“Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word . . . it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”
These words, written by Theodor Herzl in his diary on September 3, 1897, upon leaving the very first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, reverberated through me as I myself flew out of Basel after the 125th anniversary event last month. Herzl’s famous words took on a heightened resonance in no small part because when I left Basel, I did so, not, as Herzl did, on a train to Vienna, but on a plane to Israel. Let me explain. I was already halfway across the world to present at the conference; I had not one, but two, family weddings in Israel plus a few meetings in anticipation of Israel’s 75th next spring; my kids were all doing their thing; and Debbie was happy as long as she had a ticket to the US Open. Why wouldn’t I just hop over to Israel? I buckled in and listened to the cockpit crew speak in German and Hebrew, sitting not far from elected officials of the modern State of Israel on their way home, in a mode of transportation whose very existence not even Herzl imagined possible. One would have to have a hardened heart not be moved by it all.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of Political Zionism, was the convener of what was, in Daniel Polisar’s words, “The most politically significant meeting of any group of Jews in the last 1800 years.” The man who, in less than ten years – from Dreyfus to death – set in motion a movement whose impact on the Jewish people finds its equal perhaps only in the Bible itself. I had just sat in the Basel Stadtcasino where the First Zionist Congress convened – in the very room where it happened – in the company of the president of the modern State of Israel. I had gone for a jog that morning and taken a selfie overlooking the Rhine River posing as Herzl (minus the beard, add the Lululemon). Herzl was a visionary. On top of everything else he achieved in his brief forty-four years, in 1902 he wrote a utopian novel Altneuland: Old-New Land, imagining what a Jewish state would look like twenty years later. And now it is 125 years after the First Zionist Congress, 100 years after the future that Herzl imagined, and nearly 75 years since 1948, when his dream of Israel became a reality.
It was a lot to take in and my mind began to wander. Literally and figuratively at 30,000 feet, my thoughts turned to the obvious question: What would Herzl say? Were he at my side, doing what I was doing, seeing what I was seeing, what would he think? What would his reflections be about the condition of the Jewish people? About Israel, about the diaspora, and the relationship between the two? As had others before me, I began to envision an imaginary journey. Herzl and me, me and Herzl – together for a day in the modern State of Israel.
This was not the trip I had planned on – shepherding the founding father of political Zionism through Israel – but as I watched my new friend trying to frame his face in the camera of the biometric scanner at Ben Gurion Airport, I began to warm to the idea. “At the very least,” I thought to myself, “There might be a great Rosh Hashanah sermon in this.”
Having made no plans, I had to think on my feet. Where to take Herzl? The first thought that came to my mind: Take Herzl to Herzliya, the beautiful coastal city north of Tel Aviv. That would be a great welcome. Let Herzl see not just his vision a reality, but the city bearing his name. I lent him a pair of shorts; his legs needed a splash of sun. We strolled up and down the beach, took in museums, hotels, archeological sites, restaurants, embassies, and estates. I made sure we passed the street in Herzilya named "Altneuland," figuring he would get a kick out of that. I could see the astonishment in Herzl’s eyes as he heard modern Hebrew spoken, as he saw Israelis enjoying the beach, bikini straps alongside tzitzit. Israelis chasing after their children, arguing over parking spaces, doing all the things people do, but now it was Jews doing it – in a Jewish state, living freely, unselfconsciously in their sovereign land. It had the elegance and ease of a European beach, but the people, the food, the music, all were distinctly Middle Eastern. Here was a new Jewish identity that had never existed before. I could see Herzl absorbing all he was seeing. I had read Herzl – his speeches, his short stories, even his diaries. He was a prophet of Jewish pride. Zionism, at its core, was the path by which the Jewish people could be purged of a Ghetto mentality and rehabilitate themselves to stand tall as Jews free of the self-abnegation wrought by millennia in exile. And here it was – in plain sight! Jews just being Jews or, more precisely, being people. It might have been the hot Israeli sun, but looking back, I would like to think it was a tear that I saw running down Herzl’s cheek. This is what it looks like when Jews have sovereignty, when they are the subject of their own sentence and not the object of someone else’s. Herzl’s dream – alive and well.
As we strolled to the edge of town, my companion pointed to some big buildings in the distance. “What is that?”
