What Theodor Herzl’s Zionist-Utopian Novel Says About Israel Today

The Austro-Hungarian journalist is remembered as a founding father of Israel. But the vision of a Jewish state laid out in his final novel bears little resemblance to the Israel of today

What Theodor Herzl’s Zionist-Utopian Novel Says About Israel Today
Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s image is reflected in a frame on the wall next to a picture of Theodor Herzl as he attends a cabinet meeting on March 6, 2022. (Ronen Zvulun / Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

Exactly a century ago, a cantankerous German aristocrat and a lovelorn Jewish lawyer from Vienna stepped off a private yacht onto the port of Jaffa in Palestine.

They did a double take.

“There’s been a miracle here,” cried Friedrich, the lawyer. Thousands of white coastal mansions — reminiscent of the French and Italian Rivieras — twinkled back at them. Trains glided noiselessly above their heads on raised tracks. Electric lamps hung like glass fruits from palm trees. In this strange, futuristic land, tourists disembarked off nonstop trains from Paris. The ancient desert city of Jericho housed a five-star health resort. In Jerusalem, the First Temple — destroyed by Babylonian forces back in 586 BCE — stood rebuilt on the Temple Mount. Further up the coast gleamed the minarets of Acre.

The year was 1922 on paper, but Theodor Herzl — the Budapest-born journalist from Vienna who founded the World Zionist Organization — wrote this scene at the turn of the century for a novel published in 1902. He died two years later at the age of 44. The book — “Altneuland,” or “Old-New Land” — fleshed out the writer’s political ideas with fiction. Herzl imagined a Jewish-led utopia as high-tech and cutting-edge, yet deeply indebted to ancient traditions and spiritual practices — somewhere between a proto-Israeli state and a Jewish Wakanda. Except this wasn’t a state, it was a social cooperative. In the book, land is leased from Ottoman sultans. Dividends are reinvested, creating a self-sustaining commonwealth — officially, a collectively owned stock trading cooperation dubbed the “New Society.”

In real life, Herzl traveled to Constantinople in 1902 (the year his novel appeared) and tried to negotiate with sultans for an autonomous Jewish settlement in Palestine, which they rejected. The rest is history. The Balfour Declaration — signed by Britain’s foreign secretary in 1917 — sanctioned the establishment of a Jewish national home. An unheeded proviso warned against infringing on the rights of native populations.

Herzl is still considered one of Israel’s founding fathers. His influential 1896 manifesto “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”) laid out a vision of proud self-determination in the face of widespread antisemitism throughout Europe. “To the promised land!” came Herzl’s rallying cry, “so that the epithet ‘Jew!’ will become a term of honor, like German, British, French.” In 1949, after the end of the war sparked by Israel’s declaration of statehood, his remains were brought from Vienna and reinterred on a hill in West Jerusalem renamed in his honor: Mount Herzl.

Yet Herzl’s novel “Altneuland” — unlike his 1896 manifesto — is seldom referenced or remembered.

There may be a reason for that. Read the utopian novel (and what better occasion than the centennial of its pivotal 1922 voyage) and you’ll see how far Herzl’s vividly-imagined, Jewish-led cooperative in Palestine diverges from the Israel of today.

First, some context. Judaism is not synonymous with Zionism — not today, and not in Herzl’s day. “Where we live, there is our country!” exclaimed an old Bund election poster from Kyiv. The Bund movement — formed in 1897 in present-day Lithuania — was a socialist political party emphasizing the Yiddish concept of “doikayt,” or “here-ness,” as a rejection of the Zionist discourse of “return” to the ancient promised land. Elsewhere, figures like the Ukrainian-born Hebrew writer Ahad ha-Am (né Asher Ginzburg) pushed for a Jewish spiritual revival within Europe rather than escape overseas. He also cautioned against the racist image of Palestinians as “wild desert people” who understood nothing around them: “The natives are not going to just step aside so easily.”

