In a letter he wrote shortly before his death in 1904, at the early age of forty-four, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, admonished his successor: “Macht keine Dummheiten während ich tot bin.” (Don’t make any stupid mistakes while I’m dead.) It was a tongue-in-cheek remark and I am citing it only because of all other nineteenth-century attempts to found new nation-states, Herzl’s was undoubtedly the most unusual and certainly one of the most difficult. If there was ever a national project which because of its complexity and uncertainty of success could ill-afford Dummheiten, it was Herzl’s.
Zionism was a national project unlike any other in Europe or overseas. It involved colonizing without a mother country and without the support of state power. A difficult task, to say the least, in an arid country without natural resources, without financial attractions. One of Herzl’s friends asked Cecil Rhodes, the great British imperialist, for his advice. Rhodes answered: “Tell Dr. Herzl to put money in his pocket.” Herzl scarcely had any money. “The secret I keep from everybody,” he wrote, “is the fact that I am at the head only of a movement of beggars and fools” (Schnorrer und Narren). The rich, with very few exceptions, opposed his scheme. The early settlers were mostly penniless idealists, social anarchists, Narodniks, practicing a bizarre “religion of hard labor.” Ninety percent of those who arrived in Palestine between 1904 and 1914 returned to Europe or wandered on to America.
Other nationalisms aimed at liberating subjugated peoples who spoke the same language and lived in the same territory. The Zionists, by contrast, called on Jews living in dozens of countries, speaking dozens of different languages, to settle far away in a remote, neglected province of the Ottoman Empire, where their ancestors had lived thousands of years before but which was now inhabited by another people with their own language and religion, a people—moreover—in the first throes of their own national revival and, for this reason, opposed to the Jewish project as a dangerous intrusion.
One of Herzl’s closest associates is said to have come running to him one day, exclaiming: “But there are Arabs in Palestine! I didn’t know that!” The story may well be apocryphal but it sums up, as such stories often do, the central facts of the case. In his answer, if there was any, Herzl would not have made an appeal to “historical rights,” as many others did and still do to this day. He didn’t believe in “historical rights” and he was too well informed not to know the damage that had been done by the quest for such rights during the nineteenth century by Germans, French, and Austrians, as well as in the Balkans, to name only a few examples. But he had an almost uncanny premonition of the dark period ahead. He was sure there were powerful historical currents that…
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