Secular Herzl sought to use ‘mystic elements’ to bind Jews to a place they had no living connection to

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I haven’t done many rambling posts lately because I haven’t had the time (and neither do you!). But here are a few thoughts on the impulses for Zionism: about Zionist leader Herzl’s colonialism and messianism, about the Jewish claim to Palestine, and also the genuine motivation for Zionism which remains unhealed, the Jewish question. 

Jon S is a liberal Zionist commenter at this site. Welcome! He said the following a day or so back:

As to the definition of Zionism as colonialism: It’s not only the lack of the metropole. The main point is that the Jews were returning to their ancestral homeland. The British who took over India, the French who settled in Algeria, the Dutch who conquered what is now Indonesia, were not reconnecting with their British/French/Dutch roots. They were conquering foreign lands. The Jews were coming to Eretz Yisrael, a land which is rich in Jewish history, to which they maintained ties and memories, and which was never empty of Jews. And they were escaping persecution and annihilation.. (All of which – I’m sure you’ll point out- made little difference to the Palestinians). If not for those historic ties – I would also say that we have no business being here.

I’m reading Herzl’s Complete Diaries and though I recognize that he wasn’t a scholar or rabbi, and he was in the business of sweet-talking world leaders, here’s part of a draft speech he wrote for his 1898 visit to Jerusalem when Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was going to be there too (the entry is online here). Emphases are mine:

Your Imperial and Royal Majesty!

Most Gracious Kaiser and Lord!

With deepest reverence a delegation of sons of Israel approaches the German Kaiser in the country which was our fathers’ and no longer belongs to us. We are bound to this sacred soil through no valid title of ownership. Many generations have come and gone since this earth was Jewish. If we talk about it, it is only as about a dream of very ancient days. But the dream is still alive, lives in many hundreds of thousands of hearts; it was and is a wonderful comfort in many an hour of pain for our poor people. Whenever foes oppressed us with accusations and persecutions, whenever we were begrudged the little bit of right to live, whenever we were excluded from the society of our fellow citizens-whose destinies we have always been ready to share loyally-the thought of Zion arose in our oppressed hearts.

There is something eternal about that thought, whose form, to be sure, has undergone multifarious changes with people, institutions, and times.

Thus the Zionist movement of today is a fully modem one. It grows out of the situations and conditions of present-day life, and aims at solving the Jewish Question on the basis of the possibilities of our time.

Then in the next volume of the Diaries, in December 1899, Herzl writes about Oscar Straus, then ambassador to Turkey for the U.S. and a leading American Jewish figure. Again, my emphasis.

Straus is for Mesopotamia! He said he knew that a long time ago a pamphlet on Mesopotamia had been sent me by Cyrus Adler [later president of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the American Jewish Committee], at the instigation of some friends (Judge Sulzberger and others in New York).

Mesopotamia, he said, was attainable. There are no church rivalries there, and it is the original home of Israel. Abraham came from Mesopotamia, and there we could make use of the mystic elements, too.

Damning phrase that: there we could make use of the mystic elements, too. Herzl was secular, remember.

No wonder that phrase was not printed in the abridged Diaries, the popular edition (my complete, 5-volume set was deaccessioned by Shevach High School in Flushing, no one ever checked it out).

Jon S says there was no “metropole,” but Zionism depended at all times on the aegis of the major powers. Herzl was cultivating the most powerful men in the world, the Kaiser, the Czar, the Pope, the Sultan. He was playing the great game on behalf of the Jews, and failing. Let us be clear, he failed, he died young of an overworked heart, and his dream was no reality. And as he struggled he compared himself to Moses, the Shabbatai Zevi, and Columbus, too.

His was openly a colonial enterprise. He called his association the ICA, the Jewish Colonization Association. He spoke repeatedly of colonizing Palestine, and praised the actions of Cecil Rhodes. Zionism could never have succeeded without a strong imperial hand. The Balfour Declaration from England, the sponsorship of the United States and Russia, and today the blind support of the empowered Israel lobby that we are hard at work to reform among young Jews…

What distinguished Zionism from colonialism was the Jewish Question. I have great sympathy for Jon S. and other liberal Zionists in that regard. Herzl was trying to resolve a question that had perplexed Europe for centuries and that resulted in the Holocaust, how to resolve the political fate of a distinct and ghettoized-but-later-highly-successful group of people on whom had been imposed the duties of usury and subsequently finance, a people with different manners from the majority and possessing a great tradition of learning that suited us for the modern age but also exposed us to oppression and resentment. In fairness to Zionists, this European question was thought to have been at last resolved when the state of Israel was founded. Well, we’re done with that problem!

But of course it was not resolved, it resulted in ethnic cleansing, an unending refugee issue, Jim Crow, etc. I believe that a lot of the blind support of Israel by American Jews, their acceptance of Jim Crow and worse for 5 million people, stems from this fear that if this Answer to the ancient Jewish question is somehow demystified and taken apart, if we read that Herzl saw no real connection of Jews to Palestine (ala the brilliant Shlomo Sand), well then we are back to this very perilous combination of a privileged but not sovereign minority in western society, subject to the winds of mass hatred. I get that; and we’re working on that, too..

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