Commentary Magazine


The Jewish State: Fifty Years After

Rereading Herzl’s The Jewish State today is a peculiar experience. One becomes aware that those things in it that Herzl’s own contemporaries would have called utopian now actually determine the ideology and policies of the Zionist movement; while those of Herzl’s practical proposals for the building of a Jewish homeland which must have appeared quite realistic fifty years ago have had no influence whatsoever.

The last is all the more surprising because these practical proposals are far from antiquated even for our own age. Herzl proposed a “Jewish Company” that would build a state with “Relief by Labor”—that is, by paying a “good-for-nothing beggar” charity rates for forced full-time work—and by the “truck system” consisting of labor gangs “drafted from place to place like a body of troops” and paid in goods instead of wages. Herzl was also determined to suppress all “opposition” in case of lack of gratitude on the part of people to whom the land would be given. All this sounds only too familiar. And it is altogether to the honor of the Jewish people that nobody—as far as I know—ever discussed these “realistic” proposals seriously, and that Palestinian reality has turned out to be almost the opposite of what Herzl dreamt.

The above features of Herzl’s program, though happily forgotten in the present political state of affairs in Palestine, are nevertheless significant. For all their innocence, they show to which category of politician in the framework of European history Herzl belonged. When he wrote The Jewish State Herzl was deeply convinced that he was under some sort of higher inspiration, yet at the same time he was earnestly afraid of making a fool of himself. This extreme self-esteem mixed with self-doubt is no rare phenomenon; it is usually the sign of the “crackpot.” And in a sense this Viennese whose style, manner and ideals hardly differed from those of his more obscure fellow-journalists was indeed a crackpot.

But even in Herzl’s time—the time of the Dreyfus Affair, when the crackpots were just embarking on their political careers in many movements functioning outside the parliaments and the regular parties—even then they were already in closer touch with the subterranean currents of history and the deep desires of the folk than were all the sane leaders of affairs with their balanced outlooks and utterly uncomprehending mentalities. The crackpots were already beginning to be prominent everywhere—the anti-Semites Stoecker and Ahlwardt in Germany, Schoenerer and Lueger in Austria, and Drumont and Deroulède in France.

Herzl wrote The Jewish State under the direct and violent impact of these new political forces. And he was among the first to estimate correctly their chances of ultimate success. Even more important, however, than the correctness of his forecast was the fact that he was not altogether out of sympathy with the new movements. When he said, “I believe that I understand anti-Semitism,” he meant that he not only understood historical causes and political constellations, but also that he understood—and to a certain extent, correctly—the man who hated Jews. It is true, his frequent appeals to “honest anti-Semites” to “subscribe small amounts” to the national fund for the establishment of a Jewish state were not very realistic; and he was equally unrealistic when he invited them: “whilst preserving their independence [to] combine with our officials in controlling the transfer of our estates” from the Diaspora to the Jewish homeland; and he frequently asserted, in all innocence, that anti-Semites would be the Jews’ best friends and anti-Semitic governments their best allies. But this faith in anti-Semites expressed very eloquently and even touchingly how close his own state of mind was to that of his hostile environment and how intimately he did belong to the “alien” world.

With the demagogic politicians of his own and more recent times, Herzl shared both a contempt for the masses and a very real affinity with them. And like these same politicians, he was more an incarnation than a representative of the strata of society to which he belonged. He did more than “love” or simply speak for the new and ever increasing class of Jewish “intellects that we produce so super-abundantly and that are persecuted everywhere”; he did more than merely discern in these intellectuals the real luftmenschen of Western Jewry—that is, Jews who, though economically secure, had no place in either Jewish or Gentile society and whose personal problems could be solved only by a reorientation of the Jewish people as a whole. Herzl actually incarnated these Jewish intellectuals in himself in the sense that everything he said or did was exactly what they would have, had they shown an equal amount of moral courage in revealing their inmost secret thoughts.

