Herzl, Past and Future

It is my full intention to keep writing about Herzl, simply because, as I have discovered, Israelis can’t seem to stop talking about him.
May 31, 2023
“Theodor Herzl in Yoga Tree Position” by Itamar Tal

A society uncertain of its present and its future will certainly look backward at times. The past is often glorified, romanticized and sometimes weaponized on ideological lines to attack those who desire a different future, and the future will be endlessly pontificated over and proselytized to fit an infinite number of narratives. Obviously, I am talking about Israel here, a country in which it feels like each and every citizen has a different view of how the state came into being, what is the state of the country today, and what lies in store in the coming years. A central figure in these discussions, whom I have written about many times, is Theodor Herzl,  called “the spiritual father of the state” by Israelis. It is my full intention to keep writing about Herzl, simply because, as I have discovered, Israelis can’t seem to stop talking about him. Every day there is a new opinion column, a new sign at a protest march, a new drink named in his honor at the juice stand on Bograshov Street, or a new piece of art for the public to enjoy. 

One such piece of art is “Theodor,” a Hebrew opera currently playing at the Israeli Opera House that I had the privilege of attending this past week. In “Theodor,” the audience is invited to view critical years in Herzl’s life, beginning with his induction into a German nationalist fraternity when he came of age, only to be excommunicated when he expressed disapproval at his brothers’ eulogy for the deeply antisemitic composer Richard Wagner. We see Herzl grapple with the implications of the Dreyfus trial several decades later in Paris, we see his short-lived idea of mass converting all the Jews to Christianity, and finally we see the deeply personal anguish that led to Herzl writing his seminal pamphlet that officially launched political Zionism, Der Judenstaat.” 

The reason I was so thoroughly intrigued by this production was because it deeply humanized a figure who is almost myth-like in the Israeli and wider Jewish imagination. There is a scene in the first act where a disgruntled and estranged Herzl wanders through a seedy neighborhood in Paris and is tempted to pay a pimp for his daughter’s services. It’s dark stuff. But the founder of the state was reported to be miserable with women and lonelier than what could be considered bearable, so in my opinion the scene is as necessary as it is scandalous. 

But that wasn’t all. At the end of “Theodor,” when Herzl gets the final burst of inspiration to pen his dream for a renewed Jewish civilization in Eretz Yisrael, he sings in melodic Hebrew:  “Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.” 

The crowd around me burst into thunderous applause at this line. I smiled, reminded of when I used to sit in Broadway shows in New York, and the same reaction commenced when an actor sang a line like “Immigrants, We Get the Job Done.” As I have mentioned, the likeness of Herzl remains political, and reliably fashioned to become the poster child of varying ideologies within Israel. The left cherry-picks lines from “Der Judenstaat” and “Altneuland” to bolster and validate their own beliefs while the right does the same. 

Another artistic endeavor is a new book called “Herzl’s Vision Today,” a compilation of essays on how Herzl would perceive life in Israel based on his 19th-century vision, featuring words from such esteemed figures as Yossi Klein Halevi and Yosef Abramowitz (whom I interviewed on Herzl’s legacy several months ago). Halevi and Abramowitz both clearly see Herzl’s vision unfulfilled by Israel’s continual struggles with liberalism, pluralism and democracy. “A first step would be amending the Nation-State Law to affirm Israel’s dual identity, as a Jewish and democratic state,” Halevi recommends. “For their part, Arab citizens need to reconsider the wisdom of electing representatives who allow right-wing demagogues to delegitimize the Arab community.” In his following essay, Abramowitz writes of one visit to Herzl’s grave in Jerusalem with his daughter Ashira, while a debate raged in the Knesset just a short walk north of them. The argument was over allocation of electric resources for Israel’s Arab sector, and overseeing the proceedings was Mansour Abbas, then the leader of the first Arab party to be in a governing coalition, sitting below a portrait of Herzl himself. 

“Ashira and I approach the grave and place the phone with the live Knesset debate onto the grave,” Abramowitz pens. “Mansour Abbas, from the Speaker’s chair, not only declares victory by a vote of 61-0, but calls up MK Iman Khatib-Yasin for closing words, which she delivers in Arabic, wearing a hijab. Herzl appreciates the sweet drama, the attempt to right a social wrong against Arab citizens. With the historic vote done, we turn off our phones.” 

Feeling inspired and politically validated (a dangerous combination if there ever was one), I was excited to sit down with Carol Manheim, the publisher of “Herzl’s Vision Today,” to get some further insight on the themes in her book. But curiously, Manheim directed me away from most political questions, and instead focused my attention on the art that is sprinkled around the essays. And perhaps she was right that I was focusing too much on written messaging and not enough on the work of the artists she had made an effort to include. Upon closer inspection, one piece, “Theodor Herzl in Yoga Tree Position” by Itamar Tal, made me feel like the founder of the state could be one of my neighbors in the hipster Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin. Another picture, “Herzl and Anne” by Drora Weitzman, shows a pair of retro glasses, with a portrait of Herzl in one lens and Anne Frank in another. It made me question whether Herzl truly represented ideological squabbles in the Jewish community, or rather the stories we all treasure of destruction and rebirth. Yet another image, designed by the famous Israeli illustrator Kariel Gardosh, shows a portrait of Herzl, with two men on either side of him: a man dressed in modern clothes holding scissors to Herzl’s beard, and another in Hasidic dress placing a yarmulke on Herzl’s head, which instantly made me feel pensive regarding the current tension in Israel between the secular and the observant.

The pictures stirred my interest in the persuasions and passions behind each of their artists, which made me more interested in Herzl himself. 

“Art can tell us a lot,” Manheim says to me. “Art can tell us more about what people are thinking at this moment than words can. Art can make people interested in subjects that they didn’t know they were interested in.” I then asked her: “Why was it so important for you to include art in a book about Herzl? The essays about technology, Israel’s wine industry, Israeli cinema, and the rights of the Arab minority can surely hold their weight alone, no?” She responded, as she prepared a plate of whipped hummus and crackers, “The art was not necessarily meant to complicate the essays. I included it because I love art and people are surrounded by art every day, all day. It makes us more interested in things.” Manheim was right. The pictures stirred my interest in the persuasions and passions behind each of their artists, which made me more interested in Herzl himself. 

There are certain to be more Herzl-centered endeavors by Israelis in the coming weeks and months. The Bauhaus Center in Dizengoff Square is already showcasing an exhibit on Manheim’s book with various Herzl-themed trinkets in the window (including an enormous pastel pink bust of him that I very much want.) Plays, operas, visual art, essays and books, protests and demonstrations, and even the series that I’ve been writing on Herzl, reveal a deep and unshakeable fascination with the founder of the state among Jews and Israelis. I was at first tempted to think much of this was inherently for the purposes of scratching a political itch, and perhaps in many cases this is true, but this week I also learned that Herzl’s story doesn’t need a contemporary hook to draw otherwise nonchalant stragglers in. He can pack an opera house and fill a library regardless. Israelis find themselves in an era of uncertainty, and in such times, there is comfort in that famed, tormented soul who foresaw our hardship but decided it was worth it.

Blake Flayton is the New Media Director and Columnist for the Jewish Journal.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.