As the Israeli political theorist Shlomo Avineri observes in his new book, “Herzl”, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) was not the first European Jewish intellectual to call for the establishment of a Jewish nation state. He had notable predecessors in, among others, Moses Hess and Leo Pinsker. Nevertheless, Avineri writes, “Herzl’s activity was crucial in creating the institutional and organisational structure which helped to bring the idea of a Jewish state to the attention of world leaders and international public opinion.” Herzl died more than 40 years before the founding of the state of Israel, but he can plausibly be said to have done much to lay the groundwork for it.
I spoke to Avineri about his book on the phone from Israel, where he is Professor of Political Science at the University of Jerusalem.
JD: Your book begins with a paradox: Theodor Herzl’s political itinerary—and that of Zionism itself—began in the second half of the 19th century, a period that you describe as “one of the best times ever for European Jews.”
SA: First, it’s worth bearing in mind that the good times didn’t really extend to Jews in the Russian empire. There the situation was different. Zionism really grew up in central and western Europe, where the situation was basically positive. The view of many Jewish people at the time was that if there was Jew-hatred, it had to do with religious prejudices and that these would disappear with the advent of enlightenment, liberalism and democracy. What I try to argue in the second chapter of the book is that new issues were emerging, which had to do not with religious prejudices or theology, but precisely with the relative success of Jews. There were groups in European society which felt threatened, in the world of finance and also in the arts, sciences and so on. A lot of Jewish people thought this would simply disappear. There was a sort of deterministic liberalism which said, “We’re out of the dark ages, and while there may be some bumps in the road, basically we know where we’re going.” But Herzl had doubts about where things were leading.
You mentioned the radically different experiences, in the second half of the 19th century, of Jews in the Russian empire compared to those of Jews in western and central Europe. Would it be fair to say, therefore, that Zionism—or at least the idea of a Palestine as a safe haven from antisemitism—was born in Russia?
The idea was born in eastern Europe, yes. In Russia there were 20 years of liberalisation under Alexander II, roughly between 1862 and 1882. He freed the serfs, he opened up universities and society more generally, and as a consequence Jews felt more comfortable. You get a great influx of Jews into high schools and universities. It came to an end with the assassination of Alexander in 1881, which is when the pogroms broke out and the hope that things were getting better began to recede. That’s when the first proto-Zionist groups emerged. But there’s an important distinction to make here: those people were not thinking politically. They were thinking about emigration, creating Jewish settlements in Palestine, but they weren’t thinking politically. In a way, they were cut off from the political world—they were living in the Pale of Settlement and knew what was bugging them, but they didn’t know what was happening elsewhere. Herzl realised that you needed institutions, that you had to have a movement and also that you had to play a role on the international scene, with diplomacy and statecraft. It wasn’t enough to have good people supporting the downtrodden Jews. You had to deal with Realpolitik, and that’s why Herzl met with all kinds of people, some of them not very pleasant.
So for you what’s distinctive about Herzl’s thinking is that it’s political in a way that, say, Leo Pinsker’s wasn’t?
The most important thing about Herzl is not just that he was thinking about a state. People in Russia in the early 1880s had also been thinking about a state, about the possibility of an autonomous region in Palestine. For me, Herzl’s political Zionism is not just about aims, it’s also about means. He saw that if you want to achieve a state, or autonomy within the Turkish empire, you have to create the vehicles for it—an organisation that speaks for the Jews. That’s why he says after the first Zionist congress, “Here, I have created the Jewish state.” He hadn’t, of course, but he had created mechanisms and organisations that could speak, with a little bit of chutzpah, for all Jews. Before then, Jewish people did not have that sort of political organisation.
One last question about Russia. You spend quite a bit of time in the book discussing the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, which lasted for three days and in which almost 50 Jews were murdered. How decisive do you think that was in the development of the Zionist movement?
In terms of public opinion and the visibility of the “Jewish question”, very decisive. In 1882, there were huge pogroms that were much worse than Kishinev, but at that time, partly because of the state of mass communications, people didn’t pay that much attention. Though they did create the impetus for mass Jewish immigration, mainly to the United States, but also to Palestine. The first Jewish settlements in Palestine were set up after 1882. But Kishinev was visible. This was the beginning of the 20th century, which people thought would be the century of enlightenment. It also happened very close to the western border of Russia, so a lot of refugees streamed into Austria and Germany. There were also photographs. So things were very different. Kishinev was also decisive because it had an immediate impact on the standing of Russia. By 1903, it was widely thought that Russia was entering European society, that it was changing, reforming—then all of a sudden you have Kishinev.
Herzl reported on the Dreyfus Affair when working as a journalist in France in the 1890s. How important was that episode for him?
The Dreyfus Affair is never mentioned in Herzl’s diaries as a trigger [for his views]. Initially, he thought it was just a run of the mill spying case. The Jewish aspect of it really only emerged after Herzl had left Paris. He had come to his conclusions about Zionism before the Dreyfus Affair, mainly as a response to what was happening in Austria-Hungary. In the late 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian empire was the best place for Jews in the whole of Europe. Then suddenly it all falls apart, due to clashing nationalisms and the emergent German nationalism in Vienna. I quote Herzl in the book saying that all the small nations in the Austro-Hungarian empire will gain their homeland, but we, the Jews, will lose ours. That homeland was a relatively liberal, multinational, multicultural empire.
