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Sunday, July 04, 2004

"Zionism was a race against time"

The perpetual motion of Herzl
by Hillel Halkin
JPost: This week marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Theodor Herzl. Herzl died young, at the age of 44. Although it is tempting to speculate how much more he might have accomplished had he lived longer, it is more likely that he would have accomplished less. He only managed to do what he did in the nine hectic years between writing The Jewish State and dying of complications from a heart condition by living at an unsustainable pace.

"I gave my heart's blood for my people," he said to a bedside visitor not long before his death, and for once this greatest of political and diplomatic poker players, who bluffed his way through high-stakes pot after pot without a single strong card in his hand, was not exaggerating.

Herzl created the international movement called Zionism from practically nothing. There were Zionists long before him, of course, not only in the traditional sense of Jewish longers for and dreamers of Zion, but in the guise of several thousand modern Jewish colonists in Palestine and their supporters. Yet the latter represented a tiny fraction of the Jewish people, and were taken seriously by few. Even their one major backer, the French-Jewish philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild, considered them more a charitable cause than a revolutionary movement. They had no masses of Jews behind them, no effective organization, no political clout, no long-term strategy, no publicity, no international interest. Nor did it occur to them that they might create a reality based on such things.

It occurred to Herzl. Yet what made him unique was not so much his belief in this reality, which led him to declare prophetically at the First Zionist Congress, organized by him in 1898, that there would be a Jewish state within 50 years. His genius, long before radio and television, lay in understanding that in an age of rapid mass communication, of telegrams, daily newspapers and commercial advertising, reality was created through illusion.

Any normally sensible person could have told him that if you wanted to build a successful Zionist movement, you had to spend years, country by country, in organizing Zionist branches, recruiting members, raising funds, building an infrastructure. Herzl saw it differently. First, he thought, announce a gala congress to celebrate this non-existent movement's success; and then, at breakneck speed, use the electrifying effect of the announcement to get the branches, members, funds and infrastructure to materialize in time.

He was a prestidigitator, a jongleur. He knew that if you juggle three balls in the air they look like five; that five look like 10; that seven, if you can manage them, look like 20 - and that none, as long as they remain in the air, can be examined to see if they are real.

The Turkish sultan owned Palestine and didn't want Jews but needed international loans? Then convince him you could deliver those loans even if you didn't have a penny to your name, and then convince Rothschild you were the sultan's best friend. Kaiser Wilhelm didn't give a hoot for Zionism but was eager to expand German influence in the East? Then make him believe that the loan you were obtaining for the sultan could lead to a German protectorate over millions of Palestinian Jews. It didn't matter that Rothschild, the sultan, and the kaiser all laughed and thought you were mad. You had gotten to speak to one of them, had an audience with another, and met the third face-to-face - three more balls in the air with which to hold your audience spellbound. What mattered was to keep the balls moving.

There was a time when, like certain Zionist intellectuals of his day, I tended to be dismissive of Herzl. He was a performer, a theatrical artist, even a bit of a clown - certainly not a heavyweight Jewish thinker. Jewishly speaking, indeed, he was an am ha'aretz. He knew no Hebrew, was unversed in Jewish culture, had only a superficial knowledge of religious tradition. Although I didn't much care for Herzl's contemporary Ahad Ha'am and his "cultural Zionism" with its disdain for Jewish power, I agreed with Ahad Ha'am's criticism of Herzl as a Westjude - an assimilated Viennese Jew out of touch with the deeper currents of Jewish life and history. To a serious Jew, Herzl was something of an embarrassment.

And was he really so important? After all, the Jews didn't need him to tell them about anti-Semitism. They didn't need him to tell them that their situation was desperate. They didn't even need him to tell them that they needed a state of their own to protect them. Zionism would have become a mass movement in the Jewish world without Herzl, too, and Jewish settlement in Palestine - the details of which never interested him much because he was fixated on the larger picture - would have proceeded apace. Perhaps it would have taken a bit longer, perhaps a few more years would have been required, but a Jewish state in Palestine would have been established in the end anyway.

Today, this seems to me shallow thinking. Its fallacy lies in the seemingly innocent phrase "a few more years." It assumes that, in the period between 1898 and 1948, the Jewish people had a few more years.

It didn't. Zionism was a race against time, and one that was almost lost.

Continue . . .