"We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes."
Therefore I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabeans will rise again.
Let me repeat once more my opening words: The Jews who wish for a State will have it.
We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.
The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.
It was time I read Theodor’s Herzl pamphlet, A Jewish State, first published in Leipzig and Vienna in 1896. The father of Zionism and the modern Jewish state, his familiar maxim “If you will it, it is no dream” somehow resonates with only more splendour as I age, with its spirit of indominable optimism and agency.
It’s a short book. Its prophecy of continued and relentless antisemitism as a catalyst for a Jewish state foreshadows the Holocaust. Its highly detailed specifications of working conditions and rudimentary outlines of a labour-based economy feel antiquated, a product of the nascent socialist and industrial ferments of the times. Not to dismiss them — they’re clearly present in the socialist decades that followed Israel’s birth.
Most surprising of all is his clear-eyed belief in technological progress and technology as the underlying driver of societal possibility. Passages I highlight below could have been written today by Marc Andreessen or Balaji Srinivasan (Balaji has cited Herzl as an influence on his The Network State).
Herzl wasn’t always right, and there’s much to nitpick over. His proposed flag of seven golden stars on a white background didn’t fly:
But sometimes reality exceeded even Herzl’s dreams. He dismissed the idea of reviving Hebrew as absurd, suggesting instead a federation of languages ala Switzerland.
He was against theocracy in words presaging some of the tensions that Israel would always negotiate between its various factions:
We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks.
And he was pro-European pluralistic tolerance (he saw European antisemitism as a spectre of the past):
And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law. We have learnt toleration in Europe.
On technology and economic creation
But I was perhaps most surprised (and delighted) to read how prescient and forceful Herzl was on the role of technology and innovation. He begins with first principles, rubbishing misconceptions that plague polite society even today (all my emphasis added):
It is astonishing how little insight into the science of economics many of the men who move in the midst of active life possess…Where it is not based on limited physiocratic views it is founded on the childish error that commodities pass from hand to hand in continuous rotation.
The technical progress made during this wonderful era enables even a man of most limited intelligence to note with his short-sighted eyes the appearance of new commodities all around him. The spirit of enterprise has created them.
Labor without enterprise is the stationary labor of ancient days; and typical of it is the work of the husbandman, who stands now just where his progenitors stood a thousand years ago. All our material welfare has been brought about by men of enterprise. I feel almost ashamed of writing down so trite a remark. Even if we were a nation of entrepreneurs—such as absurdly exaggerated accounts make us out to be—we should not require another nation to live on. We do not depend on the circulation of old commodities, because we produce new ones.
Our economy is not zero-sum. Trade and enterprise are positive-sum. We create with old commodities, we do not merely circulate them.
Compare this to Montaigne. Writing from the 16th century, well before the industrial revolution, this much-lauded thinker is soaked in a very different economic model:
[N]o profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another, and that by the same rule he should condemn all gain of what kind soever. The merchant only thrives by the debauchery of youth, the husband man by the dearness of grain, the architect by the ruin of buildings, lawyers and officers of justice by the suits and contentions of men: nay, even the honour and office of divines are derived from our death and vices.
This is no dig at Montaigne. Who in the 16th century predicted the singular and miraculous growth trajectory that would follow the industrial revolution? Montaigne is simply describing something closer to his reality (if perhaps still too pessimistic on the benefits of trade and commerce).
Herzl’s model of the technological underpinnings of social structures is shockingly modern. He is echoed today, over a century later, by the various sovereignty and charter movements around the world. Steam was a centralising force, electricity a decentralising one. The world is flat and the future impossibly bright with the promise of technological miracles:
The shape which the social question may take depends entirely on the development of our technical resources. Steampower concentrated men in factories about machinery where they were overcrowded, and where they made one another miserable by overcrowding… Steam crowded men together; electricity will probably scatter them again, and may perhaps bring about a more prosperous condition of the labor market. In any case our technical inventors, who are the true benefactors of humanity, will continue their labors after the commencement of the emigration of the Jews, and they will discover things as marvellous as those we have already seen, or indeed more wonderful even than these.
The word "impossible" has ceased to exist in the vocabulary of technical science. Were a man who lived in the last century to return to the earth, he would find the life of today full of incomprehensible magic. Wherever the moderns appear with our inventions, we transform the desert into a garden. To build a city takes in our time as many years as it formerly required centuries; America offers endless examples of this. Distance has ceased to be an obstacle. The spirit of our age has gathered fabulous treasures into its storehouse.
