By Benny Morris, the author of the forthcoming A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (THE GUARDIAN, 16/05/08):
Beholding Israel today, Theodor Herzl – Zionism’s fin-de-siecle prophet and founding organiser – would have alternatively beamed and frowned. Beamed because the Jewish state, with all its flaws, is a major success story among post-1945 states. It is a vibrant, liberal democracy, governed by the rule of law and attentive to the civil and human rights of its citizenry. Its Arab minority, for all its complaints, enjoys social benefits (Israel’s Jews in effect finance, through child benefits, the demographic growth that threatens Jewish dominance), prosperity and freedoms – including the freedom to lambast the Jewish state and support its mortal enemies – that can only be dreamt of in Arab states.
He would have beamed because the Jewish state is enjoying an incomparable cultural efflorescence, with a host of writers and musicians the toast of Europe and America; because Israel’s universities and scientific centres are up there with the best (no Arab university is rated among the world’s top 500; all of Israel’s are); because its economy, despite the complete absence of natural resources (which some might see as a telling proof of God’s non-existence), is surging on the crest of a hi-tech wave and weaponry sales for which the sky appears the limit.
And, yes, Herzl would have beamed at Israel’s military victories in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982, seeing them as proof positive of his expectation that Zionism, once the Jews were re-established in their ancient homeland and sovereign over their destiny, would mould a new assertive, muscular Jew, unlike his weakling forebears of the diaspora.
But Herzl would also have frowned – for example, at Hebrew’s sway over modern Israel. He had never been persuaded that his fellow Zionists would manage to revivify an ancient tongue and turn it into a living language of a thriving culture and state (the Irish, for example, failed). Herzl knew no Hebrew (or Yiddish). Indeed – a bitter irony – he had envisioned the Jewish state running on German, the language of the cultural elite of central Europe from which he sprang. Still, the babble of tongues one encounters on Israel’s streets – the mix of Hebrew, Russian (20% of Israel’s Jews are Russian born), Amharic (the language of Ethiopian migrants), French, English, Yiddish (the daily language of most of the Jewish ultra orthodox), Arabic (the daily language of 20% of the country’s population) – would probably have brought to his mind the multicultural Budapest and Vienna of his youth.
Herzl would have been aggrieved at – though probably not surprised by – the ostentatiousness of Israel’s nouveaux riches (and virtually all its rich, and there are a surprising number, are nouveaux), and appalled by the roughness, verging on vulgarity, of Israel’s streets – where reprehensible, downright dangerous driving and a certain macho callousness is the norm, and where knife fights occur almost nightly outside teenagers’ discos. Perhaps the deeply secular, anti-theocratic Herzl would have been most flummoxed and incensed by the (burgeoning) numbers, and correlated political power of the orthodox and ultra-orthodox (some 20-25% of the country’s Jews). He believed that God was dead, and religious Jews a dying breed.
Herzl’s liberal sensibilities would have been shocked by the Israeli occupation of much of the West Bank and the displays of insensitivity and occasional brutality that are the common fare of most military occupations. More generally, he would certainly have been taken aback by the spectacle of Arab-Israeli conflict, of which the occupation is one of the byproducts. A child of the European imperial age, Herzl would have been astonished at the spectacle of Arab nationalism (indeed, of any third world nationalism), though not by the barbarism of Israel’s terrorist foes – after all, he always conceived of the Jewish state as an outpost of western values and modernity in an area characterised by savagery (Israel’s former prime minister and current Labour party leader, Ehud Barak, once described Israel as a “villa in the jungle”). In Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland, published in 1902 and depicting Israel/Palestine in 1923, the country’s Arabs express their thanks to the Jewish colonisers for bringing them prosperity and enlightenment.
I am not sure what Herzl would have thought of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the West Bank (and Golan Heights). But he certainly would have been depressed by the implacable enmity of the Arab world – several formal peace treaties notwithstanding – towards the Jewish state, and the serial rejections by the Palestinian Arabs of two-state proposals for a solution (in 1937, 1947 and, most recently, 2000).
Indeed, he probably would have sympathised with the shattered Israeli left and centre, which has persistently advocated a compromise based on two states, only to see in July and December 2000 the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, reject the terms offered by Barak and President Clinton – terms that will never be bettered (from the Palestinian viewpoint), and will probably never be matched by future Israeli and American leaders. Herzl, like many Israelis today, would most likely look towards Israel’s future – especially in view of the looming cloud of Iranian nuclear weaponry – with a great deal of existential angst.