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100 Years Since Herzl's Death: A.B. Yehoshua - What One Solitary Man Could Do


A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading novelists and essayists, offers unstinting praise for the founding father of Zionism in Jerusalem Report - 12th July 2004

Herzl, first of all, is a fine example of what one man, one solitary man, can achieve. He had no people with him, no organizational backing. He was a young man. A journalist. And yet he lit the flame of a whole movement -- and not just the intellectual flame. He set up an organization -- by himself, at the age of 36. He was a master of communicating, a master of public relations. This is an example of what a single human being can do in history.

It was significant that he was an assimilated Jew -- on the border between Jewish and non-Jewish. That meant he saw things that more internalized Jews did not. He realized that there is no full cure for anti-Semitism, and instead of trying to improve the non-Jew, there is an urgent need to change the Jew -- first of all, by separating him from his pathological interaction with his non-Jewish environment. Herzl was able to understand the essence of non-Jewish opposition to the Jews, the depths of that opposition. He saw what was going to happen. I’m not saying that he foresaw the Holocaust. Even he couldn’t have imagined that. But he realized that something dire was looming.

He realized, too, the need to ask the world community to help the Jews achieve normality. He recognized that the Jews couldn’t do it alone. A world partnership was needed -- for the world’s sake as well as the Jews’ sake. The Jewish problem is not only the problem of the Jews but also of the world; the world realized this after the Holocaust. And the need for the world to take a role in solving the Jewish problem is relevant to this day.

To Herzl’s great good fortune, he didn’t have to stand for elections among the Jewish people. If he’d have had to put Zionism to the vote, I’d think it would have got about 8 percent. The socialist Bund, the ultra-Orthodox, the Reform Jews, the assimilated Jews would all have voted against him. They’d all have accused him of creating complications. Opposition from all sides.

But that’s the great tragedy, of course. Because a state could have been established here before the Holocaust. The 1917 Balfour Declaration provided for it. The land was open, without restrictions on immigration. But between 1917 and 1921, only 30,000 Jews came -- out of a people of 18 million. If more had seen what he saw, they could have come in en masse. And if we’d had a state, able to issue passports, East European Jewry could have escaped from the pre-war anti-Semitism and the scale of the Holocaust could have been reduced.

Herzl’s fortune was that he worked beyond the Jewish people. He didn’t need their approval. But I think that if he’d have known how profound was the Jews’ rootedness in the Diaspora, he might have despaired. Luckily, he didn’t realize it. He took them seriously when they prayed for Jerusalem. He thought they intended to come. He didn’t realize that, for most, it was only lip service. As it happened, though, the Zionist movement wasn’t dependent on the will of the Jewish people.

As for his model of the Jewish state, well, it was idealistic -- pleasant, liberal, democratic:

The rabbis didn’t get involved in politics, the Arabs had full rights, the cities all had rapid transit, the workers had social benefits undreamed of in Europe, the choice of theater and opera rivaled -- well, Vienna. Its people did not die violent deaths and the whole world exalted in its contribution to humankind. I’d like to live in it, although it might be a bit boring! If he’d have lived today, I’m sure he would have voted Meretz. But I don’t judge him on his vision of the state. Everybody has idealistic visions. Then reality has its sway, and what gets built, gets built.

He died in 1904. But he is still so relevant, so deserves all credit: a Viennese journalist who didn’t speak Hebrew and visited the Land of Israel only once -- on a two-week trip to see the German Kaiser, and he even cut that short.

Would we be here without him? I don't usually attribute so much to one personality. Still, without Winston Churchill in Britain, World War II would have lasted longer. Without De Gaulle in 1958, the Algerian war would have gone on longer. And without Herzl and what he began, it is very possible that we might have missed the opportunity, the historical crack in which to stake a claim.

But the Jewish people have disappointed him. Most didn’t come. If he’d have lived to see the Balfour Declaration, he’d have said: ‘That’s what I wanted,’ and assumed the Jews would now come. The failure is not in the disputes between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, or between left and right. The failure is not of Zionism -- but of the Jewish people, who didn’t grab the chance they were offered. We will pay for centuries for what was lost in the Holocaust, the generations that could have flourished.

Now, the Diaspora will continue, maintaining itself along the principles established in the Babylonian exile. I don’t believe anti-Semitism will provoke another Holocaust. And here, there is a strong basis to believe that the state will stand firm. But the separation from life amid other peoples that Herzl realized was necessary for the Jews is necessary again now: We have to separate from the Palestinians. That’s what will guarantee our continued presence here a hundred years from now.

A.B. Yehoshua’s latest novel is "The Liberated Bride."

July 12, 2004

 

 

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