Zionism According to Theodor Herzl

"Altneuland" by Theodor Herzl, translated into Hebrew from the German by Miriam Krauss, Babel Publishers, 318 pages, NIS 42.

"Altneuland" by Theodor Herzl, translated into Hebrew from the German by Miriam Krauss, Babel Publishers, 318 pages, NIS 42

According to a myth that is prevalent in Israel - and all the more so in the Arab world - the founders of Zionism totally ignored the existence of Arabs in Palestine. Those who think so apparently never read Theodor Herzl's "Altneuland" ("Old-New Land"). "Altneuland" is, as is well known, a utopian novel written by Zionism's founder, Theodor Herzl, in 1902; it describes how the Land of Israel would look in 1923 if the Zionist vision would be realized there. The year it was published, the novel was translated into Hebrew by Nahum Sokolow, who gave it the poetic name "Tel Aviv" (which combines the archaeological term "tel" and the word for the season of spring). By 1918, six editions of the original German text had already been published, and the novel had been translated into many languages.

There are many Hebrew translations of "Altneuland" and now, on the centenary of the novel's debut, there is a pocket edition with the latest modern Hebrew translation, which, it should be noted, flows smoothly. This translation, which first appeared in 1997, is free of archaic phrasing.

Like all utopian novels, this is a didactic and slightly boring work that contains long speeches and descriptions of social institutions that, of course, weigh down on the plot. However, there are two important differences between Herzl's work and other utopian novels from which, Herzl himself admits, he drew inspiration - such as Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward" and "Freiland" ("Freeland") by a Jewish Viennese journalist whose name is remarkably similar to Herzl's - Theodor Hertzka.

First of all, Herzl's utopia can be compared with an existing reality that, to a large extent, was molded by the author's own political activity and by those who continued his work after his death. Other socialist utopias have generally never been implemented, except for a few isolated communities in the United States; thus, there is no possibility of comparing the vision with the reality as manifested in these communities.

Second, Herzl's utopian tale is no hymn of blind praise to some model society that will arise in the future. The narrative of "Altneuland" focuses, in fact, on a depiction of the problems and tensions faced by the new society, the primary difficulty being the status of Arabs in that society. I know of no other utopian work with a similar critical dimension.

Bit of kitsch

Here is the plot: Two people, one Jewish and the other an Austrian Christian, who chose to cut themselves off from the world and spent 20 years on a remote island, return to Europe in 1923. Their ship docks in Haifa. They are astonished to discover a modern, sophisticated industrialized country instead of the backward Ottoman province they remember from their previous visit in 1902, when they were on their way to their refuge. They immediately encounter - and this is, of course, the novel's kitschy part - old acquaintances from Vienna who, it emerges, have in the meantime become the leaders of the new country.

They tell the two visitors that the country's prosperity is a result of the massive immigration of Jews who have founded in the Land of Israel a "New Society," which is also the country's official name. The New Society is founded on the adoption of the latest technology and on the principle of mutual solidarity or "mutualism" - a term used by utopian socialists. The way of life in the New Society is a "system located midway between capitalism and socialism, between individualism and collectivism."

The two visitors are also surprised to discover that the original inhabitants of the land, the Arabs, are equal partners with equal voting rights in the New Society, and that one of them, an engineer from Haifa, Rashid Bey, is one of the New Society's leaders. During a tour of the Jezreel Valley, he showers the foreign guests with impassioned speeches on the immense benefit that the Jews have brought to the land's Arab residents and on the tolerance demonstrated by the Arabs toward the Jewish immigration, in the best tradition of Muslim society, which was always more tolerant of the Jews than Christian Europe.

Today's readers will no doubt smile when they come across this amalgam of, on the one hand, naive, Eurocentric liberalism - in accord with whose principles the natives are grateful to European technology for having rescued them from backwardness and illiteracy and for making them part of the modern cultural world - and, on the other hand, an idealization of Islam. However, the novel does not ignore the existence of the Arabs. Quite the contrary: An attempt is made here to involve the Arab residents of the country in a social vision based on universalism.

Unquestionably, Herzl took no notice of the potential rise of an Arab nationalist movement; yet, it must be admitted, such a movement did not exist as a political force in 1902. It could, of course, be argued that Herzl should have been able to predict the rise of such a movement. However, in a period when no one in Europe - not even in the Middle East itself - had yet discerned the existence of an Arab nationalist movement, it would be somewhat exaggerated to demand such a prediction from Herzl. To make such a forecast, one needed the British imperialism of the World War I that gave Arab nationalism its first impetus in the struggle against Ottoman rule.

Dangers of Jewish racism

However, the main point is connected with another issue altogether - the novel's political narrative. The two chief protagonists' visit to the country coincides with a general election campaign that takes place in the shadow of a phenomenon that threatens the New Society's liberal, democratic character. A new political movement is headed by a fanatical rabbi, Dr. Geyer, whose name means "vulture" in German and who demands that non-Jewish citizens of the New Society be deprived of their voting rights. The land belongs exclusively to the Jews, argues Geyer, and he establishes a political party whose platform calls for denying the Arabs the right to vote. This is not a report on Israel circa 2002; these words were written 100 years ago.

The novel's political narrative revolves around this election campaign, as the New Society's liberal-democratic establishment tries to cope with the phenomenon of Jewish racism. The depiction of the election campaign includes election speeches - by the liberals who continually reiterate their claim that Zionism is founded on 19th-century European liberal humanism, and by Rabbi Geyer's supporters in whose mouths Herzl puts (in reverse form) the very arguments used in the ideology of the anti-Semitic Viennese leader, Karl Lueger, whose election to the post of mayor of Vienna was one of the factors that convinced Herzl that European liberalism was in a profound crisis.

