Utopia: The Sequel

How does Israeli society match up to the vision outlined by Herzl in 'Altneuland'?

In his novel “Altneuland” ‏(“Old-New Land,” 1902‏), Herzl based his vision of the future Jewish commonwealth on three pillars: social solidarity, civic equality for all inhabitants and a delicate balance between individual freedom and the role of religion in society. All three express the principles of the Enlightenment, liberalism and the heritage of the French Revolution − liberty, equality and fraternity. All three were crucial building blocks of the State of Israel as established by the Zionist movement, and all three have recently been severely attenuated.

Few national movements have been blessed with a foundational document akin to “Altneuland.” European national liberation movements in the 19th century were replete with programs and declarations in which they tried to justify their legitimacy and recount their grievances against oppressors and enemies. Yet Altneuland is unique in presenting the Jewish nation-state as it would look after its establishment. At the time, this was a powerful propaganda tool; today it can be a mirror to hold up to the Israel that exists, through which one can compare vision with reality.

Let us start with solidarity − the aspect of fraternity that has traditionally been the more neglected element of the French Revolution’s trinity. Modern liberalism has mainly focused on the elements of liberty and equality, and since Tocqueville has also been aware of the structural tension between the two. But the element of fraternity was usually overlooked in the liberal discourse and has therefore become a central element in socialist thought. In Herzl, too, it is central.

Herzl was not a socialist, but as a journalist and essayist deeply anchored in what was happening in European society, he was well aware of the ills of capitalism and the plight of the industrial working class. One of the sub-plots of his play “The New Ghetto” presents a dramatic description of the tragic fate of miners in a coal mine that collapsed due to the fact that its ‏(Jewish‏) stockbroker owners were more interested in profits than in basic care for the miners’ safety.

This awareness of social issues appears very clearly in Herzl’s description of the economic system he envisaged for the Jewish society in Palestine. He calls it “mutualism,” a term derived from the thinking of French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon; for Herzl, it signified a middle way between capitalism and socialism. As a protagonist in “Altneuland” describes it, the founders of the new society decided to adopt the best facets of European society: from capitalism they took the principles of freedom and competition, from socialism the ideas of equality and justice. Today we would call it “The Third Way.”

The modern Jewish society in the Land of Israel is described by Herzl as a highly developed welfare state based on a mixed economy. Land and natural resources are owned by society, while retail commerce is in the hands of private individuals. Many of the players in the economy are cooperatives, both in production and consumption; a wide network of welfare institutions takes care of health issues, with special emphasis on care for the elderly; all members of society − men and women − are conscripted at age 18 for two years of national service, in which they function as social workers, health providers and teachers.

In other words: without being a socialist, Herzl understands that a national project like Zionism − creating a new Jewish society − cannot just copy the diaspora Jewish social structure, nor can it be realized without social solidarity. To him it is clear that Zionism cannot come about on the basis of competitive and individualistic capitalism. Herzl goes even further in postulating that the new Jewish society will not have a stock exchange, which has been historically identified with the role of Jews in modern capitalism. In an offhand remark, he also mentions that most merchants in the Jewish commonwealth will be not be Jews, but rather Greeks and Armenians.

The Jewish Yishuv in Palestine and Israeli society in the first decades after independence mostly followed this vision. The hegemony of the Labor movement also guaranteed a central role for public ownership in different forms ‏(kibbutzim, cooperatives, Histadrut-owned enterprises‏), accompanied by a wide network of health and welfare institutions and a wage system that tended toward egalitarianism, all based on a mixed economy.

Recently, many of these elements of solidarity have been whittled away. Market fundamentalism that tries to privatize practically everything − including health, welfare and education − has severely damaged overall social solidarity and ideas of equality. It has turned quantitative growth into the dominant criterion of economic activity, thus deeply hurting the image − and reality − of Israel as a just society. The fact that this process has been mainly undertaken under the aegis of the Likud, which views itself as a movement committed to national ideals, is a serious departure from Herzl’s Zionism. Nothing is more alien to Herzl’s vision of the Jewish state than the perception of privatization and competition as core values of society.

