Herzl and Me: A Visit to Altneuland and its Relevance to the Teaching of Israel Today
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Author: David Breakstone

Herzl and Me:
A Visit to Altneuland and its Relevance to the Teaching of Israel Today

In the face of all that is wrong with Israel today, it is important for us to remind ourselves of what it is that the Zionist movement set out to do, and, as teachers of Israel, to go "back to the basics" in conveying Israel's story to our students. Altneuland provides us the opportunity to do that. 

In the summer of 2003, Vikki Knafo, until then an anonymous single mother from Mitzpeh Ramon, set out from her development town in the Negev on a 200 kilometer trek to Jerusalem, launching a grassroots protest against drastic government-mandated cuts in welfare payments. While Vikki was winding her way to the capital, those of another stratum of Israeli society were busy organizing a festive evening at the Jerusalem Theater, launching a series of activities marking 100 years since the death of Theodor Herzl. I was present at the gala event, and found it to be less an occasion to celebrate,  and more an opportunity to reflect on what the Zionist visionary might have said to those of us in the auditorium about all that was going on just outside the doors.

For months the single mothers were camped outside the Knesset, protesting the economic reforms that were making their financial plight unbearable. Just before Rosh Hashanah, they packed up and headed back to their homes with nothing to show for their pains – not even a single meeting with the Minister of Finance. Now, as I work on this article several weeks later, today’s newspaper screams the freshly released statistics that one out of five Israelis lives below the poverty line, including more than 600,000 children. Also in the news: the Minister of Education is looking into the growing violence in Israeli schools, reportedly among the worst in the world. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is being questioned under advisement as part of an investigation into allegations against him involving criminal misconduct in a number of financial scandals, but reports of corruption at every level of our public and corporate institutions have become so routine that they barely elicit more than a shrug of the shoulders. In the meantime, traders in flesh have found a haven within our borders. Foreign workers are exploited. And earlier this year our national pride took another beating when an international study divulged that our educational standards were embarrassingly low –shortly after the release of another set of statistics revealing that the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in Israel is larger than anywhere else in the developed world. If Mayor Dizengoff indeed responded with satisfaction to the first reports of prostitution in Tel Aviv, noting that at last we had become a normal people, imagine how pleased he would be today.

Herzl, on the other hand, would not be so content. Shortly before his death in 1904, he declared “I truly believe that even after we possess our land, the land of Israel, Zionism will not cease to be an ideal. For Zionism as I understand it includes not only the yearning for a plot of promised land legally acquired for our weary people, but also the yearning for ethical and spiritual fulfillment.” As preoccupied as he was by finding a political and territorial solution to the Jewish problem, he was always driven by the opportunity that this solution would provide for fashioning an ideal social order as exemplified by the New Society he describes in his utopian novelAltneuland. Herzl, of course, was not alone in his dreaming. Creating a chevrat mofet – an exemplary society – was always integral to the Zionist vision. And that, I believe, is what Herzl would want to remind us of as we prepare to honor his memory on the centenary of his passing. So, in the face of all that is wrong with Israeltoday, I have become determined to revisit the original dream, and decided to begin by re-reading this seminal work.*

More than 30 years had passed since I first encountered Herzl’s fantastical account of a rebuilt Jewish homeland. I was a college student then in Boston, and it was among the many factors that led to my decision to make aliya. Full of idealism, I, too, was going to change the world, and resolved to join the Jewish revolution – center stage – that had transformed us from an oppressed and downtrodden minority at the mercy of those in whose midst we dwelled, into a proud and independent people, masters of our own fate.

What would it be like to revisit Altneuland now, more than three decades later, a middle-aged man with three grown children, all of whom have seen fit on more than one occasion to question the basic values that led me to the decision that they have had to shoulder the responsibility for by serving in the Israeli army during the same years of their lives that I had been privileged to spend carefree and safe on a university campus? It was not without trepidation, then, that I opened the dusty volume, preparing to confront my adolescent romanticism with a lifetime of experiences in the Promised Land that have extended from the euphoria of post-Six Day War Israel to “the situation” of today – the euphemism for the terribly distressing trials we are enduring as a result of the current intifada.