Another trait Herzl shared with the leaders of the new anti-Semitic movements by whose hostility he was so deeply impressed was the furious will to action at any price—action, however, that was to be conducted according to certain supposedly immutable and inevitable laws and inspired and supported by invincible natural forces. Herzl’s conviction that he was in alliance with history and nature themselves saved him from the suspicion that he himself might have been insane. Anti-Semitism was an overwhelming force and the Jews would have either to make use of it or be swallowed up by it. In his own words, anti-Semitism was the “propelling force” responsible for all Jewish suffering since the destruction of the Temple and it would continue to make the Jews suffer until they learned how to use it for their own advantage. In expert hands this “propelling force” would prove the most salutary factor in Jewish life: it would be used the same way that boiling water is used to produce steam power.

This mere will to action was something so startlingly new, so utterly revolutionary in Jewish life, that it spread with the speed of wildfire. Herzl’s lasting greatness lay in his very desire to do something about the Jewish question, his desire to act and to solve the problem in political terms.

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During the twenty centuries of their Diaspora the Jews have made only two attempts to change their condition by direct political action. The first was the Sabbatai Zevi movement, the mystic-political movement for the salvation of Jewry which terminated the Jewish Middle Ages and brought about a catastrophe whose consequences determined Jewish attitudes and basic convictions for over two centuries thereafter. In preparing as they did to follow Sabbatai Zevi, the self-appointed “Messiah,” back to Palestine in the mid-1600′s, the Jews assumed that their ultimate hope of a Messianic millennium was about to be realized. Until Sabbatai Zevi’s time they had been able to conduct their communal affairs by means of a politics that existed in the realm of imagination alone—the memory of a far-off past and the hope of a far-off future. With the Sabbatai Zevi movement these centuries-old memories and hopes culminated in a single exalted moment. Its catastrophical aftermath brought to a close-probably forever—the period in which religion alone could provide the Jews with a firm framework within which to satisfy their political, spiritual and everyday needs. The attendant disillusionment was lasting in so far as from then on their religion no longer afforded the Jews an adequate means of evaluating and dealing with contemporary events, political or otherwise. Whether a Jew was pious or not, whether he kept the Law or lived outside its fence, he was henceforth to judge secular events on a secular basis and make secular decisions in secular terms.

Jewish secularization culminated at last in a second attempt to dissolve the Diaspora. This was the rise of the Zionist movement.

The mere fact that a catastrophe had thrown the Jews from the two extremes of the past and the future into the middle ground of the present does not signify that they had now become “realistic.” To be confronted by reality does not automatically produce an understanding of reality or make one feel at home in it. On the contrary, the process of secularization made Jews even less “realistic”—that is, less capable than ever before of facing and understanding the real situation. In losing their faith in a divine beginning and ultimate culmination of history, the Jews lost their guide through the wilderness of bare facts; for when man is robbed of all means of interpreting events he is left with no sense whatsoever of reality. The present that confronted the Jews after the Sabbatai Zevi debacle was the turmoil of a world whose course no longer made sense and in which, as a result, the Jews could no longer find a place.

The need for a guide or key to history was felt by all Jews alike. But by the 19th century it was a need that was not at all specific to the Jews alone. In this context Zionism can be included among the many “isms” of that period, each of which claimed to explain reality and predict the future in terms of irresistible laws and forces. Yet the case of the Jews was and still remains different. What they needed was not only a guide to reality, but reality itself; not simply a key to history, but the experience itself of history.

As I have just indicated, this need of reality had existed since the collapse of the Sabbatai Zevi movement and the disappearance of Messianic hope as a lively factor in the consciousness of the Jewish masses. But it became an effective force only at the end of the x9th century, mainly because of two entirely separate factors whose coincidence produced Zionism and formed Herzl’s ideology.

