VIENNA - As one strolls down Vienna's broad avenues to the banks of the Danube and crosses the city's lively squares, the impression is one of a huge commemoration site, crowded with public buildings, museums and monuments. A boy about 8 years old, crossing the street, GameBoy in hand, his blond hair cut to perfection, the confused coffee-shop waitress, the student with her two long pigtails who may or may not be finishing her degree in history at the university - all of these are part of Vienna's fresh new face. But the gray stone of its monumental buildings, rising above their past, is the real heroine of this city.
Vienna seemed to embrace Theodor Herzl without reservation this week, adding him to its heroes' hall of fame. In recent years, as Austria has begun to deal increasingly with its past, it has been flirting with the idea of presenting Herzl as one of its own famous sons.
This week the centenary of Theodor Herzl's death was marked with a symposium at Vienna's city hall, sponsored by the Vienna municipality, to which public figures were invited, as well as former ambassadors and silver-haired professors from Israel. In the name of the sanctity of balance, Ali Yahya - an Israeli Arab and former ambassador to Finland, not considered the critical type who would spoil the festivities - was also invited.
At the Rathaus, Vienna's city hall, the venue for the opening of the symposium, the presence of Austrian President Thomas Klestil symbolized more than anything that Herzl had become a national figure. The city even announced that at the beginning of July, a public square will be named after Herzl, a fact that has raised the ire of the local Arab community. The Austrian newspaper Die Presse will be publishing a special supplement on Herzl. He had covered the Dreyfus trial as the Paris correspondent of the paper, when it was called Die Neue Frie Presse.
This is Vienna's fifth Herzl Symposium. The first, in 1969, was initiated by former Vienna mayor Helmut Zilk, who headed the Vienna-Israel Friendship League and has been active behind the scenes at the symposia ever since. The original intention, among others, was to warm up relations with Israel. Various reasons have been found for the gatherings. The first one marked the centenary of the publication of Herzl's "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State") in 1986; the second marked 100 years since the first Zionist Congress in Basel; and the present one focuses on Herzl himself, a politician more than a prophet.
Theodor Herzl was not born in Vienna. He was born in 1860 in Budapest, Hungary and his family moved to Vienna when he began university. But he regarded himself as a son of Vienna - it was the city that shaped his spirit as a young man, and Vienna's spirit was the inspiration for his ideas. The Hapsburg Empire in which Herzl grew up was an enlightened place that welcomed its two million Jews, similar to the way the United States is perceived today. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Vienna produced a series of geniuses, among them Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and the writer Arthur Schnitzler.
Today Vienna has few immigrants in comparison to other European capitals, and its cosmopolitan past - the variety of the people that streamed through its streets, speaking a plethora of languages, crowding the train stations on their way to unknown destinations - can only be imagined.
Herzl did feel and enjoy the power of the Hapsburg Empire, but he was also aware of the underground forces that had begun to threaten it. He could imagine the cracks growing wider. That understanding of historical processes, according to the historian Prof. Shlomo Avineri, was a virtue that the Austrians can appreciate in retrospect. To realize "Herzl's impact on history," as Avineri puts it, the past must be examined.
Peter Weiser, who organized the symposium for the Vienna municipality, calls Herzl "one of the people who changed the world, like Kafka in literature, or Churchill. If not for Churchill, perhaps Hitler would have continued in his path."
According to Avineri, the conference's keynote speaker, "There is a clear Austrian interest here. Since the time of Waldheim, Austrians have been seeking to deal with their past and show that they appreciate Herzl.
"But interest in Herzl," he adds, "is not confined to the narrow Jewish setting. At the end of the 19th century, there was a sense of crisis in Europe in all areas of life, in culture and in literature, and Herzl understood this crisis. He concluded that the Jews would not have a motherland like all the other nations that were breaking away from the empire, and therefore he sought a solution to the Jewish problem. From this point of view, he was the only one at the time who heard the strident sounds of anti-Semitism and did not keep silent. He foresaw the crumbling of the empire into nation-states at a time when no one else - not even in his own circles of Jewish intellectuals - wanted to believe that he was right. This is why he is an important figure to the Austrians as well."
