Theodor Herzl and the trajectory of Zionism

Honor guard standing next to Herzel's coffin in Israel. Unknown. Public Domain.

Debates over
Zionism and its progeny, the State of Israel, often have a Manichaean quality
to them. Critics of Jewish nationalism view it as synonymous with racism and
colonialism, while advocates see it as a national liberation movement for an
oppressed population. Rarely does either side concede much to the other.

Emotion plays its
part here. But so too does the politics of the moment. The recent controversies
over anti-Semitism in the UK Labour Party, for example, demonstrated clearly
enough—as if demonstration
were needed—how politics
impinges on debate over the Jewish state and its founding ideology. It showed
how easily conflict in the eastern Mediterranean can become a terrain where
unrelated political questions are fought out.

Professor Derek
Penslar, former professor of Israel Studies at Oxford University, offers one
possible explanation for why Jewish nationalism is so divisive and garners such
controversy. He points out there are multiple—sometimes contradictory—ideological and political issues embedded
within Zionism and Israel. “The Zionist project combines
colonialism, anti-colonialism, and postcolonial state-building,” he explains. “The entire twentieth century, wrapped
up in one small state.”

The interview below
is an attempt to engage with the history of Zionism and its afterlives in an
informed and nuanced fashion. It brings out and, I hope, helps to clarify some
of the key questions Zionists and anti-Zionists need to think about.

Theodor Herzl went
from being a middle class, European Jew and journalist to a political thinker
and activist, determined to build a Jewish state in the Middle East. What was
the context of this transformation?

The most obvious
context was the anti-Semitism that flourished in fin de siècle Europe. There is a
famous legend that Herzl was transformed into a Zionist by the trial of Alfred
Dreyfus in 1894. It is true that Herzl covered the trial as the Paris
correspondent of the most influential newspaper in central Europe, Die Neue Freie Presse, but the trial in and of itself did not make him a
Zionist. Rather, Herzl was deeply perturbed by European anti-Semitism in the
early 1890s.

Herzl had himself
experienced anti-Semitic insults. He was originally a lawyer, but there was
only so far he could rise in the profession as a Jew. He also experienced
anti-Semitic taunts as a student in Vienna. So in 1893-94 he started thinking
about how to solve the ‘Jewish Problem’ and he considered the possibility that Jews should become
revolutionaries and overthrow the old order.

There is a strong
connection between Jews and the left because the left allegedly had promised to
offer a class and prejudice free society. The left was supposed to reject
anti-Semitism although it often didn’t. So Herzl was attracted to the idea of overthrowing the
old aristocratic order and creating a new one. But he was a bourgeois, and
socialist revolution quickly lost its appeal.

Another possibility
he flirted with was conversion. He thought the Jews could convert en masse to Christianity. This idea was something that flitted
through Herzl’s head—I wouldn’t take it too seriously—but it just shows the state of
distress he was in.

He then fell into a
kind of ecstatic state in the spring of 1895 while in Paris and he began to
write constantly. Out of the mess of stuff he wrote, some of it mad, much of it
quite lucid, came the material for a pamphlet which was published in 1896 and
titled The Jewish State.

The odd thing about
Herzl is that his writing is very cold, clear and logical, but underneath
there is a tremendous amount of passion. When he writes he methodically argues
on behalf of Zionism by rejecting all alternatives: assimilation does nothing
to staunch anti-Semitism, revolution destroys the fabric of society; conversion
is dishonourable and eventually ineffective – but underneath the sober prose is a
tremendous amount of passion. Herzl was in a state of psychological crisis.

But Zionism already
existed. He didn
t invent it.