How did Herzl get so much right? Writing half a century before the birth of Israel, he predicted her defining characteristics: socialist, tech focused, and Jewish.1 Herzl died in 1904. How much did the Zionist vision travel on the rails he laid? Perhaps his vision and later Israel were both a function of the early twentieth century socialist and technological currents, but it’s an astonishing coincidence.
The propellent: anti-Semitism
Everything depends on our propelling force. And what is that force? The misery of the Jews.
He saw the risk to the Jews to be at both sides of the political spectrum:
we are certain to suffer very severely in the struggle between classes, because we stand in the most exposed position in the camps of both Socialists and capitalists.
Herzl assumed antisemitism would provide a smooth leaver to exit, which seems obviously wrong. That did not tend to be the case as European and Arab-country Jews streamed into Israel:
The departure of the Jews will involve no economic disturbances, no crises, no persecutions; in fact, the countries they abandon will revive to a new period of prosperity. There will be an inner migration of Christian citizens into the positions evacuated by Jews. The outgoing current will be gradual, without any disturbance, and its initial movement will put an end to Anti-Semitism. The Jews will leave as honored friends, and if some of them return, they will receive the same favorable welcome and treatment at the hands of civilized nations as is accorded to all foreign visitors. Their exodus will have no resemblance to a flight, for it will be a well-regulated movement under control of public opinion. The movement will not only be inaugurated with absolute conformity to law, but it cannot even be carried out without the friendly cooperation of interested Governments, who would derive considerable benefits from it.
He likes democratic monarchy but the Jews have no monarchy of their own, and so an aristocratic republic would have to do as democracy on its own doesn’t work:
I think a democratic monarchy and an aristocratic republic are the finest forms of a State, because in them the form of State and the principle of government are opposed to each other, and thus preserve a true balance of power. I am a staunch supporter of monarchial institutions, because these allow of a continuous policy, and represent the interests of a historically famous family born and educated to rule, whose desires are bound up with the preservation of the State. But our history has been too long interrupted for us to attempt direct continuity of ancient constitutional forms, without exposing ourselves to the charge of absurdity.
A democracy without a sovereign's useful counterpoise is extreme in appreciation and condemnation, tends to idle discussion in Parliaments, and produces that objectionable class of men—professional politicians. Nations are also really not fit for unlimited democracy at present, and will become less and less fitted for it in the future. For a pure democracy presupposes a predominance of simple customs, and our customs become daily more complex with the growth of commerce and increase of culture. "Le ressort d'une democratic est la vertu," said wise Montesquieu. And where is this virtue, that is to say, this political virtue, to be met with? I do not believe in our political virtue; first, because we are no better than the rest of modern humanity; and, secondly, because freedom will make us show our fighting qualities at first. I also hold a settling of questions by the referendum to be an unsatisfactory procedure, because there are no simple political questions which can be answered merely by Yes and No. The masses are also more prone even than Parliaments to be led away by heterodox opinions, and to be swayed by vigorous ranting. It is impossible to formulate a wise internal or external policy in a popular assembly.
After all that, I’m not quite sure exactly what he means by his concluding paragraph:
Hence I incline to an aristocratic republic. This would satisfy the ambitious spirit in our people, which has now degenerated into petty vanity… We shall learn from the historic mistakes of others, in the same way as we learn from our own; for we are a modern nation, and wish to be the most modern in the world. Our people, who are receiving the new country from the Society, will also thankfully accept the new constitution it offers them. Should any opposition manifest itself, the Society will suppress it. The Society cannot permit the exercise of its functions to be interpreted by short-sighted or ill-disposed individuals.
Let’s reflect on modern Israel in this light. No, not its shambolic system of multi-party parliamentary democracy, but the role of its elite Ashkenazim. The judicial, economic, defense and cultural crust that remains Ashkenazi but is increasingly sidelined as Israel’s underlying demographics change. Is this Herzl’s aristocratic republic?
I do not believe in our political virtue; first, because we are no better than the rest of modern humanity; and, secondly, because freedom will make us show our fighting qualities at first.
Will people say, again, that our enterprise is hopeless, because even if we obtained the land with supremacy over it, the poor only would go with us? It is precisely the poorest whom we need at first. Only the desperate make good conquerors.
Theodor “Steve Sailer” Herzl
I chuckled at Herzl deploying early forms of minority group statistics — he would have been marvelous on Twitter:
A new life can regenerate even criminals, and we have a proportionately small number of these. Some interesting statistics on this point are worth reading, entitled "The Criminality of Jews in Germany"… It is true that this pamphlet, which teems with figures, has been prompted, as many another "defence," by the error that Anti-Semitism can be refuted by reasonable arguments. We are probably disliked as much for our gifts as we are for our faults.