Avineri does not believe that the Herzl Symposium is important only in the political arena. "Relations with Israel are important," he says, "but the Austrians have more important issues, such as their place on the map of Europe today, with their new neighbors to the east."
For many participants, the fact that the conference was held in the Vienna city hall, built by the city's anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger, is symbolic. Avineri was pleased with the Austrian president's speech, in which he discussed the new anti-Semitism in Europe, although without specifically mentioning the part played by Austria. The Austrians tend to say that they do not have anti-Semitism like that which exists in Paris.
Johnny Bondel, an Austrian Jewish professor of political science at the Austrian Institute for Higher Learning, explains that Austria does need to show the world that it is not anti-Semitic. "With this conference, Austria states, `We respect Jewish geniuses that came out of Vienna,' and that is clear profit for Austria."
However, Bondel adds that anti-Semitism is only part of the picture: "Austria was once an empire and is now a small country. Therefore it has a continuing, real need to restore its glory, and if there is an achievement that is its own, to point it out."
Doron Rabinovici, 34, an Israeli-born Viennese historian and writer (whose latest book, "In Any Case," was recently published by one of the city's leading publishers), notes from his position as an observer on the sidelines, that Austrian interest in Herzl is a complex issue. "Part of the intelligentsia and the political elite understood that Austria's image must be rehabilitated and memory must be redesigned," he says. "Herzl is an interesting figure in this respect. It is like dealing with history without touching the difficult past. The Austrians are always ambivalent when they deal with history."
Rabinovici was active a few years ago in a group of young leftist intellectuals called "the Republican Club of the New Austria," which opposed Joerg Haider. This group tried recently, and unsuccessfully, to get the Lueger Platz (square) renamed for Herzl. "Lueger was a municipal politician who founded the first political anti-Semitic movement and was successful," Rabinovici explains. "But we were not able to change the name. Apparently, a place for anti-Semitism is still needed. Apparently, this cannot yet be changed in Vienna."
Does he feel the awakening of new anti-Semitism in the city? "Anti-Semitism in Austria is not as blunt as in Paris," Rabinovici responds. "It is more traditional and rooted in the culture, in Catholicism. In the big city, in Vienna, there is a sense that the situation will not deteriorate. But in the local papers in outlying places, you can find anti-Semitic caricatures. Although Austrians, some of my friends, do receive my reports on anti-Semitism with greater suspicion than in the past. The mood has changed."
According to Rabinovici, dealing with Herzl may lead Austrians to examine the roots of anti-Semitism, because Herzl was the response to anti-Semitism.
Dorothy Singer, who manages the bookstore in the Jewish Museum, notes that Herzl is only known among intellectuals. "For example, the echoes of the symposium unfortunately did not reach the University of Vienna, adjacent to Rathaus. The effect of the conference was limited. Young people were not interested. They are definitely more interested in the European soccer championships."
Some of the symposium's Jewish participants expressed a lack of faith in the intentions of the Austrians. Off the record, the sentiment that was repeated bitterly more than once was: "The Austrians love dead Jews, not live ones." One woman, who identified herself as a member of the Jewish community said: "They are holding the conference to cleanse themselves of blame." Some participants noted the fact that the food served was not kosher, which they viewed as a sign of lack of cultural sensitivity and insincere intentions on the part of the Austrians.
Representatives of the Jewish community pointedly boycotted the conference. Jewish community leader Ariel Musikant was in the United States on business; Austrian Chief Rabbi Haim Eisenberg was also a no-show, although his name was on the program as a guest of honor. Israel's ambassador, Yaakov Toledano, chose not to come, his official excuse being that the Jewish community was holding its own celebration in Herzl's honor next month in the country in the presence of Israeli President Moshe Katzav. But Katzav will apparently not be coming on the strength of another official excuse: lack of suitable security arrangements at the Austrian parliament, now undergoing renovations.
"This is the essence of our complex relations with the Austrians," Rabinovici concludes. "If the symposium had not been held, we would be asking why they honored other Viennese and not one of ours. And now, when they do something, we are suspicious of their intentions."
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