Even at the turn of the 20th century, the notion of “return” struck many as nonsensical. A millennium after being uprooted by the Romans, a Sephardic and Mizrahi diaspora had flourished during the early medieval era, heralded as the Islamic Golden Age, a prosperous reign that stretched from Spain to Iran. Across the Islamic world, Jews shared with Christians the status of “dhimmis,” legally-protected People of the Book. Their Ashkenazi brethren had fared less well in medieval Christian Europe, where intolerant townsfolk accused them of flavoring their unleavened “matzah” bread with fresh children’s blood.

Still, where was there to go “back” to?

“I have no connection with Palestine. I have never been there,” scoffs Friedrich, the middle-class Viennese hero of “Altneuland.” “My ancestors left it eighteen hundred years ago. What should I seek there? I think that only anti-Semites can call Palestine our fatherland.” To pack up and leave, and settle in a distant, dusty land ruled over by Turkish sultans, seemed a bewildering aim to the European coffeehouse intellectuals who advocated instead for better integration.

By the time Herzl’s 1896 manifesto appeared, the Jewish diaspora in Europe was still shaken from the pogroms carried out between 1881 and 1884 in the Pale of Settlement — a peripheral region spanning modern-day Latvia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Estonia, Moldova and Lithuania within the Russian Empire, where the Empress Catherine the Great had decreed back in 1792 that all Jewish families be banished. In 1881, anti-tsarist revolutionaries tossed a bomb into Alexander II’s carriage en route to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. In a revival of the age-old “Christ-killer” stereotype, Jews were blamed en masse for the ruler’s choreographed assassination. The slain emperor’s ruthless successor — his son, Alexander III — ratified the 1882 May Laws, which prevented Russian Jews from entering public life, owning or leasing land, or moving freely between districts.

The 1880s equivalent of a leaked memo, attributed to one of the tsar’s top advisers, blithely predicted that the Jews of the Russian Empire would either emigrate abroad, convert to Christianity or starve. All the while, Jewish storefronts and synagogues were smashed in and Jewish properties plundered. Marauders traveled between towns like a touring circus troupe. Russian soldiers sent in to restore order ended up siding with the rioters. “Very sad, but I see no end to this,” wrote Alexander III in response to another pogrom. “Jews make themselves too repulsive to Russians.”

Enter the First Aliyah, meant to mark the beginning of the end of Jewish exile. Agricultural collectives known together as “Hovevei Zion” (“Lovers of Zion”) pooled funds to establish cooperative compounds that soon cropped up across the Palestinian hinterlands. This was the long-awaited “homecoming” to a heavily-mythologized Jewish homeland represented in the reigns of the kings Saul (first ruler of the ancient Kingdom of Israel), David (who captured Jerusalem, trounced Philistines and other Levantine enemies, and expanded the kingdom into a small empire) and Solomon (under whose leadership the First Temple was constructed and scattered Jewish tribes were consolidated into a unified people and faith). Still, Zionism emerged as an option — and a radical one at that — rather than an inevitability.

Herzl was aware of his opposition. In “Altneuland,” Friedrich appears to embody a faded fin-de-siecle Jewish bourgeoisie slouching toward self-annihilation. He is so depressed and disillusioned in the novel’s opening pages after being spurned by a lover that he accepts an offer from an aging misanthropic millionaire — Kingscourt, the German aristocrat — to set sail for a far-flung island as his paid companion. But first, Kingscourt insists they disembark at Jaffa. At this point, it is still only 1902, the book’s publication year. In Ottoman Palestine, Friedrich encounters an even more pronounced atmosphere of dereliction than in Europe. A “peculiar, tomblike odor” pervades the port, where sun-weathered Jews and Arabs flop around in rags. Jerusalem is overrun with shrieking beggars. “There’s nothing left of the Jewish kingdom but this fragment of the Temple wall,” he bemoans.

By 1922, things have changed. The pair — softened by two decades of island life — encounter Herzl’s smooth-running fictional cooperative. Herzl himself, by the time he sat down to write “Altneuland” — which he called “a fairy tale of the days to come” — had softened his stance toward an exclusive Jewish statehood of the kind outlined in his manifesto.

Herzl’s New Society evokes the famous lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine”: “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion, too.” Forget the Israel Defense Forces or mandatory military service: There isn’t even a standing army. Nor is there an official religion. Anyone can join the commonwealth, regardless of creed, ethnicity or nationality. Mosques and churches sit alongside synagogues, but the real god is equality.

