Rereading Herzl’s Old-New Land

Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland (Old-New Land) is a bad novel, but an important and prescient book. It addresses three issues that are today at the core of Israel’s politics and public discourse: the question of equal citizenship, the social and economic structure of the country, and the relations between state and religion.

Theodor Herzl. (Illustration by Mark Anderson.)
Theodor Herzl. (Illustration by Mark Anderson.)

When the novel was published exactly one hundred and ten years ago in 1902, Herzl was already the leader of the Zionist movement. But this movement, which he had more or less called into being at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, was still a fledgling creature, criticized by both Orthodox and Reform rabbis as well as by secular Jewish liberals and socialists. According to its opponents, the idea of a Jewish political entity in the Land of Israel was either blasphemous, outlandish, outmoded, outrageously dangerous, if not outright crazy—or all of the above.

Despite his repeated failure to enlist any of the many statesmen he met to further the Zionist cause, he had made real institutional progress. By 1902, the permanent structures of the Zionist movement were already in place: an annual congress, elected by the organization’s dues-paying members in more than two dozen countries; an executive committee, elected by the congress and accountable to it; a central newspaper (Die Welt), with many local and regional papers; and the rudiments of a financial structure, selling shares and bonds to sympathizers of the movement all over the world, mainly to buy land in Palestine. Together, these constituted the infrastructure of what would be later called in Zionist jargon ha-medina ba-derekh-“the state-in-the-making.”

When Herzl published his novel he could rightly claim—as he did in his preface—that this was not a mere utopian dream, but a projection into the future of a historical enterprise that had already begun to be realized.  Unlike other social utopias of the time such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards (which featured a similarly creaky Rip Van Winkle plot device), Old-New Land extended an existing reality.

Within a few years, the novel was translated into English, Russian, French, Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and, eventually, Ladino. Though its characters were flat and its dialogue mostly wooden, it was the most popular and widely circulated articulation of the Zionist vision. The Hebrew translation was the work of the Warsaw-based journalist Nahum Sokolov, later to become president of the Zionist Organization, who chose the inspired title Tel Aviv (Hill of Spring or, to Anglo-Americanize, Springhill). In 1909, the founders of a new garden suburb north of Jaffa adopted it as the name for their embryonic city. Vision and reality were thus intertwined in the very history of the novel’s publication.

It is this interface between literary creativity and historical agency that continues to give the novel its topicality even today. Zionism is the rare national movement that produced not only manifestos, programs, and declarations about its cause, but a document describing in detail what its ultimate goal would look like.

Herzl was not a great, or even a good, novelist but he was a sophisticated and practical political thinker who had been a correspondent and editor of Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, one of Europe’s leading newspapers. If one overcomes the novel’s outmoded narrative, replete with lengthy speeches and framed within an incongruous, even kitschy, romantic plot, Old-New Land is a still-useful standard by which contemporary Israel can look at itself and judge its achievements—and failures.

The Jewish commonwealth of Old-New Land is based on universal suffrage, which in Herzl’s day did not exist in any Western democracy, save New Zealand. Yet despite what is sometimes claimed by critics of Zionism, Herzl was well aware of the existence of a sizeable Arab population in the country and dreamed that they would possess not only political equality, but would also share fully in the new polity’s social and economic achievements. Reshid Bey, an Arab engineer from Haifa, is one of the new country’s leaders and a central figure in the novel. In fact, the issue of equal rights for the non-Jewish population is central to the novel’s plot.

In 1923, the New Society of the Old-New Land is in the midst of a heated electoral campaign. A recently arrived immigrant has just established a new political party, which calls for the disenfranchisement of its non-Jewish inhabitants. The leader of this racist party is a certain Rabbi Dr. Geyer. (Geyer means vulture in German; Herzl was not subtle.) Geyer maintains that citizenship and voting rights should be restricted to Jews in a Jewish state. Arabs and other non-Jews should not be expelled, but they should not be part of the body politic either.