Herzl was certainly
the first Jewish nationalist. His pamphlet replicated what other Jews had written a decade
or fifteen years previously. Associations of Jewish students throughout central Europe
advocated Jewish nationalism, and an organization known as the Lovers of Zion
had been active since 1884. The word Zionism had been coined in the early 1890s
by a young Jewish nationalist named Nathan Birnbaum. There were many Jews who,
like Herzl, believed that the Jews comprise a nation and that nation deserves a

In 1895, Herzl
didn't know where this Jewish homeland would be. In the diary entries out of
which The Jewish State emerged he wrote a lot about South America
because Jewish agricultural colonies had been set up there in the 1890s. Even
in The Jewish State there is a brief section titled “Palestine or Argentina?”. Herzl did not become attached to the
notion that there has to be a Jewish homeland reestablished in Palestine until
he got involved with eastern European Zionists, who were attached to the
biblical Land of Israel, and set up what became the Zionist Organisation.

Most importantly,
Herzl was not wedded to the notion of a Jewish state. He calls his
pamphlet Der Judenstaat, but he never held out for statehood.
He wrote about many different forms of political organisation and he changed
his mind from one week or month to the next. It could be a state, it could be
an autonomous province in the Ottoman Empire, it could be a crown colony, or a
protectorate under European control. He was just as willing to make a deal with
the Ottoman Empire, as he was to cut a deal with a European empire for

Not only was Herzl
himself pragmatic about the actual political form this Jewish home would take,
the official goal of the Zionist movement, as promulgated by the First Zionist
Congress in 1897, is not a Jewish state, but rather a Jewish national home to
be secured by international law. The Zionist movement only clearly adopted a
call for statehood in 1942 in WWII as the storm clouds had gathered and the
situation of the Jews was absolutely catastrophic.

What kind of
reception did Herzl receive in the diaspora? Was Zionism popular?

At the time of
Herzl’s death in 1904,
The Zionist Organisation had about 100,000 members, and there were about
fifteen million Jews in the world, so it was a minority movement.

Many were highly
orthodox and thought the idea of Jewish nationalism was anathema. They thought
the idea of returning to the land of Israel en masse before the
Messianic era was presumptuous if not blasphemous.

Then there were opponents
of Zionism who were secular, socialist Jews. Eastern Europe was filled with
secular Jews who were attached to one form or another of socialism and they
rejected Zionism as utopian. They asked the Zionists: you expect Jews in Europe to move by
the millions to Palestine? It’s crazy.

And then there were
Jews in western and much of central Europe, as well as the established Jewish
community in the United States – who for the most part thought Zionism was
outrageous and an implicit rejection of their claim to be fully integrated
into the countries in which they lived.

That said, there
were throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North America many Jewish
intellectuals as well as bourgeois Jews in business and the professions who
took Zionism very seriously. So yes, he had minority support, but it was very

There are, it
seems, two aspects to Zionism. The first: bringing an end to diaspora existence
with the national revival of the Jewish people and the second, creating a
New Jew that is, a matter
of personal rather than collective transformation. Which of these aspects was
the more important for Herzl?

The two aspects of
Zionism have historically almost always been linked. For Herzl the immediate
emphasis was on survival. The Jewish State is about the impossibility of
combating anti-Semitism and the necessity for eastern European Jews to go
abroad and create their own country in some corner of the globe or return to
their ancient homeland. It’s a matter of physical security.

But there is also
the other goal:
that Jews need to become proud of themselves. They need to have a sense of
dignity. Herzl
writes in many places that only by becoming a political force in the world and only by
taking their fate in their hands can the Jews regain their honour.

Herzl also
envisions the future Jewish national home as an ideal society that has
harnessed technology for the good of all and is a model for the world. Herzl does not envision
the Jewish-Arab conflict or of the need for a strong defence force.

Many Jews found
sanctuary from European anti-Semitism in America. Was emigration to the US
considered a realistic alternative to creating a new state?

The Zionist
argument was that they could go to America and all that would happen was there would
be more anti-Semitism. Wherever the Jews go, Herzl wrote, they compete with the
pre-existing labour force, so wherever they go anti-Semitism is going to be a
problem. They're not going to fit in.

