Was Herzl Mistaken?

On the 100th anniversary of his death, and in light of recent events, one may well ask: Did the father of Zionism err when he assumed that establishment of a Jewish state would solve the `Jewish question' and cure the `disease' of anti-Semitism?

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

August 1897: In Basel, Switzerland, Theodor Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl convenes the First Zionist Congress. In his opening address, he speaks of the significant "contribution" of anti-Semitism to the consolidation of the Jewish nation. "The sentiment of solidarity with which we have been reproached so frequently and so acrimoniously was in the process of disintegration during the period when we were attacked by anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism served to strengthen it anew."

Anti-Semitism was a central tenet of Herzl's Zionist philosophy. It was anti-Semitism rather than a self-awareness of Jewish nationhood that brought this assimilated Jew to his Jewish identity, and to the very idea of the need to remove the Jews from the countries where they were living as a minority, to a sovereign home of their own. But it was not only the motivation for his Zionist concept. As a 19th-century rationalist, he thought that according to the same logic, he would also be able to "use" anti-Semitism to realize the Zionist dream: If the anti-Semites didn't want the Jews in their midst, they would certainly be glad to help them move to Palestine.

In the utopian novel "Altneuland" ("Old New Land," 1902) Herzl wrote in this connection: "The world needs a Jewish state - that is why it will be established," and according to that same logic, he assumed that the establishment of the Jewish state, which meant distancing the Jews from life in the midst of other nations, would in fact finally solve the problem of anti-Semitism: "The Jews will leave as respected friends, and if individuals return later on, they will receive the same warm welcome in the enlightened countries as do citizens of other countries," he wrote in his book "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State").

Tomorrow, July 3, is the 100th anniversary of the death of Herzl, who died heartbroken, with the movement he established only in the first stages of realizing its vision. And the events of recent years seem to undermine the validity of his analysis: The Jewish state was in fact established and is thriving, but not only has anti-Semitism not disappeared, rather in recent years it has been directed increasingly against the Jewish state than against Jews as individuals. Was Herzl mistaken, and was his Zionism based on a totally erroneous historical analysis?

"Definitely," says Prof. Robert Wistrich, head of the Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a senior research fellow at the Shalem Center.

"Herzl made a big mistake, because his basic assumptions and his analysis of anti-Semitism were erroneous: In his analysis, Herzl the liberal turns out to be very much a materialist [someone who believes that history is motivated by materialistic rather than ideological conflicts - Y.S.], almost a Marxist. He saw anti-Semitism as stemming from the economic competition between the Jewish and non-Jewish bourgeoisie. Therefore, he didn't consider Jewish emigration to the United States a solution either, because there, too, the Jews would compete for jobs and economic status, giving rise to anti-Semitism. On the other hand, when it came to Palestine, he apparently assumed what Borochov clearly spelled out afterward - that there was no bourgeois class there, and that the inhabitants would only be glad of the development that the Jewish bourgeoisie would bring with it.

"Of course, that was a mistaken analysis. Because even according to his `materialistic' interpretation, there was no reason why the Jews wouldn't encounter the same anti-Semitism in Palestine that he assumed they would encounter in other places. After all, he already knew that even in backward agricultural countries, such as Galicia, there were anti-Semitic pogroms. He certainly erred in ignoring the possibility that a nationalist conflict would develop over this land, and in ignoring the religious dimension of the situation.

"This oversight was common to most of the leaders of the Zionist movement at its inception, and is part of their inability to recognize the mythical dimensions of human existence. Perhaps at the time disregarding these problems was necessary in order for the Zionist to have faith in the realization of the idea, but this analysis was clearly erroneous, because these dimensions of nationalism and religion certainly existed in reality. And perhaps Herzl's greatest mistake was in his very desire to `normalize' Jewish existence and our relations with the nations of the world. Perhaps only if we are ourselves and are loyal to our own values, will we achieve better relations with our surroundings."

Normalcy - or not?

Despite this, Wistrich emphasizes that finding fault with the assumptions of Herzl's analysis doesn't mean that we have to undermine the Zionist conclusion: "Even if Zionism didn't bring about the end of hostility toward the Jews, and Eretz Israel is a very dangerous place for Jews - there are ideas and values that justify living a life of danger, and to my mind, that was Herzl's opinion as well. In addition, there are apparently various levels of danger: The fact is that many French Jews are now considering coming to Israel, although the danger here is no less than what they are encountering there."

