July 1, 2004
Years ago I wrote a novel.
I don't remember how many years ago, but I began it on a typewriter, so you do the math.
I was in my early 20s and living in Israel, and it's barely an exaggeration to say I was touched by everything I saw and moved by everyone I met.
This was the plot of my novel: The great-great grandson of modern Zionism's founder, Theodor Herzl, travels to Israel to discover the reality of the land Herzl only dreamt of. (Not exactly John Grisham, but what it lacked in plot, character and language, it made up for in page length.)
In reality, Herzl did not have a great-great grandchild. He fantasized about founding a dynasty that would someday rule benevolently over a Jewish state. In 1895, when his child Hans was 4, he imagined that his son would be crowned like a Venetian doge as ruler of Jerusalem. But the Herzl line ended before Israel even became a state, proving perhaps that it easier to will a new nation than a happy family.
When I came across this set of facts, it struck me that the fall of the house of Herzl might be a heavy portent of what was in store for his other progeny, the State of Israel. It was clear that, as with many great leaders, Herzl was better at raising consciousness than children. "I married in 1889 and have three children, one boy and two girls," he wrote in a diary. "According to my opinion they are neither ugly nor stupid. But, of course, I may be mistaken."
While Herzl was otherwise engaged in becoming our national hero, his own family languished -- victims of neglect, mental illness and the tragic Jewish history Herzl sought to change. After he died -- 100 years ago this week on July 3, 1904 -- the family Herzl really fell to pieces. His emotionally abandoned wife Julie turned to opium. Pauline, their firstborn, died young after a scandalous marriage. Hans, who had become Baptist, Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian and then Quaker, shot himself in the head the day after his sister's funeral. Trude, Herzl's youngest, married an industrialist, Richard Neumann, and bore Herzl his only grandchild, Richard Neumann. After spending much of her adult life in a series of asylums, Trude's life ended at Theresienstadt concentration camp, where, according to researcher Uriya Shavit, she told her captors, "I am Herzl's daughter. I wish to establish special, personal contact with the highest Jewish authorities."
Trude's son Stefan was educated in England. In September 1946, he visited Palestine, where he was indeed treated like royalty, but he rejected entreaties to remain there. He moved to Washington, D.C., to serve in the British diplomatic corps. Two months later, Herzl's last heir jumped off a bridge to his death.
My novel conjectured that Stefan, through an illicit romance, kept the family line going, and the result was one last descendent, a dissolute, disaffected young man named Steven Newman.
In my book, Steven finds pleasure everywhere but satisfaction nowhere so, on a whim, he takes off for Israel. He meets up with a conniving, blustering Israeli who, against his wishes, publicizes Steven's identity. Israelis of all political and religious stripes descend upon Steven, imploring him to support their vision as The One that Herzl intended. Steven takes off to find the real Israel but, following a series of misadventures, finds himself a pariah in the Jewish state.
The novel turns out to be Steven's long letter to Herzl, written from an Israeli jail cell. Israeli authorities have arrested Steven for helping a middle-aged Palestinian American woman, Nadia Tannenbaum, return to the West Bank and claim her ancestral home. Steven, the disaffected descendent of an ardent nationalist, finally enters history as an ardent nationalist -- on the other side. "It was obvious a person like Nadia would never stop striving for what she wanted," Steven writes to his long-dead ancestor, then throws one of Herzl's own quotes back at him: "Every vassal thinks only of how to become independent."
OK, it's not a great book. But I will take credit for imagining acts of widespread Palestinian rebellion several years before the first intifada broke out. The writing was on the wall even then, and it was Herzl's. To a European newspaper editor who claimed Jews no longer even existed as a nation, Herzl famously answered, "La preuve c'est que j'en suis," -- the proof of their existence is that I am one of them. In my novel, Jews and Palestinians both claim ownership over that line.
A couple of days ago I dug the novel out of a box in the bottom of a storage unit and reacquainted myself with Theodor Herzl and the great-great grandson he never had. Alas, there is not much to recommend my unpublished novel other than as an artifact of youthful moral indignation. The reality of Israel finally kicks the aloofness out of Steven. He is enraged both by those myopic Jews and those militant Palestinians who think the other side would forgo its own quest for independence. But unlike his ancestor he offers no solutions, he has no answers, he has no clue how the Zionist movement will play out in history. Will both sides, locked in constant battle, fight themselves into worthless exhaustion? Will the Arab population, even within Israel, eventually make a binational state inevitable? Will two sovereign nations live peacefully side by side? Steven has no clue, and 100 years after Herzl's death, neither does anyone else.
But let Herzl have the last word on this. "Nothing happens as one fears," he wrote, "nor as one hopes."