The campaign becomes a battle for the country’s soul. At the core of the novel are dramatic accounts of election rallies, in which the country’s liberal establishment fights the racist challenges of Geyer and his followers. Herzl’s dramatic rendering of the speeches of both the liberal and the racist protagonists clearly reflect his journalistic experience as a parliamentary correspondent in France and elsewhere. Eventually, Geyer’s party is beaten, the liberals win, and the defeated candidate is reported to be leaving the country in ignominy.

Anyone familiar with Herzl’s biography and fin de siècle European history will immediately recognize that Rabbi Dr. Geyer is the mirror image of the Viennese politician Dr. Karl Lueger, who emerged in the 1890s as the leader of the anti-Semitic Christian Social Party and whose election as mayor of Vienna helped to convince Herzl of the necessity of Zionism. When he sat down to write the novel, Herzl put some of Lueger’s anti-Semitic statements in Geyer’s mouth, changing only the name of the vilified group. The liberals in Old-New Land , on the other hand, use two kinds of arguments: the universalistic affirmations of equal civil rights of the European tradition, and principles drawn from Judaism: “Remember that you have been a stranger in the land of Egypt” and “You should have one law for you and the stranger within your gates.” The message of the Geyer episode in Old-New Land  is plain and powerful: What failed in Europe-liberalism and equal rights-will triumph in Zion. In contemporary language, what Herzl advocated was that the Old-New Land should be both Jewish and democratic—a Jewish nation-state, but one that would preserve equal rights for its non-Jewish population, not half-heartedly, but as a major tenet of its political and moral credo.

Ladino version of Altneuland, 1913-1914,
Ladino version of Altneuland, 1913-1914, Salonica.

While Herzl envisaged equal rights for the Arab population and its participation in the political process, he did not foresee the emergence of a Palestinian national movement that would draw much of its ideological energy from opposing the Zionist project itself. While one might fault him for this, it is important to note that when he was writing, there was no Arab national movement in existence—neither in Palestine, nor anywhere else. Arab nationalism’s emergence as a political force dates to World War I, when the British fostered it in order to undermine Ottoman rule in the region. Herzl was, in this respect, far from being the only person who failed to transcend the limitations of his age. No liberal or socialist thinker in Europe thought about the possibility or legitimacy of national movements in their colonies. Nor, for that matter, did the French in Algeria or the British in India grant the local inhabitants equal citizenship or voting rights.

The Zionist movement and the emerging State of Israel followed the path marked out by Herzl, which was obviously neither self-evident nor easy, not least because of Arab opposition. The complex situation of Israel’s Arab citizens today—determined to a large extent by the history of Arab-Israeli wars—is admittedly less than ideal. The fact remains, however, that upon declaring independence Israel granted citizenship and voting rights to those Palestinians who remained within its borders, maintained Arabic as its second official language, and allowed Arab citizens to send their children to state schools where the instruction was in Arabic and within a framework of a curriculum respecting—albeit perhaps insufficiently—Arab culture and history. One does not have to compare this with the way the United  States treated its own citizens of Japanese ancestry after Pearl Harbor, or how Germany and France deal today with their mostly Muslim minorities, to realize that Israel measures up as far from the worst of democratic nations that have been confronted with serious minority problems. Herzl’s legacy, and his novel, have been crucial in forging and maintaining this liberal approach.

Recent political developments in Israel have, however, cast a pall on this legacy. Some legislative proposals now coming from some of the right-wing parties in the Knesset are more reminiscent of the imaginary Rabbi Dr. Geyer than of Herzl. While most of these obnoxious and racist draft laws will not be passed by the Knesset or will be annulled by the Supreme Court, some have been adopted, and the very fact that the others were raised and debated has had a poisonous effect on the political and moral climate of the country. That they play into the hands of Israel’s enemies is also obvious. These steps are not only anti-democratic; they are also anti-Zionist and undermine the vision of the Jewish nation-state as a member of the family of nations. The fact that Herzl himself was aware of such a racist potential reminds us both of his remarkable stature and the need for Israel to be true to his legacy.

