Old-New Debate

Theodor Herzl is indisputably Israel’s principal Founding Father. He was not the first person in modern times to call for the creation of a Jewish state, but he summoned into existence the movement that made it possible and marked out the path that it was to pursue. When he first published The Jewish State in 1896, the proto-Zionist groups in the Jewish world were weak, scattered, and mostly ineffectual. Herzl’s unification of these forces and others in Basel in 1897 constituted, as he noted in his diary and as subsequent events confirmed, the foundation of the Jewish state. His energetic diplomacy led nowhere in his own day, but it established the paradigm that guided Zionist leaders to a crucial success in the course of World War I. As a consequence of his achievements, Herzl has dominated the iconography of Zionism for a century and remains absolutely central to its historiography.

Of the other Founding Fathers of Zionism, none have loomed comparably large in the imagination of their heirs. Herzl’s main internal critic, Asher Ginsberg, best known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am, has enjoyed nothing like Herzl’s fame and is a household name only in certain academic circles. An intellectual who had sought the leadership of the proto-Zionist movement, he was dismayed to see Herzl emerge from nowhere and usurp the commanding role in Jewry to which he himself aspired. From the start, Ahad Ha’am peppered Herzl with criticism. He regarded Herzl as an upstart, a man lacking any Jewish knowledge, and an adventurer whose grandiose schemes for resettling the Jewish masses in a state like any other state would uselessly divert the Jewish people from the one thing it might actually be able to accomplish in Palestine. Rescuing all of the denizens of the Diaspora from anti-Semitism was impossible, but it was feasible, in his view, to create “a good-sized settlement of Jews” that would become “in the course of time the center of the nation, wherein its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable.” His hope was that the new secular culture produced by the Palestinian Jewish community would “go forth from this center to the great circumference, to all the communities of the Diaspora, and breathe new life into them and preserve their unity.” Herzl, for his part, regarded Ahad Ha’am as a pedant and a pest.

Whenever I reexamine the relationship between these two men, I consistently find myself sympathizing more with Ahad Ha’am. I am afraid that I do this partly for personal reasons. My maternal grandfather was born in the early 1890s in Skvira, the town in Ukraine that had been Ahad Ha’am’s birthplace several decades earlier. When I was a teenager, Zayde Shmiel told me of a day long ago when his father had gripped his little shoulder, pointed to a rather unprepossessing dignitary seated in a passing wagon, and said to him, “Du zehst? Dos iz Ahad Ha’am.” Somehow, this event has taken up residence in my mind as my own earliest memory.

But my instinctive reaction isn’t entirely for family reasons. Zayde Shmiel (né Skvirsky, but renamed Squire, a word he could never learn to pronounce) only told me his story after I told him how much I had enjoyed reading Ahad Ha’am at camp. In the summer of 1964, the last one I spent at Camp Ramah, I attended a Hebrew class in which we made our way painstakingly through Ahad Ha’am’s essay “Moses.” This piece made a strong impression on me. It didn’t matter, the author said, whether Moses ever existed or not. The moral lessons of Moses, the most valuable truths of Judaism, came from deep within the Jewish soul and need not rest upon any divine revelation. For an adolescent edging toward agnosticism but lacking any desire to break loose from his Jewishness, this was a very welcome and convenient message. I remain grateful for it, even though I no longer find it fully convincing.

Perhaps I should feel a little closer to Herzl, after having worn an outfit designed to look like his signature turn-of-the century black frock coat and an equally black full-length false beard as I helped to lead the victory march down one of the main streets of my upstate New York hometown a couple of weeks after the Six Day War. But I’m afraid that even this thrilling experience could not keep me from seeing Herzl through the wary eyes of an Ostjude. He wouldn’t have been a Jew at all, I couldn’t help but suspect, if he had felt that he had any respectable alternative. In his Jewish state, the flag had seven stars, symbolizing the seven-hour workday that he hoped to see instituted, and the inhabitants spoke every language in the world except Hebrew. Rereading Ahad Ha’am’s mockery of Herzl’s essentially un-Jewish cultural politics, I have always felt that justice was mostly on the side of the former.

