By David Matlow
Why Zionism and its founder are more relevant than ever
“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”
Not only good advice when Maria Von Trapp teaches do-re-mi. It is equally good advice - and especially important - when thinking about Israel, especially when the world demonizes it and questions its right to exist.
There are multiple possible beginnings to the history of modern Israel: the covenant made to Abraham or the exile after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD being possible starting points.
For me, the story begins with Theodor Herzl.
Herzl was born in Hungary in 1860 and died in Austria in 1904. Only the last eight of the forty four years of his life were dedicated to the cause of the Jewish people. However, the fruit of his dreaming, his vision, his effort and his sacrifice is the State of Israel.
Herzl was fixated on the prevalence of anti-Semitism. He concluded that the Jews in Europe were not safe, and that they were living on borrowed time.
In 1902, Herzl wrote Altneuland (translated into Hebrew as Tel Aviv, the city being named after Herzl’s book). In his book, a group of characters was talking about the anti-Semitism they were experiencing when one says: ”I can see it coming, we shall all have to wear the yellow patch.” Not even Herzl could have imagined the horror that was to follow for the Jews of Europe.
Herzl was right to be worried, but died too early to actualize his plan for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, the ancient homeland of the Jews, which would be secured by international law. He envisioned receiving a charter from the Ottoman Empire, which was then the ruler of this land.
The Jewish state was not to be created against anybody’s will, but with the full consent of those in authority. It was intended to solve the “Jewish problem” which was that wherever Jews live for a while, they succeed and then they are resented by the local population.
When Herzl died, the dream did not die with him. It was an idea that was bigger than one person. Herzl’s successors continued to meet, and plan, and prepare. International congresses were held, money was raised, land was bought, towns and villages were established and instruments of a state in formation were founded
When Israel was established on May 14, 1948 it was the culmination of more than 50 years of effort. The proclamation of the new Jewish state of Israel was authorized by a resolution of the United Nations passed on November 29, 1947, effectively bringing to life the charter that Herzl envisioned.
Based on my experience in giving tours of my Herzl collection at exhibits across Canada, I believe that many people do not understand where Israel came from. They assume that the land was either conquered by a Jewish army, or gifted by the world due to the need to find a place for the displaced Jews of Europe following the Holocaust, or some combination of both - lending to the ongoing lie that Israel is built on "stolen" land which is simply, and historically, not true.
Most people do not understand that Israel was dreamed about and planned for many years preceding its creation, and that the vision of Zion had remained a part of Jewish life and identity through prayer and longing, finding voice throughout the generations by Menasseh ben Israel, Pinsker, Hess, Mohilever, Kalischer and the Chovevei Tzion groups of Eastern Europe that became active supporters of Herzl's practical implementation of this ancient dream of our people.
Most people do not understand that Herzl’s vision for the creation of the Jewish state was peaceful, consensual and intended to be beneficial for all.
Most people forget that the dream of a Jewish state arose out of a concern that anti-Semitism would never go away, and that the Jews needed (and are entitled to) at least one place on this planet where they can feel safe, and be at home.
Herzl was right when he concluded that anti-Semitism would not go away. This summer we saw it bubble to the surface across the world. We saw blatant anti-Semitism both overt and more furtive in the form of the demonization of Israel by the press, governments and world bodies.
Herzl believed that the Jewish people were entitled to one place where we can build our own society, and show the world what we can do when our energies and creativity are set free. The innovations in science, technology, medicine and culture emanating from Israel demonstrate what we can do when we are allowed to.
Of course, Israel is not perfect and remains a work in process. That is where we come in.
Standing in Vienna in 1896 when Herzl first published his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), the notion that such a country would come into being was the most preposterous, ridiculous and improbable idea imaginable. But Herzl’s motto was “If you will it, it is no dream” and his dream was fulfilled.
I believe that Herzl’s dream was fulfilled, but it has not been completed; that he intended the Jewish state to be safe, secure and living in peace.
After the ongoing attacks against Israel, the hateful riots evoking medieval Jew hatred, and 66 years of having to defend our rights to our homeland, the notion of Israel living in peace may be considered to be preposterous, ridiculous and improbable.
However, Herzl showed us that the impossible can come true, and that if we want something badly enough, one day it will cease to be a dream.
It is up to us to make that dream come true. Actualizing that dream will take the same amount of creativity, effort and energy that went into fulfilling the dream of a Jewish state.
David Matlow is the owner of the world’s largest private collection of Herzl memorabilia and is the producer of My Herzl, a 52 minute documentary by Israeli film maker Eli Tal-El. A partner at Goodmans LLP in Toronto, David is the co-chair, together with Andrea Cohen, of Toronto’s 2015 Campaign for the United Jewish Appeal. You can read about their activities here.