The first of these factors had little to do, essentially, with Jewish history. It so happened that in the 80′s of the last century anti-Semitism sprang up as a political force simultaneously in Russia, Germany, Austria and France. The pogroms of 1881 in Russia set in motion that huge migratory movement from East to West which remained the most characteristic single feature of modern Jewish history until 1933. Moreover, the emergence of political anti-Semitism at exactly the same moment in both Central and Western Europe and the support, if not leadership, given it by sizable sections of the European intelligentsia refuted beyond doubt the traditional liberal contention that Jewhatred was only a remnant of the so-called Dark Ages.

But even more important for the political history of the Jewish people was the fact that the Westward migration-despite the objections to the “Ostjuden” so loudly voiced by the emancipated Jews of the West—brought together the two main sections of Jewry, laid the foundation for a new feeling of solidarity—at least among the moral élite—and taught both Eastern and Western Jews to see their situation in identical terms. The Russian Jew who came to Germany in flight from persecution discovered that enlightenment had not extinguished violent Jew-hatred, and the German Jew who saw the homelessness of his Eastern brother began to view his own situation in a different light.

The second factor responsible for the rise of Zionism was entirely Jewish—it was the emergence of a class entirely new to Jewish society, the intellectuals, of whom Herzl became the main spokesman and whom he himself termed the class of “average (durchschnittliche) intellects.” These intellectuals resembled their brethren in the more traditional Jewish occupations in so far as they, too, were entirely de-Judaized in respect to culture and religion. What distinguished them was that they no longer lived in a cultural vacuum; they had actually become “assimilated”: they were not only de-Judaized, they were also Westernized. This, however, did not make for their social adjustment. Although Gentile society did not receive them on equal terms, they had no place in Jewish society either, because they did not fit into its atmosphere of business and family connections.

The psychological result of their situation was to make these Jewish intellectuals the first Jews in history capable of understanding anti-Semitism on its own political terms, and even to make them susceptible to the deeper and more basic political attitudes of which anti-Semitism was but one expression among others.

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The two classic pamphlets of Zionist literature, Pinsker’s Auto-emancipation and Herzl’s The Jewish State, were written by members of this new Jewish class. For the first time Jews saw themselves as a people through the eyes of the nations: “To the living the Jew is a corpse, to the native a foreigner, to the homesteader a vagrant, to the proprietor a beggar, to the poor an exploiter and millionaire, to the patriot a man without a country, to all a hated rival”—this was the characteristically precise and sober way Pinsker put it. Both Herzl and Pinsker identified the Jewish question in all its aspects and connections with the fact of anti-Semitism, which both conceived of as the natural reaction of all peoples, always and everywhere, to the very existence of Jews. As Pinsker put it, and as both believed, the Jewish question could be solved only by “finding a means of reintegrating this exclusive element in the family of nations so that the basis of the Jewish question would be permanently removed.”

What still is Zionism’s advantage over assimilationism is that it placed the whole question on a political level from the very beginning and asked for this “readjustment” in political terms. The assimilationists sought readjustment no less desperately, but spent their energies in founding innumerable vocational-training societies for Jews without, however, having the least power to force Jews to change their occupations. The intellectual followers of assimilationism carefully avoided political issues and invented the “salt of the earth” theory, making it quite clear that they would prefer the crudest secularization of the Jewish religious concept of chosenness to any radical re-definition of the Jewish position in the world of nations.

In other words, the great advantage of the Zionists’ approach lay in the fact that their will to convert the Jews into a “nation like all other nations” saved them from falling into that Jewish brand of chauvinism automatically produced by secularization, which somehow persuades the average de-Judaized Jew that, although he no longer believes in a God who chooses or rejects, he is still a superior being simply because he happened to be born a Jew—the salt of the earth—or the motor of history.