But it is only when I see him pitted against my lantsman and similarly-minded people that Herzl seems questionable to me. Ranged against his political enemies or, especially, his contemporary academic critics, Herzl always looks a lot better. I have often bristled at, and sometimes reacted in print against, crude anti-Zionist or post-Zionist caricatures of the assimilated Viennese intellectual who wholly bought into the worst of fin de siècle Eurocentrism and imperialism and redesigned Jewishness to match it. Yet even as I have defended Herzl against biased and unfair criticism, I have always had a lingering sense that there was something amiss about him.

Many of today’s leading writers on Zionism seem to share my ambivalence about Herzl. Quite a few have picked up the criticism where Ahad Ha’am left off. This is especially true in Israel, where the recent centenary anniversary of his death has generated a small crop of new Hebrew publications about the man and his works. These writings, I am sorry to say, do not include a new full-scale scholarly biography of the man. Unlike George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and several other American Founding Fathers, who constantly have new biographies written about them, Herzl has never been the subject of such a book. But Shlomo Avineri has added a small, popular biography that reconsiders his ideas and career. Gadi Taub has written a noteworthy introduction to Herzl’s principal political writings, the political tract The Jewish State and the utopian novel Old-New Land. Avi Sagi and Yedidya Stern have edited a two-volume collection entitled Herzl Az ve-Hayom (Herzl Then and Now) replete with thought-provoking essays. In quite a few of them, Ahad Ha’am either hovers menacingly in the background or shows up as a foil.

In his essay in the Sagi-Stern collection, for instance, Shmuel Feiner, the leading contemporary historian of the Jewish Enlightenment, takes issue with Ahad Ha’am’s assertion that Herzl’s futuristic vision of a Jewish utopia in Palestine in his novel Old-New Land differed scarcely at all from what some restorer of African independence might someday dream up as an ideal society for his people, that there was nothing specifically Jewish about it. Feiner argues to the contrary that what Herzl in fact did was to lay the foundations for “the humanistic, secular-Jewish state.” He admits that the book transplants a European cultural model to the Land of Israel, but he considers it crucially important to note that Herzl did not thereby erase or abolish the Jews’ particular heritage. “Contrary to his critics’ claims, Herzl’s secular-Zionist vision rests on a rich deposit of historical memories, patriotic landscapes, nostalgia, religious ceremonies and biblical texts.”

And indeed, as Feiner notes, the Jews of Old-New Land have seders on Passover, worship in temples on the Sabbath, and attend operas based on stories such as that of Sabbatai Zvi, the 17th-century false messiah. The New Society, its leader explains, has reconnected the Jewish people with its past and its ancient land. Participating in a seder in Haifa, Dr. Friedrich Loewenberg, the hitherto deracinated Jew whose accidental visit to Palestine in 1923 sets the stage for Herzl’s whole story, has to fight back tears when he hears for the first time since his childhood the Hebrew words of the Haggadah.

Feiner gives a great deal of weight to such scenes but is not deceived by them into maintaining that Herzl’s inner ba’al teshuvah was struggling to come out. This was a mistake made quite eagerly, it seems, by no small number of early religious Zionists (as Dov Schwartz shows in his essay in this collection). Herzl’s God, Feiner notes, has undergone a process of secularization. “He no longer plays the part of God the Creator, who supervises and commands, nor the part of ‘the God of our forefathers’ alone, but he is circumscribed by the terms of human morality: ‘he is present everywhere in the universe as in the form of the aspiration toward the good’.” As far from tradition as Herzl may have been, however, Ahad Ha’am had him pegged for something he wasn’t. According to Feiner, Herzl was “the ideologue of humanistic Zionism,” who “painted in Old-New Land a portrait of a secular Jewish society and culture” that his imaginary Jewish state strove to bring into being.

