Why Herzl Matters
By Shayna Barrall
Statues and pictures of Herzl flood the streets of Israel to this day, but the question is why? Why is Herzl still a prominent and relevant figure? Okay, so he is a visionary for the modern day Israel. In order to combat antisemitism, he dreamed of a state removed from Europe and the hostilities that were present. He created the first concrete, reliable platform to support Zionism and have it progress further.
But does Herzl deserve to still be a prominent and relevant figure as Jewish history unfolds? Why does this one leader stand out among so many others whose names have been forgotten?
Herzl was not the first Zionist, but he was the first man to create a tangible plan about how the land of ancient Israel - renamed Palestine - could become an internationally recognized state for the Jewish people once again. He took charge and gathered people in the Zionist Congresses from all over the world to discuss the challenges of what was necessary to having a Jewish sovereign state, laying out concrete plans about how to make it a reality instead of just a vision.
Today that state exists. So why does this movement even matter anymore? A Zionist was once defined as “a person who desires or supports the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, which in the future will become the state of the Jewish people.” Others emphasize that a Zionist is someone who believes in the fulfillment of our ancient dream of return to our ancestral homeland, some base it on a “natural-born right of the Jewish nation to sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael” as based on religious ideals and the biblical promise.
There are those that are pro-Israel, but don’t consider themselves Zionists. Those that are Zionists but only in secret, wary of what others would think if they proclaimed their commitment to the Jewish national rights to freedom and sovereignty in our homeland.
Mass shootings and graffiti has occurred across the globe at multiple synagogues, creating more than an unsettling feeling among not only Zionists, but Jews across the world. In 2018, eleven members of the Jewish community tragically lost their lives while practicing their religion in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Attacks on synagogues, Jews in the street, Jewish community gatherings and individuals in school or the workplace are becoming so common that we can no longer ignore that antisemitism is very much alive today.
Pro-Palestinian protests have been held across the world, becoming a major presence in Europe and America, on campuses and in the community at large. These protests quickly turn from the demonstrating support for Palestinians, who have become the “victims of the world” under the so-called “Zionist Occupation Forces” - an idea Herzl could never have envisioned would be a blood libel that the Jewish State would have to bear - to the idea of dismantling the Jewish state.
Antisemitism is at the highest point during the 21st century since the Holocaust. We can see that this hate is not going to just disappear but will continue to reform itself according to the popular trends of each generation. This time, it’s BDS; for Herzl, it was Dreyfus. Before, after and in between we have faced blood libels, Holocaust denial, demonization of Israel/Israelis as “Nazis,” Jews being told to go to gas.
Jew hatred has an indirect effect on how we feel as Jews living in the world. It creates a fear for one's life, the idea that going to a sacred place to pray, might cost you your life. Or to express your love of Israel. Or to be publicly recognizable as a Jew. The Jewish people are still living in fear. Supporting the idea of Zionism and being openly adamant about the need for a Jewish state remains as important today as it did in the 1900’s.
So why is Herzl still a notable figure in today's history? He created a vision that gave us a country safe from the ideas of antisemitism, a country where Jews could be proud of their background and openly practice their religion. As he once wrote, “We believe that salvation is to be found in wholesome work in a beloved land. Work will provide our people with the bread of tomorrow, and moreover, with the honor of the tomorrow, the freedom of tomorrow.” “The willingness to work” and “the freedom of tomorrow” for the beloved land we now call Israel, shows the persistence and tenacity that the Jewish people held throughout history and continue to hold.
The leadership skills and visions that Herzl conceptualized are still vital to keeping Israel alive and thriving. The motivation and passion that he possessed is passed down through generations of Jewish leaders that fight to keep Israel alive and vibrant. He gave us a land where our kids and grandkids could pass down the traditions of Judaism without fear of repression, he gave the Jews freedom.
What better way to make a difference in his honor than to inspire the next generation to always remember why Herzl matters - to history, and to the Jewish people, yesterday, today and forever.