Israeli Museum Looks at Herzl: an Icon or a Naive Eurocentrist?

Behind plush chairs and wooden tables arranged to resemble a 19th-century café in Vienna, a screen descends to reveal a hunky Israeli actor transported back in time to prepare for his role of Theodor Herzl. The actor takes in the scene — a cosmopolitan scene of beautiful young women and intellectual debates, tainted with ugly anti-Semitism as a pair of patrons at a nearby table heckle the man for being Jewish.

Through this “play behind a play,” visitors to the new Herzl Museum — a $3.2 million project of the World Zionist Organization, the Jerusalem Foundation and Israel’s Education Ministry — begin their journey into the life of Herzl, the complicated and charismatic Austrian writer who launched modern Zionism.

The new museum opened May 19 at an official state ceremony marking the first official Herzl Day in Israel. At schools and military bases throughout the country, students and soldiers took time out to study Herzl’s vision.

A special session of Knesset was scheduled for Tuesday to mark the occasion.

“Herzl was a man who knew how to take history by its horns,” Israeli President Moshe Katsav said at the state ceremony. “It’s amazing how he succeeded in beginning to turn the wheels of the Jewish world in order to achieve what he did.”

It has been more than 100 years since the death of Herzl, the bearded visionary who said, “If you will it, it’s no dream.”

There now is a Jewish state whose creation he helped midwife. But for many in Israel, especially the young, he has fallen off the radar of national consciousness.

“For years he has been forgotten, but it’s time to remember him again,” museum director Monica Zelingher said. “He said things over 100 years ago that are still very relevant today.”

Herzl spoke of a utopia, a country that would inspire the world. In Herzl’s vision, the state of the Jews would be a just society.

In that Jewish state, Arabs and Jews would coexist as equals. He saw the country as secular in nature and wrote of a division between religion and politics.

The museum does not deal with the question of what Herzl might have made of the rise of religious Zionism.

According to Israel Bar Tal, a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University who teaches and lectures on Herzl and oversees the history curriculum for the Israeli public school system, Herzl’s writings and visions can be used as a launching pad for discussing what Israel has become and what its citizens can do to make it a better place.

“One of the things I have learned from Herzl is that there is not one thing called Zionism,” Bar Tal said.

The view of Herzl in Israel today is mixed. On the one hand, he seems to have been a naive, Eurocentric intellectual who imagined a country where there would be no need for an army, where local Arabs would greet new Jewish arrivals joyfully and where the national tongue would be German.

On the other hand, Herzl was a visionary who foresaw that the sleepy fishing village of Haifa would become a major port city, who understood the role technology would play in the modern world and who envisioned the Jewish people creating a new society in their ancient homeland.

Hebrew University historian Rachel Elbuiam Dror says that in official Israeli circles, Herzl remains what she calls “the Zionist icon” — the man who helped create the Jewish state. But younger people, expressing themselves in music, film and popular culture, challenge that image: They are unwilling to put Herzl on a pedestal, above reproach or question.

In a popular song by the Israeli rap group Dag Nachash, “The Zionist hip-hop,” the lead singer imagines confronting Herzl. He tells Herzl of “all the details of the cruel and tough reality of Israel/I told him of the traffic accidents/And I told him about the handicapped people on strike/And I told him about the quarter-million unemployed/And I told him about the corrupt politicians/Herzl did not respond, only smiled widely putting his hand into his pocket/I tried to tell him there’s no peace and there is no security and that I’m fed up of living in constant fear/Herzl put a tablet on my tongue and said ‘If you swallow it, it won’t be a dream.’ “

The new generation of historians also is reassessing the father of modern Zionism.

“Historians of the Zionist movement and modern Jewish history very much guarded the personality of Herzl as the father of the nation,” Elbuaim Dror said. “But now there is new research that looks at Herzl — what kind of person he was, how he behaved, where he made mistakes, and whether or not he could have done better.”

David Breakstone, head of the WZO’s department for Zionist activities, said that the Herzl museum is supposed to challenge visitors, especially Israeli schoolchildren and soldiers.

He said he hopes the museum shows that “Herzl brought us so far.” But the exhibit is also meant as a challenge to its visitors: “Now it’s 2005,” the museum is telling its visitors, Breakstone said. “What is your role?”

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