“Oh, that,” I replied. “That is a high-tech industrial park.” Herzl was big into science and futurism. “When you wrote Altneuland,” I said, “you imagined a country with cars, telephones, telegraphs, electricity, and even elevated trains. Israelis call that over there their Silicon Valley – microchips, pharmaceuticals, AI, desalination technology, and a whole lot more. Herzl,” I continued, as we looked out to the Mediterranean, “you imagined the day when oil would be found here. Well, it took longer than we would have liked, and God has a wicked sense of humor, but over there,” I said, pointing at the distant horizon off the coastline, “there is enough natural gas – get this – that Israel exports it! And Israel exports a whole lot more: art, music, literature, cooking, culture, Shtisel, and Gal Gadot. Herzl, you imagined an Israel with a Peace Palace – ready to distribute humanitarian relief whenever fire, flood, famine, and epidemic strike, a light unto nations with commitments to all of humanity. Herzl. Israel is that light to the world in ways that you never imagined.”
I was having fun, hitting my stride. I mean, who doesn’t like playing tour guide? So Herzl’s next question caught me a bit off guard. “Elliot, the year before I died, I asked that I be buried next to my father in Vienna, until the time that I could be buried in the Jewish state. Elliot, what happened? Where am I buried?”
Our next stop, I knew, would be Har Herzl, Mount Herzl, the place where, in 1949 just after the state was established, Herzl’s remains were reinterred. Whatever Herzl felt about seeing his final resting place, he never shared with me. But I watched him as his attention turned to take in the rest of Har Herzl – the military cemetery for Israel’s fallen soldiers. I knew to choose my next words carefully; we were on sacred ground in more ways than one. “Herzl, you dreamt of a Jewish state, and the fact that we are standing here is but one of innumerable indicators of your dream fulfilled. But your dream was also a bit naïve. In your fin de siècle liberal faith, you believed that a Jewish presence here would be welcomed with open arms, that we would dwell among the Arabs like brothers. You were so convinced of it, that you thought the Jewish state would need no army. But you need to know that this state was not given to the Jewish people on a silver platter. I pointed to the headstones, many clustered by Israel’s wars - 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, the First Lebanon War, the Second Lebanon War. These souls – they are the silver platter upon which the Jewish state was given.”
“Israel is a strong state,” I continued, “and exciting as it is to live in an era when Israel signs peace treaties with one Gulf state after another, Israel is still not at peace. Israel exists in a hostile environment surrounded by nations with the stated intent and the military means to do it harm. Because Israel has rejected the moral purity of exiled victimhood, Israel faces the choice of how to imperfectly defend itself, a choice Israel makes every day and would make any day. You, Herzl, you imagined an Israel of tolerance and nondiscrimination. There was no way you could have imagined the rise of a Palestinian consciousness that rejected Jewish immigration. Sadly, Israel has yet to find peace with the Palestinians living alongside and within its borders. Today your dream of an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic, a place where – in your words, ‘different nationalities are accord[ed] honorable protection, and equality before the law,’ is a fairy tale. And while there is no shortage of blame to go around, the political discourse is getting more extreme, more toxic, and more intractable. I get it, I know, the Middle East is not the Upper East Side. America is hardly a model of civil discourse, and I shouldn’t tell Israel what to do from my comfy armchair. But I know what I know: Be it America, Israel, or anywhere, there is something deeply troubling about the unholy mixture of nationalism and religious zealotry. With yet another Israeli election this fall, I am worried, deeply worried – I am sounding the alarm – about what the results may bode for Israel’s diverse population, Israel and Jews around the globe, and Israel and the world at large.”
I kept talking, but I could tell that Herzl’s mind was elsewhere. (It was not the first time the attention of my audience has wandered.) Herzl was staring at a building on a nearby mountain, a complex of buildings really. “What is that?” my friend asked for the second time that morning. He was looking at Yad Vashem, the state’s official Holocaust memorial museum. How was I going to explain this one? Maybe he had noticed that his youngest daughter, Trude, was not buried on Har Herzl? Was I going to be the one to tell him that she was one of the Six Million, murdered in the Theresienstadt concentration camp?
I took a deep breath. “Herzl, the pamphlet you wrote in 1896 outlining your vision for a Jewish state was called ‘Der Judenstaat: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question.’ Whether it was the populist demagoguery of the Dreyfus trial, the coarse thuggery you experienced outside a German pub, or the genteel antisemitism of your college fraternity, you understood that Jew-hatred was endemic to the soul of Europe. You knew the failed project of Emancipation; you believed that the Jewish question – the question of how Jews could be both Jews and citizens of the modern world – could only be solved by way of Jewish self-determination. You feared the dark possibility of Jews wearing a yellow badge. Herzl, you had no idea how dark the night would become. That a genocidal regime would arise whose answer to the Jewish question would be the ‘Final Solution.’ To be a Jew today is to live in the shadow of a throbbing and soul-crushing ‘If only.’ If only, Herzl, your dream had become a reality in 1932 and not 1948. If only that were the case, then millions of our brothers and sisters and their descendants would be alive today."