Herzl did not,
however, believe that all of the world’s Jews would concentrate in Palestine. He thought once
there was a Jewish state or homeland in place the Jews who were left in the
diaspora would be respected because now the Jews would be a normal people with
a normal political homeland.

The creation of
nation-states frequently leads to the formation of minorities who do not
identify with the ruling culture. Did Herzl think this might happen with the
indigenous Arab population of Ottoman Palestine?

No. He didn't think
that would happen and this is odd. When Herzl went to Egypt in 1902, he went to
a lecture and encountered a number of young Egyptian nationalists. He writes in
his diary that these young men may some day bring about the overthrow of
British rule in Egypt. Herzl never made similar observations about Palestinians. It’s true, though,
that at the time the Arab nationalist movement was very young and small, and
what did exist of it was mainly concentrated in Beirut, Damascus and Cairo.
There was very little going on in Palestine.

Herzl was only in
Palestine once very briefly and he never really got a sense of what the
Palestinian Arabs thought or wanted. He doesn’t even mention Palestinians in his
accounts of his visit in 1898. He does write quite frequently that Jews will
bring nothing but benefits to the native population. He often wrote that the
Zionists bore no grudge against these people: we will give them our technology; they’ll be better farmers; they’ll have better health—in short, a paternalistic, yet benign,
version of the western, liberal doctrine of progress.

In his novel Old-New Land one of his major characters is a Palestinian, Rashid Bey,
who speaks perfect German and is very acculturated to western culture and talks
about how much the Jews have benefited his people. Rashid Bey symbolizes the
egalitarian spirit of what Herzl calls the New Society that will take form in
the Jewish homeland. Also, Rashid Bey symbolizes confessional and ethnic
diversity. Herzl did conceive of a diverse society, but he did not come to
grips with Palestinian opposition.

There was a very
interesting exchange of letters between Muhammad Dia al-Khalidi, a former mayor
of Jerusalem, and Herzl in 1898. Al-Khalidi writes to Herzl that the Jews have
every right to dwell in the land of Israel. He acknowledges the Jews’ biblical connection with the land. But
he also points out that the land is populated with Arabs. Not only does Herzl
have the Palestinian Arabs to deal with, he says, but there are 300,000,000
Muslims in the world, who will be outraged by a Jewish national home in
historic Palestine. Herzl responds with the arguments I mentioned earlier – that the Jews will bring nothing but
benefits to the Arabs of Palestine. You can see how they are talking past each

Zionism was in line
with popular notions of national consciousness and political
self-determination. Was there also a colonialist aspect to it?

Zionism is a
product of the era of colonialism. There would never have been a successful
Zionist project without colonialism. But the Zionist project could also never
have succeeded without anti-colonialism and decolonisation.

The word
colonialism has in our era become hugely fraught, but let’s use it in its technical sense,
referring to projections of political and economic power beyond a polity.
Colonialism has been practiced by polities throughout the world, but the
best-known forms in modern history have originated in the west.

And how could
we even think of the Zionist movement succeeding without support from the
western colonial powers? Without the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the
British colonial presence in the near and Middle East? Without the British fostering for two
decades the development of the Jewish national home? So, of course, Zionism is
connected with western colonialism.

On the other hand
the state of Israel was born in 1948 during the era of decolonisation. It
emerged at the same time as independent India and Pakistan, a time when the
British Empire was crumbling, and the Zionist movement was able to take
advantage of British weakness. A Zionist armed insurrection forced the British
to turn the Palestine file over to the United Nations; the Zionists won
international support for partition and then fought a successful war against
the Palestinians and then against several Arab states.

In terms of
political movements and geo-political structures in the twentieth century,
Zionism represents one-stop shopping: it is a nationalist movement with a
strong socialist component embodied in Labour Zionism. Counterpoised to Labour
is a right-wing version of Zionism that has at times flirted with fascism. The
Zionist project combines colonialism, anti-colonialism, and postcolonial state-building.
The entire twentieth century, wrapped up in one small state.