You do point out, however, that one of Herzl’s articles about Dreyfus, published in January 1895, became, as you put it, part of the “Zionist canon”, as well as a staple of history textbooks in Israeli schools. What is the moral that Israeli schoolchildren are encouraged to draw from Herzl’s writing on Dreyfus? Is it that Jews in the diaspora, however well assimilated, will always be suspected of dual loyalties?
That is one way of putting it. I think the idea is not so much that Jews in the diaspora will always be viewed as traitors, but that if there is a crisis, then assimilation doesn’t really help you. In a way, when the Austro-Hungarian empire broke up after the First World War and new nation states were established, Herzl’s dire prophecy was vindicated. With the exception of Czechoslovakia, which was relatively liberal, all the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian empire—Romania, Hungary, Austria itself, Poland—were very nationalistic places in which the Jews had the status of a national minority in a nation state. That wasn’t the case in Austria-Hungary, where they were a minority in an empire made up of minorities.
I’d like to turn to Herzl’s best-known work, The Jewish State: Proposal of a Modern Solution for the Jewish Question, which was published in 1896. You see it bringing about a shift in Jewish emancipatory thinking from, as you put it, “trying to achieve individual rights to gaining recognition as a nation.” That’s almost a direct reversal of the famous and influential formulation of Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, who, in 1789, declared in the French national assembly: “To the Jews as individuals—everything; to the Jews as a nation—nothing.”
Precisely. The connection is very clear. Initially, when Jews welcomed equal rights they thought once I, as a Jewish person, have equal citizenship and can pray to my god without being persecuted, then everything is solved. But what is not solved is the question of identity. Identity is not an individual matter, it is a communitarian one.
To what extent, therefore, do you think Herzl’s thinking was influenced by the growth of nationalism in Europe in the 19th century? Or, to put it another way, to what extent is Zionism an artefact of late 19th-century European nationalism?
There is no doubt that it is. European nationalism in the 19th century made Jews strangers or foreigners for the first time. Whatever you say about the Middle Ages, Jews then were viewed as the “other”, but not as alien. Modern European nationalism therefore created a different identity for the Jews. And when Jewish nationalism developed, it was very much a mirror image of European nationalism—in both its liberal form, with Herzl, and also in some of its illiberal manifestations, which Herzl brings out in his utopian novel Altneuland (1902) with the figure of the Jewish racist, who is the mirror image of the European antisemite.
Herzl envisaged no separation between religion and state in a future Jewish homeland did he? But nevertheless, his plan provided for full civic equality for other religions.
The separation of church and state is largely an American and a French idea. It is not at the core of 19th-century European liberalism. John Stuart Mill, for example, had no problems with the existence of an established church in Britain. Herzl is in that tradition. The issue with religion for him is not an institutional one. Obviously, in his account, religion is in the public sphere, but this goes hand in hand with equal rights for minorities. And not only in individual terms but also in collective terms. The Arabs in Herzl’s land don’t just have individual rights; they also keep their culture.
How would you characterise Herzl’s attitude towards the Arab population of Palestine?
Herzl devoted almost a third of Altneuland to the rights of non-Jews. It was something that Herzl was very much aware of—and in a very paradoxical way. In Herzl’s utopia there is also a shadow—the emergence of a Jewish racist party which is eventually vanquished, but it exists; the danger is there. Jews can be as racist as anyone else. The difference is that in Europe, the racists won, but in Zion they will not, in Herzl’s view. What he was not aware of was the possibility of the emergence of an Arab nationalist movement which would, in a way, derive much of its power from countering Zionism. But this was 1902, and then you would not find among liberals and socialists in Europe any intimation of the future emergence of nationalist movements in the Arab world. Herzl was, on the one hand, a liberal in his attitude towards the Arab population in Palestine, but he was also constrained by the times in which he lived.
Your book was originally published in Israel in 2008. Was it received there as an intervention in current debates about the future of the state of Israel in the guise of a work of history?
To some extent, yes—particularly in relation to the current discussion about the rights of Arabs in the Jewish state, but also in relation to social issues. When the book came out in Israel, it was the height of the shift, under Binyamin Netanyahu, in Israeli domestic policy from wishy-washy social democracy to a very aggressive capitalism. While Herzl was certainly not a socialist, he was thinking about a third way [between socialism and capitalism], which he called “mutualism”. So Zionism is not just about a Jewish state, but about a state with social justice.
How widely read in Israel is Herzl today? What place does he occupy in the Israeli national imagination?
Is he widely read? No. But did people in the Soviet Union really read Marx’s Capital from cover to cover? No. He’s not widely read. But in the national imagination, he stands for a certain vision of the [Jewish] state.
“Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundations of the Jewish State” by Shlomo Avineri is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)