Theodor Herzl's Jewish State is a piece I'd always wanted to read, but had put off -- largely under the assumption that it'd be abstruse. The opposite I found to be true: Herzl's essay is not only readable, it struck me as both insightful and prescient. There's a timeless quality to the work -- a certain durability of thought -- that continues to impress.
Part of what surprised me most about The Jewish State was Herzl's attention to the details -- the minutiae -- of emigration. I'd note realized the extent to which he proscribes the steps by which the Jews of Europe were to transition in their social and economic lives to a new existence in Israel. Herzl takes these sections seriously, articulating the supposed transformation from "over here" to "over there."
For me, though, the most interesting sections of the essay focused on what Herzl thought the Jewish state would become as a political entity. He did not, for instance, intend it as a theocracy. Rabbis would play a role, he argued, but the state itself would be developed as either a constitutional monarchy or an aristocratic republic. Herzl was opposed to what he called "unlimited democracy," believing it impossible to "formulate...wise policy in a popular assembly."
(Given what's happened in the United Kingdom of late, it's also interesting to note Herzl's opposition to popular referenda, about which he declared that "no simple political questions...can be answered merely by Yes and No.")
Inevitably, there were a few areas where Herzl was proved wrong: this is the case, for example, when he surmises that the Jews, "once settled in their own state, would probably have no more enemies." Sadly, this has not come to pass.
The same can be said for Herzl's approach to zealotry: no doubt, he recognized the depths of European anti-Semitism. But Herzl was very much a thinker of his time -- cognizant of class division, and believing ultimately in rule of law and political equality.
Herzl concedes that European states had and would continue to take action against individual Jews. He cannot, however, imagine that governments would conspire to "take action against all Jews." This ugliness, of course, came to pass some forty years later, and it's here -- in Herzl's hope for good -- that the essay is most upsetting.
I can't remember whether it was Bellow or Roth who urged those wishing to remain popular to refrain from commenting on the fraught politics of the Middle East. Regardless of who said it, the point was well taken. Reading The Jewish State was, for me, less about contemporary politics and more about understanding the impetus for change, for a significant shift in human geography. Herzl's essay proved surprisingly accessible -- and surprisingly enjoyable: in it are the roots of a concept later turned into a political reality.
"A state," wrote Herzl, "is formed not by pieces of land, but rather by a number of men united under sovereign rule."