We sat there in silence looking at Yad Vashem, a few minutes that felt like an eternity. A silence broken by two short words: “And now?”
“And now, Elliot? Has the world learned its lesson? Did the horror of the Holocaust excise the cancer of antisemitism? We can’t bring back the Six Million, but has the fact of Israel’s existence resolved the Jewish question as I had hoped?”
I felt myself fumbling; I needed to compose my thoughts. “Herzl, complicated as the roots of antisemitism may be, on a certain level it is no different than any other irrational hatred. Haters are going to hate. People still hate Jews for being Jews, but here in Israel where nearly half the Jewish people live, Israelis can handle themselves. They can address threats from abroad, they can take out threats before they become reality, and, when someone does do harm to Israelis,” I said, thinking about Munich fifty years ago, “Israel makes sure the world knows that it takes care of its own. It’s not a pleasant way to look at it, but it is also not inaccurate to say that for nearly half of world Jewry, Israel is the most formidable response to antisemitism – exactly as you imagined.”
“But that is only half the story,” I continued. We were now on Jerusalem’s light rail going from Yad Vashem to the Old City. “For the other half of the Jewish world, the half who don’t live in Israel, antisemitism remains a lived reality about which Israel does and can do very little. There may have been a time when the fact of the sovereign Jewish state served as a shot in the arm for diaspora Jewry – a proud display of Jewish self-determination important everywhere but especially in far-flung communities where Jews are a minority. And Israel remains a safe haven for Jews in need of refuge – these days, Jews from both Ukraine and Russia. But to the Jews of Pittsburgh, Poway, Colleyville, Charlottesville, Brooklyn, and Paris, to American Jews of the next generation, Israel is not and is not perceived to be a defense against antisemitism. The mere fact of Israel’s existence neither makes my children any safer nor makes them feel any safer. For a Jewish student on campus, for a Jew aligned with progressive causes, Israel is not only not an antidote for antisemitism but, in the eyes of the antisemite, yet another reason to justify it.”
We had arrived in the Old City and were sitting in the courtyard facing the Kotel. I had been doing most, if not all, of the talking, but with Herzl’s next question, I realized it was Herzl, not I, who was controlling the conversation. “So why, Elliot? Why are you living there and not here?” This question cut to bone. I had just cataloged the challenges of diaspora Jewish life. I had just shown him that Israel is the living, breathing argument for Jewish self-determination. I am an adult. I have agency over my life. I know how to buy a plane ticket. Why had I, why have I, sidestepped the call of Jewish history?
Honesty is always the best policy, so I decided to lead with the truth. “Truth be told,” I began, “I struggle. Debbie and I, we struggle. We thought of moving to Israel before we got married, we thought of moving when we did get married, and we still think about it; this story is not yet done. We have family there. Our children go back and forth. They know that nothing would make us more proud than if they made aliyah to Israel. To be a Jew is to live with certain tensions: between our universal and particular commitments, between tradition and modernity, and – given the lived reality of a Jewish state – where a Jew should live. Being Jewish is not so much about resolving these tensions as about naming them honestly and living them authentically – in our families and in our community. Our synagogue puts Israel education, Israel engagement and travel, and Hebrew language at the forefront of our mission if for no other reason than that I can’t imagine a contemporary Jewish expression without Israel as part of it. I know the privilege of my existence. I know I don’t need Israel as a refuge, nor do I live with fear, real fear, for my Jewish self – a statement as extraordinary as it is unprecedented in Jewish history. But some days, Herzl, I just cannot believe that I have not made the willed choice to live in the reality of Israel.”
“And yet,” I continued, “as aware as I am of the claim Israel makes on my being, I am doubly aware that Israel is not my Judaism and Zionism is not my religion. Judaism is my religion. Israel is part of my Jewish identity, not a substitute for it, and somewhere along the way I discovered that I am more comfortable living my Jewish life in America than in Israel. A Judaism that is free of the coercive powers of the chief rabbinate. A Judaism that seeks to celebrate, not squash, innovation, creativity, and inclusion. A Judaism in which all Jews – men and women, straight and gay, of all skin tones – stand equally before God and Jewish law. I motioned to the Kotel, at the segregated men and women, the Haredi men in black hats, the modesty police scolding women to cover their bare shoulders. Just this summer,” I told Herzl, pointing to an area off to the side, “a young man celebrated his bar mitzvah in that small courtyard – the section where men and women can pray side-by-side – and even there, they were surrounded by heckling Haredi Jews calling them names and ripping up their prayer books. It was not me, but the prime minister of Israel who noted the bitter irony that ‘Israel is the only Western country in which Jews don’t have freedom of worship.’”
