So What if Herzl Said It?

Israel looks nothing like the Zionist utopia Herzl envisioned, so we might as well stop putting words in his mouth.

Yossi Sarid
Yossi Sarid
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Yossi Sarid
Yossi Sarid

What would the founder of modern political Zionism, Benjamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl, say if he could see how his vision has been translated into reality, namely, the State of Israel? What would he say if he could hear what was said by another Benjamin, namely, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Israel’s parliament last week on the 153rd anniversary of Herzl’s birth? Perhaps he would simply take off his jacket, so that those who pretend to be his spiritual heirs could no longer cling to his coattails. Each generation sees itself as the successor of the preceding one. Sometimes that perception is really a misconception.

Although Herzl did not have a detailed, orderly socioeconomic theory, he certainly would have found it difficult to call himself a neo-liberal. In his utopian novel about a future Zionist state,

“Altneuland” (Old-New Land), his preference for the organization of labor into cooperatives is obvious. When a wealthy man in the novel is asked how economic life is organized in the state, he replies that everything is run on a cooperative basis – even his newspaper.

The capitalist notes that, while he is the owner, his workers are organized into a trade union that is becoming increasingly autonomous. He even strengthened their savings association when he gave them part of his profits. He points out that their savings are intact.

Herzl understood, 120 years ago, what Netanyahu still fails to comprehend. The face of the Old-New Land is not that of greedy capitalism; it is not the face of Israeli tycoon Nochi Dankner or Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot CEO Eli Yones, nor is it the face of Netanyahu’s theory of economic Darwinism. Not in his wildest dreams could Herzl possibly have imagined the war of economic survival in progress in today’s Jewish state, where the "barbers" – the tycoons who want to give the public "haircuts," or trim some of their debts to it – make in one day more than the bald members of Israeli society can make in an entire year. In the end, the barbers always manage to shave off some of what they owe. Dankner and Yones represent all that was despicable and abominable in Herzl’s eyes.

On matters of religion and state and religion and the military, Herzl was more straightforward and clearer. One of his characters asserts that, in their utopian Zionist state, the citizens would never permit the establishment of a theocracy and would thwart any attempt by the clergy to found one. The clergy must remain in the synagogues, just as soldiers must remain in their military bases. Although both the clergy and the military are given their due respect in the Old-New Land, they are not permitted any say in matters of state, because such intervention would create serious problems both domestically and in foreign affairs.

Israel circa 2013 has not followed this plan of action. It has not put the clergy and the military in their place nor has it prevented them from voicing their views on matters of state. In view of the present reality, deterioration is inevitable. Not only do our rabbis interfere daily in matters that are not their concern, they are strengthening their hold on the military. Today, the Israel Defense Forces is the army of God, drawing its fighting spirit not from its commanders but from its rabbis. What would Herzl say if he saw a combination beyond his worst nightmares: A military commander and a rabbi serving in the same military base and a battalion commanded by a theologist Tom Thumb leading the troops to fight God’s war?

In this reality, it comes as no surprise that IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz follows what the IDF Rabbinate tells him. On Memorial Day he did not lay a wreath on the tomb of a soldier who had most certainly died in the defense of the Jewish state but whose Judaism was not so certain. This is the same chief of staff who has not banished the rabbinical authorities in uniform despite the fact that they have issued rulings prohibiting female soldiers – even female officers – from affixing mezuzot to doorposts in military bases, endorsing the principle that Gentiles are not equal to Jews and the declaring that the “representatives of the state have no authority, in terms of Jewish religious law, to act contrary to the ‘Torah’s will.’”

Chiefs of staff may come and chiefs of staff may go; Gantz will not remain in his post forever, but this (evil) “esprit de corps” will sadly persist.

If we are already reexamining Herzl's spiritual legacy, we might as well update Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett: You are energetically working on a proposed law for holding a national referendum should there ever be a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Herzl thought national referenda were foolish, because in politics, there are no simple questions with yes-or-no answers. The public, Herzl writes in his novel, is even worse than its parliament, because it will believe any falsehood and blindly follow any demagogue.

So what if Herzl said it? What people should not be doing is basing their arguments on what they claim he said. Let him lie in peace in his tomb on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Do not cause him to turn over in his grave. In any event, were he alive today, Herzl would have enough good and bad reasons to be distressed. This week, it was revealed that Israel is right at the bottom of the “freedom to marry whomever you want index” along with Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Also this week, for his project “Dan Kaner Reads the Bible,” veteran Israeli broadcaster and narrator Dan Kaner was announced as one of the recipients of Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat’s prize for creative works in the field of Zionism.

Theodor Herzl at the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901.

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