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So much said and so much yet to be said: Historiographical Issues in Conveying Herzl’s Legacy

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Author: Gideon Shimoni

Within the history of Zionism itself every ideological and political stream had its own Herzl, always designed in its own image. 

No historical figure symbolizes the Zionist idea more than Theodor Herzl. He has attracted intensive historical research, exceeding any other biographical subject in the historiography of the Zionist Movement. Biographies of Herzl range from hagiographical works such as those of Sh. L. Tzitron (Vilna 1921, in Hebrew) and Jacob de Haas to the profound studies of Alex Bein, Amos Elon and Ernst Pawel, including the unique psycho-historical study by Avner Falk (1).
In an effort to contribute to the teaching of Zionist history in general and the history of Herzl in particular, this paper focuses on some aspects of contention between historians which might have problematic implications for teaching about Herzl in contemporary Israel.
The purpose of historical research, as of all science, is in the first instance to satisfy human curiosity. In the social sciences this means human self-knowledge. Epistemologically speaking, there is today a consensus that what the historian produces is not, of course, the past itself, but only a narrative representation of the past. This is to say that absolute truth about past reality is unattainable. However, beyond consensus on this point at least two major conceptions of the historian’s task vie with each other today. One approach, which might be labeled “post-modernist, relativist“, holds that it is impossible to attain objectivity in any sense. It draws on Michel Foucault’s argument that knowledge is social power and functions as a means of shaping public consciousness according to the biases, and interests, covert or overt, of political elites, to whose ends historians in common with all social scientists are mobilized. Hence, according to this conception, the task of the historian is not to attempt the impossible -- and therefore deceptive -- uncovering of past reality, but rather to deploy historical narrative as a means for shaping present reality by changing, or alternatively reinforcing, public consciousness in accordance with pre-set values and interests.
A contrary outlook, which might be labeled “positive-empirical“, argues that it is both desirable and possible to arrive at consensually adequate knowledge of past realities. Although the historian’s narrative representation is vulnerable to subjective distortions, the convergences or divergences between different narratives nevertheless can advance knowledge in dialectical progression. Even if no narrative can be absolutely identical with reality itself, scrupulous and transparent observance of the empirical discipline of the historian enables objectivity; an objective datum being defined, in an unpretentious sense, as one consensually acceptable to all historians attempting to answer the same critical research questions on the basis of the same evidence.
Applying the distinction between these two rival epistemological approaches to contentious issues in teaching about Herzl and Zionism, one cannot but note an irony: A teacher who adopts the post-modernist, relativist approach, whether he seeks to credit or discredit that which he necessarily recognizes as the committed conventional Zionist narrative, has no great dilemma in handling controversial data. For such a teacher would knowingly treat them according to pre-set value preferences even if this requires one-sided perspectives and tendentious use of evidence. In other words, the postmodernist, relativist approach is compatible with indoctrinatory teaching one way or the other. The irony is that only the teacher who favors the positive-empirical approach faces a real educational dilemma: how to cope with morally or ideologically problematic discrepancies between contemporary values and interests, on the one hand, and data or contentious interpretations revealed through the advance of academic historical research, on the other hand. How does one cope with these teaching dilemmas? As a historian, I may suggest a few guidelines. It is the task of educationalists to cope more extensively with this formidable question.
The following discussion is not exhaustive. I shall not discuss the two best known, retrospectively eva luated, failings of Herzl’s bold vision. The first is his prognosis that the creation of a state for the Jews would lead to the disappearance of antisemitism. Although most historians agree that Herzl’s analysis of the causes of antisemitism as manifested in his own time was profound -- particularly his perception that it was largely a reaction to emancipation of the Jews itself -- his prognosis has certainly not been vindicated. As we all are today regretfully aware, much as emancipation itself generated racist hatred of Jews (that is to say antisemitism), so the very existence of the State of Israel has generated hatred of Jews mutated into so-called “anti-Zionism“.