Without challenging Feiner directly, the editors of Herzl Then and Now, who are also his colleagues at Bar-Ilan, present a diametrically opposed assessment of Herzl’s Jewish consciousness, mostly on the basis of a close reading of the same novel. It is true, Sagi and Stern observe, that the characters in Herzl’s utopia connect their grand achievements to their Jewish origin, but only insofar as the Jews’ long suffering, economic experience, and cosmopolitanism had prepared them for the state-building task at hand. “The New Society’s spokesmen,” they write, “do not recognize any human need at all for a distinctive identity and culture.” They live in a world drained of specifically Jewish content and open to the equal participation of all, regardless of religion or national identity.

Like Feiner, Sagi and Stern highlight the vast difference between the living God of Israel and Herzl’s abstract God-idea, but unlike Feiner they are not prepared to grant that Herzl’s humanistic theology deserves to be recognized as a particularly Jewish brand of secularism. They are of course aware of the Jewish aspects of life in Old-New Land noted by Feiner, but they see them as little more than vestigial trappings of the Jewish past that have almost nothing to do with the real life of the New Society. What is decisive in their eyes is the fact that this society turns for validation of its achievements not to the heritage of the Jews but to the judgment of the Gentiles. This is represented in the novel by the ship Futuro, which periodically carries to Palestine five hundred members of “the intellectual aristocracy of the whole civilized world” before whose judgment the country’s Jews are prepared to bow. For Herzl, Sagi and Stern conclude, the revival of the Jewish people in its own land “is not tied up with the revival of its distinctive culture” but with obedience to “the voice of universal culture” for which the Jewish people is merely an “echo chamber.”

Ahad Ha’am really did have Herzl’s number, these two authors maintain. But while Ahad Ha’am restricted himself to wondering whether Herzl’s blueprints couldn’t hypothetically serve the Africans just as well as the Jews, Sagi and Stern, writing a century later, can place part of the blame for the existing State of Israel’s identity crisis on Herzl’s flawed vision. They see his final literary work as an anticipation of the currently fashionable notion that Israel has to strip itself of its Jewish identity, assume universalistic, liberal garb, and become a “state of all its citizens.” In the end, however, they take heart from the fact that a decisive majority of the Jews in Israel has chosen, “in opposition to Old-New Land, to opt for a vision of the State of Israel as a home for Jewish identity, one in which it can grow and flourish.”

In identifying Herzl, of all people, with tendencies subversive of the Jewish state, the sociologist Oz Almog, best known in the United States as the author of The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew, goes a step further than Sagi and Stern. Like many of the other contributors to Herzl Then and Now, including its editors, he stresses the centrality of science and technology to Herzl’s vision of the future. He describes the growth of the Israeli high-tech industry as the fulfillment of Herzl’s dream: “it brings together Jewish independence and sovereignty, technological progress, the spirit of scientific invention and integration into global processes.” But it also contains within it the seeds of the very same dream’s self-destruction. It has helped to bring about the kind of globalization that encourages and fosters the migration of Israeli high-tech people to other parts of the world. In the past two decades, California’s Silicon Valley has absorbed large numbers of Israelis who have concentrated in such spots as Sunnyvale, locally and jokingly known as “the kibbutz.” It is possible, Almog muses, that these colonies of “pioneers” of the new Israeliness constitute the bridgehead of a mass migration of Israel’s best and brightest, one that will ease their departure from the State of Israel and soften their absorption abroad.

Concerns of this kind are utterly absent from Gadi Taub’s introduction to a new edition of Herzl’s The Jewish State and Old-New Land. A professor of communications at the Hebrew University and a unique figure on the Israeli scene who has done everything from hosting children’s TV programs to publishing a salacious, best-selling novel, Taub devotes a considerable portion of his time to combating threats to liberal Zionism from both the right and the left. Herzl for him is a venerable forbear, one whose guidance Israelis ought to continue to heed.

