This month marks the 100th yartzeit of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism.
In 1917, only thirteen years after Herzl’s 1904 death, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the throes of World War I, Great Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, proclaiming a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine. Remarkably, miraculously, only thirty years after this, the Jewish state of Israel emerged from the ashes of World War II and the Holocaust. The Judenstaat that Herzl had dreamt of and given his life for was reborn, and affirmed by the newly-founded United Nations.
Herzl had begun as a solitary figure, a highly assimilated Jew transformed by his experience of European antisemitism at the Dreyfus Trial, in supposedly “advanced” France. He concluded that the only answer to increasing fin-de-siecle European antisemitism was the extrication of the Jews from Europe and the realization of their millennial dream of return to sovereignty in their historic Land.
Remarkably, what began as a largely “enlightened” Western enterprise ended by engendering a mass reaction from the poor and oppressed traditional Jewish masses of Eastern Europe. Herzl, touching one of the deepest chords of post-Exilic Judaism, the never-abandoned dream of Return, made history, and history in turn made the secular Herzl a new Moses, leading his people out of bondage to freedom.
By the late 1930s Britain, seeking to appease the Arab world on the eve of World War II, reneged on its 1920 League of Nations Mandate, tragically closing off swelling Jewish immigration to Palestine. Yet by then the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish population of Palestine, contained over 600,000 souls.
The Zionist movement created the institutions of an enlightened, democratic Jewish society and state. No external colonial power imposed the Jews on the Arab world, or drew artificial, arbitrarily imposed borders—indeed, such powers abandoned the Jews, despite the rising Nazi menace after 1933, the fact of the Holocaust itself, and then, in 1947-48—only two years after the full horror of the attempted genocide had been revealed to the world—as the invading Arab states sought to complete what Hitler had started.
The Jewish “return to history”, as the late Emil Fackenheim called it, was effected against great odds by the Jews themselves, through a Zionism rooted in Jewish ethics and morality. Zionism was and is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and to understand this is to understand why current left and “liberal” critics’ who attack Israel’s legitimacy in the name of “antizionism” are not only patently dishonest, but vicious. Critiques of specific Israeli policies (like those of any other state) are certainly possible, but to make them in the name of “antizionism” is, literally, antisemitic, for it is to deny the legitimacy of the very foundations of the Jewish state and, implicitly, to call for Israel’s destruction.
Herzl said, “If you will it, it will be”. Today, surviving most of the now-defunct nineteenth-century “isms” (nationalism, fascism, Nazism, socialism, Communism) Zionism and the remarkably dynamic and creative Jewish state and society it fostered, have not only survived in the face of unending war and terrorism, they have flourished.
Today, as a renascent global terrorism seeks to destroy not only the Jewish state, but the United States as well, Herzl’s old nemesis, France, again pulsates with antisemitic movements and acts and the United Nations, which first affirmed Israel’s foundation, acts as a key institution facilitating its delegitimation. But Israel, as the issue of the Zionist movement, like the sempiternal Jewish people, will as ever outlast the Amalakites, Hamans, Hitlers and Bin Ladens of our times.
Let us remember, on this 100th yartzeit, Theodor Herzl, and let us remember too: am yisrael chai, the Jewish people lives!