Another well recognized failing of Herzl’s vision of the Jewish future after attainment of a Jewish state was his oversimplified prediction that the Jews would choose between only two options: on the one hand, Jews who suffered from one or other form of the Judennot would move to the Jewish state, joined by others who would choose to do so out of a sense of identification or a search for enhanced self-fulfillment. On the other hand, those Jews who wished to assimilate completely would now truly be availed of this option. The reality, as it has clearly unfolded itself in the half century following the establishment of the State of Israel, is at odds with Herzl’s prediction. A significant section of the Jewish people chooses to remain outside of Israel, and most do not choose fully to assimilate. Rather, they seek no more than to acculturate in developed and liberal-democratic countries while at the same time preserving and cultivating meaningful forms of Jewish religious and ethnic identity.
These failings of Herzl’s vision, however, detract but little from his protean significance in the history of Zionism. If we are to attempt the daunting task of retrospectively eva luating the role of Herzl’s ideas and actions in the history of Zionism, we would do well to emphasize the extraordinary, almost incredible prescience of his vision as well as his absolutely paramount role in creating the Zionist organization, which so remarkably attained its primary objective: the establishment of the State of Israel. In this regard nothing is more rightly famous than his diary entry of 3 September 1897:
If I were to sum up the Congress in a word – which I shall take care not to publish – it would be this: At Basle I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it. (2)
Territorialist or Zionist of Zion?
One issue of historiography that has implications for teaching on Herzl’s Zionist legacy is the undeniable fact that Herzl’s vision, as represented in his seminal statement of the Zionist project, the book Der Judenstaat, was not tied exclusively to Eretz Israel. Of course, Eretz Israel was the obvious and desirable choice. “Palestine is our unforgettable historic homeland”, wrote Herzl:
The very name would be a marvelously effective rallying cry. If his Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake the complete management of the finances of Turkey. We should there form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.(3)
However, he was open to territorial alternatives, most notably a region in Argentina which had already become the magnet for Baron de Hirsch’s massive colonization project. He wrote:
Is Palestine or Argentina preferable? The Society [the institution Herzl suggested for implementation of the Zionist project] will take whatever it is given and whatever Jewish public opinion favors. The Society will determine both these points. Argentina is one of the most fertile countries in the world, extends over a vast area, is sparsely populated, and has a temperate climate. It would be in its own highest interest for the Republic of Argentina to cede us a portion of its territory.
In fact, Herzl’s prodigious (but unsuccessful in his own lifetime) efforts concentrated on Eretz Israel from the outset. However, in light of these early statements, scholars differ in their understanding of Herzl’s intentions in regard to the East Africa (Uganda) proposal, which raised a storm of controversy at the 1903 Zionist Congress. One view is that after abysmal disappointments and failures of all Herzl’s frenetic diplomatic efforts to obtain a charter for Jewish settlement in Ottoman Eretz Israel, and impelled by the terrible plight of the Jews in Eastern Europe in the wake of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, Herzl returned to his earlier essentially territorialist position. A contrary view, argued particularly persuasively by one scholar, Isaiah Friedman, is that Herzl remained true to Eretz Israel alone and regarded the East African proposal merely as a tactical measure. In this view Herzl had no doubt that the East Africa proposal itself would fall away but not before it had raised the Jewish problem as a national question to the forefront of international attention. Zionism would thereby have attained international recognition, above all by a great power – Great Britain – for the Jews as a nation eligible for and deserving of a sovereign state of their own. This would then pave the way to ultimate attainment of Eretz Israel. (4)
Treating this issue within the context of teaching on Herzl, one would do well to stress the existential and ethno-symbolic distress that lay at the heart of the entire “Uganda” controversy, which led to the apparent paradox that the national-religious Zionists in particular supported Herzl’s proposal at the 1903 Congress, whereas the majority of secular Zionists opposed it. Also important for contextual understanding of this issue is knowledge of the split that led to the creation of the Jewish Territorialist Organization (ITO) and of continuous but wholly futile “territorialist” efforts to find an alternative region in the world for autonomous Jewish settlement.
Colonization and the Arab Population
Perhaps the most problematic and controversial of all the issues raised by the study of Herzl as a Zionist leader are questions concerning Herzl’s project of colonization and how this relates to his attitude toward the local Arab population and the Arab Middle East at large.

