Center Field: WWHD: What would Herzl do?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-28-10

In celebrating Theodor Herzl’s 150th birthday – he was born May 2, 1860 – it’s easy to despair.

"Holyland" has become shorthand for corruption and cronyism, not religious nationalism. The recent sobering statistics publicized by Professor Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel depict Israel as a blighted nation socially and economically, not a light unto the nations. And the keys to our future, our children, are neglected, crammed into crowded classrooms, frequently taught by underpaid, under-qualified and overworked teachers, while all too often steeped in paganism, materialism, selfishness and aggressiveness.  Looking at the mess, just as some Christian friends ask WWJD – "What would Jesus do" – we should ask WWHD – "What would Herzl do?"

Let’s acknowledge that first, Herzl would say "Wow." Before tackling the problems, he would note all Israel has accomplished. He would remember that his famous prophecy in 1897 predicting a Jewish state within 50 years was too wild to be believed or even admitted publicly – he confessed it to his diary.

Today, despite its challenges, Israel remains a marvel, an Altneuland, old-new land, trying to fulfill modern democratic and liberal values without forsaking tradition while playing it all out in our ancient homeland. Thanks to Herzl and modern Zionism, we revived the Hebrew language, rescued and resettled millions of Jewish refugees, developed a thriving culture, showered the world with technological and scientific innovations, nurtured pockets of idealism and returned the Jewish people to the stage of history.

Alas, some snakes are slithering in our Zionist Eden as well. Corruption, like a cancer, grows wildly and corrodes from within. Our own leaders, who are supposed to look out for us, inspire us, care for us, have turned on us, having sacrificed the public good for their own private gain. The Holyland perversion is just the most egregious example of a "magiya li (I deserve it)" culture, entangled in a spider’s web of insiders who conspire with one another, feeling entitled to take, thus robbing the public not only of money but, even more important, of faith in society and politics.

By contrast, in his utopian novel from 1902, Altneuland, Herzl imagined amateur politicians who avoid partisanship and know better than to "try to live by spouting their opinions instead of by work." In Herzl’s world, the "salaried [political] positions are allotted for skill and merit only." And "for filling the honorary positions we have one simple principle: Those who try to push themselves are gently ignored; while, on the other hand we take great pains to discover real merit in the most obscure nooks. We thus make certain that our precious commonwealth will not become the prey of careerists."

We need some amateurs at the helm. We need some reluctant leaders. We need leaders with the modesty of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, who fought each other fiercely, but who lived humbly. We need leaders who value values and want to raise standards rather than undermining the law or lowering themselves to line their own pockets.

Just as selfishness seduces politicians, it distorts society. Professor Ben-David points out that the wide gap between rich and poor threatens us economically, as well as socially and ideologically. A thriving consumer society, as well as a just democratic society, needs a strong, middle class base. Cultivating a strong foundation requires a delicate balance. We need not return to the bad old days of stranglehold regulation and oppressive taxation, but there are less heavy-handed ways for the very rich to support the very poor. And, even more important, as Herzl dreamed: "We, in our new society, will not measure people by their wealth. Let us measure our brothers and sisters by their merits."

Underlying these challenges is the educational crisis. We need better institutions for transferring knowledge, honing skills and inculcating values. It is astonishing that a government that calls itself nationalist could be comfortable presiding over such a flawed system. It is depressing that a state founded on communitarian values laced with a strong sense of altruism could be so complacent over the sloppy selfishness that grips so many. It is worrying that a society still requiring a great deal of cooperation could be filled with so many people fearful of being a frier, a fool, that they inject absurd levels of tension and aggression into the most mundane interactions. Nearly everyone I speak to acknowledges Israel’s values crisis – but few seem willing to inconvenience themselves or their children to fix it.

Just as the United States in the 1950s kicked into gear after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, Israel today must reboot by reaffirming common values, core ideals, a commitment to community and the common good. As a 19th century romantic nationalist, Herzl understood that through liberal democracies people could mobilize and achieve greatness. As a Jew, Herzl appreciated our rich heritage which we could synthesize with the best of the modern world.

But Herzl’s greatest gift then was as a dreamer, and his greatest role now is to continue challenging us to stretch ourselves and our society. The great leap forward Herzl imagined, and which the Jewish people achieved, should remind us that this society is too young to become a nation of shrugged shoulders and sharpened elbows. We still must roll up our sleeves, link arms and make collective dreams come true, appreciating Herzl’s insight which became cliché – im tirzu ein zo aggadah – if you will it, it is not an impossible dream.

So WWHD? Herzl would counter modern Israeli’s epidemic cynicism with his appealing can-do Zionist idealism. "No philosopher’s stone, no dirigible airship is needed," Herzl’s main character preaches. "Everything needful for the making of a better world exists already. And do you know, man, who could show the way? You! You Jews! …  You could make the experimental land for humanity. Over yonder, where we were, you could create a new commonwealth. On that ancient soil: Old-New-Land!"  

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.