The Zionist will to action, to come to grips with reality, embodied a second advantage—this time over the internationalist and revolutionary approach to the Jewish question. This approach, no less than assimilationist chauvinism, was the consequence of the secularization of religious attitudes. But it was not initiated by average Jews, rather by an élite. Having lost their hope of a Messianic millenium that would bring about the final reconciliation of all peoples, these Jews transferred their hopes to the progressive forces of history which would solve the Jewish question automatically, along with all other injustices. Revolutions in the social systems of other peoples would create a mankind without classes and nations; the Jews together with their problems would be dissolved in this new mankind—at the end of days somehow. What happened in the meantime did not count so much; Jews would have to suffer as a matter of course along with all other persecuted classes and peoples.

The Zionists’ fight against this spurious selflessness—which could only arouse suspicion as to the ultimate aims and motives of a policy that expected one’s own people to behave like saints and to make the chief sacrifices—has been of great importance because it tried to teach the Jews to solve their problems by their own efforts, not by those of others.

But this struggle hardly enters the picture of Herzl’s Zionism. He had a blind hatred of all revolutionary movements as such and an equally blind faith in the goodness and stability of the society of his times. The aspect of Zionism here in question received its best expression in the writings of the great French Jewish writer, Bernard Lazare. Lazare wanted to be a revolutionary among his own people, not among others, and could find no place in Herzl’s essentially reactionary movement.

Yet in considering Herzl’s movement as a whole and in assessing his definite merits within the given historical situation, it is necessary to say that Zionism opposed a comparatively sound nationalism to the hidden chauvinism of assimilationism and a relatively sound realism to the obvious utopianism of Jewish radicals.

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However, the more ideological and utopian elements expressed in The Jewish State had greater influence in the long run on the formulations and practice of Zionism than did the undeniable assets set forth above. Herzl’s will to reality at any price rested on a view that held reality to be an unchanging and unchangeable structure, always identical with itself. In this reality he saw little else but eternally established nation-states arrayed compactly against the Jews on one side, and on the other side the Jews themselves, in dispersion and eternally persecuted. Nothing else mattered: differences in class structure, differences between political parties or movements, between various countries or various periods of history did not exist for Herzl. All that did exist were unchanging bodies of people viewed as biological organisms mysteriously endowed with eternal life; these bodies breathed an unchanging hostility toward the Jews that was ready to take the form of pogroms or persecution at any moment. Any segment of reality that could not be defined by anti-Semitism was not taken into account and any group that could not be definitely classed as anti-Semitic was not taken seriously as a political force.

Jewish political action meant for Herzl finding a place within the unchanging structure of this reality, a place where Jews would be safe from hatred and eventual persecution. A people without a country would have to escape to a country without a people; there the Jews, unhampered by relations with other nations, would be able to develop their own isolated organism.

Herzl thought in terms of nationalism inspired from German sources—as opposed to the French variety, which could never quite repudiate its original relationship to the political ideas of the French Revolution. He did not realize that the country he dreamt of did not exist, that there was no place on earth where a people could live like the organic national body he had in mind and that the real historical development of a nation does not take place inside the closed walls of a biological entity. And even if there had been a country without a people and even if questions of foreign policy had not arisen in Palestine itself, Herzl’s brand of political philosophy would still have given rise to serious difficulties in the relations of the new Jewish state with other nations.

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Even more unrealistic but just as influential was Herzl’s belief that the establishment of a Jewish state would automatically wipe out anti-Semitism. This belief was based on his assumption of the essential honesty and sincerity of the anti-Semites, in whom he saw nothing but nationalists pure and simple. This point of view may have been appropriate before the end of the g9th century, when anti-Semitism did actually derive more or less from the feeling that Jews were strangers within any given homogeneous society. But by Herzl’s own time anti-Semitism had become transformed into a political weapon of a new kind and was supported by the new sect of racists whose loyalties and hatreds did not stop at national boundaries.