“Altneuland” was one of a spate of turn-of-the-century texts that sought to answer what Jewish autonomy would look and feel like. In this aim, the niche field of Zionist utopian literature dovetailed with other real-life utopian movements appalled by the grinding injustices of industrial capitalism. Herzl name-checks a few: the Rochdale Pioneers, who in the mid-1800s co-owned a dry goods store outside Manchester, U.K., which they called a “home colony”; the 1830s Ralahine Commune manufacturing cooperative in County Clare, Ireland; and the influential 1888 novel “Looking Backward” by the American author Edward Bellamy, who sent his deep-sleeping, Victorian-era protagonist on a Rip Van Winkle-like journey to a socialist paradise in the year 2000. But unlike the home colonies that inspired it, the New Society is an actual colony.

The book features just one single Palestinian character, the chatty and amiable Reschid Bey (whose wife’s gloved hand is glimpsed fleetingly from behind a purdah screen, a tradition praised with stiff tolerance.) “Don’t you regard these Jews as intruders?” questions Kingscourt. “The Jews have enriched us,” responds Bey with equanimity. “Would you call a man a robber who takes nothing from you, but brings you something instead?”

How the commonwealth maintains a Jewish majority — specifically, a Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi majority — despite its open enrollment is a concern that Herzl evades. Instead, the novel’s chief villains are far-right populists in the mold of Viktor Orbán or Giorgia Meloni. They campaign to exclude non-Jews from membership — an unthinkable evil. “If you adopt that stupid, narrow-minded policy, the land will go to wrack and ruin,” rages one New Society member.

To read “Altneuland” today is to compare fantasy with reality, utopia with dystopia. In the book, Palestinian villages — depicted as filthy, dismal-looking hovels — are bulldozed and replaced with the “New Village,” a sparkling planned community that recalls one of Israel’s suburban-style settlements in the West Bank. This is accepted as a wholesome development. Over 400 Palestinian villages were indeed destroyed by the Israeli state after 1948. This was far from being for the benefit of their original inhabitants, as it is in the book — to put it mildly. About half the Palestinian population — some 750,000 people — were displaced or fled wartime fighting under fear and duress. After their communities were erased, over 400 new Israeli townships were built in their place. Legislation helped prevent Palestinians’ right to return: The Absentees’ Property Laws of 1950 and the Anti-Infiltration Law, ratified in 1954 (three years after Israel signed the U.N. Refugee Convention, guaranteeing rights to anyone seeking asylum) defined anyone entering the state by irregular means “an infiltrator.”

This same law is now invoked to counter the claims of asylum-seekers. Between 2006 and 2012, around 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese people crossed into Israel after making the perilous trek through the Sinai — the same route, ironically, made by ancient Jews escaping Egyptian bondage to the promised land, a journey commemorated each Passover. There the parallel ends. In 2012, the Egyptian-Israeli border was sealed with a fence. Levinsky Park, sitting across from the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv, became a bleak congregation point for those who made it through.

Single men were transferred to Holot, a grim, prison-like detention facility near the Egyptian border in the Negev desert, in a move deemed unlawful by Israel’s own High Court. The facility was closed in 2018, though two others — Yahalom, a detention center within Ben Gurion Airport, and Givon Prison in Ramla — continue to incarcerate those seeking asylum, including families with children. Since inmates are technically held in administrative detention, not serving sentences, regular criminal proceedings — defined charges, the right to a lawyer, a court date — do not apply. This also holds true for the scores of Palestinians detained using the same legal loophole; anywhere from 250 to 950 Palestinians have been detained in this manner each year since 2001, according to Israeli nongovernmental organization B’Tselem.

There is a further irony: Levinsky Park is named after another Zionist utopian novelist. The fictional travelogue “Voyage to the Land of Israel in the Year 5800,” published in 1892, was written by the Hebrew writer Elhanan Eib Levinsky, a fixture in Odesa’s Jewish literary circles. Levinsky had been turned into an ardent Zionist by the 1881-1884 pogroms. His text chronicles the journey of a pair of Jewish honeymooners to a future Israeli state, corresponding to the Gregorian calendar year 2040. As in Herzl’s novel, “Eretz Israel” — the “Land of Israel” — has become a cutting-edge, socialist-inflected utopia that reads like a roaring pastiche of turn-of-the-century modernity, complete with phonographs and airships, electric lights and electric ships. It calls itself a new “Garden of Eden,” but one in which non-Jewish citizens are given Hebrew names and equally protected.

