Would Herzl be Disappointed in Israel?

Would Herzl be Disappointed in Israel?

This article takes the form of a letter by Theodore Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, to his dear friend, William H. Hechler. I attempted to add very little to Herzl’s own words. Therefore, almost everything is a quotation (in italics) from one of his works: Altneuland, Der Judenstaat, or his personal diaries. I just made minor grammatical changes to fit tense and person.– Moises Salinas

Dear William,
So it’s been over 100 years since my demise, (almost 80 from yours) and from this place, far away, I look back to reflect on my great accomplishment, Zionism. And I’m sad to say that if I had to summarize it all in one word, that word would be “disappointment.”

When I founded the Zionist Organization in Basel, I envisioned a state for the Jews that would be “A light unto the Nations.” I believed that we must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance, love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion! Indeed, I was sure that the world would be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity. Because only here the Jews could build up a free commonwealth in which they could strive for the loftiest human aims.

Instead, the State of the Jews, which is called Israel today, became– to many– a pariah among the nations, one that is considered by too many inhabitants of this earth as a danger, and an example of oppression and racism. But let me tell you, my dear William, where my disappointment lays:

I envisioned the state of the Jews as a peaceful country. I believed that the Jews, once settled in their own state, would probably have no more enemies. Jerusalem would be a city of peace. In it’s midst, a splendid Peace Palace, where international congresses of peace-lovers and scientists were held, for Jerusalem was now a home for all the best strivings of the human spirit: for Faith, Love, Knowledge. This Peace Palace, is an international center for great undertakings. Its activities are by no means limited to Palestine and the Jews, but include all countries and all peoples.

I conceived the Jewish State as a neutral one. It would therefore require only a professional army, equipped, of course, with every requisite of modern warfare, to preserve order internally and externally. This is what I thought: The army of the Company’s officials will gradually introduce more refined requirements of life. (Officials include officers of our defensive forces, who will always form about a tenth part of our male colonists. They will be sufficiently numerous to quell mutinies, for the majority of our colonists will be peaceably inclined.)

I was unequivocally opposed to the acquisition of land through force and invasion. I said, regarding reaching an agreement to settle Palestine: One thing is to be adhered to inviolably: the agreement must be based on rights and not on sufferance. Truly we have had enough experience with sufferance and protection which could be revoked at will. Consequently, the only reasonable course of action is to work for publicly legalized guarantees. I am a confirmed opponent of infiltration. My program, far more preferable, is to stop infiltration and concentrate all our strength upon an internationally-sanctioned acquisition of Palestine.

To achieve this, we require diplomatic negotiations. In order to be able to integrate with the local Arab population, and become their allies instead of their enemies, I believed we could offer the present possessors of the land enormous advantages, assume part of the public debt, build new roads for traffic, which our presence in the country would render necessary, and do many other things. The creation of our state would be beneficial to adjacent countries, because the cultivation of a strip of land increases the value of its surrounding districts in innumerable ways.

Well, William, as you know, we have fought many wars, have no real peace with most of our neighbors, and became on occupying power over another people.

I saw a modern state, an example of egalitarian, secular rational law worthy of the upcoming 20th century. Religion would have been excluded from public affairs once and for all. The New Society did not care whether a man sought the eternal verities in a temple, a church or a mosque, in an art museum or at a philharmonic concert.

No, indeed. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. 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. Army and priesthood shall receive honors high as their valuable functions deserve. But they must not interfere in the administration of the state which confers distinction upon them, else they will conjure up difficulties without and within.
Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality.

And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law. Instead, we have become a theocratic state, in which religious parties hold the balance of power, and impose their will over the secular majority.

Human and Civil Rights
My dream was one of a state for the Jews that would be a model of human rights and equality. I thought that no member of the Jewish state will be oppressed, every man will be able and will wish to rise in it. In our New Society, the women would have equal rights with the men. Arabs would be better off than at any time in the past. They would support themselves decently, their children would be healthier and be educated. Their religion and ancient customs in no wise be interfered with. They would have become more prosperous-that was all. I believed that they would say: The Jews have enriched us. Why should we be angry with them? They dwell among us like brothers. Why should we not love them? Yet we still discriminate and attack each other in the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation.

I envisioned a state that would take care of its citizens, based on the ancient Jewish principle of mutual responsibility. Health care would be a universal right. This was my vision: We are thus able to care for every sick and needy applicant. The needy sick have only to apply to the public charities. No one is turned away. You must remember that our workingmen, as members of the New Society, are automatically insured against accidents, illness, old age, and death. Their savings-capacity is therefore not split up by provision for these contingencies.

We would learn from the mistakes of unbridled capitalism to create a balanced, progressive society: Here the bread of the poor is as cheap as the bread of the rich. There are no speculators in the necessaries of life. You know how in the co-operative method has, indeed, become one of the strongest motives in the new Palestinian colonization, due chiefly to the efforts of the organized labor movement.