But I won’t prolong the suspense. In purely literary terms, Altneuland is probably one of the worst serious novels I have ever read. It is a thinly veiled attempt to deliver a message to the masses by means of a highly contrived story line that is neither credible nor particularly compelling. But that is where my criticism ends. I cheerfully admit that I thoroughly enjoyed every word of the book. Herzl’s animated portrayal of the New Society that he envisioned, and his vivid descriptions of an ancient land reclaimed are exhilarating and inspiring. So much so, that throughout the reading I repeatedly had to remind myself that all of this existed only in Herzl’s mind’s eye at the time Altneuland was first published in 1902. The man really was a visionary, and as the translator of the version I read noted in her introduction to the volume, “the study of the reality that is Eretz Israel today in the light of his vision must stir wonder, if not awe.” (p.xxi) She wrote this in 1929. With the passage of time, her words have only become more appropriate. When I turned the last page – and here is the true confession of an ardent Zionist – I readily admit that I was as intoxicated as ever (perhaps more than ever) with the Zionist dream. And once again my children are paying the price, this time having to listen to their father wax lyrical about all that Herzl had envisaged. But apparently something in my recital struck a respondent chord, because my youngest child, who completes her military service this week, looked up at me at one point and asked, “Aba, why didn’t they teach us this in school?”

And that is the reason I have belabored these introductory comments to Altneuland. I believe that every serious student of Israel – and that means every serious teacher of Israel – would be well advised to read this book. I also believe that it has an important role to play in the Jewish classroom. The novel is not only inspiring; it is a compendium of material that can serve as the springboard for serious education about Israel, particularly if the teaching of Israel is seen as an important element of Jewish character education. The realities that Herzl deals with, the “Jewish questions” he tackles, and the solutions he imagines, provide the educator with multiple opportunities to engage the student in confronting the complexities both of his or her own life as a Jew, and ofIsrael today. It also offers an alluring way to introduce a new generation to the basics of Zionism. This is vital when the Six Dar War is no longer associated with the collective sigh of relief that David had once again triumphed over Goliath, but rather with the perception that David had become Goliath. If 1967 is now understood as “the beginning of the occupation” then we have to go quite a way back in order to explain what really happened and why.

Altneuland provides us the opportunity to do that. The outline of the novel is simple . It opens in 1902. Friedrich, a young Jewish man from Vienna is disgusted by what he perceives of as the shallowness of civilized life throughout turn-of-the-century Europe, and discouraged by his observation that the opportunities for genuine fulfillment are limited, particularly for the Jews. At the age of 23, he determines to live out his days with an older companion, on the older man’s private island, completely cut off from the rest of civilization. Twenty years later, without having seen so much as a newspaper in the interim, the two of them decide to make a brief return toEurope. They are sidetracked to Palestine on the way, as indeed they were when they first set off for a life of reclusion. Everything they experience and hear on the next 250 pages is Herzl’s imagination run wild, his account of what the Jewish people would achieve two decades after obtaining the right to return to their homeland.

His narrative deals with numerous themes integral to the field of teaching Israel and Zionism: the relationship of the Jews to the society in which they live; the connection between Zionism and Judaism; identity formation; Israel’s self-understanding as an “or l’goyim” or “goy k’cal ha-goyim;” the significance of the Land of Israel in Jewish tradition and the meaning of “Next year in Jerusalem” for each of us; Israel’s place in the family of nations; the ethos of Israeli society; Israel today in juxtaposition to various blueprints for the Jewish state; the history and evolution of Zionism; anti-Semitism; the Arab-Israel conflict; and Israel-Diaspora relations. Remarkably, it is all there. What I have compiled below, are but a few of the dozens examples of how the text ofAltneuland might be effectively introduced into the classroom.

The Jewish Community and the General Society

The Phenomenon of Anti-Semitism and the Jewish Response

Herzl offers us an insight into the relationship of well-to-do Viennese Jews to the rest European society at the turn of the 19th century through the following conversation, which he stages around the dinner table at a gathering in one of their homes.


…an elderly gentleman sitting next to Mrs. Loeffler remarked…that things were becoming worse in Moravia. “In the provincial towns,” he said, “our people are in actual peril. When the Germans are in a bad mood, they break Jewish windows. When the Czechs are out of sorts, they break into Jewish homes. The poor are beginning to emigrate. But they don’t know where to go…”

“I feel quite safe in my factory,” continued the elder Weinerger. “When they make trouble for me, I send for the police, or call on the commandant. Just show bayonets to the mob, and it mends its manners….”

“I feel it coming,” cried Laschner, “We’ll all have to wear the yellow badge.”

“Or emigrate,” said the rabbi.