There can be no doubt that Herzl’s views reflected the highly Eurocentric outlook normative for most of the European intelligentsia at the turn of the century. It was taken for granted that the European powers had the right and indeed the moral duty to “civilize” the non-European world. Only within the conceptual confines of this Eurocentric imperialist outlook is it possible to say that Herzl was a liberal. He was certainly also very much a legalist. As a liberal he favored paternalistic benevolent colonialism and as a legalist he sought above all to attain international legal recognition and support for the peaceful attainment of a project of Zionist colonization leading to the creation of a national state for the Jews. It is related that when the young Egyptologist, Abraham Jehuda, met Herzl in 1896 in London and cautioned him that Zionist plans would require the acquiescence of the local Arab population which otherwise was bound to resist it, Herzl’s answer was that the local population had no influence; the future of the country was solely in the hands of the Ottoman Sultanate. Herzl consistently expressed the opinion that the economic prosperity which the entry of Jews would bring to all the inhabitants of Palestine would outweigh any other considerations for the local population.

This much is abundantly evident in his written records, including Altneuland, and in his response to Youssuf Zia al-Khalidi, a former mayor of Jerusalem, in a very pertinent exchange of letters in 1899. Al-Khalidi’s view was exceptionally evenhanded in so far as he recognized the justice of the Zionist cause but warned that it was bound to provoke equally justifiable Arab resistance. Herzl answered that he was sure the Arab population would come to appreciate the great material and welfare benefits that Zionist settlers would bring. In his utopian novel, Altneuland, Herzl has the story’s Arab protagonist, Reshid Bey, reciting blissfully the “blessings of Jewish immigration” for the country’s Arab citizens: “Employment, better food, welfare... these people are far better off than before; they are healthy, they have better food, their children go to school. Nothing has been done to interfere with their customs or their faith – they have only gained in welfare.” (5)
Although Herzl’s view was crystal clear – that the benefits Zionist settlement would bring the local Arabs would outweigh all other Arab considerations, further questions remain without definitive answers: was this Herzl’s genuine belief, albeit extremely na?ve or patronizing? Or, was this simply a case of disingenuousness on his part? Or, is this an example of what psychologists refer to as “cognitive dissonance”?
Related to these questions is a single bit of rather equivocal evidence that Herzl contemplated transfer of part of the local Arab population by means of creating attractive work opportunities in neighboring countries for impoverished Arabs in Palestine. This is a diary entry of 12 June 1895 which stated:
We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our own country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly. The property owners may believe that they are cheating us, selling to us at more than [the land is] worth. But nothing will be sold back to them. (6)
This quotation has been seized upon and paraded by anti-Israel propagandists. eva luation of its significance is also the subject of considerable controversy among scholars. It is noteworthy that no specific mention of Arabs is made here. Some scholars have argued that given Herzl’s state of mind at the time he wrote this note, and within the context of this particular section of his diary, it represents Herzl’s speculative ruminations about concentrated settlement possibilities wherever they might become available by legal charter. In his mind at that time this would most likely have meant a region in Argentina, rather than Palestine. (7)
This issue is closely related to the more basic question of the relationship between Jewish colonization in Palestine and colonialism; a phenomenon which conventionally connotes a reprehensible stigma. Scholars are divided on this question. One side argues, in support of the staple polemical claim of the Arab world, not only that Zionism indeed is a form of colonialism, but that only by treating it as such can there be true historical comprehension of Zionism’s nature as well as of the Arab-Jewish conflict. A contrary view holds that this postulate stems not from academic integrity but from the tendentious purpose of stigmatizing Zionism. According to this view, the colonization method of Zionist settlement differs in essentials from the phenomenon of colonialism in history. Zionism can only be genuinely comprehended within the context of patently nationalist ideology and purposes. The essence of Zionism’s nature was existential self-liberation. Non-violent, legal acquisition of land and colonization was the only morally possible method; the Jewish settlers were never the agents of any external state or power; self-labor was both a national necessity and social value; and Zionism never sought to exploit the local population or Palestine’s resources to the benefit of external interests; to the contrary, it only invested material and human resources in Palestine.