Herzl’s is a call to a people to grasp for what could be theirs. Land belongs to people who can keep it. Whether politically, militarily or otherwise, that is the only historic principle to sovereignty. Herzl sees this and urges the Jews to stand up and seize their destiny.
Am I stating what is not yet the case? Am I before my time? Are the sufferings of the Jews not yet grave enough? We shall see.
It depends on the Jews themselves whether this political pamphlet remains for the present a political romance. If the present generation is too dull to understand it rightly, a future, finer and a better generation will arise to understand it. The Jews who wish for a State shall have it, and they will deserve to have it.
This is how Stefan Zweig described the effect of the pamphlet upon its release in The World of Yesterday:
If separation was inevitable, [Herzl] said to himself, then let it be a complete one. If humiliation is to be our constant fate, then let us face it with pride. If we suffer because of our homelessness, then let us build our own homeland! And so he published his pamphlet, “The Jewish State,” in which he proclaimed that all attempts at assimilation and all hope for total tolerance were impossible for the Jewish people. They had to create a new homeland of their own in their old home, Palestine.
I was still in the Gymnasium when this short pamphlet, penetrating as a steel shaft, appeared; but I can still remember the general astonishment and annoyance of the bourgeois Jewish circles of Vienna. What has happened, they said angrily, to this otherwise intelligent, witty and cultivated writer? What foolishness is this that he has thought up and writes about? Why should we go to Palestine? Our language is German and not Hebrew, and beautiful Austria is our homeland. Are we not well off under the good Emperor Franz Josef? Do we not make a decent living, and is our position not secure? Are we not equal subjects, inhabitants and loyal citizens of our beloved Vienna? Do we not live in a progressive era in which in a few decades all sectarian prejudices will be abolished? Why does he, who speaks as a Jew and who wishes to help Judaism, place arguments in the hands of our worst enemies and attempt to separate us, when every day brings us more closely and intimately into the German world? The rabbis thundered passionately from the pulpits, the head of the Neue Freie Presse forbade the very mention of the word Zionism in his “progressive” newspaper. Karl Kraus, the Thersites of Viennese literature, the master of invective, wrote a pamphlet called “The King of Zion,” and when Theodor Herzl entered a theater, people whispered sneeringly: “His Majesty has arrived!”
At first Herzl could rightly feel himself misunderstood—Vienna, where he thought himself most secure because he had been beloved there for so many years, not only deserted him but even laughed at him. But then the answer roared suddenly back with such force and such ecstasy that he was almost frightened to see how mighty a movement, already growing beyond his control, he had brought into being with his few dozen pages. True, it did not come from the well-situated, comfortable bourgeois Jews of the West but from the gigantic masses of the East, from the Galician, the Polish, the Russian proletariat of the ghetto. Without realizing it, Herzl with his pamphlet had brought to flame the glowing coal of Judaism, long smoldering in the ashes, the thousand-year-old messianic dream, confirmed in the Holy Books, of the return to the Promised Land. This is the hope and the religious certainty which have made life worth living for the persecuted and enslaved millions.
Whenever anyone—prophet or deceiver—throughout the two thousand years of exile plucked this string, the entire soul of the people was brought into vibration, but never as forcefully as upon this occasion, never with such a roaring and rushing echo. By means of a few dozen pages a single person had united a dispersed and confused mass.
And then, Zweig on Herzl’s funeral and the lasting impact of the man and his dream:
It was a singular day, a day in July, unforgettable to those who participated in the experience. Suddenly, to all the railroad stations of the city, by day and by night, from all realms and lands, every train brought new arrivals. Western, Eastern, Russian, Turkish Jews; from all the provinces and all the little towns they hurried excitedly, the shock of the news still written on their faces; never was it more clearly manifest what strife and talk had hitherto concealed—it was a great movement whose leader had now fallen. The procession was endless. Vienna, startled, became aware that it was not just a writer or a mediocre poet who had passed away, but one of those creators of ideas who disclose themselves triumphantly in a single country, to a single people at vast intervals. A tumult ensued at the cemetery; too many had suddenly stormed to his coffin, crying, sobbing, screaming in a wild explosion of despair. It was almost a riot, a fury.
All regulation was upset through a sort of elementary and ecstatic mourning such as I had never seen before nor since at a funeral. And it was this gigantic outpouring of grief from the depths of millions of souls that made me realize for the first time how much passion and hope this lone and lonesome man had borne into the world through the power of a single thought.
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Herzl would probably object to the term socialist in this context, but that is effectively the highly regulated labour market he describes.