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Dr. Jack Schwartzwald: Remembering Theodor Herzl

May 2, 2010, will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Theodor Herzl — the father of modern political Zionism. Herzl's desire for Jewish self-determination in Judaism's ancestral homeland came to fruition on May 14, 1948, an uncanny fulfillment of a fifty-year prediction he had made in 1897.

Ironically, the notion of Jewish statehood did not occur to Herzl until eight years before his death. An avid proponent of Jewish assimilation in emancipation-era Europe, he was anguished to find the road to true equality blocked by lingering anti-Semitism. Desperate to see assimilation succeed, he wrestled with myriad possible solutions — even proposing the mass baptism of Jewish children. Only in 1895, when he heard a Parisian mob chanting "Death to the Jews!" at the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (a Jewish officer falsely accused of treason by the French Army) did he realize that assimilation was doomed even in the most "advanced" of Western societies.

The epiphany drove him to write the treatise that made him famous: "The Jewish State, An attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question" (1896). In it, he proposed the re-establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine — a model society in which Jews would "at last live as free men on [their] own soil," freeing the world by their liberation. A year later in Basle, he convoked the inaugural "World Zionist Congress" — Judaism's first representative assembly in 2,000 years — which promptly declared for "a publicly recognized, legally secured home in Palestine for the Jewish people."

Herzl's remaining years took him on an odyssey through the courts of Europe. Although he didn't create a Jewish state during his lifetime, he did lay its foundation stone — and he knew as much long before he died. "At Basle," he recorded in his diary, "I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it."

Fifty years later, the United Nations voted in favor of Jewish statehood. Yet the greater part of Herzl's dream remains unrealized; for far from liberating the Jewish people, Israel, by degrees, has been transformed into the "Jew among nations." Of the U.N.'s 192 members, Israel alone is denied Security Council eligibility. While Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and other states do as they please to suppress terrorism, Israel alone is accused of "apartheid" for building a security barrier to allay bombings of its buses, marketplaces and restaurants. Likewise, Israel alone is accused of "war crimes" for attempting to suppress Palestinian rocket attacks that left more than 75 percent of the children of Sderot (the most frequently targeted Israeli city) with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was allowed freedom of expression at Columbia University, Israeli speakers worldwide have been disgracefully shouted down (as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren recently was at U.C. Irvine) or forced to cancel speaking engagements. Israeli cabinet ministers have cancelled trips to England under threat of being arrested as "war criminals." Throughout Europe, anti-Semitic extremists used last year's Gaza War as a pretext to attack innocent European Jews. For safety reasons, some Danish schools actually denied admission to Jewish children. Due to rioting in Malmo during the 2009 Davis Cup competition, Sweden's match with Israel had to be held in a closely guarded empty stadium.

Less ominous, but closer to home, Brown University joined a handful of universities nationwide in providing a forum for 2010's "Israeli Apartheid Week," an annual event that demonizes Israel as an "apartheid state."  Unmentioned in these festivities is the fact that Israel is the lone Middle Eastern country to provide all of its citizens with full and equal democratic freedoms — irrespective of race, gender or religion. Today, Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens possess freedom of speech and assembly. They vote and serve in the Knesset, and attend and teach at Israeli universities.

No such freedoms were extended to blacks in apartheid South Africa. Nor, indeed, can they be found in other Middle Eastern states, where gays are routinely imprisoned or hanged, where women face severe restrictions on education, employment and travel, and where religious minorities are relegated to second-class citizenship. Based on criteria such as these, Freedom House (an independent organization that rates governmental human rights records) awards Israel its highest rating (i.e., "1" on a scale of 1-7), while none of the surrounding Arab states scores better than a five.

In sum, Israel is not a perpetrator of apartheid, but a victim of it. To her detractors, however, innocence is no excuse. In a 1997 New York Times article, Princeton Professor Arno J. Mayer was quoted as saying that, "Herzl would be spinning in his grave" if he could witness the "hijacking" of his state by fundamentalist rabbis.  More likely, Herzl's feelings would be mixed: Pride in Israel's accomplishments — and dismay with the world.

Dr. Jack Schwartzwald is a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Alpert Medical School.


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