Taub’s introductory essay is not overtly polemical, but his emphasis on Herzl’s strong advocacy of tolerance and his growing affinity with democracy seem to be targeted at readers who might sympathize with the people depicted in his book The Settlers (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Although he does not seem to be at all worried that Herzl has left the door open to post-Zionism, he appears to be responding to post-Zionist and anti-Zionist (and, for that matter, cultural Zionist and sometimes religious Zionist) charges that Herzl’s Jewish nationalism was a mere contrivance, a distorted and unworthy thing. Taub unapologetically admits that it was indeed a makeshift and ill-defined identity, based on religion but also detached from it and fuzzy around the edges. But that, he says, is true of nationalism in general. If, for Herzl, the Jews’ national identity “is due to their inheritance of a shared tradition, they resemble in this respect other nations whose identity also crystallized around religion, tradition, language, and a common historical experience.” Taub, who sees nations as crucial platforms for the maintenance of liberal societies, does not really seem to care about the solidity of their origins. One thing that is of vital importance, in his view, is that they produce states that are respectful of the national minorities living within their boundaries, as Herzl’s was in theory and as Israel’s Proclamation of statehood promises.

Taub’s essay ends with an old-fashioned encomium to Herzl as a man who cast the giant shadow “of someone who not only understood but also paved the way to the Jews’ independence.” The vision of Zionism “took shape with truly astonishing precision and reached the goal that Herzl had foreseen by the means that Herzl had foreseen.” A similar appreciation of his achievements pervades the recently published biography by the eminent political scientist Shlomo Avineri. This volume joins what Avineri notes is a plethora of existing studies of Herzl’s life and career. What he himself has chosen to produce (for a series of popular biographies published by the Zalman Shazar Center) is not a full-fledged scholarly biography but a fairly brief exploration, as he puts it, of the self-creation and path through life of the man whose “Bildungsroman” very largely overlaps with the formation of the Zionist movement.

Avineri retells an oft-repeated story briskly and well, frequently drawing on his deep knowledge of fin de siècle European political thought and history to illuminate aspects of Herzl’s outlook and conduct that earlier biographers have left unexplained. He spends a surprising amount of time discrediting the demonstrably mistaken and, in my opinion, ineradicable notion that it was the Dreyfus trial in 1894 that made Herzl into a Zionist. What is not surprising is the fact that he has devoted the second longest chapter of his book to a detailed exposition of Old-New Land, a work that he truly admires. Most of all, he appreciates Herzl’s efforts to steer a path between capitalism and collectivism and his strong commitment to democracy and religious and ethnic tolerance in the Palestine of the future. At no point does he find fault with Herzl for marginalizing the Jewish religion in his utopia or, for that matter, for giving it too much emphasis.

In his own day, Herzl’s tireless efforts did not succeed, Avineri observes, in turning the Zionist idea into anything more than a literary dream. But Herzl did manage to put Zionism on the map. Consequently, “when the right political circumstances came into being in 1917, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1947, after World War II and the Holocaust, the Zionist movement succeeded in building the national home and the state on the basis of the ideational, organizational and diplomatic foundations that Herzl had laid during his nine years of activity.” Avineri acknowledges at the very end of his book that a gap exists between Herzl’s idealistic vision and contemporary realities, but he concludes on a positive note: those who want to diminish this gap, “to bring the earthly Israel closer to the heavenly ‘Old-New Land,’” can do no better than to remember Herzl’s famous motto: “If you will it, it is no legend.”

Avineri’s book is a cogent reminder of the greatness of Theodor Herzl and the continuing relevance of his ideals. But it did not undo my virtually inborn preference for Ahad Ha’am (whom Avineri barely mentions). Especially after having read the updated versions of the old critique of him in parts of Herzl Then and Now, I am still inclined to see Herzl as something of a foreigner. Ahad Ha’am no doubt went too far when he accused him of bleaching Judaism completely out of his picture of the future. But what he held onto was at bottom nothing more than what the intellectual historian Fania Oz-Salzberger labels in her essay in Herzl Then and Now as “Judaism lite.” Still, I think that it would be wrong, in the final analysis, to fault him too much for this. Lack of depth as a modern Jewish thinker is a small shortcoming for a man of action whose deeds made all the difference for the Jewish people. Even those who find certain aspects of Old-New Land distasteful and still take their bearings from Ahad Ha’am know that their intellectual hero would be a completely forgotten man and their own hopes for Israel as a Jewish cultural center would be utterly groundless were it not for the state-building work of Theodor Herzl. Although I cannot imagine that I will ever do so again, I do not at all regret having once attempted to impersonate him.

