Working on the screenplay for our heroic/tragic biopic… ‘Herzl’

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The other day I posted playwright David Zellnik's take on Theodor Herzl. Here's my response:

Let's start with our absolute agreement: Theodor Herzl is one of the
greatest figures in Jewish history. It staggers both of us that your
is the only
theatrical/cinematic work that exalts this figure. Spielberg ought to
do a Herzl story, and you and I should write the screenplay.

But who is
that Herzl? And what is the story?

I don't take Herzl as seriously as you seem to as a thinker, because I
don't think he was really a thinker. He was a statesman, and I'd argue,
a great one. In his diaries he says that all that Europe will allow him
to be is a journalist, and he wanted more. This to me explains his
incredible daring and vision in imagining a Jewish state: it gave play
to Herzl's real powers, which were that of cultivating and manipulating
the powerful. He did this without a state, but representing "the Jewish
people." I love the daring of Herzl. I love the fact that he realized,
early on, that great men were just ordinary men in their persons, and
he must will himself past the awe of them. So when he studied the
Kaiser from afar, years before their meeting–cinematic moment–he
focused on the Kaiser's withered arm, and thought, I am more powerful
than he is in some ways. When he met the Sultan, he saw a nitwit with a
"painted beard." I love the fact that Herzl knew that he was ridiculed by
his professional peers, still he went on, devoted to a "tragic" cause.
I love that quality you praise– his sense of theater and p.r., long
before Edward Bernays and Henry Kissinger.

In his daring, and his visions, Herzl anticipates the neoconservatives,
who also dared to guide great states. Though yes, the neocons are crazy and, unlike Herzl, entitled.

As a thinker, Herzl was close to a crackpot. I believe that Hannah
Arendt calls him a luftmensch and a crackpot, and I accept this. He was
not well-read. His diaries show very little book-learning beyond the
racist ideologue Duhring, to whom Herzl reacted. A little Hegel, too. As you've noted, he's
obsessed with nutty ceremonies; at one point he imagines a council of
doges of the Jewish state, and pictures their yellow robes etc., and
then imagines his son Hans as the leader of the doges. There are times that Herzl might as
well have been that other politico-religious visionary, Joseph Smith, imagining
the white salamander.

You get at some of Herzl's bad ideas, seeing them bodied by
Israel today. You say that Herzl was regurgitating 19th century
nationalism that is today anachronistic. I agree. To me, Herzl's
original sin, which close to destroys his vision, is his contempt for
the Armenians. The Turkish persecution of the Armenians had begun, and
Herzl was willing to act as the Sultan's p.r. guy across Europe,
denying the persecution. Ugh. I have never sold my pen! Herzl declared when he began his reinvention from journalist to statesman. Well he was soon selling his pen, to an oppressor. And when Herzl got to Palestine, he saw only
Arab beggary. This should have told him something.

That original sin is contempt for indigenous peoples. It continues to this day.

But let us get to your main event, and maybe mine too: Herzl's
self-hatred and his revival of Jewish masculinity. You see the downside
to all this. Myself, I am excited by it. You say that Herzl was a
self-hater, you say that Herzl hated the femininity of Jewish culture;
and Israel is suffering from the lasting effects of this.

These are very complex issues, but to pick off a couple of them:
Herzl's anti-Semitism was expressed at a time of the modern rise of
anti-Semitism. There was a Jewish problem. It involved the fact that
Jews were doing so well in the European cities, and in the Russian
countryside; the Russian peasantry felt "economically overborne" by the
Jews, as the antisemitic minister to the Tsar, Plehve, told Herzl. And
Herzl seemed to agree with him. "Our frightful financial power" is a key cause of anti-Semitism, he said. Herzl looked at real estate maps of
Berlin and marveled at all the property Jews owned.

We look at this
through the lens of the Holocaust and say, Why did they even talk about
this!!! My response is that intellectuals must talk about the Jewish
rise and the Jewish gift for the modern age because they are real and
important. It is why I insist on talking about Jews being the richest
group by religion in the U.S. today; our bookish past has specially
fitted us for this era of history. The trend was evident when Herzl had
his vision. European cities were flooded by Jewish journalists,
doctors, lawyers, etc. The awareness of Jewish exceptionalism in the
modern city is all through the prose work of one of the greatest Jewish
writers of any age, Franz Kafka, an insurance man who hated the
anti-Semites but saw them as motivated by Jewish specialness. In
Herzl's view, and the anti-Semites, this was the Jewish problem because
Jews were not fully integrated into western society, they still made up
a state within a state. So give me a state, Herzl said; we can't be

I chalk Herzl's anti-Semitism up to a real social issue that those
societies had to deal with. Zionists would "relieve" the anti-Semites of The Jewish Question, Herzl said. Well the way they dealt with the issue was of
course horrific. But Zionism is not the answer either.

Masculinity. Herzl wanted to cultivate the ideal of masculine honor in
the Jews. He thought it was lacking in Jewish life. Indeed, Slezkine
hints at this idea, as I remember, in the Jewish Century: that codes of
honor were based in an agrarian, feudal order, and Jews of course
didn't have that, they weren't "princes and peasants," but "merchants
and priests." There was an effeteness to Jewish life in the Diaspora,
which both Hitler and the Zionists would batten on to. The Israelis
also hate this aspect of Jewish life in the galut, or exile. They say
that Jews were passive and feminine. I confess this is an area where I
admire the Israelis; they imagined different ways of being for Jews.
They imagined Jewish plumbers and farmers and bus drivers, not just the
"intellectual proletariat," as Herzl described the overeducated Jews of
European cities. Without going near the issue of Israeli militarism,
which you and I both abhor, I like the idea of more bandwidth in Jewish
life. I like a physical life. At one point in his diaries, Herzl
praises physical labor as spiritual. I'm with him all the way there. So
when Herzl imagined a Jewish state where Jews could occupy many
different roles, I see some beauty in that vision.

The screenplay. When Spielberg calls, the first thing I'd do is tell
him to read your play. But your play is as much about the Jewish state
as it is about Herzl, and the Jewish state hasn't turned out so good.

I would like to do a more heroic treatment of Herzl where the downside
is pre-figured but not insisted upon. I'd like to see him in the
compressed frame of the last year or two of his life. He feels death
coming. The Uganda plan is being suggested to him, a gift of England,
and he has accepted it, as a "night refuge" for the Jewish people. Pure
power politics. Some of his aides have turned against him, his marriage
is a shell, his editors think he is a laughingstock. Still he rushes on
from one courtly chamber to another, desperately trying to create the
conditions for the liberation of an oppressed people.

We see his
flaws–his megalomania, his visions of himself as Moses and Columbus,
his contempt for Arabs and Armenians that will vitiate the idea of the Jewish state 120
years on–but we also see him hailed as the king of the Jews by our own
Russian ancestors, and thereby see his nobility.

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