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The 150th anniversary of his birth, the 106th anniversary of his death; it’s Herzl Day once again. Now come the official memorial services and the learned symposia. Herzl himself listens to all the highfalutin talk − and in recent times to all the slander as well − and from the summit of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the visionary of the state will ask how his vision is doing.

It would be interesting to know whether Binyamin Ze’ev ‏(Theodor‏) Herzl is resting in peace, or whether he is turning in his grave. Anyone who listens carefully may hear his bones groaning.

Some of us try to characterize his vision as messianic, as though from the start “political Zionism” was nothing but a wild dream that came true against all odds and through the power of yearning alone.

But even if the odds were quite poor, Herzl himself made an effort to improve them; he was not a lunatic-intellectual, as quite a few of the lunatics of this generation insist, shaping him in their image. He was a moderate and level-headed person who did in fact have a dream, but who also developed practical tools for making it come true.

Herzl was not a dreamer, he was first and foremost a statesman.

He had doubts, he searched for the right path and he had quite a few questions. He also made mistakes, but being a pragmatist and a realist he was able to repair them in time.

That is the only way to explain how a young man, all of 35, with no organizational support and no political power, was able to “give organizational and institutional content to the idea of the return to Zion, and to turn it into a real presence on the international political stage” as described by Shlomo Avineri in his 2007 book “Herzl” − and all that in less than nine years.

In fact it was due to sobriety rather than lunacy that Herzl did a better job than others in analyzing the situation of Europe’s Jews in the late 19th century, and this penetrating analysis is what pushed him into urgent action. It may have been thanks to his instincts as an experienced journalist that he was able to perceive what others didn’t see, or didn’t want to see.

Ostensibly, the Jews had never had it as good as they did toward the end of the 19th century. The second half of that century was one of the most promising the Jews had ever known. Europe was becoming more peaceful, sophisticated professional diplomacy abounded, the economy was prospering, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests had spread the gospel of equal rights, the unification of Germany had brought the Jews a legal status equal to that of all German citizens, and winds of tolerance were blowing through the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Franz-Joseph became known as a glorified and benevolent emperor. When Stefan Zweig wrote in his 1943 autobiography “The World of Yesterday” that everything created in Vienna in the fields of literature, art, culture and society was created by Jews, he was expressing something felt by many.

Herzl was not misled, but he did not share the growing optimism. While the waters of the Danube were flowing gently, he identified undercurrents of anti-Semitism that were about to surface.

Although the Austro-Hungarian empire was suffused with liberalism, its days were numbered, and when it collapsed the Jews would find themselves at the epicenter of an earthquake.

That was the sober and cruel analysis of Herzl, who walked around like a prophet of doom while everybody else was dancing: There is not much time left, disaster looms, and there is need for international political action before it strikes, in order to prepare what Max Nordau termed “a night shelter” while there was still time.

The Herzl of Avineri, Amos Elon, Pinhas Blumenthal and Alex Bein, as described in their excellent biographies of him, is less of a visionary, certainly less a man of illusions, and more a man of action.

Rather than being detached from reality he was very much in touch with it, able to decipher it, and insistent on changing the direction of its flow. That is my Herzl too, and anyone who wants to use him in order to justify his own lunacy and deceitfulness must do so at his own risk and allow Herzl to be his tempestuous but level-headed self.

The lowest common denominator

When Herzl was already seriously ill he wrote to David Wolffsohn: “Send my regards to the Land of Israel. I have given my heart’s blood for my people.”

Herzl knew how to give, did we know how to receive?

One hundred and six years after his death the Jewish people must provide the answer for itself: Did we or did we not know how to receive? The answer seems to be that until 1967 we were more able to receive, and since 1967, far less; until the Six-Day War we remained more faithful to the Herzlian vision, and since then we have abandoned it.

The Zionist enterprise is one of the outstanding achievements of the 20th century. Its beginning was so spectacular that many in Israel and abroad − first and foremost Zionist leader and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion − were tempted into believing that other nations would follow our lead. Herzl believed that too in his day.

The vision in its entirety is always more perfect than the sum of all its day-to-day parts. But in 1967 it shattered to pieces, and today we already know how hard it is to reassemble.

Is it still possible? In 1967 we were not heroes, because we didn’t conquer our passions. We did, though, conquer territories along with their inhabitants, and nobody would present Israel as a shining example to all of humanity any longer.

In his book “The Jewish State” Herzl writes: “We shall introduce the seven-hour day as an experiment for the good of humanity; and we shall proceed in everything else in the same humane spirit, making the new land a land of experiments and a model state.”

We have failed the test of serving as an example, and have probably caused Herzl additional heartbreak: Binyamin Ze’ev died twice.

Herzl, as always, was ahead of his time when he expressed his opinion about the occupation. He saw it coming too. He writes:
“A state is formed not by pieces of land, but rather by a number of men united under sovereign rule. Man is the personal, land the objective groundwork of the state, the human basis being the more important of the two.” If only those words would serve as a reminder of our sins to anyone who has forgotten or those who never knew.

In the past 43 years we have invested our material and intellectual resources in the land of the state, instead of the personal. We swallowed up territories that we cannot or do not want to give up.

Israel in 2010 is spiritually shrunken because it has became physically bloated; “But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked,” and was kicked. We expanded our borders and narrowed our horizons.

Herzl also warned against the “aristocratic republic,” as he put it, developing into a theocracy. “We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our clergy,” he wrote. In total contradiction to his recommendation, we did not know how “to keep the clergy in the confines of their synagogues the same way as we shall keep the our army within the confines of their barracks.”

We did not separate religion from the state, or from politics, for the sake of both. And we have not kept our military figures away from affairs of state. “They must not interfere” − he said − “lest they cause us difficulties at home and abroad.”

It is not hard to guess what Herzl would have to say in his Sermon on the Mount about a government with too many generals, and about a General Staff that has given us too many politicians.

Herzl was under no illusions: From the start he did not believe in our “ethical purity” because we are no different from the rest of modern humanity, and because “freedom will breed arrogance.”

He was not a utopian like Thomas Moore, as he himself attested. And yet he did believe that a “strong upward tendency” would develop in our nation. That did not happen. Instead of higher and higher, our direction at present is lower and lower, to the lowest common denominator.

It’s sufficient to follow the public discourse in order to be convinced of that. In Basel, where the Jewish state was “founded,” a slippery slope was also revealed, with its head in the Alps and its tail in the valleys of Judea.

The Prophet Ezekiel − another visionary − did not despair at the sight of the dry bones when he looked out over the valley. He believed that a breath would come − and they would live. Does Herzl too still believe, on our behalf, in his vision of the bones? Do we still believe on his behalf?