Since I wished to join the New Society, I had to submit to its land regulations. Its members have no private property in land.

Instead, our experiments in cooperative societies, the kibbutzim and moshavim, are failing; our national industry and even our public land are being privatized, and the social gap between rich and poor is widening.

Even 100 years ago, I understood that the smart use of natural resources and forestation was key to the success of the state of the Jews. I said: We think nothing too costly for our parks, because they benefit the growing generation. However, we did not plant old and expensive trees like these everywhere. For instance, we brought eucalyptus trees from Australia which grew very rapidly. Our first funds for this purpose came from a national tree-planting Society which collected money in all parts of the world. People in the Diaspora contributed money for trees whose shade they were afterwards to enjoy in Palestine. I also thought of using natural sources for the production of energy: I thought that we must study the power of water, and appreciate the forces of electricity. Instead, our beaches are polluted, our land and rivers contaminated, and not really making progress in environmental issues.

I saw free, public, state of the art education, as the basis for the development of the state: Each generation is given a new start. Therefore, all our educational institutions are free from the elementary schools to the Zion University. All the pupils must wear the same kind of simple clothing until they matriculate into the secondary schools. We think it unethical to single out children according to their parents’ wealth or social rank. There will be light, attractive, healthy schools for children, conducted on the most approved modern systems. Instead, we have segregated schools that are failing according to international standards, our universities are declining and tuition is ever more expensive, and a fair, egalitarian and modern educational reform seems further and further away.

In summary, my dear William, I’m so disappointed of this movement I founded over 100 years ago. I had so many expectations, so many dreams. I was convinced that given to Jews their rightful position as a people, they would develop a distinct Jewish cult national characteristics and national aspirations -which would make for the progress of mankind.
Is there time, still, my dear William, to correct it? Can Israel still become what I envisioned, dreamed all these years ago? I sure hope so, because otherwise, all of of it would end up being no more than a legend.

Sincerely Yours

By | 2009-08-17T16:34:00-04:00 August 17th, 2009|Blog|5 Comments


  1. David Ehrens August 17, 2009 at 8:43 pm - Reply

    Anyone who is interested can read Herzl’s diaries online or download them:


    There is an English translation somewhere. The diaries, in contrast to his lofty prose in “Der Judenstaat,” show a much more hard-nosed Herzl — one who knew full well that Palestine was not empty and would have to be emptied of its poor and deceived inhabitants.

    I don’t think Herzl would be disappointed at all in what Israel’s become. His reaction would probably be: the project is proceeding apace.

  2. Anonymous August 19, 2009 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    I wonder, David, which of the 5000 pages of diaries you are talking about. I have not read them all, but I never saw what you say. Besides, the public actions of Herzl speak louder than his private thoughts.

  3. David Ehrens August 21, 2009 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    First, Herzl was a politician whose public pronouncements and appeals to philanthropists, diplomats, and the Sultan had a very different character than his private thoughts. Despite the utopian nature of Der Judenstaat, the journals acknowledge a darker reality for the Arabs, whom Herzl realized had to go.

    Here is one example from June 12, 1895 (my translation):

    “With the expropriation of land we will bring the host country an equal measure of prosperity. Private property of these countries must be gently expropriated.

    The poor population must be moved across borders unnoticed, where we will find work for them in these transit lands but deny them any kind of work in our own land.

    The indigenous people will come over to our side. The work of expropriation must proceed as well as tending to the poor with tenderness and care.

    Landowners should be made to believe they are taking advantage of us by selling at overvalued prices. But nothing will ever be sold back to them.”

    I wonder if he actually thought that this deception could be visited on an entire nation without being discovered or resented.

  4. Ralph Seliger August 21, 2009 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    Herzl had a mix of liberal and not so liberal notions. But since he died in 1904, how significant were his darker ideas? We know that the bi-nationalist Zionists (Buber, Arendt, Magnes, Einstein,Hashomer Hatzair) very much wanted an independent Palestine that was both Arab and Jewish.

    Wasn’t it more pertinent to what transpired that Arab nationalism took a pro-Nazi turn (e.g., the Mufti) and attempted to destroy the Yishuv rather than go along with the UN’s partition plan?

  5. Moises Salinas August 24, 2009 at 6:15 pm - Reply

    Herzl rambled a lot about many different topics on his diaries, most of it was brain storming, caused by one or other criticism to his ideas. In this ramblings he does, indeed, sometimes express darker thoughts, but he clearly saw the diaries as his private ruminations.

    Besides David, the quote you provide far from unequivocally demonstrates he was thinking about moving people on the basis of nationality or ethnicity. He was, indeed, against private ownership of the land (for Jews or Arabs alike). The only sentence in which he expressly mentions the indigenous population (according to your translation) says “The indigenous people will come over to our side.”

    A much better picture of his “vision” can be found on his last work, Altneuland. Have you read it? I know, which cynical eyes, you can read anything into it, but look at it without prejudgement, see what he was trying to say:


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