Theodor Herzl, founding father of the Zionist movement, was not a gifted novelist. Nevertheless, his novel, Altneuland (Old-New Land), is one of the most remarkable books of the twentieth century. Although Herzl finished it in 1902, the visionary ideas expressed in this “fairy tale,” as he called it, belonged firmly in the century before. Altneuland is a blueprint of the perfect Jewish state, a technocratic utopia, a socialist dream with all the advantages of capitalism, an idealistic colonial enterprise, a model of pure reason, a “light unto the nations.” It also helps to explain the extremism of some of those who rebel against the dominance of what is widely regarded as the arrogant West.
By the 1920s, in Herzl’s tale, Jerusalem would be transformed into a thoroughly modern me-tropolis, “intersected by elec-tric street railways; wide, tree-bordered streets; homes, gar- dens, boulevards, parks; schools, hospitals, government buildings, pleasure resorts.” Arab and Jew would live happily together in the New Society, working in vast “co-operative syndicates.” And all the nations of the world would meet in Jerusalem at the Palace of Peace.
The real Jerusalem is rather different. In times of high tension, the streets of the old walled city are silent; shops are boarded up; dignified old tourist guides, bereft of clients, softly beg for a little cash. Only ultra-Orthodox Jews still venture into the medieval streets. In the modern western areas of the city, men armed with machine guns stand guard in front of cafés and restaurants. Hotels are empty, abandoned by tourists. You never know where the next bomb attack will strike: on a bus, in a cinema or a discothèque. Arabs do their necessary jobs, cleaning Israeli floors, building Israeli houses, mending Israeli roads, and then scurry back to their homes, each one, in the eyes of a fearful population, a potential suicide bomber. An edgy silence often haunts the streets, broken, periodically, by the sirens of police cars or ambulances.
Israel has to bear much of the responsibility for this menacing atmosphere. You cannot humiliate and bully others without eventually provoking a violent response. Palestinians have been treated badly by Arabs as well as by Jews. The daily sight of Palestinian men crouching in the heat at Israeli checkpoints, suffering the casual abuse of Jewish soldiers, being screamed at, being made to wait endlessly, being insulted in front of family and friends, helps to explain much of the venom of the intifadas. Destruction of property and physical violence turn insults into injury, and even death.
But Israel has also become the prime target of a more general Arab rage against the West, the symbol of idolatrous, hubristic, amoral, colonialist evil, a cancer in the eyes of its enemies that must be expunged by killing.
Herzl could not possibly have foreseen this, and yet the seeds of tragedy are already buried in his text, which was well meant, deeply idealistic, and in many ways typical of everything that people who feel so victimized by the West that they…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.