people to the banks of the Jordan River and prepared them to enter the Land of Israel was Moses. The man who established the first Jewish State, in the 1200s BCE, was Joshua; Ezra the Scribe re-established the Second Jewish Commonwealth some 600 years later. Judah the Maccabee established sovereignty for the second Jewish State in 164 BCE. Sixty years after the second Jewish State was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva launched a failed rebellion to re-establish a third Jewish State. The most Zionist book written in the post-Biblical period was the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book, that is replete with references to the Jewish nation returning to the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, written by members of the Great Knesset in the waning days of the second Jewish State. In the beginning and middle of the 19th century, Rabbis Alkalai and Kalischer wrote that the time ordained to begin the mass return by Jews to the Land of Israel had arrived. Finally, in 1882, Hovevei Tzion, founded by Rabbi Mohilever, began the process of building new settlements in the ancient Jewish homeland.

Herzl was the modern father of Political Zionism, but he did not invent the Zionist idea or movement. He created the World Zionist Organization, which helped re-establish the Modern State of Israel.

All the above-mentioned leaders, should they be miraculously transported forward in time to the Modern State of Israel circa 2018/5778, would at the same time be bewildered and full of pride and admiration!

Jacques Kornberg, Professor Emeritus in the Department of History, University of Toronto


The question gives me an opportunity to discuss writing history, to see historical actors as creatures of their time, and not to judge past epochs by the outlooks of today.

Herzl was born in 1860 and died in 1904. He was an assimilated Viennese Jew, in an age of anti-Semitism. Indeed, he was plagued by feelings of inferiority, as he shared the negative stereotypes of Jews held by Gentile society. Since the Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment, when intellectuals began to talk about integrating Jews into civil society, they linked integration to the ‘improvement’ of the Jews. The trouble was that the range of occupations had been closed off to Jews. Confined to commerce, money-making became their sole avenue to power, honor and status. On the other hand, Gentiles gained honors through sacrifice for the common good, through military valor, through civic engagement. Is it any wonder Jews had cultivated timidity, caution, and anxious apprehension?

For Herzl, the answer to overcoming Jewish ‘defects’ was the bold and risky call for a State right away, not by painstaking settlement while hiding one’s ultimate aims, nor by gradually building up a popular national movement. Rather a State right away, negotiated by the Society of Jews with one of the Great Powers. The Zionist aim had to be bold and exhilarating. In that regard he opposed the Hebrew language revival, which he believed would cut the State off from its links with European civilization. In his words, he sought not a provincial Boer State, but a German speaking one linked to Europe. His idea of a State for Jews (Judenstaat) transformed him from an author of witty plays and elegant and melancholy newspaper pieces to a passionate prophet and leader.

Menachem Klein, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University in Israel. His latest book is “Lives in Common — Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron”:

Herzl 2018:

It is quiet here in my nice hotel room. Only in this quiet place can I recall my first impressions. I landed in Israel as a private visitor. I did not notice any Israeli officials on my trip. Luckily, I escaped those tiring ceremonies with hollow speeches.

Noise, too much noise, came first. Shouts and nervous voices in speakers hit me when I made my first steps in the airport terminal. So different from the relaxed and respectable approach that I am used to in my European hometown. Indeed, high volume is everywhere, as is the commanding tone of the Israelis. They are so different from the Jews! Living on sword affects also their stressed body language and atmosphere, in particular in Jerusalem.

Then I saw the guns. So many of them, carried by soldiers and civilians. It does not make me feel safe. On the contrary, I acknowledge that this is a dangerous place. Israel is far from the calm and pastoral state that I envisioned.

I was no less astonished seeing so many bearded men with skullcaps and head covered women. It did not take me too long to acknowledge that Israel is the state of Orthodox Jews, unlike what I expected it to be.

It is better for my ill heart to go back home.

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This story "What Would Theodor Herzl Say About Israel Today?" was written by The Scribe.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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