Ahad Ha’am, unlike Herzl, has been the subject of several full-scale academic biographies in recent decades, including, most notably, Steven Zipperstein’s Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha’am and the Origins of Zionism. But none of his writings has lately served as the linchpin for the discussion of contemporary issues in the way that Herzl’s Old-New Land has. Perhaps his most frequently remembered words today are the unusually prescient warning he issued in an 1891 article entitled “Truth from the Land of Israel” that the Arabs of Palestine would not forever tolerate the growth of the new Jewish community. But as Alan Dowty has shown, Ahad Ha’am has been given far too much credit for his fleeting comments about this issue, which was anything but a recurring concern of his in the ensuing decades.

Ahad Ha’am’s primary concern was to foster within the new community in Palestine a Jewish identity that was both secular and deeply rooted in the moral teachings emanating from the sacred literature of Israel. But this was from the outset a problematic notion, one that was constantly exposed to criticism from all sides, from the religious Zionists, who decried the abandonment of God, to the more extreme secularists, who saw no reason to perpetuate the desiccated values of one’s ancestors when one had every right to create one’s own. Much as I admire Ahad Ha’am, I can’t deny that his ideological opponents made arguments that were more coherent and consistent than his. It doesn’t surprise me, either, that they are winning the day.

Is this how Ahad Ha’am himself would feel, if he could come back today and see what Herzl’s movement has wrought? In an essay that appeared a couple of years ago in the Israeli magazine Kivunim Chadashim, Fania Oz-Salzberger dealt with this question, by imagining a reunion of several Zionist Founding Fathers for a lightning tour of contemporary Israel. Traveling with this group, Oz-Salzberger’s fictitious Ahad Ha’am is able to see that his writings are still being studied by groups of young people in Jerusalem and even in Tel Aviv, in classes and informal gatherings, “with kipot and without them.” The cultural enterprise he wished to launch is evidently alive and kicking. “He might be pleased to know this,” Oz-Salzberger muses, “but more than he would be pleased, he would be disconcerted by the rainbow of Jewish types parading through the streets of the capital, the one having nothing to do with the other, and no love lost between them. And he would worry.”

Striking what might at first seem to be a cheerier note, Chaim Waxman, professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers and now a resident of Jerusalem, has just published an essay entitled “Ahad Ha’am Could Smile: Israel as the Spiritual Center of the American Jewish Community.” He could smile, writes Waxman, because of the centrality that Israel has assumed in the organizational life of American Jewry and even more because of the vital role that it has played in awakening and preserving Jewish identity in the United States. But, he concludes at the end of his essay, “it would be a small smile, and perhaps even less than that,” one of the kind that Ahad Ha’am himself might have described, in Yiddish, as a “bittere gelechter.” For “Israel, as important as it is to those who have a Jewish identity … is not a central factor in the identity of most American Jews, whose … ties to Israel are growing ever weaker.”

These assessments of the likely state of mind of a contemporary Ahad Ha’am are certainly debatable, and they are probably not the last that we will hear. There is every reason to expect that other Israeli thinkers and scholars will in the years ahead arrive at new ones, as they persist in measuring their country’s achievements against the lofty cultural ambitions of a very demanding Founding Father. Ahad Ha’am will not soon catch up with Herzl, whose Jewish State and Old-New Land have come to play a part in Israeli public discourse somewhat comparable to that of the Federalist Papers in ours. But neither will he be forgotten. And as long as his ideas and Herzl’s still reverberate in the ongoing conversation about the direction in which Israel is headed, Zionism will continue to retain a good measure of its old vitality.



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