The Zionist
movement and the state of Israel were dominated by Labour Zionists from the 1930s
until the late 1970s. How was the universalism of a socialist outlook squared
with the particularism of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people?

Nationalism and
socialism throughout the twentieth century were often linked. If you look at
Third World liberation movements, the anti-colonial, nationalist and socialist
aspects were all connected. Think about Nasser’s Egyptian nationalism, which was tied
up with socialism. If you look at the Baath in Syria and Iraq, it’s not the Baath as such; it’s the Syrian or Iraqi Baath. There’s a strong nationalist element there,
but there’s also a very
strong socialist one.

movements also often conceived of entire nationalities as oppressed and hence
as a kind of ethnic proletariat. Thus socialist and nationalist ideals could be

So, although Labour
Zionist ideology was filled with contradictions, I don’t believe it was necessarily any more
filled with contradictions than liberation movements throughout the world in
the twentieth century which squared the circle all the time.

After the 1973 war,
the Labour Zionism of the state
s first thirty years gave way to a more
religiously-orientated, irredentist nationalism that seems to have gained a
hegemony over Israeli political culture. How do you account for this shift?

First, I would
redefine the terms a little bit. Although Labour and Revisionist Zionism
differed a good deal before the state was founded, the Labour Zionists ideally
would have had a Jewish state that went out to the Jordan River. They even
talked about a Jewish state that would extend beyond the Jordan.

The difference
between the Labour and Revisionist Zionists was that the former were more
pragmatic. In 1937 when the British proposed a very small mini-state the
official Labour Zionist reaction was to accept what was offered. It may be that
David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the dominant Labour Zionist political party and
by extension of Palestine’s Jewish community, had in mind an aggressive war down the
road. Or perhaps he just wanted to see what was going to happen once statehood
was attained.

Despite Labour
Zionist pragmatism there was still, throughout the Zionist movement, a sense of
the land of Israel as a territorial whole. And after 1967 there was an alliance
of secular and religious Zionists who were very happy about the conquest of the
Sinai, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and eastern Jerusalem.

A lot of the most
influential figures in what became known as the Movement for Greater Israel in
1967-68 were Labour Zionists. The religious and messianic elements within
Zionism were always present even if under secular Labour Zionism they were
largely dormant.

If you look at
early Zionism, there were even some Orthodox rabbis who supported it. The most
famous case was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook—the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of
British Palestine. He was Orthodox, mystically-oriented, and a Zionist. He
believed secular Labour Zionists were unwittingly part of a divine plan for the
restoration of the Jews and the advent of the Messiah. In the early decades of
the state, the orthodox Zionists did not influence military or security affairs
but were essential components of governing coalitions.

After the 1967 War
the religious Zionists felt more empowered. The state of Israel was now
synonymous with the Biblical land of Israel. But it still took time for the
religious elements to come to the fore in the mid- to late-seventies. It’s not as if Israel was secular and
moderate and didn't really care about irredentism and all of a sudden Orthdox
nationalists hijacked the ship. Zionist irredentism was always present,
although before 1967 its outright expression was limited to the political

In 1977, the new
Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, who was an old fashioned, secular
right-wing nationalist, formed an alliance with the more religiously-inspired
nationalists for whom Eretz Irael was not just the Jews’ historic territory, but a sacred land.
The alliance between the hawkish, largely secular, Likud party and Zionist
orthodoxy, has existed in one form or another for almost four decades.

To end where we
began – with Theodor Herzl – the Israeli political system in place
over this time is a far cry from Herzl’s own vision, as enunciated in The Jewish State:

We shall keep our
priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep
our professional army within the confines of their barracks. Army and
priesthood shall receive honors high as their valuable functions deserve. But
they must not interfere in the administration of the State which confers
distinction upon them, else they will conjure up difficulties without and

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