In the Jewish commonwealth Herzl envisages, the liberal ethic, of course, triumphs. Toward the end of the novel, we learn that Rabbi Geyer sustains a crushing defeat at the polls. Unlike Vienna, liberalism emerges victorious in the Jewish Land of Israel. The leaders of the New Society are proud to point out to the two visitors that most of the merchants in the country are Armenians, Greeks and members of other ethnic groups.

So much for the Arab issue in "Altneuland."

The Third Temple

Another topic in this novel is how Herzl's copes with the question of religion in the Jewish state. It is common knowledge that Herzl belonged to that segment of intellectual Viennese Jews who were very distant from traditional Jewish observance. In his first political pamphlet, "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State"), Herzl made it clear that the rabbis would have a respected status in the synagogue - but not in the political arena. In "Altneuland," however, the picture is more complex and more interesting: Although the leaders of the New Society are all individuals with modern views, one of the central scenes in the novel is a description of the Passover Seder night ceremony in Tiberias, conducted by the New Society's president.

The depiction of Jerusalem is particularly fascinating. In it, the Old City is transformed into a historical reserve whose filth has been removed and from which the authorities have now banned the beggars of all nations and faiths who occupied every open space there, and whose presence so troubled Herzl during his only visit to the country in 1898. However, in the center of the new part of Jerusalem, a glorious structure proudly stands: This is, incredible as it may sound, the Third Temple of Jerusalem "which had been totally rebuilt because the time had come for its reconstruction. It had been built in accordance with the building procedures of ancient times, that is, with hewn stone ... Once more, the pillars, cast in copper, stood in front of Israel's holiest of holies. The left column is called Boaz and the right one Yakhin. In the front courtyard were a mighty copper altar and a wide basin of water that was called `the Copper Sea,' just as in ancient times, when King Solomon ruled the land." While it may be surprising to come across such a passage in Herzl's writings, it should be pointed out that the Temple is built in the new part of Jerusalem and not in place of the mosques on the Temple Mount in the Old City. Despite the altar mentioned in the above passage, Herzl does not state that animal sacrifices have been reinstituted. The description of Friday night services at the Third Temple - where there is a separate section for women worshipers, of course - is more reminiscent of a modern synagogue service in Vienna or Budapest than a ceremony based on Talmud tractate or any other ancient rabbinical source. Alongside the Temple there is the Hall of Peace, an international center for the resolution of disputes - a sort of League of Nations at a time when no such institution existed.

Herzl's somewhat conservative liberal position is very apparent here: Religion has a respected public position in an enlightened, tolerant society. This was the situation in liberal Austria-Hungary before populist and racist demagogues like Lueger appeared on the stage.

Moreover, readers will also no doubt be fascinated by the description of the Friday on which the two travelers arrive in Jerusalem: "At noon, the alleyways were still crowded but now, as if by some miracle, the hustle and bustle was gone. The number of automobiles roaming the streets had dramatically dropped and the shops were being shut one by one. The Sabbath was descending in a festive mood upon the vibrant city. Observers of the Jewish tradition began streaming to the synagogues ... in honor of an invisible God whose divine presence has accompanied the Jewish people in its exile for thousands of years."

During the Sabbath service in the Temple, the Jewish traveler from Vienna recalls Heinrich Heine's exquisite poem "Prinzessin Sabbat" ("The Sabbath Princess"). The words of that poem - which, within the wonderful German text, includes the Hebrew melody, in the Ashkenazi version, recited in synagogues on Friday nights, "Lekha dodi likras kale" - "Go my friend to greet the [Sabbath] bride" - reverberate in his head just as they add a tingle of excitement to the pages of the book.

There are many other subjects in "Altneuland," such as, for example, women's right to vote. When the book was written, no European country granted women the right to vote. Another subject is compulsory national service for young men and women - a program that enables universal social and health services in the New Society.

"Altneuland" presents us with a Herzl who is more complex than the Herzl portrayed by both the Zionist myth and anti-Zionist propaganda: one who envisions a Jewish state yet does not ignore the existence of Arabs in the country, and furthermore wages their war for equal rights because, as a realist, he knows that racism can arise in any nation; a conservative-liberal who fears social revolutions, but who offers the blueprint of a society that is based on solidarity and that blends the initiative of capitalism with the justice of socialism; and a modern, enlightened individual who grants religion a role in the public space of a renewed Jewish commonwealth, but who opposes religious coercion.

Perhaps a few words of advice could be given on this matter to the present education minister, Limor Livnat, who, justifiably, wants the next generation of Israel's citizens to come in contact with Zionism's values. On the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of "Altneuland," it might be a good idea to make it compulsory reading for all secondary schools in Israel - both the state-operated ones and the state-religious schools.

Despite his pessimism regarding European culture, Herzl did not predict the Holocaust nor could he have imagined the depth of Arab animosity toward the Zionist project. On these two points, which, to a large extent, have determined the character of Israel circa 2002, Herzl erred. Nevertheless, it would be worthwhile to have Israeli high-school students encounter the image of Zionism as seen by its founders: a national and universal movement, which champions equal rights for Arabs as it implements the vision of a Jewish state; an enlightened movement that provides a place for religion in a Jewish society in the process of renewing itself; a realistic utopia, which does not ignore the flaws that emerge as the Zionist vision seeks to realize itself.

Both Shinui leader Tommy Lapid and National Religious Party leader Effi Eitam could learn a lot from this novel.

Prof. Shlomo Avineri, who teaches political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has written the historical introduction to Theodor Herzl's three volumes, entitled, "Inyan Hayehudim - Sifrei Yoman" ("The Jewish Cause - Diaries 1895-1904"), recently published by the Bialik Institute and the World Zionist Organization and The Central Zionist Archives.