VIPs' misconceived detour

Israel's Foreign Office recently revealed that, since March of this year, foreign dignitaries have no longer been taken to Herzl's grave as part of their official visit. The reason cited was lack of time. Yet, nearby the Mount Herzl Military cemetery, dignitaries are still taken to Yad Vashem - the Museum of the Holocaust - in a ritual that in recent years has taken on almost metaphysical proportions.

By retaining the one and stopping the other, the powers-that-be have thus severed an equation and weakened the significance of both, possibly to the point of meaninglessness.

The ramifications of such a decision has an impact far beyond the closeted hallways of the ministry. It signals a radical shift in Israel's official self-image. When both sites were on the schedule, some semblance of balance between hope and despair was achieved, however uneasily. Now that Theodor Herzl has disappeared from the list of must-see sites, the message offered to our foreign visitors becomes unambiguous: Israel exists only because of the Holocaust and those rotten goyim (of whom the visiting dignitary is usually one).

All this despite a declaration a few months ago by the same government that emphasising the Holocaust as the main reason for the state of Israel's existence, was not a good strategy. Why, then, the rush to excise Herzl's memory from the official tour.

Herzl personified the practical side of Zionism

Let us recall what Herzl said in his ground-breaking book, The Jewish State: "… we have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes super-loyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands, where we have lived for centuries, we are still decried as aliens…"

To balance this picture of gloom, Herzl adds a note of vision and hope: "The Jews who will it shall achieve their state. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil…The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind."

In 1897, when he convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Herzl declared that, 50 years hence, there would be an independent Jewish state. Appropriately, in November 1947, the United Nations sanctioned the establishment of such a state in Israel's historical homeland.

It is true that, throughout the centuries, there had been a Jewish presence in the Holy Land - except in periods such as that of the antisemitic Crusaders. Before Herzl, too, there were successful attempts to buy and resettle the land, (eg by the Rothschilds and the Montefiories) and even to establish new areas such as Neve Zedek in the 1880s which would become a part of Tel Aviv. There had also been many proto-Zionist thinkers, such as Moses Hess, Ahad Ha'am, and others.

Herzl, however, personified the practical side of Zionism by setting up a political movement that eventually - one might say inevitably - led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. All this from a man who was as far from his Jewish roots as an assimilated, mid-European, cosmopolitan product of the Enlightenment could be.

That such an individual crystallised in his own being the idea of a modern Jewish state is nothing short of miraculous. He made mistakes; which statesman doesn't? But his contribution to the Jewish people is incontrovertible. Had those who scoffed at him - including most of the rabbis of the time - listened to him, the Holocaust might not have happened, or at least would have been far less effective.

Thus, to de-emphasise Herzl's impact on Israel's very existence is to shoot ourselves not so much in the foot as in the mouth. It reveals a sense of insecurity precisely by the most right-wing government that Israel has ever had, a government that daily declares the need for a "pure" Jewish state - seemingly over Herzl's dead body.

Mordechai Beck is an Israeli-based journalist

    Last updated: 9:30am, June 27 2011