It isn't surprising to discover that, in contrast to Wistrich, who is opposed to the desire of the Jewish nation to achieve "normalcy," stands writer A.B. Yehoshua, our generation's leading spokesman for this desire ("The Privilege of Normalcy"). Yehoshua believes that "Herzl's diagnosis was not only unequivocally correct, it was even amazingly precise. The problem was only that the `patient' didn't cooperate in the healing process." In other words: Zionism was in fact supposed - and is indeed able - to solve the problem of anti-Semitism, but the Jews were in no rush to fulfill the vision.

Yehoshua: "In 1917, the Balfour Declaration [the declaration by British foreign secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour, favoring the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine] was issued, and the Zionist vision could have been realized. During that period, there were only about half a million Arabs in the country. If only half a million Jews out of the 18 million who were alive at the time had come to Palestine, the Jewish state could have become a reality, and the Holocaust could have been prevented. But instead of half a million, only about 30,000 Jews came from the time of the Balfour Declaration until 1921. The British understood that there was no nation behind the Zionist idea, and on the other hand, the Arabs had begun to shout, and then the British began to put a stop to the implementation of the `national home.'"

In Yehoshua's opinion, even the present existence of anti-Semitism stems from the fact that Zionism has not yet succeeded in realizing the vision of "Jewish normalcy": "Anti-Semitism exists because there are still Jews in the golah [Diaspora] and that means that the pathological interaction between Jews and their environment still continues. In addition, the State of Israel has still not fixed its borders, and that adds another dimension to that same pathological trait of living amid another nation, which once again fuels the anti-Semitic image." In other words, according to Yehoshua, anti-Semitism should be resolved on the day when the Jews finally gather together in their own state, coming both from the Diaspora and from the territories.

Constant friction

The chair of the Jewish Agency, Sallai Meridor, considers such views a kind of implicit justification for anti-Semitism: "I'm sure that it wasn't Yehoshua's intention, but his words hint at a phenomenon familiar among victims of violence, where the victim develops guilt feelings and finds explanations for the attacks on him. After all, there are quite a number of nations in the world that are in situations of domination and friction vis--vis other nations, and whose behavior toward those other nations is much worse than Israel's behavior, and yet those nations are not hated as much as Israel.

"In any case, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that the roots of the disease are to be found in the attacker rather than in the victim. Realistically speaking, I don't see a situation in which Israel will live without a certain friction with its surroundings, and therefore if Yehoshua's assumption about the root of anti-Semitism is correct, it is also insoluble."

Meridor has a complex assessment regarding the essence of the "Herzl doctrine": "Herzl was correct in believing that the ability of the Jewish people to deal with the disease of anti-Semitism would improve tremendously. The sense of security of Jews everywhere in the world has improved because of the very fact of the existence of the State of Israel. In light of its existence, and of its strength in terms of politics and security, Jews around the world have a basic feeling that there can no longer be a situation where a country in which they live will prevent them from leaving and will persecute them, without the State of Israel coming to their aid.

"At the same time, Herzl was mistaken in his assumption that the establishment of the Jewish state would completely eradicate the disease of anti-Semitism. We can deal with it better than in the past, but it turns out that we don't have tools to cure it. Moreover: It turns out that the anti-Semitism germ, which incubates in many nations, has undergone a mutation as a result of its confrontation with the immune system called the State of Israel, and today it no longer attacks Jews personally, but attacks their state. In effect, even the attacks on Jews as individuals stem from the fact that they are members of the nation whose state this is."

Flood of Jews

Prof. Yoav Gelber, head of the Herzl Institute for the research and study of Zionism at the University of Haifa, has a similar dialectical assessment of the realization of Herzl's forecast: "Herzl was certainly wrong in the assumption that the Jewish state would solve the `Jewish question' and the [problem of the] anti-Semitic attitude, but he was correct in that today, the Jews' sense of security, even in Western countries, stems from the existence of the State of Israel. After all, the basic argument of those who opposed equal rights for the Jews in the West was the fear of being `flooded by Jews.' The establishment of the state allayed this fear, and therefore it is no coincidence, for example, that the U.S. decision to allow the immigration of Holocaust refugees came only two weeks after the establishment of the State of Israel, rather than two weeks, or two years, earlier.