Herzl was no socialist—he was a typical bourgeois liberal with a conservative bent, and he shied away from socialism, especially in its revolutionary variety, fearing its potential for violence and chaos. Yet his 1898 play Das Neue Ghetto (The New Ghetto) includes a scathing critique of the situation of miners in a stockbroker-owned mine, and Old-New Land reflects the same social awareness. Herzl presents the social and economic structure of the new Jewish society as a synthesis of capitalism and socialism. The society’s imaginary founders have learned the lessons of European social history and instituted a system aimed at avoiding both the extremes of free market capitalism and the dangers of socialism. They embrace the virtues inherent in both systems—learning freedom and initiative from capitalism and equality and justice from socialism. This intermediate solution, which Herzl (following some utopian socialists) called “mutualism,” looks something like what would later come to be called a welfare state, “a third way” between capitalism and socialism.

In Herzl’s New Society, the land is publicly owned, as are natural resources (especially electricity works, which play a central role in Herzl’s futuristic vision); major industries are co-operatively owned by their employees, as are agricultural settlements, but retail trade is in private hands. Members of the society enjoy a wide range of social services: free universal education, free medical care, retirement pensions, and old-age homes—all revolutionary for 1902.

While Herzl did not envisage any need for military service—Old-New Land would be established through an international agreement, ratified by the Ottoman sovereign—there is national service. At age 18, all young men and women undertake two years of national service, in which they serve as teachers, instructors, sanitation workers, hospital nurses, and caregivers for seniors, thus giving back to society what it has already invested in their education, and reciprocating in advance for what they will receive when they themselves are sick, feeble, or old.

Interestingly, and in tune with his criticism of the stock market as an institution in which too many Jews found employment in late-19th-century Europe, there was to be no stock exchange in the New Zion. Herzl believed that a transformative project like the establishment of a Jewish polity in the Land of Israel could not be achieved through the competitive methods of an unbridled capitalist market economy, which would undermine social solidarity and mutual responsibility.

The Jewish community in Palestine, and later the State of Israel, in fact developed along the general lines of Herzl’s vision. This was, admittedly, due far less to any attachment to a Herzlian master plan than to trial and error and the exigencies of the times. The need to buy land from local Arab landowners called for concentrated efforts on a large scale, rather than individual purchases. Likewise, the need for credit called for cooperative rather than individual efforts. The mixed, social-democratic economy of the pre-state Jewish community, with its emphasis on social solidarity and a more or less egalitarian wage system, was a consequence not only out of the ideology and infrastructure of “the state-in-the-making,” but because a state could not be constructed from a small and weak Jewish enclave in Ottoman (and later British) Palestine on the basis of the profit motive.

This trial-and-error welfare state was the lodestar of Israel’s early years, when the embattled country was faced with the mass immigration of destitute Holocaust survivors and equally impoverished refugees from the Middle East. It also made Israel into something of a model for many socially conscious movements in the West, inspiring Israelis and many Diaspora Jews with pride that the Jewish state was becoming “a light unto the nations.”

Over the past two decades, much of this system of social solidarity has been dismantled and replaced by an uncritical adoration of a highly competitive market economy, characterized by an at times overheated stock exchange. Many publicly held industries (either state-owned or Histadrut-controlled) have been privatized, sometimes at rock-bottom prices; public land has been turned over to private entrepreneurs and speculators; much of the egalitarian medical insurance and public hospital system has been supplanted by private medicine; wage and salary differentials have grown to unheard-of dimensions. The Histadrut has ceased to represent the weaker sectors of the working population. Kibbutzim and moshavim have abandoned their collective structures and have ceased to be role models for society at large. Some of this has been due to neo-capitalist trends in a globalized economy; some is the outcome of local forces, reflected in the political structure of the country.

With the dismantling of much of its welfare state, Israel is today not only rather similar to Western capitalist market societies, but miles away from Herzl’s vision of a “mutualist” society. Last summer’s massive social protests expressed the frustrations of many young Israelis, regardless of political affiliation or ideology, with the way Israeli society has evolved. In calling for a more just distribution of the country’s wealth, they were, consciously or unconsciously, reviving the Zionist vision of Herzl’s Old-New Land.

In Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), Herzl’s first Zionist manifesto, he famously stated that, “while we respect our rabbis, we will keep them to their synagogues, just as the army will be kept to its barracks.” Secular Israelis often cite this adage to reinforce the idea that Herzl advocated a clear separation of state and religion. In reality, his position on this question was more complex. When Herzl made arrangements for the convening of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, he directed his assistants to make sure there was a kosher restaurant in town. On the Saturday preceding the opening of the congress, Herzl—not exactly a regular synagogue-goer—visited the local synagogue, where he was honored with an aliyah. He admitted to his diary that he was more deeply moved on this occasion than by his opening speech the next day. Upon visiting Palestine in 1898 with a Zionist delegation, Herzl made sure to demonstrate public respect for religious sensitivities. When their train from Jaffa was delayed and arrived in Jerusalem after the setting of the sun on Friday evening, he and his entourage proceeded on foot from the train station to their hotel near Jerusalem’s Jaffa gate—a considerable distance. Although he was running a fever and had difficulty walking, Herzl found it unacceptable for a Zionist delegation to enter Jerusalem riding in carriages on the Sabbath. A few days later, visiting the Western Wall (where he found the atmosphere of neglect and the presence of beggars repugnant) he decided not to visit the mosques on the Temple Mount, “as there is a rabbinical interdict” against this. Although he had led a basically non-religious life, Herzl was clearly able to distinguish between personal devotion (or lack of it) and the symbolic meaning of respect for religion in the public sphere.

This is equally manifest in Old-New Land. Despite being a modern, highly technological, and basically secular project, the New Society is marked by many features that attest to a spiritual link to the Jewish religious tradition. Indeed the very idea of Zionism is first introduced in Old-New Land by “Dr. Weiss, a simple rabbi from Moravia”—to the derision of the fin de siècle Jewish sophisticates amongst whom he finds himself. One of the central events described in the novel is a Passover Seder, held in Tiberias, presided over by the president of the New Society, at which non-Jewish dignitaries, residents, and tourists, are present. The traditional Hagaddah is read, but it is followed by a detailed rendition of what is called the New Exodus—the story of the mass immigration of Jews from all over the world to the Old New Land.

This same two-tiered approach is reflected in the description of the New Jerusalem. While Haifa is the commercial hub, Jerusalem is the capital, the seat of the country’s legislature, its academy, and other institutions. Herzl describes how the bustling, now modern city, slowly prepares for the Sabbath—shops close, people rush home for family meals or to synagogue: “the Sabbath is evidently dwelling in people’s hearts.”

Not only that: The Temple is being built, though not on the site of the mosques, whose silhouette continues to characterize Jerusalem’s skyline. Yet, Herzl insists, the Temple is built “because the time has come.” Its entrance is adorned by the two columns, Yachin and Boaz, and in its vestibule, the “Sea of Copper” has been constructed “as in olden days, when King Solomon ruled the land.” Yet this is obviously a different, modern institution. There are no animal sacrifices and no priestly ceremonies. The Friday night prayer service is a modernized version of the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat.

This is a mixed message, whose basic wisdom the pre-state Jewish community and the nascent State of Israel tried more or less to uphold. Lacking a constitution, Israel possesses an implied social contract, with roots in the Mandate period, colloquially known as the Status Quo. This unsystematic hodgepodge tries to combine respect for religion in the public sphere—with the preservation of individual freedom not only of religion but also from religion. Hence, there is no public transportation on Saturday, while at the same time hundreds of thousands of Israelis flock to beaches and picnic areas in their private cars. There is no civil marriage, but there is an acceptance by state authorities and the courts of cohabitation and a form of common law marriage as well as of pre-nuptial agreements. It is an uneasy balance, which keeps both the Orthodox and the secularists unhappy.