“I ask you, where to?” asked Walter. “Are things better anywhere else? Even in free France the anti-Semites have the upper hand.” (pp.13-14)


Can your students imagine conversations like this taking place in their own living rooms? If not, do the conversations belong to another time – or perhaps just to another place? What do they know of anti-Semitism in other parts of the world? Of the concerns occupying Jewish communities in France, Argentina, and South Africa?

What about Jewish migration patterns today? In your own classroom, from how many different countries do the children (or their parents) come?

What do they make of the reference in the conversation to the yellow badge? If this conversation was already taking place in Austria in 1901, how is it possible that the Jews of Germany, just some 30 years later, were completely oblivious to the horrors on the horizon?


American and Jewish: Confluence or Dissonance

What relationship do your students have to the society in which they live? In what ways does do they feel a part of it, and in what ways apart from it?

In what ways and in what situations do they feel Jewish? In what ways and in what situations do they feel American? Are the two identities completely harmonious? Are there times when they result in conflict?


Certainly in Herzl’s time there was a degree of discomfort, even for those who were particularly well off and who were not experiencing anti-Semitism personally. In the midst of the above conversation, the two serving maids (presumably the family had other servants as well) leave the dining room to bring in the next course, and the owner of the home takes advantage of their absence to caution the guests.


“It is better not to discuss Jewish matters in the presence of the servants,” remarked the hostess.

“Pardon me, madam,” retorted Blau quickly. “I thought your servants knew you were Jews.”

Some of the guests laughed. “Still,” declared Schlesinger authoritatively, “there’s no need to shout it from the housetops.” (p.16)


How do your students feel about proclaiming their Jewishness? Do they ever prefer to “hide” it, or perhaps just not mention it? Are there those in your class who wear kippot of their own volition some of the time but not all of the time?


The Jew’s Relationship to the Land of Israel

The Jewish Question and the Zionist Answer

But let us return to the dinner conversation with which we began, and the response to the comment by one of the guests that the Jews had nowhere to emigrate to.


Dr. Weiss, a simple rabbi from a provincial town in Moravia, did not know exactly in what company he found himself, and ventured a few shy remarks. “A new movement has arisen within the last few years, which is called Zionism. Its aim is to solve the Jewish problem through colonization on a large scale. All who can longer ear their present lot will return to our old home, to Palestine.”

            He spoke very quietly, unaware that the people about him were getting ready for an outburst of laughter. He was therefore dumbfounded at the effect of the world “Palestine.” The laughter ran every gamut. The ladies giggled, the gentlemen roared and neighed. (pp.14-15)


Herzl was well aware that those in the social milieu of which he was a part were responding with cynicism and laughter to the Zionism he was championing. How much things have changed and how much they have remained the same in the century that has passed since Dr. Weiss spoke up!


Do your students consider themselves to be Zionists? What does being a Zionist mean to them? Do their parents consider themselves to be Zionists? In what ways do those who do identify themselves as Zionists give expression to their convictions?


In this first reference to Zionism in Altneuland, Zionism is equated with immigration to the land of Israel, what we refer to today as aliya. Note, however, that according to Herzl’s prognosis, only those who “can no longer bear their present lot” will move to Palestine. But this was only to be the case in the beginning. The Jewish homeland evolves over the next 300 pages of his book, and in the next twenty years he fantasizes about, into a society that is so progressive, so advanced, and so attractive that essentially all the Jews end up moving there.


What, in fact, have the Jewish migration patterns been in the 100 years since Altneuland was published? Is aliyaon the agenda of the American Jewish community? Who does move to Israel, and why? Can your students conceive of themselves living anywhere other than America? Can they imagine themselves in Israel? If there are those in your class whose families have moved into the community from another country, have them tell their personal stories – including the reasons they left their original homes, and what brought them specifically to the United States as opposed to some other country. If there are those who left Israel, the questions that arise in this context are, of course, many. If you are among those who have emigrated from Israel, or from anywhere else, be prepared to tell your story as well.


Next Year in Jerusalem

Herzl, of course, never migrated to Palestine himself. And with all of his travels on behalf of the Zionist cause, he somehow spent less than a total of four days there altogether. (This makes his fictitious account of the revived Jewish state even more remarkable, replete as it is with geographic detail and thorough description of physical phenomena.) But however short the visit, its impact was profound. One need not turn to Herzl’s diaries to discover that.


