The Political Legacy of Theodor Herzl

By Natan Sharansky

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

Menachem Begin once said, “The captain proves himself in a storm, the maestro in his music, and the statesman in his prescience.”1 By this measure, Theodor Herzl was surely one of the world’s great statesmen. Half a century before the Holocaust, he alone understood the nature of the threat that anti-Semitism posed, and he alone dedicated his life’s work to saving the Jewish people from its clutches. Herzl believed that the establishment of a Jewish state was the only answer. True, he did not succeed in averting disaster, and anti-Semitism did not die out. But the state that he envisaged came into being, and there is no doubt that its birth gave new meaning to Jewish identity, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
Herzl was determined to understand anti-Semitism, he said, “without fear or hatred.”2 He concluded that modern anti-Semitism was fundamentally different from the classical religious hatred of Jews, and was not a product of the psychological fear of the unknown. Nor could modern anti-Semitism be attributed to the absence of equal rights for Jews, for indeed it was rather a product of the Emancipation itself: It had been widely believed that in exchange for receiving full equality as individuals, Jews would forfeit their collective identity and dissolve among the nations; yet for the most part, the Jews were unable or unwilling to assimilate—a trend Herzl felt certain would only continue. As he wrote in The Jewish State:
The distinctive nationality of Jews neither can, will, nor must be destroyed. It cannot be destroyed, because external enemies consolidate it. It will not be destroyed; this is shown during two thousand years of appalling suffering. It must not be destroyed, and that, as a descendant of numberless Jews who refused to despair, I am trying once more to prove in this pamphlet.3
Because the Jews showed no inclination to disappear as a collective, the nations of the world would continue to treat them as a separate people in their midst. For this reason, the problem of anti-Semitism could not be understood purely as a function of economics or class, nor as one that could be resolved by treating the Jews solely as individuals in need of equal rights. “The Jewish Question,” he wrote, “is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political-world question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.”4 Only when a national solution was found would the problem be solved, not because all Jews would choose to live in Israel—Herzl never believed this would happen—but because the root cause of anti-Semitism would finally have disappeared.
It was thus that Herzl believed that after the establishment of a Jewish state, even those Jews who remained in the Diaspora would stand to benefit. “[They] would be able to assimilate in peace,” he wrote, “because the present anti-Semitism would have been stopped forever. They would certainly be credited with being assimilated to the very depths of their souls, if they stayed where they were after the new Jewish state, with its superior institutions, had become a reality.”5 In Herzl’s view, any Jew who chose not to be part of the Jewish national liberation was in effect declaring a more profound allegiance to his host nation than to the Jewish one; by remaining in France, for example, a Jew would testify to believing himself more French than Jewish. For Jews like these the establishment of a Jewish state would mean that their acceptance by French society would finally be complete, untainted by the suspicion of dual national loyalty.
In tune with the positivistic spirit of the age, Herzl assumed that for every problem there was a rational solution. Applied to the problem of anti-Semitism, Herzl’s analysis may today seem naïve and overly ambitious, ignoring as it does the profoundly religious roots of anti-Semitism, and attempting to pinpoint a single cause for what is really a complex phenomenon spanning thousands of years. Yet even if his analysis of anti-Semitism was oversimplified, he foresaw its consequences with stunning accuracy. He was, in fact, the only Jewish leader of his time who understood the calamity that was about to befall European Jewry. As he wrote in his diary:
I cannot imagine what appearance and form this will take. Will it be expropriation by some revolutionary force from below? Will it be proscription by some reactionary force from above? Will they banish us? Will they kill us? I expect all these forms and others.6
Elsewhere he put it this way: “It will overtake even Hungarian Jews with brutality, and the longer it takes to come, the worse it will be. The stronger they [the Jews] become, the more bestial will it be. There is no escaping it.”7 And indeed, catastrophe struck as Herzl predicted. Far too late, both the Jews and the world at large were persuaded that without a national home, the Jewish people could not survive.
Even after a national home was established, however, Herzl’s prophecy of an end to anti-Semitism went unfulfilled. He believed that once the Jewish collective won recognition as a nation, the individual Jew would finally be able to live in peace. Yet what actually happened was quite different. Over the half century since the Jewish state was founded, it has consistently been a lightning rod of hatred and enmity. There is the obvious animosity of the Arab world, which was never prepared to accept Israel’s existence. But with time, the Jewish state has become the focus of a much broader hatred. In fact, the fashionable portrayal of Israel by many Europeans as the principal threat to world peace, a “Nazi state,” the archenemy of human rights—this is precisely the kind of demonization previously directed at individual Jews. And because the individual Jew living in Europe is an easier target for violence than Israel, the terror war against Israel of the last four years has awakened the specter of classical anti-Semitism throughout Europe, giving rise to a renewed wave of violence against Diaspora Jewry.
It would seem, then, that we have come full circle: The old anti-Semitism now takes the form of anti-Zionism. In fact, the present wave of anti-Semitism in Europe has proven once and for all that there is no difference between the two, that the perceived distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is an illusion. As far as the world is concerned, the Jews are Israel and Israel the Jews. But this means that every Jew, in turn, must define himself with respect to the Jewish state, either for or against. No Jew may remain indifferent to Israel.
Why was Herzl’s vision not realized? How is it that the Jewish state was established, but anti-Semitism still exists? The problem, perhaps, lay with Herzl’s failure to divine the true nature of anti-Semitism—a hatred that, throughout history, has always been directed at the very core of Jewish identity.8 In ancient times, it was the Jews’ monotheistic religion; later on, it would be their sense of belonging to a unique people and tradition. Today, however, as many Jews have a weakened sense of their uniqueness on both the religious and cultural levels, the State of Israel has become one of the main factors—for many Diaspora Jews, the central factor—in defining Jewish identity. As a result, anti-Semitism now directs itself against Israel.
The process of turning Israel into the epicenter of Jewish identity is particularly evident in movements which, like Reform Judaism, were once fiercely opposed to Zionism. Some of Herzl’s staunchest critics, after all, came from the Reform movement, whose leaders believed that in order to spread Judaism’s loftiest principles and serve as a “light unto the nations,” Jews must dwell among non-Jews. They saw in Herzl’s call for statehood a betrayal of the larger Jewish purpose. Today, however, even the Reform movement has made identification with Israel a major plank of its ideology, so much so that a year of study in Israel has become de rigueur for ordination in the Reform rabbinate.
For those of us who came from the Soviet Union, the adoption of Israel as the basis of Jewish identity is not hypothetical, but an extremely tangible, personal reality. We were born into a Jewish identity that the Soviet steamroller had almost completely crushed. We knew nothing of our roots, only that for some reason others considered us different and inferior. We knew all too well the anti-Semitic stereotypes about greed, parasitism, and cowardice—but about what Judaism stood for, we knew nothing.

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