It is also a dynamic social contract, open to the vagaries of democratic electoral politics, coalition haggling, political blackmail, and sometimes unsavory horse-trading. The process is obviously unpleasant, but it has given the country a modus vivendi based on compromise. Despite all its internal contradictions, this approach has guaranteed relative political stability based on minimal solidarity. It sounds perhaps flippant, but it is a fact that because Israel does not have a constitution, it has never experienced a constitutional crisis; coalition crises—yes, but a fundamental structural, constitutional crisis—no. Yeshayahu Leibowitz once lambasted Israel for being “a secular state living in concubinage with religion” (medina chilonit ha-yedu’a ba-tzbibur ke-datit). I take that as a compliment, as would Herzl.

In recent years, this delicate balance that was in tune with Herzl’s vision appears to be unraveling. Because the religious parties are now much stronger than in the first decades after 1948, religious demands on the state are increasing; because of demographic changes, central spheres of Israeli life, including the army, are now under pressure to follow religious precepts much more thoroughly than ever before. Within the religious community itself, the more radical elements are feeling stronger and more empowered, and have made unprecedented radical demands—like separation between men and women on public transport.

This haredization of the religious community has contributed to a radical, extremely secularist reaction on the part of certain segments of the non-religious population. Some groups have lately moved from a tolerant liberalism to a sometimes violent anti-clericalism that appears to be totally alienated from Judaism as such. Both developments, by undermining the wishy-washy historical compromises that enabled the Zionist project to thrive, are fundamentally destructive. They bring into the Jewish state the historical cleavages of the Diaspora, where there was no Jewish public sphere, no single authority speaking on behalf of the Jewish people. It was precisely this lack of a Jewish central authority and public sphere that led to Haredi self-ghettoization on the one hand, and radical anti-clericalism and atheism on the other. When there is a Jewish public authority, it can only survive on compromises and halfway measures, which cannot possibly satisfy either side. Here, too, it would be helpful to take a leaf out of Herzl’s Old-New Land.

The idea of writing a futuristic novel first occurred to Herzl in Paris in 1895, when he was as yet unsure how to convey his Zionist ideas to the general public. One of his acquaintances, the French author Alphonse Daudet, urged that he write a novel, arguing that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more for abolition than did many learned tomes. At first, Herzl considered but chose not to follow this path and instead approached Jewish magnates like Baron Hirsch and the Rothschilds, with his plans instead. When this failed, he opted for publishing his programmatic The Jewish State, which led to the convening of the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. But the idea of a novel never left him.

He returned to the idea in 1901, by which time his Zionist ideas had already been embodied in institutions and activities emerging from the annual Zionist congresses. So when he claimed, in his preface, that Old-New Land was not a mere utopian novel, but an ideal extension of an already existing reality, he was not being completely unrealistic.

The famous motto Herzl chose for his novel—”If you will it, it is no dream”—has a clear implication. No historical determinism decides the fate of nations. The crucial ingredient is human agency, not “objective” conditions. Ask any schoolchild in Israel who said im tirzu ein zo agadda, and they will immediatedly recognize it as Herzl’s saying. This insistence on the creative and transformative power of human will is as relevant today relevant as it was one hundred and ten years ago, when it was inscribed by Herzl on the front page of his great non-utopian novel.


  1. David Z

    "The Hebrew translation was the work of the Warsaw-based journalist Nahum Sokolov, later to become president of the Zionist Organization, who chose the inspired title Tel Aviv (Hill of Spring or, to Anglo-Americanize, Springhill)."

    As Prof. Avineri knows, it is more than just Hill of Spring as the word Tel is usually used to describe a hill that has built up over archaeological remains. It's a brilliant translation of Alt-Neu.

    I was a little disappointed however in the seeming criticism of more religious accommodation in the IDF as if it's the religious sectors fault for growing and/or for having principles. And the odd conflation with this sector with Haredim was also puzzling. If the secularists were only happy when the religious were a tiny minority, that's very brotherly of them. Psychologically they may feel under stress, but the religious aren't trying to impose much on the secular--most of the stress comes at the local level when Haredim move into neighborhoods and change the character but that happens everywhere in the world. Change sucks.

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