Herzl's Dreams for the Holy City

Jerusalem's historic heritage and potential for the future captured Herzl's imagination. For him it was clear that there was no Zionism without Zion.

"If I remember you in the future, Jerusalem, it will not be with pleasure." These are the words Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary in October 1898, reflecting on his visit to Jerusalem as the head of a Zionist delegation that met with the German emperor, Wilhelm II. Herzl had hoped the Kaiser would support his efforts to achieve a charter from the Turkish sultan which would make possible Jewish immigration to, and settlement in, the Holy Land. There are those who interpret this sentence to mean that Herzl had a negative attitude toward Jerusalem, and even to conclude the Zionist movement preferred Tel Aviv, "the first Hebrew city." The picture is actually much more complex and interesting; it is worth clarifying specifically today, on Jerusalem Day, as it has implications for the contemporary political discourse.

The diplomatic meeting ended in disappointment for Herzl. The Zionist visionary had come away from a previous meeting with the Kaiser in Constantinople with the hope that he would support the Zionist plan, but the emperor had changed his mind - apparently at the behest of his advisers.

The few days Herzl spent in Jerusalem were a deeply moving time for him, filled with historic associations and plans for the future. True, many things were not to his liking, especially in the Old City where he discovered "the stale residue of two thousand cruel years, intolerance and filth." The scene he encountered at the Western Wall revolted him, because of "the miserable and speculative begging"; and the internal dissension that characterized the Jewish community living there at the time and its hostility toward Zionism filled his heart with distress. But despite feeling bad on the day of his arrival in Jerusalem, Herzl was immediately captivated by the city's appearance.

"Jerusalem wrapped in a thin veil of moonlight, with its wonderful skyline, made a tremendous impression on me," he wrote. "The silhouette of the fortress of Zion, David's Tower, is splendid." The following day, Herzl looked out of his hotel window at the city and wrote: "The city spreads out before me in its glory. Even now, with all the neglect, it is still a beautiful city and when we come here, it can once again become one of the most beautiful cities in the world."

While touring, Herzl marveled at the view of the Temple Mount seen from the roof of a synagogue in the Old City, and when the delegation went up to the Mount of Olives, he was thrilled by the scenery - "a sight that has no equal of the Jordan Valley, the Mountains of Moab, and the eternal city of Jerusalem." He added: "What could be done with this scenery! A city like Rome, and from the Mount of Olives there would be a view like from Gianicolo [Hill]."

Indeed, Herzl had as many ideas as there are seeds in a pomegranate. "If one day we receive Jerusalem," he wrote, the Old City would be cleared of its bazaars and all that would remain there would be the places holy to all the religions.

On the hills outside the city walls, a new city would be built using modern urban planning, which would include neighborhoods for laborers, "while following the style of the old buildings as far as possible."

In his novel "Altneuland" (1902), Herzl would describe the new Jerusalem he envisaged under the realization of Zionism - starting with the scenery from the Mount of Olives, which is now a tourist attraction, and culminating in his description of the new town, a clean and modern city. Haifa for him was the center of commerce and economics, but Jerusalem was the capital: "a vibrant city, full of splendor, an international metropolis in the 20th century sense."

The parliament, the Jewish academy, and even a "peace palace" for solving international disputes, would all be located there. It is somewhat surprising that the secular Herzl foresaw the reestablishment of the Temple ("because the time has come"). To prevent any misunderstanding - in Herzl's vision the Temple would not be set up in place of the mosques nor would there be any sacrificial rites there.

Even though the Jerusalem that had been neglected by the Ottoman rulers, as well as the Jews of the city at that time, repelled Herzl, the city with its historic heritage and its potential for the future captured his imagination. For him it was clear that there was no Zionism without Zion.