August 29


Opening of the First Zionist Congress, in Basle.

But what to write? Perhaps an account of the bringing together of the participants, most of them Jews who had more or less left religion behind for an assimilated secular life in post-Napoleonic Europe, the ghetto walls torn down, their freedom theoretically guaranteed, and yet still the need for a Jewish homeland, because still the same old anti-Semitism...

But Herzl was not the founder of modern political Zionism, despite that credit now being attached. More interesting perhaps to go back to Disraeli, and even further, and more remarkably still given that she was not herself Jewish, to George Eliot, and an exploration of "Tancred" and "Daniel Deronda".

Or maybe a history of Zionism, starting with its founding, by the rivers of Babylon, in late 586 BCE, so that contemporary anti-Zionists can see that "Free Palestine" today is no different from "Free Israel" then, or again after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and every year, in every pogromised ghetto, for the 1900 hundred years that followed...and with that, a link to the wilfully and deliberately anti-Semitic "Protocols", on August 26...

But I would also like to write a piece that trawls the best parts of Herzl’s Jerusalem diary, from his visit there in 1898, starting with that deliberately self-conscious playing with the words of Psalm 137, the original Zionist Psalm:
“When I remember thee in days to come, O Jerusalem, it will not be with delight."

The diary confirms what a very good journalist and reporter Herzl must have been:
“The musty deposits of two thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance. and foulness lie in reeking alleys. The one man who has been present here all this while, the loveable dreamer of Nazareth, has done nothing but help increase the hate."
“If Jerusalem is ever ours, and if I were still able to do anything about it, I would begin by cleaning it up... I would clear out everything that is not sacred, set up workers’ houses beyond the city, empty and tear down the filthy rat-holes, burn all the non-sacred ruins, and put the bazaars elsewhere. Then, retaining as much of the old architectural style as possible, I would build an airy, comfortable, properly sewered brand-new city around the Holy Places.”

Yes, a filthy hovel was Jerusalem, including the sacred area on the Temple Mount, and Mark Twain in his "Innocents Abroad", his account of his "Grand Tour" of 1867, Twain the disinterested non-Jew, confirms it:
“Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound.”

Interesting that Herzl sees the damage done by Christianity, but not the equivalent damage done by Islam, other than the Third World degradation of the place which was the norm for anywhere that had the misfortune to be located in that ultimate decadence of humanity the Ottoman Empire. Yet he himself sounds like an imitator of “the loveable dreamer of Nazareth”, with his utopian vision of the city (Teddy Kolleck, who did rebuild it, shared very similar fancies it must be said, and did a most remarkable job). But moving the bazaars! To take the shouk out of the Old City, as the loveable dreamer tried to do, would be to rip out its heart and bowels, leaving the sacred places like a nature park or a conservation site, something you could visit but not live in, and a sacred place in which people do not live is one condemned to fail and die. Sewers, on the other hand...

“We have been to the Wailing Wall. Any deep emotion is rendered impossible by the hideous, miserable, scrambling beggary pervading the place. At least such was the case, yesterday evening and this morning, when we were there.”

“In the afternoon we ascended the Mount of Olives. Thrilling moments. What couldn’t be made of this place! A city like Rome - and the Mount of Olives furnishing a panorama like the Giancolo.
Oh gosh, no, please don't tell me he wants to dig up all the ancient graves and build a Hilton Spa Hotel!
“I would cordon off the old city with its relics, and keep out all ordinary traffic; only places of worship and philanthropic institutions would be allowed to remain inside the old ramparts. And on the ring of encircling hillsides, which our labour would clothe with greenery, there would gradually rise a glorious New Jerusalem. The √©lite from every part of the world would travel up the road to the Mount of Olives. Loving care can turn Jerusalem into a jewel. Everything holy inshrined within the old walls, everything new spreading round about it.”

I wonder what Herzl would think of today’s city. He would, of course, be humbled that his name had been attached to the central hill of the new West Jerusalem, where the soldiers are buried and the Holocaust Museum is located; and he would love the Knesset and its surroundings parks and suburbs. And he would adore the restored Jewish Quarter in the Old City. But would he appreciate the demolition of whole streets of Arab houses, to make a vast open plaza in front of the Western Wall and the Shrine of Omar and the al-Axar mosque? Would he appreciate the unchanged squalor of east Jerusalem, at least in those areas which have not been taken over and gentrified by Jews? Would he worry when the next Intifada was coming? Would he witness the trials and tribulations of the Palestinians, and equate them with those he witnessed of the Jews of Europe, and speak out for them as well? I like to hope he would.

UPDATE: July 19 2018. Today the Israeli Knesset passed a new law, entitled "Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People". By the standards of any coalition, a decisive result: 62 votes to 55, with two abstentions. The full text can be read here. Despite the howls of protest across the Arab world, it is a surprisingly innocuous document, and simply states formally what has been the case for the last 70 years, that Israel is a Jewish state, whose first language is Hebrew.

Amber pages

John Locke, English philosopher, born today in 1632

Charlie Parker, jazz saxophonist, born today in 1920

Sir Richard Attenborough, actor and producer, born today in 1923.

Cleopatra IV, bitten by an asp, today in 30 BCE

John the Baptist, beheaded, today in 29 CE

Atahualpa, the last of the Inca rulers, strangled to death, today in 1533

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