In 2012, the same year Levinsky Park overflowed with asylum-seekers, the Jerusalem Post published a dissonant-sounding reflection on the utopian novel’s 110th anniversary. “The wonder,” concluded its columnist, was that Levinsky’s “fanciful predictions have already come to fruition.”

The State of Israel was founded on the premise that a designated homeland affords inviolable protection. Yet another irony, which many have spelled out, is that “Israel inscribes at its heart the very version of nationhood from which the Jewish people had to flee,” as the British writer Jacqueline Rose, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, eloquently phrased it. Israel welcomed 5,000 non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees this year, inviting unfavorable comparisons to its treatment of African refugees, not to mention the millions of Palestinians with refugee status who are denied the right of return. Anyone with one Jewish grandparent can be set up with free flight tickets, Hebrew language classes and a passport. But there is no path to citizenship for non-Jewish immigrants. Since 2009, only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese applicant have been accorded refugee status.

Compare all this to an emotional scene at the end of Herzl’s novel. At this point, Friedrich and Kingscourt — a Christian — have vowed to give up their reclusive, indolent lifestyle on their unnamed island and become dedicated members of the New Society. In the book’s final pages, the commonwealth’s elderly Russian-Jewish president prepares to pass away peacefully in bed. His dying words ring today more hollow than true: “Let the stranger be at home among us.”

What can we make of “Altneuland” and its author in 2022? The father of Zionism represented a dream of dignity and self-determination for Jews accustomed to being treated as “pariahs,” always worried “about being deprived of your rights and your property,” to quote Herzl’s 1896 cri de coeur for a Jewish state. My own Jewish great-grandparents, immigrants from Poland, had a tapestry of Herzl hanging in their Chicago living room like a Zionist talisman. Rereading (or rather, reading) Herzl’s forgotten novel is a chance to reconsider this legacy.

While Israel used to seem like an anomaly on the world stage — a democracy likened to an apartheid state — the idea of an exclusive, ethno-nationalist “home” based on ancient provenance is now increasingly widespread. Look no further than Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India, gripped by what one might call Hindu Zionism, bent on eliding and eclipsing the Muslim “invader” to rebuild the mythological kingdom of Ram. Or indeed the United States, where the white nationalist Richard Spencer has coined the chilling neologism “white Zionism.” In Italy, a winning far-right coalition seems wistful for Mussolini’s iron grip, just like Mussolini himself found inspiration in his distant imperial Roman predecessors. Unlike the return to Zion, the “return” sought by these movements is not physical but temporal: They want to reanimate a fallen golden age — a nostalgic trope threaded within nationalist (and fascist) ideologies.

Why does Herzl’s legacy matter? Because the idea of the Jewish homeland in Israel is deemed sacred enough for the country’s human rights abuses to be swept aside in support of it, from villages depopulated in the 1948 war to this summer’s high-profile killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. More recently, the far-right Religious Zionist Party won 14 Knesset seats in Israel’s latest election on Nov. 1. With the charge being led by Itamar Ben-Gvir — an adherent of the extremist anti-Arab ideology known as Kahanism, named after Meir Kahane, a US-born Jewish ultra-nationalist — incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition recalls the bigoted, populist villains of “Altneuland.” It is significant that many of history’s most zealous Zionists did not envision a homeland that looked like this. Herzl’s vision of a New Society was forged through the flames of turn-of-the-century persecution. It was the tumult and violence of the age that inspired new models of living and being. Our own era is marked by overlapping crises and states of emergency. Like Herzl, people are jostling for changes to a harmful status quo. This makes it an ideal time to reconsider the ideas for which Herzl once rallied and that were overwritten. Let the man synonymous with Jewish statehood now stand for something else: equality, open borders, radical utopian experimentation. We must also reimagine our worlds in bold new strokes.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy