We say, rightly, that Herzl's greatness is particularly noticeable when we look at the dire condition of the Jews of his time. It is true. The conditions they faced in Eastern Europe, in the ghettoes, were dismal, at a low point. However, we can say in equal measure, and I do, that Herzl's greatness is even more noticeable in light of the wonderful condition the Jews in his immediate vicinity experienced. Herzl lived and worked in Vienna. Vienna at the end of the 19th century was the site of a Jewish renaissance that is difficult to describe. One person who could testify to this better than anyone was one of the greatest American writers, Mark Twain.
Mark Twain is no doubt familiar to you because of his books, and he is also known for his visit to the Holy Land in 1869. Almost 20 years later he travelled to Vienna. He lived there for two years. He met the Jews there. In 1850 in Vienna there were barely any Jews. The Hapsburg Empire welcomed them so they came. They moved to Vienna and flourished in the fields of science, the arts, medicine, philosophy, music, journalism, business and economics – a Jewish blossoming that can hardly be described. Freud, Mahler, Schnitzler, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein. All Jews. Stefan Zweig, Wasserman – you all know the medical test named after him – and many, many, many, many, many others.
Twain came to Vienna and met them all. He knew Jews in the United States, but how many were there? In Vienna he saw this renaissance, the tremendous contribution made by the Jews to advancing humanity. He wrote a wonderful essay about the Jews in which he wrote: "He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all…" He wrote this after he met them.
But he wrote something else. He wrote: "What is this anti-Semitism?" At the same time in Vienna, Karl Lueger, Hitler's spiritual mentor and mayor of Vienna, nurtured this hatred despite the Jews' great contribution. Twain wrote: "What do they want from the Jews? They make such a tremendous contribution to humanity – what is this anti-Semitism?" He did not know how to answer that question.
But these successful, good Jews, these geniuses, they did not even ask the question. There was only one man who asked the question, one man, and he too was a genius. Unlike his intellectual and creative colleagues, he was not delusional, he was a visionary and each of his visions and prophecies, his dictates and suggestions, were based on a considered, even cruel analysis of reality – not based on wishful thinking but on a correct reading of reality.
Twain became friendly with Herzl. He even went with him to a play Herzl wrote about the ghetto walls. In the play Herzl wrote that the bringing down of the ghetto walls and the assimilation of the Jews into advanced European society would not erase the anti-Semitism; it would only increase. He wrote this in his letters as well.
Herzl did not believe that the Jews' contribution to humanity, that tikkun olam – something we would all want to see – would erase anti-Semitism. He did not believe that it would protect the Jews from the ancient hatred that had been nurtured for 2,500 years, ever since the Hellenistic period. He believed that people would believe anything about the Jews – including people considered great figures in history.
Herzl had one solution. Like Twain, Herzl believed that only with the return of the Jews to their homeland, which he expressed during his visit here in 1869 – only if the Jews returned to this land, would they be reborn in larger numbers. However, here Herzl parted ways with Twain who believed that the Jews would be victorious in any situation and under any conditions. Herzl was more cautious, much more cautious. He wrote: "No people may be saved except by itself, and the Jewish question can only be resolved by the Jews". And to this end, he demanded that the powers grant the Jews sovereign and settlement rights that we could defend with a Jewish army. Why an army? He understood very well why an army, and because of this demand, he was branded a crazy person. Demanding a Jewish army at the end of the 19th century!?! He understood very well that there would be a struggle here.
He also called for a policy that would rule out relying on the kindness of other peoples and countries, but not because he was an isolationist. He was far from an isolationist. He was cosmopolitan in the best sense of the world, but he was also a realist. The State Visionary saw the country in his vision, but first he saw the dangers and the path to creating a national force to defend us from the ongoing danger.
In his speech before the Maccabean Club in London, Herzl emphasized the point of accumulating private strength. Don't rely on the help of strangers and don't rely on their generosity. This will soften the stones because even the most charitable people give donations that humiliate the individual – and stones never grow soft. A people that wishes to be reborn, he said, must take care of everything on their own – be independent materially, spiritually and in terms of strength. This was not a dream. It was the most realistic, reasonable prognosis that could be made at the time.
Now the Jewish state has been established according to Herzl's vision, and it indeed unified Jewish knowledge as it was during Herzl's time. The Nobel Peace Prize was established at the end of the 19th century, and since then, the Jews have continued contributing to humanity – more than 20% of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Jews, as if there were a billion Jews in the world and not 14 million. And the State of Israel has more Nobel Prize winners than any other country in relative terms given our population size. The contribution to humanity continues, but there still is a fundamental realization that tikkun olam, fixing the world, does not protect us – it simply does not protect us because the beliefs against us persist.
In a survey conducted by the BBC, they asked which country had the most positive effect on humanity and which country had the most negative effect. Israel was named in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and today – I am not the bearer of good tidings, although there has been a certain improvement over the past two years, the past four years. But we are continually on the bottom of that list alongside Iran and it does not matter what we do. It does not matter what we contribute. It does not matter because we are not dealing in facts.
The blackening of the State of Israel, the description of us as rejecters of peace, as warmongers, as a dark country that aspires to conquer continues; rather than being seen as an enlightened country which fights as no other democracy in the world must, as no other country in the world must, against the aspirations to destroy us that surround us – and in the most enlightened way possible. All the accusations against us are exaggerated, embellished, overblown – but they still hold sway.
It does not matter that we were in the midst of the political process, in the middle of the peace process. Nothing changes. We want peace because we want to live in peace. And it is also true that we do not want a binational country. However, let no one delude themselves into thinking that if we reach an agreement with the Palestinians it would erase the wild slander against the Jewish state. Because the legacy of the Jews before this, for generations and generations, is the legacy of the Jewish state today.
Peace is desirable in and of itself. Peace is based on security; it is not based on goodwill and legitimacy as people think. It is based first and foremost on our ability to defend ourselves. Without security, without the army that Herzl called to establish, we cannot defend the peace; we cannot defend ourselves if the peace unravels.
A fundamental condition for our existence and for the existence of peace, to achieve peace and maintain it, is security. I think that this conclusion is understood by most citizens of Israel. I think and I believe that Herzl understood this well and we will remain faithful to his outlook: to establish here an exemplary country, an advanced country, a country that is connected to its roots in our land, the Land of Israel, but a country that above all can give the Jews what they lost during their generations of exile – the ability to defend themselves, by themselves, against any threat.
Sources: Prime Ministers Office