Near the end of the nineteenth century, Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist who would wrestle with the plight of Jews amid the enticements and dangers of modernity, felt trapped. For his son’s sake he considered conversion to Christianity; to solve the vexing “Jewish Question” he even fantasized the mass conversion of Jews.
Yet Herzl also worried lest the freedom enjoyed by newly emancipated Jews lead to assimilation (as, indeed, it did for Herzl himself). In the end, he decided the solution could be found in Zionism, the nascent national movement that had begun to inspire handfuls of Russian lovers of Zion (known as Hovevei Zion) to relocate to Palestine and rebuild a Jewish community there.
The virulent French anti-Semitism that erupted in 1894 with the scandalous trial and conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for treason convinced Herzl that Jews were “one people” needing a state of their own. “We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers,” he wrote. But, he concluded, “it is not permitted us.” Religion alone was insufficient.
Herzl’s The Jewish State, published two years later, was his plea for a Zionist solution to the Jewish problem. But Herzl was too much the assimilated Viennese gentleman to want anything other than an “aristocratic republic” (preferably modeled on Switzerland), which would become an “outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism” in the Middle East.
His dream of a Jewish state was conspicuous for its Jewish barrenness. Jewish history, for Herzl, was a burden from which emancipated Jews, even Zionists, must escape. Religion offended him: “We do not mean to found a theocracy,” he wrote, “but a tolerant modern civil state” in which “our clergy” would not have “even the slightest chance to assert their whims.” His Jerusalem would feature a grand Temple, emptied of Jewish content, and an Old City that would become “an international centre which all nations might regard as their home.”
In Herzl’s multilingual state “every man can preserve the language in which his thoughts are at home.” After all, he wondered, “Who among us knows enough Hebrew to ask for a train ticket?” Yiddish, the “stunted and twisted jargon” of Eastern European Jews, was a ghetto remnant deserving to be eradicated. Jewish culture must draw upon Enlightenment virtues: “justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity, and beauty.” Herzl cared little about the location of a Jewish state; as between Argentina and Palestine he was indifferent.
Herzl’s call for the revival of Jewish nationalism proved equally offensive to the Protestrabbiner (as he labeled his European religious opponents) as it did to the enlightened and emancipated Jews of modernity. Because American Jews already stood on “freedom’s holy soil,” prominent Reform rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise declared, Zionism was nothing more than “a momentary inebriation of morbid minds.”
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Secular Zionists succeeded in creating the old-new land of Herzl’s imagination. Against seeming insuperable odds, Israel not only survived the murderous hostility of its enemies; it flourished. Finally, Jews could once again live as citizens in their own country and, if necessary, die defending it.
But neither the Zionist movement nor its ultimate fulfillment in Jewish statehood could resolve the underlying tension between competing Israeli and Diaspora visions of Jewish modernity: independence or assimilation. Jewish leaders in the United States were infuriated when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion appealed to young American Jews to make aliyah to the fledgling state. Then and ever since, the overwhelming majority of American Jews have preferred to remain where they are, ever more closely identified with the liberalism that has been their entry ticket to mainstream American society.
It might be said that American Jews have remained faithful to the teaching of Jeremiah after the Babylonian exile: “Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them.” Indeed, when Ezra led the exiled community from Babylon back to Jerusalem, he discovered an “unclean” land whose Israelites, hardly immune to the enticements of foreign cultures, had adopted their “abominations.” Exile, even then, might also occur at home.
The pursuit of normality, given the tragedies and horrors of Jewish history, inspired Zionism, and statehood was its astonishing – and historically unprecedented – achievement. But the tension between a normal and a chosen people, between secular liberalism and Judaism, would remain deeply embedded in the fledgling state. Indeed, Israel has long displayed its own Zionist version of the tale of two cities, with Tel Aviv as the apex of secular Zionist hedonism and Jerusalem as the sanctuary of Jewish history and memory.
Built a century ago on sand dunes along the Mediterranean shore, Tel Aviv symbolized the Zionist repudiation of Jewish memory. With its back to the geographical cradle of Jewish history in the Samarian hills, it faced west toward modern sources of inspiration, at first Europe – witness the Bauhaus architecture in the old city center – and eventually the United States.