In 1902, Theodor Herzl published his utopian novel "Altneuland" ("The Old New Land"), in which he described the Jewish state to be established in Palestine in 1923. In doing so, Herzl not only provided an idealized description of the Zionist movement's goal; he also provided the State of Israel - the product of Zionism - with a mirror for viewing itself in light of Herzl's vision. Not many national movements have such an efficient tool for self-scrutiny.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the description of the election campaign that was to have taken place in 1923. The campaign focused on the rights of the country's non-Jewish inhabitants. Contrary to what is sometimes said of Zionism - that it ignored the existence of Arabs in the country - the book reveals not only an awareness of the existence of the Arab population; the Jewish state is predicated on the concept that all its inhabitants, regardless of religion, race or gender, enjoy equal rights and the right to vote. These rights are extended not only to Arabs, but to women, though at the time the book was written no Western democracy had given women the vote.
In the book, not only do the country's Arabs have the right to vote, some of them serve in key posts. Among them is one of the novel's heroes, an Arab engineer from Haifa named Rashid Bey. To use a term from our day, Herzl envisioned a state that would be both Jewish and democratic, both a Jewish nation state and a state of all its citizens.
A new party appeared in the 1923 campaign, headed by a man who had recently come to the country and wanted to annul his old citizenship and rescind the right to vote of all non-Jews. Herzl named the founder of the Jewish racist party Geyer (which in German means a bird that eats carrion), modeling the character and his ideology after the Viennese anti-Semitic leader Karl Lueger.
Geyer's argument was simple: This is a Jewish state, and only Jews should have the right to citizenship. Others can remain as tolerated residents, but they do not deserve equal political rights.
The depiction of the campaign in "Altneuland" is compelling: Geyer's racist party creates quite a stir. In one of the book's most dramatic moments, a confrontation takes place between Geyer's supporters and a number of the new society's liberal leaders. While Geyer claims the exclusivity of citizens' rights for Jews, the liberals justify giving equal rights to the Arab inhabitants based on liberal, universal principles and on Jewish sources ("Ye shall have one ordinance, both for the stranger and for him that was born in the land" - Numbers 9:14).
After a hard fought contest, the liberals win and the defeated Geyer leaves the country in shame. There is something very special in this description. In the classical utopias that were Herzl's guiding light, from Thomas More's "Utopia" to the 19th century utopias, it is always an ideal society that is depicted, without defects. In "Altneuland," in contrast, Herzl combined an ideal society with political realism. As one who had seen for himself the anti-European, anti-Jewish racism, he imagined that Jews could also be racists and inserted into his utopia the errant and disturbing image of a Jewish racist. But in contrast to Europe, where racism was victorious, in Zion and Jerusalem, it was defeated and the principles of equality and liberalism won.
A utopian novel? Contemporary reality? The moral of the story, of course, is crystal clear. It should be remembered that the motto of Altneuland is "If you will it, it is no dream." It is in our hands.
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