I am just beginning to write a new book. The idea for the book came after I had read enough about efforts to question Israel’s right to exist. I was riddled with questions. Judaism is a religion for people who like to keep asking questions, who can tolerate ambiguity, who can temper justified true beliefs, also known as knowledge, with a morality-fueled ability to be uncertain. The Talmud begins with a question, and so would I.
It’s never clear where an idea begins. Zionism, at least in its modern political formulation, did have a beginning. It started when an assimilated Viennese playwright, a man so enmeshed in European culture that he listened to Wagner to relax and kept a Christmas tree, was overwhelmed by the hatred of the Jews. He had read the anti-Semites. Theodor Herzl was also there as a journalist in Paris when Dreyfus was put on trial and when he was publicly humiliated. Herzl had no knowledge of his predecessors who had thought of the idea of reviving a Jewish nation in their ancient homeland, so this most unlikely of people cast to play the role of a modern Moses set about his life’s work. He first wrote a pamphlet.
And then, incredibly, he decided to hold a meeting of Zionists, what in essence was a parliament, an international Jewish political organizational meeting for the first time in almost two thousand years. Chutzpah does not seem like an adequate enough word.
But he did it. For the last three days of August in 1897, Herzl ran the First Zionist Congress. There he established the organization that would eventually lead to statehood, established the national anthem and flag, and did so much more.
Herzl, of course, had his opponents. Some thought the Jews had to await the Messiah to return to the Land of Israel. Some thought their patriotism would be questioned if they claimed to be citizens of a country that didn’t even yet exist. Some, a very few, pointed out that the sacred homeland was not an empty land, that thousands of Arabs were living there. They demanded to know how to think through that issue.
I looked around for a book on the First Zionist Congress. I found chapters in some histories of Zionism or biographies of Herzl. I found a book which focused more on Switzerland and Swiss Jews than what in fact transpired at the Congress. That is, when the search was completed, I was astonished to discover that one of the seminal and consequential events of Jewish history, and arguably of modern history, did not have a book devoted to it.
As I thought about the book, I very quickly realized I wanted to do more than describe Herzl’s extraordinary achievements and personality and even more than delineate who attended the Congress and what exactly they did there.
Driven by the Jewish insistence that a moral career must accompany any other, I realized that, however distasteful it might be, I had to look the reality of Zionism directly in the face. The book was my chance to explore the moral foundations of Zionism, and I couldn’t look away.
I’m going to blog about my experience of writing this book. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to do so afforded me by Stacey Harwood and David Lehman.
I’m used to being asked hard questions and getting called names. So feel free to ask me those questions. The only ground rule for me and for you is that naked assertions need to be clothed in facts. Stale and old arguments are uninteresting for everyone. I invite you to accompany me on this journey. I’ll be making some unusual stops, such as deciding what music to be inspired by as I write the book.
I hope you’ll join me.