Herzl’s Nationalist Conception and his Vision of a Jewish State
All historians agree that Herzl’s vision of the state was in many respects the realization of basic values that he had adopted when he believed in the civic emancipation of Jews as individuals and their integration into the states of Europe. When he turned towards a national solution for the Jewish problem he redirected and applied these same values to the Jews as a collective. One basis of Herzl’s diagnosis of the Jewish problem was rejection of the notion that mere civic emancipation of the Jews could enable their genuine integration into European societies and states. At the same time, he envisioned the future Jewish state as a model for the very same ideals nurtured earlier in favor of the individual Jew’s civic emancipation and integration. Hence, his ultimate vision of the Judenstaat was less a unique state of pervasive Jewish character than an ideally perfected version of the contemporary secularized West European state.
Altneuland is the essence of what Jews might learn from the experience of the European state in order to perfect and even subsume it. It is an exemplary product of the most advanced technology and a model society reflecting the highest values of tolerance, social welfare and enlightenment. Culturally it is rather inchoate; secular, cosmopolitan and pluralist rather than exclusively Jewish. Even the Hebrew language is limited to the role of prayer and other traditional functions; Yiddish is spoken in the rural areas but German predominates as the language of commerce and culture. Religion is respected but kept in its place as the private affair of its adherents. Altneuland is far more a state for the Jews than a Jewish state.
Additionally, Altneuland’s political system is simplistically voluntary, almost anarchist. The presidency is described as a purely honorary position for a seven-year term. The legislature, although an elected congress, sits only a few weeks each year. The country is devoid of ideological mass parties. It is run by enlightened, talented bureaucrats rather than politicians. Indeed, we are told that “politics here is neither a business nor a profession”, and “our courts have repeatedly ruled in slander suits that the term `professional politician’ is an insult.” (8)
In all, what Herzl described was a “New Society”rather than a conventional nation-state. It is a post-national state, a polity that transcends and betters the contemporary European state. As David Littwak (a protagonist modeled in Altneuland on David Wolffsohn, who was to succeed Herzl as president of the Zionist Organization) tells the European visitor Kingscourt: “We have no state, like the Europeans of your time. We are merely a society of citizens seeking to enjoy life through work and culture... We are not a state... We are a commonwealth... We are simply a large cooperative association which is called the New Society.” (9)
For the educator, teaching about Herzl, all of this may pose dilemmas in the light of contemporary Israeli public issues concerning the place of Jewish religion and Israel’s relationship with trans-national Jewish peoplehood as a whole. It is not surprising that at least one scholar has gone to great pains to prove, however tendentiously, that Herzl must have knowingly approved the translating of the German title Der Judenstaat as “The Jewish State“ (rather than State of the Jews?) in its English version. It is argued that he truly intended its public and cultural character to be distinctively Jewish. (10) 
In like manner, Herzl’s Altneuland vision can be enlisted to support a wide range of other contemporary civic, political and cultural advocacies. Thus, supporters of what has come to be termed a “post-Zionist“ ideology could, if they wished, draw on Herzl’s Altneuland vision to show that it is highly compatible with their advocacy of Israel jettisoning its Zionist purposes, accepting the prospect of Jews becoming a minority, and transforming Israel into a so-called “state for all of its citizens.” (11) By contrast, from an entirely affirmative Zionist point of view, Herzl’s vision has also been interpreted as advocacy of a form of multiculturalism, praiseworthy in the context of contemporary Israeli society. (12)
What then are the implications for teaching? I would suggest that the very fact that Herzl’s legacy has so many differing significations can provide the basis for meaningful discussion of Israeli society’s major contemporary civic issues. It requires, however, perceiving Herzl not as the sole arbiter of Zionism’s meaning, but as no more than one component of Zionist thought, intention and practice, in some respects seminal, but in other respects very idiosyncratic.

Moreover, in overall perspective, the Herzlian component was not the most determinative of all in the unfolding of Zionism’s history. Indeed, the idiosyncrasies of Herzl’s political and social ideas, while of great historical interest for understanding the person, are hardly material for appreciating his overall ideological influence on Zionism. As a matter of fact, the book Altneuland aroused at least as much disagreement and controversy amongst Zionists as it did enthusiasm for the Zionist Movement. Above all it provoked the irate reaction of Asher Ginzberg (Ahad Ha’am) and his school of thought. As my own comprehensive study of Zionist ideologies and many works of fellow historians have shown, Herzl must be seen in the broader perspective of Zionism’s genesis and development as the outcome of several streams of thought and their social carriers. (13)

This discussion has necessarily focused on points of critique arising from the study of Herzl’s ideas and on attendant controversial issues, which are apt to pose dilemmas for those who teach about Herzl and Zionism. It should therefore be reiterated that none of this effaces the colossal significance of Herzl in the modern history of the Jews in general and the history of Zionism in particular.
