On April 30, 1902, Theodor Herzl noted, in a single, short entry in his diary, that “today I finished my novel ‘Old-New Land.’”
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In 1896, in his short work “The Jewish State,” the Viennese-born journalist who was the visionary of the Jewish state presented a brief justifying his proposal for a political solution to the “plight of the Jews.” But it was in “Altneuland,” written two years before his death, that he composed a utopian novel offering a portrait of how a society established in a Palestine resettled by the Jews might appear.
By 1902, the 41-year-old Herzl had been obsessed for some six years with the idea of providing a remedy to the dire plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe – one of poverty, of being subjected to violent hatred, of a lack of control over their destiny. He had been running from one capital to another trying to enlist the support of world leaders to agree to his idea.
The year after publishing “The Jewish State,” Herzl had convened the First Zionist Congress, in Basel, establishing a foundation for advancing the Zionist project. The year after that, in 1898, he paid his only visit to Palestine, then part of the Ottoman empire.
“Altneuland” was meant to serve as his crowning achievement – an emotionally convincing portrait of the type of society that could be created by the Jews in their return to the ancient homeland. It would be technologically advanced, and egalitarian and socialistic, a place where Jews and Arabs lived harmoniously and all citizens had equal rights.
The framework for this portrait was to be a literary novel, and Herzl went to great lengths to draw flesh-and-blood characters with whom the readers could identify.
In the novel, Herzl’s protagonist, Friedrich Loewenberg, a newly minted Viennese lawyer who has been disappointed and disillusioned by life and love, joins an eccentric millionaire, Adelbert Kingscourt, in sailing for the South Seas, where they intend to live the rest of their lives removed from modern civilization. On the way to the Pacific, their vessel docks in the port of Jaffa, where they disembark and spend a few days touring the land.
The Palestine they glimpse is the one that Herzl encountered on his 1898 visit: barren, destitute, gray, backward.
Twenty years later, Kingscourt and Loewenberg sail back to Palestine for a visit. Again, they dock in Jaffa, and again, they decide to take a look at the “forsaken” country. Of course, what they see is a land transformed.
The best of European civilization
The capital of “Palestine,” as the new country is called, is Jerusalem, but its business and cultural center is the new deep-water port city of Haifa. Economically, the country is a blend of collective ownership of resources and state welfare with the encouragement of free enterprise. Culturally, it offers the best of European civilization, and the languages spoken are Yiddish, Hebrew and German. A canal has been built from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean, and fresh water is available to all. And Palestine is demilitarized.
Although “Altneuland” is indeed a homeland for the Jews, it is a secular country. Citizenship is open to all – although the visitors encounter a nationalist rabbi, Dr. Geyer, who would like to limit immigration by non-Jews. The European-educated Muslim intellectual they meet, Dr. Reschid, tells them how much better life is now that the Jews have returned to the land.
When Kingscourt asks him if he doesn’t view the Jews as “intruders,” Reschid replies: “You speak strangely, Christian. Would you call a man a robber who takes nothing from you, but brings something? The Jews have enriched us, why should we be against them?”
The Temple, which they visit on the Sabbath, has been rebuilt in Jerusalem, but apparently sacrifices are no longer offered up there; instead, it is a symbol of a high-minded, spiritual and ethically based Judaism.
Not surprisingly, both Loewenberg and Kingscourt decide to stay in Palestine.
In its translation into Hebrew, by Nahum Sokolow, the book was called “Tel Aviv,” which of course became the name of the new city established adjacent to Jaffa seven years later.
The book did have an impact on the Zionist movement, but it also elicited a violent response from the Cultural Zionists, led by Ahad Ha’am, who attacked the book for imagining a society that had very few “Jewish” components to its cultural identity, as well as for its naivete regarding the response of the native Arabs of Palestine. Today, it is read largely as a curiosity, with special attention paid to the similarity between certain inventions imagined by Herzl and the reality that exists in the real-life State of Israel.