Annals of a Traveler: Herzl Museum




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Herzl Reconsidered

By Jay Levinson

One cannot shun reality. Theodor Herzl, for better or worse, was a significant figure in Jewish history at the close of the nineteenth and onset of the twentieth century. The Herzl Museum in Jerusalem has a four part multi-media presentation, the first three parts of which try to explain the man and his deeds, and the fourth casts him as a hero of modern Israel.

Herzl was a product of the Haskalah. Born in Budapest in 1860, Herzl had no real Jewish education. He identified himself with the Germanic world of Vienna and its culture. Slowly, he realized that he was a Jew. Working in government service was problematic. The theatre was just as difficult. Herzl tried journalism and moved to cover exploits in Paris, the land of "liberté, fraternité, égalité." The Dreyfus Affair totally smashed Herzl's dream. He had to confront the fact that rampant European anti-Semitism haunts the secular Jew no less than the religious Jew. He wrote the Judenstadt, his answer to discrimination against Jews. It was also his tacit admission that the Haskalah --- Jews fitting into the non-Jewish world --- had failed.

In a technically effective presentation the museum shows Herzl's keen skills of organization, brought together in Basle in 1897 Jews from 16 countries to hear his message of a Jewish State. His words came at the right time. He promulgated an idea that Jews wanted to hear --- a religious safe-haven free of anti-Semitism.

If Herzl's skills of organization were excellent, his political understanding was poor. The museum presents a superficial and non-critical explanation of Herzl. He traveled extensively, from prime minister to sultan, looking for someone to approve his charter for a Jewish State. He did not realize or take into practical account that the sultan in Constantinople, the titular ruler of Palestine, was too weak to upset the status quo. The Romanoff czar was beset with problems in the Balkans and in the East. The English did have an interest in Palestine, but they wanted to carve a piece of the Ottoman Empire for themselves and not for anyone else.

With the failure of rapid approval for a Jewish State in Palestine, there were those (including Herzl) who gave approval to "Jewish Uganda." In retrospect, this entire chapter in history is an embarrassment. There are some who try to explain it away as a temporary refuge from anti-Semitism, until a state could be established in Palestine. Others make the argument that there is no difference if a Jew lives in Uganda, England, or Japan --- they are all far from the boundaries of The Land of Israel.

The museum presentation is candid on one point. Yes, Herzl failed in his diplomatic gallivanting. His tireless travels made no diplomatic progress toward establishing a Jewish State. He exhausted his family fortune, but even as an entirely secular Jew he reminded the world of Jews' connection to the Land of Israel. He raised an issue which would take hold in the decade after his death.

Part of the Presentation

If the first three parts of the museum try to bring even minimal understanding to Herzl, the man, the last part is a blatant effort at building the image of Herzl, the myth. There he is cast as a visionary, responsible for the State of Israel and its achievements. No, he was not the seer of agriculture, economy and high-tech. He was a Jew trying to flee the hate of anti-Semitism. He delivered the right message at the right time ---- what Jews wanted to hear --- but he was totally incapable of putting it into effect.

The time has come, more than 100 years after they heyday of Herzl, for us to reconsider the man and his place in history. Today many Jews reject Herzl's philosophy as totally secular. There is serious doubt as to his practical input on the establishment of the State of Israel. Yet, even the most ardent anti-Zionist cannot erase him from the pages of history. He presented ideas that had an impact and must be understood. Unfortunately, this museum depicts Herzl as the champion of Zionist lore, rather than bringing a new and critical understanding of a man in his time and a better view of his influence on Jewish history.

The Cemetery in which Herzl is Buried

The Herzl Museum is located in Jerusalem on Mt. Herzl, opposite the entrance to Bayit VeGan. The museum is open Sunday-Thursday 8:45 AM-4:00 PM (last entry 1515), Friday 8:45 AM -1:00 PM. Closed Shabbat. An entrance fee of NIS 25 for adults and NIS 20 for children/seniors is charged. Admission must be arranged in advance at telephone 02-632-1515. The general museum office can be reached at 02-632-1500.

The grave of Herzl is a short walk from the museum and can be visited without charge.


from the July 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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