The second element on which Herzl based his future Jewish society was the civic equality of all its inhabitants. Herzl was acutely aware of the existence of a large Arab population in the Land of Israel and of the need for Zionism to integrate them into the future Jewish commonwealth. His vision is of a society that is both Jewish and democratic, both a Jewish nation-state and a state of all its citizens.

Not only do Arabs appear in Altneuland, some of them also emerge as leaders. All inhabitants, women as well as men, Jews as well as non-Jews, have the right to vote and be elected. The political plot of Altneuland revolves around the appearance of a new political party, recently formed by a new immigrant named Rabbi Dr. Geyer ‏(“vulture”‏), who calls for the disenfranchisement of the non-Jewish population.

Serious lacuna

A ferocious election campaign is in full swing as the novel proceeds, and Herzl devotes long chapters to the speeches of both the supporters of the new racist party and those of the liberal leaders, one of whom is an Arab engineer from Haifa, Reshid Bey. Herzl describes Jewish racists as a mirror image of European racists and anti-Semites: Rabbi Dr. Geyer is presented as the counterpart of the Viennese anti-Semitic politician Karl Lueger, whose election as mayor of Vienna was one of the major political developments that led Herzl on the path to Zionism.

Herzl is well aware of the fact that Jews can be racists just like anyone else, yet his message is clear: While in Europe the racists are on the ascendant, winning popular elections, in his New Zion the liberals will be victorious and realize in this corner of the eastern Mediterranean that liberal vision which has failed in Europe. In the book, Rabbi Geyer and his supporters lose the election and it is rumored that he is thinking of leaving the country.

It is true that Herzl does not envisage the emergence of an Arab Palestinian national movement, nor does he imagine that Zionism itself might become one of its major triggers: This is a serious lacuna in his thinking. Yet the fact of the matter is that at the time, no Arab national movement existed − in Palestine or anywhere else in the Middle East. It emerged only later, during World War I, as the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule that was instigated by British imperial agents ‏(Lawrence of Arabia was only the most notorious among them‏). It may be that Herzl should have contemplated the emergence of such an Arab national movement, but his approach to the Arab population attempts to include, not exclude it. No imperial power ‏(neither France in Algeria nor Britain in India‏) ever thought of granting equal rights to its colonial subjects.

For all the justified criticism that can be directed against the policy of all past Israeli governments toward the Arab minority, and without idealizing the present situation, the fact of the matter is that since its inception, Israel did give citizenship and voting rights to its Arab citizens, recognized Arabic as the second official language and offered its Arab citizens public education in their language and culture. There is no doubt that the continued state of war with most of the Arab world − something not envisioned by Herzl in his liberal world view − obviously complicated matters. But basically and fundamentally, Israel has tried − in its Declaration of Independence, its legislation and Supreme Court decisions − to realize this vision of civic equality, to find the proper balance between being the Jewish nation-state and the state of all its citizens. The sometimes quite radical statements by Arab MKs are a testimony to Israel’s failings, but also to its nature as an open, democratic society.

A serious deterioration has recently appeared in this sphere as well, primarily − but not exclusively − through the emergence of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which it would be difficult not to classify as racist. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, its proposals − from calling for a loyalty oath to attempts to limit entrance to the Foreign Service to “those who have served in the military” − have a clear exclusivist aim, which is perceived as such both by the party’s supporters and members of the Arab community.

In the past, Israel succeeded in marginalizing and outlawing Rabbi Kahane’s aggressive racist party, but so far it has failed to confront the equally despicable ideology of Yisrael Beiteinu and its electoral constituency. While not all the party’s supporters are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a majority of them do hail from there and bring with them political traditions based on raw and authoritarian power politics. But what may perhaps suit Putin and Russian neo-tsarist political culture does not fit a Jewish state based on Herzl’s liberal vision.

