Still much to be achieved:
Herzl and the Challenge to Anti-Semitism
Herzl was far too “Eurocentric“ and secular-minded to imagine that Zionism might provoke the reawakening of fundamentalist Islam and turn Israel into a prime target of Jihad. As a liberal cosmopolitan humanist, he too readily believed in the inexorable march of material progress, science and technology which were bound to overcome fanaticism, barbarism, and superstition.
Antisemitism was an ever-present reality in Herzl’s life from his childhood in Budapest, his university years in Vienna to the Kishinev pogrom which broke out a year before his untimely death in 1904. Moreover, in Paris in 1895, Herzl had personally witnessed the beginning of the violent antisemitism that later accompanied the Dreyfus affair. In his native Austria, during the same year, the Christian-Social leader Dr. Karl Lueger came to power in the Viennese municipal elections on an unabashedly antisemitic program. Assaults on Jews were at that time being reported almost every day in the press from Tsarist Russia, Romania, Galicia, Bohemia, and Imperial Germany to French Algeria. This was the virulently hostile climate in which Theodor Herzl, the “visionary“ of the Jewish state, came to formulate his revolutionary Zionist solution to the “Jewish Question“.
For Herzl, racist and nationalist antisemitism challenged the very basis of Jewish socio-economic existence in the Diaspora, undermined the premises of individual emancipation and threatened the survival of the Jews as a group. Herzl could see no salvation through conversion, religious reform, radical assimilation, socialism, Jewish defense leagues against antisemitism or migration to seemingly more hospitable lands. Even overseas, Jews wouldeventually encounter the same antagonism. The only constructive answer, so he believed, was to create an independent sovereign state in Zion which would finally provide the Jews with a national home, with ground under their feet, honor, self-respect and human dignity.
Herzl’s diagnosis of antisemitism as an existential danger to the Jewish people was anathema to the wealthy Jewish notables and the religious establishment of his time. They saw his solution either as “utopian“ or as a product of despair – as did the liberal assimilationists, the Reform Jews, the Jewish socialists (and later, the communists) who generally rejected Zionism in the name of their diverse “universalist“ ideals. Most Orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe were even harsher, vilifying Herzl as a “heretic“ or “false messiah“. However, forty years later, the macabre horrors of the Holocaust would cruelly underline the prescience of Herzl’s prophecy that the ground was burning under the feet of European Jewry. Shortly after, the State of Israel would emerge – much as he had imagined in his diary during the first Zionist Congress in Basle. Nevertheless, the last six decades havedemonstrated that the existence of a Jewish state cannot in itself extinguish antisemitism, as Herzl naively assumed. On the contrary, Israel since 1948 has become the focus and magnet for a “new“ antisemitism, one which obsessively challenges its legitimacy and basic right to exist.
Herzl’s failure to anticipate this development was hardly surprising. Indeed it was shared by virtually all his contemporaries and heirs in the Zionist Movement. Herzl was far too “Eurocentric“ and secular-minded to imaginethat Zionism might provoke the reawakening of fundamentalist Islam and turn Israel into a prime target of Jihad. As a liberal cosmopolitan humanist, he too readily believed in the inexorable march of material progress, science and technology which were bound to overcome fanaticism, barbarism, and superstition. Impregnated as he was by classical German culture, he never dreamed that the highly educated Germans whom he so admired would mass murder the Jews across Europe or that their would-be radical Muslim imitators would repeatedly call for the physical annihilation of Israel. Despite his undoubted sensitivity to the antisemitic danger, Herzl was also too much a rationalist to fathom the “heart of darkness“ at the core of genocidal antisemitism. The “exterminationist“declarations and policies of a Hitler, an Ahmadinejad or by leaders of the Global Islamic Jihad belong to a post-liberal, inhuman world, alien to his basic assumptions.
Moreover, in Herzl’s day the “Palestine Question“ did not yet exist, with its explosive mixture of nationalist, sectarian, and colonial violence, its relentless struggle over land, religious symbols and identity which hascontributed so much to the current wave of global antisemitism. None of this is Herzl’s fault, though it should encourage deeper reflection on some of the weaknesses and flaws in the general Zionist analysis of antisemitism. At the same time, we should not forget that without the emergence of a Jewish state – which Herzl first set in motion – Jews would still be at the mercy of every predatory state and megalomaniac leader in need of a scapegoat for his failures, with no prospect of real deterrence or effective response. The emergence from such powerlessness was a major achievement of Herzlian Zionism though in itself it cannot eradicate the scourge of antisemitism.