Within the history of Zionism itself every ideological and political stream had its own Herzl, always designed in its own image. Thus the General Zionists regarded themselves as the true heirs of Herzl’s political Zionism, while the Revisionist Zionists projected their image as a return to the pristine political Zionism of Herzl in contrast to the misguided diversions from Herzlian policy perpetrated by Chaim Weizmann and his Labor Zionist allies. Even National- Religious (Mizrahi) Zionism held Herzl in high esteem, despite his deeply ingrained secularism, partly because he supported its demands that the Zionist program refrain from educational-cultural activity. Given the complexity and ambiguities of Herzl’s legacy, teaching it constitutes a formidable educational challenge. In sum, non-doctrinaire intellectual integrity requires a pedagogical approach that would treat of Herzl and his ideas in dialectical relationship with other ideas and trends that contributed to the overall historical development of Zionism.
1. Sh. L.Tzitron, Herzl, Hayav u-peulotav, Vilna, 1921; Jacob de Haas, Theodor Herzl: A Biographical Study, Chicago, 1927; Alex Bein, Theodor Herzl, Philadelphia, 1942; Amos Elon, Herzl, New-York, 1975; Ernst Pawel, The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl, New-York, 1989; Avner Falk, Herzl, King of the Jews: A Psychoanalytic Biography of Theodor Herzl, New-York, 1993. Other noteworthy works are Steven Beller, Herzl, London, 1991; Jacques Kornberg, Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism, Bloomingdale, 1993 and Gideon Shimoni and Robert S. Wistrich, eds. Theodor Herzl: Visionary of the Jewish State, Jerusalem, 1999.
2. The Diaries of Theodor Herzl, ed. and trsl. Marvin Lowenthal, London, 1958, p. 220.
3. Extracts from Herzl’s booklet The Jewish State, are easily accessible in Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader, Atheneum, New York, and later editions. This and the following quotation are from p. 222.
4. See Isaiah Friedman, “Herzl and the Uganda Controversy“, in Ritchie Robertson and Edward Timms, eds. Austrian Studies, vol. 8, Edinburgh University Press, 1997, pp. 39-53.
5. Theodor Herzl, Altneuland, trsl. Paula Arnold, Haifa, 1960, p. 95.
6. Herzl, Complete Diaries, ed. Raphael Patai, trsl. Harry Zohn, Herzl Press, New York, 1960, pp. 88-9.
7. See Ran Cohen and Baruch Kimmerling, “Theodor Herzl: ‘Devarai Hutze’u Mi’heksheram’ He’ara Be’shulei Ha’historiographia Ha’tzionit“, Yisrael, 6, Stav, 2004: pp. 163-171. Also Benny Morris’s counter-argument, arguing that the passage does refer to Palestine. Ibid.: pp. 171-174.
8. Theodor Herzl, Old New Land (Altneuland), trsl. Lotta Levensohn, New York, 1960, p. 256.
9. Ibid., pp. 79-284.
10. See Yoram Hazony, “Did Herzl Want a Jewish State?”, Azure, Spring, 2000: pp. 37-73.
11. See the discussion of these issues in Rachel Elboim-Dror, “Herzl as a Proto - ‘Post Zionist’”, and Shmuel Almog, “Was Herzl a Jewish Nationalist“? In: Gideon Shimoni and Robert Wistrich, eds. Theodor Herzl: Visionary of the Jewish State, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1999, pp. 165-181; 240-264.
12. Natan Sharansky, “The Political Legacy of Theodor Herzl“, Azure, no. 21, Summer 2005: pp. 83-99.
13. See Gideon Shimoni, The Zionist Ideology, Brandeis University, University Press of New England, Hanover & London, 1995, especially chapters 1 & 3.
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