Rich Walter: Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, and Uncivil Discourse
In the composite photo of attendees at the First Zionist Congress in August 1897, Theodor Herzl is placed in the center with Ahad Ha’am to his lower left. Public Domain

Each day, it seems, there are new stories and discussions in both traditional and social media concerning the lack of civility in the current political discourse. This is also true in conversations, both within the Jewish community and among people of all faiths, regarding Israel. Despite our tendency to dwell inside our own personal echo chambers, there is value to be had in listening to and engaging with each other. Examining Jewish history shows that this type of engagement is not only critical to advancing many causes and issues, but is also not a new phenomenon.

One hundred fifty-eight years ago this week, on May 2, 1860, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement was born in Pest, Hungary. While Herzl was not the first to call upon Jews to attempt to create a state of their own, his organization, drive, and vision gave the idea the impetus to become a movement. Paul Goodman, a prominent British, Zionist leader wrote in 1929 that, “Theodor Herzl and his diplomatic activities raised the resettlement of the Jews in Palestine from a romantic idea fostered by some well-meaning, if influential, persons into the realm of international interest and practical politics.”

Herzl laid a foundation for the remarkable achievement of a Jewish state in an extraordinary short period of time. Following the conclusion of the First Zionist Congress, which he convened in Basle, Switzerland in the summer of 1897, Herzl prophetically wrote in his diary, “If I were to subsume the Basle Congress in one word—which I shall not do openly—it would be this: at Basle I founded the Jewish State. If I were to say this today, I would be met by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in fifty, everyone will see it.”

Herzl wrote these words on September 3, 1897. On November 29, 1947, fifty years and eighty-seven days later, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, the Partition Plan for Palestine, paving the way for the birth of Israel the following spring. Herzl, it seems, was also prophetic.

Despite his achievements, what is often lost in the mythology surrounding Herzl, is that he faced bitter opposition both from the outside as well as within his own movement. Among his most vocal critics at the time was Asher Ginsberg, the Russian writer and thinker better known by his pen name, Ahad Ha’am. In 1902, following the publication of Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland (Old New Land), Ha’am wrote a vicious criticism claiming that Herzl’s vision for a Jewish state had nothing discernibly Jewish about it.

A micrograph of Herzl using the text of his novel Altneuland. Kedem Auctions

The public disagreements between Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, and certainly many others, is an important reminder that there has never been Jewish consensus when it comes to Zionism and Israel. Public discourse, while often vitriolic, and often personal, has been central to the development and growth of the Jewish state. We must remember at this time of heightened discourse over issues like settlements, religious pluralism in Israel, and the location of the American Embassy, that there is value in disagreements and conversation. Additionally, there is still importance in the mythology around Israel and Zionism just as there should be imperative for us to expand our knowledge of the real story.

The Herzliya Gymnasium, the first modern Hebrew high school in the Land of Israel. The school was representative of Ahad Ha’am’s vision of a Jewish cultural revival in the Land of Israel. Yet, as a testament to the power and influence of the mythology of Herzl, the school was named for him. Ironically, it was built on the corner of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am streets in Tel-Aviv in 1909. Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph collection at the Library of Congress

Ha’am himself wrote after Herzl’s death in 1904, “The actual, living Herzl said and did much that was open to question…But the ideal figure of Herzl, which is being created before our eyes in the popular mind—what a splendid vision it will be to whet its desire for a real national life! … Of course, imagination has not yet finished its work. The creation is not yet perfected. As time goes on, and the ideal picture of the national hero attains its perfect form, he will perhaps become for our day what the old national heroes were for our ancestors in days gone by: the people will make him the embodiment of its own national ideal, in all its radiance and purity, and will derive from him strength and courage to struggle onward indefatigably along the hard road of its history.”