Herzl understood that the answer is not the escape from Judaism but rather to return to Judaism! Hence in Zionism, he established a vehicle for such return. Similarly today, the answer to Israel-bashing is not the escape from Zionism, but the celebration of Zionism.



Historians tend to point to European anti-Semitism, and in particular the Dreyfus trial, as the impetus for Theodor Herzl’s Zionism. This, however, not only reduces Zionism, but simplifies Herzl’s view of anti-Semitism.

Herzl indeed concluded that European opposition to Judaism was permanent, incurable, and dangerous. But Herzl did not establish political Zionism solely in reaction to it, nor merely as a vehicle to establish a Jewish state. “There are those people who do not understand us properly and think that the goal of our efforts is to come back to our land,” Herzl said in 1899. “Our ideal goes further than that. Our ideal is the great eternal truth.”

Indeed, Herzl planted the seeds for a Jewish transformation. He stunned Baron Hirsch in spring 1895 by arguing that the primary misfortune of the Jews during centuries of exile was not persecution, but rather the lack of united political leadership.

”If we had such leadership, we could tackle the solution of the Jewish question –  from above, from below, from all sides,” Herzl argued. And so, Herzl embarked on his journey to establish a political leadership that would embetter the Jews, shepherd them through the exodus from Europe – both physical and spiritual – and then represent their interests long after the Jewish state would have been established.

But Herzl quickly identified the primary hurdle to his Zionism – the same one that Moses faced – the Jews’ complacency. Herzl observed how emancipated European Jews acquire more property, learn to turn a blind eye to occasional slurs such as “dirty Jew,” and are more addicted to the “fleshpots of Europe,” as Herzl called them.

Those shortness-of-spirit Jews were certainly not ready to embark on an exodus. “Old prisoners do not willingly leave their cells,” Herzl noted. It seems Herzl was on the verge of giving up, but then, astonishingly, he was able to put together the loose pieces and identify the propelling force that would unite Jews and lead them to the promised-land: Anti-Semitism.

He wrote in his diary: “Anti-Semitism contains the Divine will to make good. Because it forces us together, its pressure unites us, and this unity will make us free.” He told his friend Max Nordau: “Anti-Semitism turned us into Jews.”

Understanding this foundational aspect of Herzl’s philosophy allows us to apply it to contemporary opposition to Judaism. Such age-old opposition is now funneled through Zionism. The alarming rise of the Israel-bashing fashion is rapidly turning into the “propelling force” that draws Jews into Zionism. Once again, Jews who might have nothing to do with Israel are pushed together by external pressures, which forces more of their Jewish identity to be intertwined with Zionism.

In theory, there could have been an alternative approach to Israel-bashing (of which the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement is a small part): Escape from Zionism. One can argue that being Jewish does not mean that he or she is a Zionist, but here again, Herzl proves relevant, having concluded that such escape is illusory and even laughable. In Herzl’s time, some Jews opted to baptize into Christianity as a way to escape anti-Semitism.

Herzl observed that the only thing such action would accomplish is that the slur would change to “dirty-convert” – a prediction that tragically turned true decades later as those “dirty converts” were slaughtered by Europeans alongside the “dirty Jews.” Indeed, throughout history, no matter what form the opposition to Judaism took, escape routes were only illusory.

This was the case in Spain 400 years prior to Herzl: Some Jews thought they could “escape” by converting to Christianity. They quickly discovered that their conditions only worsened since as Christians they were now under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. This is also the case today. “Non-Zionist Jews” are mocked, some are even boycotted in-spite of their own condemnation of Israel. No matter how slanderous a Jew might be of Israel, he would always be perceived by much of the outside world as a Zionist. For example, those who view The New York Times as a bastion of pro-Israel advocacy, despite its frequent criticisms of the Jewish state. This is certainly not because of its reporting, but because it is owned by Jews. Jewish BDS activists will always be “suspect” among their comrades – not because they do not bash Israel aggressively enough, but simply because they are a Jew.

Herzl understood that the answer is not the escape from Judaism but rather to return to Judaism! Hence in Zionism, he established a vehicle for such return. Similarly today, the answer to Israel-bashing is not the escape from Zionism, but the celebration of Zionism.

The Jewish state’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, recently called Herzl “our modern Moses.” Indeed, just as it took centuries to internalize Moses’ Torah, today we are only in the early stages of comprehending Herzl’s Zionism.

Gol Kalev analyzes trends in Zionism, Europe and global affairs. For more of his articles:  EuropeandJerusalem.com


Related analysis articles by Gol Kalev:

What inspired Herzl’s Zionism

European political opposition to the Jewish state should not be taken lightly

Europe should benefit from Herzl’s vision

The battle for Europe

The resurfacing of European Colonialism

Zionism and Herzl between France and Britain


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