“Best as I can tell, Herzl, the impetus for your vision of a Jewish state was to address antisemitism and infuse the Jewish people with pride. I support and will always support Israel, and especially Israelis whose vision of Jewish life reflects my Jewish values. I will always worry and work for the safety of our people against those who would do us harm. There will be a day when the Cosgroves establish a home in Israel and spend at least part of the year there. But with the limited number of years we are allotted in this life, I would rather spend my waking hours living a proud and passion-filled Jewish life and inspiring my community to do the same. Why do I live there and not here? Because it is there, not here, that I can best build a Jewish future for half of our people.”
It had grown late, the sun was setting, and I sensed we were about to part ways. Honored as I was to spend time with Israel’s founding ideologue, I also knew that this unplanned visit had cut into the time I had blocked off to write my Rosh Hashanah sermon. But as I motioned that it was time to go, Herzl took me by the hand and these were the words he spoke:
“Elliot, 125 years ago I convened a congress that gave rise to the Jewish state. You have given me a chance – like Moses transported through time to the study house of Rabbi Akiva – to see that the seeds of my vision, different as it may have been from the current reality, have come to fruition. But my dream was the dream of a European Jew in 1897 – a time and place as different from yours as night from day. Elliot, what is your dream for the Jewish people? My moonshot was aimed fifty years out. Where do you want the Jewish people to be in fifty years? Because Zionism is not a destination; it is an aspiration. An aspiration for Jews to live freely and fully and safely as Jews. An aspiration for Jews to be anchored in their attachment to Israel, but to never confuse that attachment for Judaism itself. An aspiration that wherever Jews may live – Israel, America or around the globe – we are a people, one people. An aspiration that our commitment to our land and people goes hand in hand with our commitment to all of humanity.
Elliot, aspirations are aspirational. They take effort, they require stamina, and they demand the resilience to weather frustration and setbacks. Urge your community not to give up on Israel, that no different than one does not become any less a patriot by criticizing one’s country, so too one does not become any less a Zionist for calling out Israel’s shortcomings. Remind your community where America was seventy-five years into their nationhood, in 1851, and what America still had to endure and overcome. Israel has come a long way and still has a way to go, but we will only get there if you, our most committed, urge us, nudge us, critique us, and – most of all – support us on the path forward. If, as you say, Elliot, Israel makes a claim on your identity, then not only do you have a right, but you have a responsibility, to remain a vested stakeholder in Israel’s journey.”
I think, though I can’t be sure, that Herzl smiled for the first time that day, and then he continued: “Elliot, you seem to know me all too well. Next summer you might consider reading a good detective novel rather than my diaries. You know how for me, an assimilated European Jew, the path back to Judaism was by way of a Jewish state. A dream of a Judaism proud and empowered, of Jews at home in their skin and tradition, a Judaism freely expressed. Our dreams, Elliot, are one and the same. Of course, I want you to keep Israel in your heart, to live here if you can; we’ll leave the light on for you. But your leadership ledger, Elliot, your legacy, will be measured by the degree to which your Jews are at home not in Israel but in their Judaism. Teach them, Elliot. Give them the tools. Empower them to keep Jewish homes, to live according to Jewish time and tradition. Give them a place to begin – a pamphlet on their seats, a program, for starters – to revitalize Shabbat, a spiritual placeholder in their week. Inspire them to live passion-filled Jewish lives – in the synagogue, at their Shabbat tables, on campus, wherever they go, in their hearts, and in the fullness of their being.
My dream, Elliot, is your dream, and your dream is the dream of every Jewish soul. And what was true for my dream is true for yours and true for all: If you will it, it is no dream, but if you do not, it will remain a fairy-tale.”
And just like that, my friend took his leave.
Today is Rosh Hashanah, a day given over to our dreams, as Jews, as a Jewish community, and as a Jewish people. Let’s dream big in the year and the years ahead. Most of all, let’s make those dreams a reality.
For further reading:
Avineri, Shlomo. Herzl's Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State. Katonah, New York: BlueBridge, 2014.
Herzl, Theodor. The Jewish State: The Historic Essay that Led to the Creation of the State of Israel. Foreword by Alan Dershowitz. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2019. (Also available in older editions.)
__________. The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl. Edited by Raphael Patai. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York and London: Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff, 1961.
__________. Altneuland: The Old-New Land. Available in various editions at the New York Public Library.