Sunday, May 2, 2010

A glimpse into history

This week marked the 150's birthday of the man known in Israel as Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl, (though he usually referred to himself as "Theodor"). The grate visionary, the man in the famous picture on the famous balcony in Basel, who made the famous saying "If you will it, it is no dream." The man who predicted the establishment of a State of the Jews, which was duly established fifty years later, though he was wrong in some essential details. For example, in assuming that the Arab population would not manifest any opposition to the realization of the Zionist goals, and that therefore the State of the Jews would not be obliged to establish or maintain an army. Or that in the Jewish state, workers would be able to make a decent living when working no more than seven hours per day.

"Herzl witnessed the Dreyfus Affair in France. He realized that nobody wants us, anywhere in the world, and that we need to establish a state in Eretz Yisrael". So said in a radio review a high school student who, with her fellow pupils, is engaged on preparing an educational project on Herzl.

The story is well known: In the great French Revolution, France was the first country in Europe (and the world in general) to grant equal rights to its Jewish citizens. Over the following century, Jews in other countries (such as Austria) hoped and aspired to get for themselves a similar equality of rights. Theodor Herzl, a young Jewish Viennese journalist, arrived in Paris just as the French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus had been convicted of espionage and treason, and in the streets of the capital of France anti-Semitic gangs rampaged and chanted "Death to the Jews." Herzl concluded that if such things could happen in the homeland of the French Revolution, then Jews had no chance of being ever accepted as equal citizens anywhere. Herzl returned to Vienna and immersed himself entirely in building up the Zionist movement and promoting his vision of the State of The Jews.

Still, something is missing in this narrative: the Jews who lived at the time in France itself. Few if any of them took the conclusion that the answer to anti-Semitic incitement and mobs on their streets was to escape from France and establish a Jewish state in a remote province of the Ottoman Empire. Rather, French Jews remained in their country and went on to wage a counter-offensive, in strong alliance with French non-Jews who opposed anti-Semitism - democrats and liberals and radicals and socialists and ordinary decent people. And after a titanic struggle which tore up the French society for years they won, Dreyfus was released and exonerated, and the anti-Semites suffered a severe blow.

What, if Herzl would have stayed in France a few more years...