This week we mark 115 years since the passing of Theodor Herzl, known as the “Visionary of the State,” a young and passionate leader who died at the age of 44.
Herzl was an Austro-Hungarian journalist, playwright, political activist, and writer who grew up in a secular family in an assimilated environment. He is, most notably, the father of modern political Zionism.
Herzl’s life was changed following his personal experience as the Paris correspondent for Neue Freie Presse. Writing from France for this newspaper, Herzl followed the 1895 Dreyfus affair, a notoriously anti-Semitic political scandal in France in which a Jewish French army captain was falsely convicted of spying for Germany. Witnessing firsthand and for the first time the mass rallies in Paris following the Dreyfus trial, hearing chants of “Death to the Jews!” from the crowds, seeing what hatred and an anti-Semitic environment can lead to, transformed Herzl’s identity, and converted him to a passionate Zionist.
These dramatic events led the young, and until then passive journalist and reporter of events, to become an active leader, one who drives change, steers waves, and offers a different vision for the future. In 1897 Herzl founded the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, where he promoted Jewish immigration to what was back then Palestine (Israel of today) in an effort to form a Jewish state. Though he died before its establishment, he is known as the visionary who imagined a State of Israel—the leader who gave a concrete, practicable platform and framework to political Zionism.
Herzl, like many other Jewish leaders, was greatly impacted by the events surrounding him, by Jewish misery, born of discrimination, animosity, and hatred. He witnessed a reality where he felt something must be done, justice must prevail, a Zionist solution should be implemented.
Today, 115 years later, a strong, sovereign Jewish state exists. Herzl’s dream is now our reality. Zionism need not result from hostility directed at our people, but rather should be a source of pride and strength.
This week JCC Association Center for Israel Engagement’s fifth teen group of this summer ends its Israel summer program. In all, there will be six groups of teens over the summer, who came from JCCs and independent camps throughout North America. They spent their summer wandering the country, figuring out this beautiful maze, inhaling its air, feeling its magic, being part of something truly powerful and unconquerable—Jewish pride.
These lively teens, so full of energy, will return home different, transformed. Yes, they will be tanned thanks to our Israeli sun, but something within will change as well. After learning so much about Israel—their Jewish homeland—they finally have had a chance to experience it for themselves. How fortunate they are to be part of the magic for a month, spend time with Israeli peers, witness what a Jewish sovereign state feels like, think about it, deliberate it, reflect and then, think again.
Last week I joined one of the groups on their visit at the newly renovated Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. I was born and raised in Israel; I’ve seen it all and thought I had heard it all. But right there, on the magnificent shore of Jaffa, overlooking a horizon with endless opportunities lies this architectural jewel, the Peres Center, a dream of Israel’s ninth president, the late Shimon Peres. One cannot be indifferent to this shrine of hope and knowledge, pride and optimism, vision and reality.
The Peace Center presents the incredible story of Israel, the “startup nation,” and showcases the diverse fields and people behind Israeli innovation. Visitors walk through the wonders of Israeli creativity, housed in a state-of-the-art facility supported by contemporary technology.
Along with the teens, I walked through virtual reality, holograms and Peres’s legacy. Along with the teens, I was amazed and in awe. It’s not everyday that I find myself surrounded by wisdom, geniuses, creativity and the human mind’s endless ability to better the world, heal and offer solutions and hope, reach for the tomorrow, repair today.
When I left the building, the open sea awaited with its promise and enigma, waves and shore. So many possibilities, all within our reach if we only choose wisely, take the right path, follow great visionaries and leaders.
Herzl became the ultimate Zionist because of the suffering and pain he saw and experienced. Shimon Peres was a Zionist who built and dreamed. I’m a Zionist thanks to these two great leaders who enabled a miraculous Jewish state to be my reality, one filled with pride, one that revels daily in its beauty.
Herzl taught us: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Shimon Peres shared that, “When I was a child, Israel was a legend more than a reality. She emerged from a dream, and today she has surpassed that dream.”
Thanks to them, that dream is ours today. Our traveling teens, our Jewish future, saw that so clearly this summer. A summer that will transform their Jewish identity, a summer to remember.
Vice President, Israel Engagement | Director, JCC Association Center for Israel Engagement