The fault in Herzl’s approach to anti-Semitism lay in the fact that the anti-Semites he had in view were hardly extant any more—or if they were, they no longer determined anti-Semitic politics. The real anti-Semites had become dishonest and wanted to preserve the availability of the Jew as a scapegoat in case of domestic difficulties; or else, if they were “honest,” they wanted to exterminate the Jews wherever they happened to live. There was no escape from either variety of anti-Semite into a promised land “whose upbuilding”—in Weizmann’s words—“would be the answer to anti-Semitism.”

The upbuilding of Palestine is indeed a great accomplishment and could be made an important and even decisive argument for Jewish claims in Palestine—at least a better and more convincing one than the current pleas that argue our desperate situation in Europe and the justifiability, therefore, of the “lesser injustice” that would be done to the Arabs. But the upbuilding of Palestine has little to do with answering the anti-Semites; at most it has “answered” the secret self-hatred and lack of self-confidence on the part of those Jews who have themselves consciously or unconsciously succumbed to some parts of anti-Semitic propaganda.

The third thesis of Herzl’s political philosophy was the Jewish state. Though for Herzl himself this was certainly the most daring and attractive facet of the whole, the demand for a state seemed neither doctrinaire nor utopian at the time his book was first published. In Herzl’s view reality could hardly express itself in any other form than that of the nation-state. In his period, indeed, the claim for national self-determination of peoples was almost self-evident justice as far as the oppressed peoples of Europe were concerned, and so there was nothing absurd or wrong in a demand made by Jews for the same kind of emancipation and freedom. And that the whole structure of sovereign national states, great and small, would crumble within another fifty years under imperialist expansion and in the face of a new power situation, was more than Herzl could have foreseen. His demand for a state has been made utopian only by more recent Zionist policy-which did not ask for a state at a time when it might have been granted by everybody, but did ask for one only when the whole concept of national sovereignty had become a mockery.

Justified as Herzl’s demand for a Jewish state may have been in his own time, his way of advancing it showed the same unrealistic touch as elsewhere. The opportunism with which he carried on his negotiations to this end stemmed from a political concept that saw the destinies of the Jews as completely without connection with the destinies of other nations, and saw Jewish demands as unrelated to all other events and trends. Although the demand for a state could be understood in his period only in terms of national self-determination, Herzl was very careful not to tie the claims for Jewish liberation to the claims of other peoples. He was even ready to profit by the minority troubles of the Turkish empire and he offered the rulers of that empire Jewish aid in coping with them. In this instance Herzl’s was the classical example of a policy hard-boiled enough to seem “realistic,” but in reality completely utopian because it failed to take into account either one’s own or the other party’s relative strength.

The constant miscalculations that were to become so characteristic of Zionist policy are not accidental. The universality with which Herzl applied his concept of anti-Semitism to all non-Jewish peoples made it impossible from the very beginning for the Zionists to seek truly loyal allies. His notion of reality as an eternal, unchanging hostile structure—all goyim everlastingly against all Jews—made the identification of hard-boiledness with realism plausible because it rendered any empirical analysis of actual political factors seemingly superfluous. All one had to do was use the “propelling force of anti-Semitism,” which, like “the wave of the future,” would bring the Jews into the promised land.

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Today reality has become a nightmare. Looked at through the eyes of Herzl, who from the outside sought a place inside reality into which the Jews could fit and where at the same time they could isolate themselves from it—looked at in this way, reality is horrible beyond the scope of the human imagination and hopeless beyond the strength of human despair. Only when we come to feel ourselves part and parcel of a world in which we, like everybody else, are engaged in a struggle against great and sometimes overwhelming odds, and yet with a chance of victory, however small, and with allies, however few—only when we recognize the human background against which recent events have taken place, knowing that what was done was done by men and therefore can and must be prevented by men—only then will we be able to rid the world of its nightmarish quality. That quality taken in itself and viewed from the outside—by people who consider themselves as cut off from the nightmarish world in principle and who are thus ready to accept the course of that world “realistically”—can inhibit all action and exclude us altogether from the human community.