Rabbis, limited

The last issue deals with the complex relationship between state and religion. Contrary to what is sometimes perceived − mainly due to American constitutional interpretations and the French Jacobin republican tradition − European liberalism, from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, did not view religion as being exclusively limited to the private sphere. Even a non-religious person cannot deny the fact that religious views may impact the public sphere, the political discourse and legislation. ‏(For example, if a person thinks that abortion is murder, you cannot deny her the right to express this through her electoral preferences.‏) What European liberalism insisted on was religious freedom and a guarantee that there would be no state-supported coercion in religious matters.

Herzl did initially say that in the future Jewish state, we should honor the rabbis, but limit their influence to the synagogue. Yet in “Altneuland” he is aware that the matter is more complex than this simplistic and somewhat glib statement. He postulated that, while guaranteeing freedom of religion and worship ‏(after all, there are Muslims and Christians in the country‏) there would be respect for a Jewish religious presence in the public sphere.

This appears on a number of levels. When the imaginary travelers arrive in Jerusalem in 1923, it is the eve of the Sabbath. The bustling capital is slowing its pace and preparing for the official weekly day of rest, which is of course Saturday, not the Christian Sunday. Similarly, one of the pivotal events in “Altneuland” is the Passover seder conducted by the leaders of the country ‏(in the presence of Muslim and Christian guests‏). On the one hand, it is a traditional seder, but what is narrated is not only the Exodus from Egypt, but also the modern exodus from Europe, including an account of how massive immigration was organized and how a charter was obtained from the Ottoman sultan that practically turned over the country to the control of the Zionist movement.

Moreover, what a contemporary reader may find somewhat astonishing is that in “Altneuland” Herzl envisions the rebuilding of the Temple, “because the time has come.” It is clearly not built on the site of the mosques on the Temple Mount, nor are abominations like animal sacrifice practiced there. Herzl’s meticulous description of the Temple tries to combine the traditional and the modern. On the one hand, he goes into some detail in describing the Temple’s architecture, including the two pillars, Jachin and Boaz, as well as the “Sea of Copper,” just − Herzl notes − “as it had been in the days in which Solomon ruled the land.” On the other hand, the service basically follows that of a modern synagogue ‏(not a Reform temple: women sit separately‏). The description of the Friday evening service, including the singing of “Lecha dodi likrat kala,” is presented by Herzl as deeply moving for the modern secular, if not assimilated, Jewish visitor ‏(who also, just to deepen the multicultural irony, is reminded of Heine’s poem “Princess Sabbath,” and Goethe’s “Do you know the land where the lemon tree blossoms”).

This is a rationalist synthesis of tradition, tolerance, liberalism and respect for religion combined with a guarantee of individual freedom − neither an aggressive secularism, nor a pious religiosity. The Yishuv and consequently the State of Israel basically follow Herzl’s attempt to confront this complex web of inherent tensions ‏(including the role of the Rabbinate in matters of marriage and divorce, itself a legacy of the Ottoman millet system‏)

Like all compromises, this one, based on the historical status quo, was both dynamic and occasionally problematic. It elicited from Yeshayahu Leibowitz the pithy description of Israel being “a secular state in bed with religion.” Leibowitz obviously meant this to be a scathing criticism of the existing arrangements in Israel: but unbeknownst to himself, he succeeded in giving the most profound compliment to the wisdom and political moderation and liberality of the Jewish state.

This too has been recently threatened. With the weakening of the political left in Israel and the simultaneous weakening of the historical secular right ‏(Jabotinsky, after all, was indifferent as to whether he would be buried or cremated‏), the ultra-Orthodox community, which is partly non-Zionist in the historical sense of the term, is now trying, due to its pivotal role in coalition making, to widen the sphere of religious legislation and turn Halakha, step by step, into the law of the land. With such moves, as for example in the recent Barzilai Medical Center case, it also gives a bad name to religion and helps make religion repugnant to the non-religious community. These moves are not only an infringement of civil and human rights − they are also contrary to the Zionist credo.

“Altneuland” is indeed a mirror through which Israel can judge itself − for its achievements as well as its shortcomings. It can also serve as an inspiration for how to realize − despite the obvious external and internal constraints and difficulties − Herzl’s vision of the Jewish state as one that combines national as well as liberal and social values.