Where There’s a Will, There’s a Reality

Herzl would have been disappointed to learn that it would take Jewish military power to establish the Jewish state and guarantee its survival.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on May 3, 2010.)

When it comes to the end goal of the movement founded by Theodor Herzl, he was no less than prophetic.

After the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, he wrote in his diary: “At Basel I founded the Jewish state … in five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50, everyone will see it.”

Sure enough, it was just over 50 years later that the State of Israel was founded.

Twenty years after that meeting in Basel, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was issued by the British government, to be followed a few years later by the League of Nations mandate for Palestine. It looked like the Jewish state was just a few years away from becoming a reality.

But then, in an attempt to appease the Arabs, Britain began backtracking on its commitment to the Jewish people. As Britain, the mandatory power, changed its policy, many Zionists lowered their expectations.

When Ze’ev Jabotinsky introduced a motion at the 17th Zionist Congress in Basel in 1931, stating that the aim of Zionism was the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, the presidium refused to put the motion to a vote.

In May 1939 Neville Chamberlain’s government issued the MacDonald White Paper, proclaiming in effect the end to the dream of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Forty years after Herzl’s diary entry, it began to look like his prediction was fading from reality. But in May 1948 there it was − the State of Israel.

So is the Jewish state today as he envisioned it? One might think this would be an easy question to answer.

In 1902 Herzl published “Altneuland” (“Old-New Land”), in which he described the Jewish State as he imagined it coming into being. The title page of the book carried the now well known inscription “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Herzl had visited Palestine in 1898 and in the first part of his book describes the land as he had seen it then, a desolate country. The bulk of the book is devoted to Palestine, which has now become a Jewish state, some 20 years after that visit.

It is a utopian description which envisions Jewish Palestine in idealized colors − a democratic society, a model community utilizing the latest advances in science and technology, based on cooperative endeavors and social welfare, living at peace with the Arabs, not in need of an army.

That is how Herzl would have liked to see the future Jewish state, but surely he knew that it was not likely to be as idyllic as he described it in his book. Though with Zionism still in its infancy at the time, the book was chiefly intended to attract adherents to the movement.

The Arabs in “Altneuland” are grateful for the prosperity that the Jews have brought to the country and see themselves as partners in a great enterprise.

One can only wish that it would have turned out that way. Herzl and other Zionists of his time did not foresee the violent opposition of the Arabs of Palestine to Jewish immigration and the plans for the establishment of a Jewish state.

It was Jabotinsky, who in 1923, in his famous article “The Iron Wall,” explained that Jewish immigration and the plans for the establishment of a Jewish state were bound to meet strong opposition from the local Arab population.

He’d had the advantage of having seen the situation on the ground while in Palestine as an officer in the Jewish Legion in the First World War, and later while organizing the defense of the Jewish community in Jerusalem during the 1920 Arab riots.

In the years to follow, violent Arab resistance accompanied the growth of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine. The Jewish state finally came into being, not only as the result of Zionist statecraft, as Herzl, and also Jabotinsky, had foreseen – but largely as a result of the military strength the growing Jewish community in Palestine was able to muster and its ability to repeatedly defeat Arab aggression and terror.

The current Jewish state – embattled, beleaguered and constantly on guard – does not appear in Herzl’s “Altneuland.” He, no doubt, would have been surprised and disappointed to learn that it would take Jewish military power to establish the Jewish state and guarantee its survival.

Many other aspects of today’s Israel might not have been to his liking, and who knows if he could have found a place for himself in one of the many Israeli political parties.

And yet, if in our imagination we picture Herzl visiting Israel today, seeing the thriving Jewish state, an economy powered by the latest technologies, a world leader in science and high-tech, armed forces that are among the best in the world, the continuous ingathering of Jews from across the globe − all that would have surely overshadowed the many defects he would discover.

Israel today would be an overwhelming sight for him to see. He might well have repeated what he wrote over 100 years ago: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

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