“Jerusalem!” cried Friedrich in a half-whisper, his voice trembling. He did not understand why the sight of this strange city affected him so powerfully. Was it the memory of words heard in early childhood? In passages of prayer murmured by hi father? Memories of Seder services of long-forgotten years stirred in him. One of the few Hebrew phrases he still knew rang in his ears: “Leshana Ha-baa be-Yerushalayim,” – “Next Year in Jerusalem!” Suddenly he saw himself a little boy going to synagogue with his father. Ah, but faith was dead now, youth was dead, his father was dead. And here before him the walls of Jerusalem towered in the fairy moonlight. His eyes overflowed. He stopped short, and the hot tears coursed slowly down his cheeks. (p.43)


Have any of your students visited Israel themselves? What were their feelings upon glimpsing Jerusalem for the first time? How do they explain Friedrich’s reaction? What does the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” mean to them?

Livnot ul’hibanot – To build and to be built

The Jewish homeland that Herzl portrays is thoroughly modern and technologically advanced, replete with an extensive network of railways (p.210), electrical power plants (p.212), modern cement factories (p.217), a comprehensive system of water collection and irrigation (p.241), sophisticated city planning (p.218), a progressive penal system (p.239), universal suffrage (p.75), free education through university (p.275), and superior medical facilities (pp.109-112). Perhaps the most impressive of the industrial wonders that Herzl imagines is a canal running from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, providing hydraulic energy and bringing the desert to life (pp. 241-4). Standing in front of the great turbines that produced the electricity together with David, one of the leaders of the New Society, our protagonist is overwhelmed. (p.244)


The “Old-New-Land” had been fructified into a garden and a home for people who had once been poor, weak, hopeless, and homeless.

            “I feel myself crushed by all this greatness,” sighed Friedrich, when at least he could speak.”

            “Not we,” responded David earnestly. “We have not been crushed by the greatness of these forces – it has lifted us up!” (p.244)


One of the watchwords of Israel’s early pioneers was “livnot ul’hibanot” – to build and to be built. They believed that the more they gave of themselves, the more they would grow. Self-realization was part and parcel of the Zionist creed. Are there projects in which your students are involved through which they feel that they are getting at least as much as they are giving?

How much of what Herzl imagined Israel becoming has already been realized? Have them research Israel’s achievements in such fields as medicine, agriculture, industry, and land reclamation, and compare the reality to Herzl’s blueprints.

Dreams and Deeds

Certainly one of Herzl’s dreams for the Jewish society he envisioned has not yet been realized, that of the Jewish state becoming “a light unto the nations.” The Old City of Jerusalem that Friedrich walks through is yet to be built:


All the buildings were devoted to religious and benevolent purposes – hospices for pilgrims of all denominations. Moslem, Jewish, and Christian welfare institutions, hospitals, clinics stood side by side. In the middle of a great square was the splendid Peace Palace, where international congresses of peace-lovers and scientists were held, for Jerusalem was now a home for all the best strivings of the human spirit: for Faith, Love, Knowledge. (p.248-249)


To those who challenge the continued relevance of Zionism today, this is the answer: The homeland has been attained. Jews from around the world have been brought home. The doors of immigration remain open. And those who have preceded us have succeeded in building so much, with so little, and in the most impossible of circumstances. But the objective of forging an exemplary society based on the prophetic vision of social justice and the fundamental Jewish values of the pursuit of peace and tikun olam remains unfulfilled. This is the collective responsibility of Jews everywhere, in Israel and the Diaspora.


The challenge of teaching Israel, then, is teaching the challenge of Israel. There is always a new generation that stands on the threshold of inheriting the remarkable things that those who came before them have achieved, but also all that they have left undone. It is our task to embrace the dream, and inspire others – our students – to do so as well. “But if you do not wish it, all this that I have related to you is and will remain a fable,” writes Herzl in his epilogue to Altneuland. It is only a matter of will. “Dreams are not so different from Deeds as some may think,” he continues. “All the Deeds of men are only Dreams at first.”


Do we share the dream? Can we muster the will? Can we motivate our children? Only if the answer is yes, willIsrael have any meaning for those in our classrooms. Those sitting in the auditorium marking one hundred years since Herzl’s death, and every teacher of Israel, owe Vikki Knafo an answer.


* The edition of Altneuland referenced in this article is:

Herzl, Theodor. Old-New Land. NY: Bloch Publishing Company, 1960. Translated from the original German with Revised Notes by Lotta Levensohn (1929), with a  new preface by Emanuel Neumann.


Dr. Breakstone has been teaching about Israel for more than 30 years, and has published numerous tracts on the subject. He currently heads the Department for Zionist Activities of the World Zionist Organization, and is a member of the Zionist Executive, where he represents MERCAZ, the worldwide Zionist arm of Conservative Judaism.


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