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…