Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl

"But the Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies....  [I]f we only begin to carry out the plans, Anti-Semitism would stop at once and for ever."

This, they say, is where it all started.  This little book was the charter of the international Zionist movement - the foundation stone of the State of Israel.

The book was first published in Vienna and Leipzig in 1896, and it was published in English translation in London the same year.  In 1897, the First Zionist Congress was held in Switzerland, and Herzl's movement was off and running.  In 1917 came the Balfour Declaration, and in 1922 Zionism was written into the title deeds of the British Mandate in Palestine.  On 14 May 1948, the Jewish state came into being, just 52 years after The Jewish State had first appeared.  When David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the independence of Israel, he did so underneath the patriarchal gaze of a portrait of Herzl.  Someone who read the book as a young man or woman when it first came out might well have lived to see the fulfilment of the plans contained within it.

Or possibly not.  In many ways, the most striking features of Herzl's book are the differences between his blueprint and what actually happened.

Herzl favoured securing statehood through agreement with the international community, then undertaking gradual, orderly mass immigration into the new state, with the poorest Jews going first.  He even tried to negotiate over Palestine with the Ottoman Sultan.  He predicted that the creation of a Jewish state by gradual immigration into an existing territory would falter because the locals would start to object once their Jewish minority started growing too large, and counselled against this path.  But this is precisely what happened during the days of the British Mandate, and limits on Jewish immigration became a central plank of British colonial policy (interestingly, British policymakers were also debating the merits of a one-state versus a two-state solution by the late 1930s).  The catalyst for the creation of Israel, moreover, was a series of events which Herzl had no inkling of: the mass murder of European Jews, followed by an armed campaign and takeover of the land.

Herzl envisaged that the establishment of the Jewish state would be facilitated by two specific and distinct bodies, the Society of Jews (a political organisation) and the Jewish Company (a commercial organisation, incorporated in London).  He goes into considerable detail on the practical, political and economic steps that would be required to build the new state.  In fact, Herzl arrived slightly late on the scene.  Zionism was not a new movement, and significant Jewish immigration to Palestine had already begun in the 1880s.  The orderly scheme of the Society of Jews and the Jewish Company turned out to be an untidy thicket of interlocking political and commercial organisations: the Zionist Organization, the Zionist Congresses, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Keren Hayesod, Bank Leumi, the Anglo Palestine Company, and the Jewish National Fund.

Herzl envisaged the Jewish state as having an oligarchic constitution (he should have known better in 1896).  What emerged was a parliamentary democracy with quasi-British institutions run, at least initially, by politicians with socialist leanings.  He didn't hold out much hope for a resurrection of Hebrew, which has turned out to be the only language to be successfully revived in modern times.  He thought that the flag should be a white banner (half marks) with seven gold stars to represent the seven-hour working day.

Once the state was established, Herzl thought that Jews who did not wish to be part of the Zionist experiment would remain in their existing countries and simply become Frenchmen, Americans, and so on.  In fact, Israel's fortunes continue to be followed keenly by Jews in other parts of the world, who have by no means lost their ethnic or religious identity.  American policy towards Israel has been a major factor in the development of the state, and is in turn strongly influenced by Jewish Americans and their supporters (albeit perhaps to a lesser extent than some conspiracists would claim).

Strikingly, Herzl didn't think that the new Jewish state had to be located in Palestine.  His other favoured candidate was Argentina, and after writing the book he went on to consider seriously a British proposal for a Jewish homeland in Uganda.  He does not, however, seem to have given much thought to the existing native populations of any of these territories.

Most poignant of all is Herzl's enthusiastic optimism.  Even making allowances for the usual overselling of a grand design, Herzl had tremendously high hopes for the Jewish state.  It is here, most of all, that the reality has fallen tragically short of the expectation.  Whether one believes that the State of Israel is a beacon of democracy which has suffered 60 years of deadly onslaught from armed soldiers and terrorists, or a noble project that has degenerated into right-wing militarism and racism, it can't be denied that Herzl was dead, dead wrong on this score.  Herzl also believed, incidentally, that Jewish emancipation in Europe would not be reversed, and he failed to predict the Holocaust - but then everyone failed to predict the Holocaust.

None of which should detract from the importance of Herzl as an historical figure or the enormous contribution that he made to the Zionist movement.  The above does, however, illustrate that even Jews can sometimes make poor prophets.