Herzl’s picture of the Jewish people as surrounded and forced together by a world of enemies has in our day conquered the Zionist movement and become the common sentiment of the Jewish masses. Our failure to be surprised at this development does not make Herzl’s picture any truer—it only makes it more dangerous. If we actually are faced with open or concealed enemies on every side, if the whole world is ultimately against us, then we are lost.

For Herzl’s way out has been closed—his hope in an escape from the world and his naive faith in appeasement through escape have been rendered illusory. Altneuland is no longer a dream. It has become a very real place where Jews live together with Arabs and it has also become a central junction of world communications. Whatever else it may be, Palestine is not a place where Jews can live in isolation, nor is it a promised land where they would be safe from anti-Semitism. The simple truth is that Jews will have to fight anti-Semitism everywhere or else be exterminated everywhere. Though Zionists no longer regard anti-Semitism as an ally, they do, however, seem to be more convinced than ever that to struggle against it is hopeless—if only because we would have to fight the whole world.

The danger of the present situation—in which Herzl’s Zionism is accepted as a matter of course as the determinant of Zionist policy—lies in the semblance to commonsense that the recent experiences of the Jews in Europe have lent Herzl’s philosophy. Beyond doubt, the center of Jewish politics today is constituted by the remnants of European Jewry now in the camps of Germany. Not only is all our political activity concentrated upon them—even more important is the fact that our whole political outlook springs of necessity from their experiences, from our solidarity with them.

Every one of these surviving Jews is the last survivor of a family, every one of them was saved only by a miracle, every one of them has had the basic experience of witnessing and feeling the complete breakdown of international solidarity. Among all those who were persecuted, only Jews were singled out for certain death. What the Nazis or the Germans did was not decisive in this connection; what was decisive was the experiences of the Jews with the majority of all the other nationalities and even with the political prisoners in the concentration camps. The question is not whether the non-Jewish anti-fascists could have done more than they actually did for their Jewish comrades—the essential point is that only the Jews were sent inevitably to the gas chambers; and this was enough to draw a line between them that, perhaps, no amount of good will could have erased. For the Jews who experienced this, all Gentiles became alike. This is what lies at the bottom of their present strong desire to go to Palestine. It is not that they imagine they will be safe there—it is only that they want to live among Jews alone, come what may.

Another experience—also of great importance to the future of Jewish politics-was gained from the realization, not that six million Jews had been killed, but that they had been driven to death helplessly, like cattle. There are stories telling how Jews tried to obviate the indignity of this death by their attitude and bearing as they were marched to the gas chambers—they sang or they made defiant gestures indicating that they did not accept their fate as the last word upon them.

What the survivors now want above all else is the right to die with dignity—in case of attack, with weapons in their hands. Gone, probably forever, is that chief concern of the Jewish people for centuries: survival at any price. Instead, we find something essentially new among Jews, the desire for dignity at any price.

As great an asset as this new development would be to an essentially sane Jewish political movement, it nevertheless constitutes something of a danger within the present framework of Zionist attitudes. Herzl’s doctrine, deprived as it now is of its original confidence in the helpful nature of anti-Semitism, can only encourage suicidal gestures for whose ends the natural heroism of people who have become accustomed to death can be easily exploited. Some of the Zionist leaders pretend to believe that the Jews can maintain themselves in Palestine against the whole world and that they themselves can persevere in claiming everything or nothing against everybody and everything. However, behind this spurious optimism lurks a despair of everything and a genuine readiness for suicide that can become extremely dangerous should they grow to be the mood and atmosphere of Palestinian politics.

There is nothing in Herzlian Zionism that could act as a check on this; on the contrary, the utopian and ideological elements with which he injected the new Jewish will to political action are only too likely to lead the Jews out of reality once more—and out of the sphere of political action. I do not know—nor do I even want to know—what would happen to Jews all over the world and to Jewish history in the future should we meet with a catastrophe in Palestine. But the parallels with the Sabbatai Zevi episode have become terribly close.

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