"Herzl's mistake was the result of the puzzling, `abnormal' existence of the Jewish people. The Jews are exceptional, because of the unique combination of religion and nationality. And then people don't understand: If it's a religion - why should it receive territory? And if it's a nation, why can't it include members of other religions? Because strange things often seem threatening as well, everyone attributes to them everything he cannot explain. So that the Jews are responsible for both international capitalism and communist revolution; they are both religious and `the children of Satan.' During the past 200 years the Jews have been trying to eliminate the sense of threat that they create, by blurring Jewish uniqueness. Perhaps it is really possible to eliminate it by attempting to relinquish the religious dimension of Jewish identity, as proposed by A.B. Yehoshua or by the `Canaanites' [a group of Jewish intellectuals and artists in Palestine, who wanted to break away from the Diaspora and revive ancient, pre-Jewish "Hebrew culture"]. But we have to be aware that this means that we will no longer be Jews, because to be a Jew means to live with this combination."

As opposed to all the others, Prof. Dina Porat, head of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, thinks that the problem stems from the fact that the question "Was Herzl mistaken?" is based on a false assumption; in her opinion, Herzl was not mistaken, because he never assumed that the State of Israel would solve the problem of anti-Semitism: "Herzl saw the Jewish state as providing a balance, as a counterforce to anti- Semitism, and not necessarily as a factor that would completely eradicate anti-Semitism. Moreover, the basic problem that Herzl saw in anti-Semitism was not the question of security, but the shame and the humiliation. He writes often about the fact that the incidents of anti-Semitism he encountered simply insulted him. The Jewish state did solve this aspect of anti-Semitism.

"Amos Oz wrote in `A Tale of Love and Darkness' about his father who wept on the day of the UN decision to establish the state, and told his son that in his childhood, he had his pants pulled down in his non-Jewish school in Vilna. When the boy's father came to complain, the father was stripped, too. Amos Oz's father knew that the struggle for the establishment and the existence of the state would not be easy, but he told his son, at least `that' [the humiliation and the helplessness - Y.S.] was over for good. And in that sense Herzl was right: It's still dangerous in the Jewish state, but it's impossible to pull down a Jew's pants, and it certainly is impossible to do so without the Jew being able to react."

Anti-Semitic incidents 2000-2004

l October 2000: With the outbreak of the intifada, there was a wave of hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents - arson in synagogues, desecration of Jewish cemeteries and physical attacks on Jews throughout Western Europe, especially in France

l May 2002: Al-Qaida terrorists carry out an attack near the synagogue on the island of Djerba in Tunisia

l March 2003: Another wave of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe, parallel to the start of the American attack in Iraq. Among them: Jewish teenagers were attacked in Paris; graffiti comparing the Star of David to the swastika were sprayed opposite the Embassy of Israel in Madrid; Muslims attacked a Chabad Hasid on his way to a wedding in Berlin; the slogan "Jews Out" and swastikas were sprayed on buildings in a city in Estonia

l September 2003: A neo-Nazi organization is discovered, which planned to set off explosive charges at the dedication ceremony of the Jewish community center in Munich

l September 2003: A Jewish merchant is murdered in Morocco

l October 2003: A German member of parliament: "The Jews are a criminal people. They are responsible for the deaths of millions in the communist revolution." A general in the German army praises the legislator for his courage and for having "expressed the opinion of many"

l October 2003: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed delivers an anti-Semitic speech at an Islamic summit in his country: "The Jews promoted socialism and communism ... so that they would be given the same rights as others. In this way they won control in most of the strong counties and their community became a world power"

l November 2003: A survey showed that 17 percent of the Italians would prefer that Israel cease to exist

l June 2004: Another wave of anti-Semitic incidents, among them: the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Canada; a Jewish girl was stabbed in the abdomen in Stockholm; a yeshiva student was stabbed in his back in a suburb of Antwerp, Belgium



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