An informal survey of gentile friends found that most had no idea who Theodor Herzl (1860 -1904) was. For Jews who have any degree of Jewish education, though, Theodore Herzl occupies a sort of check-the-box single fact recognition: “Hh, yeah, he founded Zionism,” sort of like, “Oh, yeah, Christopher Columbus discovered America.” Even Jews who do not know Herzl are likely to recognize him by sight, having probably passed his laminated likeness with the big square beard and intense gaze somewhere in the corridors of their Sunday Hebrew schools.
Aside from being the visionary behind the modern state of Israel (no big), Herzl is perhaps most famous for his slogan, adopted from his political novel Altneuland: “If you will it, it is no dream.” But when it comes to the documentary “It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl,” the Zionist slogan that comes more readily to mind is the one popularized by Abba Eban, a now deceased Israeli politician who once remarked that in peace talks, the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Truly, It Is No Dream is rife with missed opportunities that could have elevated it beyond standard Hebrew school curricular fare.
The film was produced by Moriah Films, the documentary films division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an NGO founded for the purposes of combating antisemitism and protecting the memory of the holocaust. It is therefore perhaps not particularly surprising that the documentary is more concerned with presenting a not too controversial, textbook retelling of Herzl’s life rather than a more nuanced or thought provoking perspective.
Still, even within the basic retelling, there is an undeniably interesting story. The key things that may interest people to know is that Herzl was by no means a religious zealot, unable to find his place in European society. Completely to the contrary: Herzl was a wealthy, aristocratic, and successful playwright and journalist, a longtime correspondent and literary editor for the Viennese newspaper Neue Frei Presse, the façade of whose ever-changing apartments in Paris and Vienna (as shuffled through Ken Burns-style in the film) are bound to make even the least real-estate concerned audience member drool. While Herzl had been faced with some instances of antisemitism since his university days, he was deeply shaken by the events surrounding the Dreyfus affair, in which a French Jewish soldier was falsely accused of treason. Hearing shouts of “Death to the Jews” every night from his Parisian hotel room, Herzl became convinced (and rightly so, as his own daughter was eventually murdered in a concentration camp) that there was no future for the Jews in Europe. His seminal text Der Judenstaat, written on the heels of this experience, argued that the only solution to the antisemitism that Jews of all classes faced in Europe could not actually be found in Europe, but instead lay in the establishment of a sovereign state that was fully recognized by the international community.
It’s been the case, in life and especially writing, that there is a difference between the Israeli Jew and the diaspora Jew. Traditionally, the Israeli Jew gets to be everything the diaspora Jew could not: he/she is tan, in good shape, and knows how to handle a gun; the diaspora Jew is pale, bookish, neurotic, and loves Woody Allen for a very real reason. But Herzl’s vision of Israel did not conceive of the new, buff Jew, only the transplanting of the old. He imagined that the new Jewish state would have ornate opera houses to rival those of Europe, that the dress would often be black tie, that the national language would be German. The contrasts and compromises between what Israel’s father envisioned and the state of Israel that eventually came to be are rich and numerous, but the film does not sufficiently exploit these narrative opportunities. Herzl foresaw no conflict with the Arab nations, as, he thought, surely everyone would welcome a new state that would be economically beneficial to all the inhabitants of the land. Several wars, intifadas, and a fraught occupation later, it feels like somewhat of an omission to not at least mention the reality of Israel’s rough-going. On a more personal level, the final section of the film is particularly egregious in dropping on us in about ten seconds that Herzl’s two eldest children committed suicide without a drop of further exposition.
The documentary is bookended by an interview with Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, rhapsodizing about Israel’s achievements. And truly, when one considers how Israel came to exist, it is mindboggling. But it is also mindboggling to end this documentary with the same theoretical or utopian mindset that of course must define the dreaming up of this grand political experiment. Granted, this film is not the place for the in depth exploration of contemporary issues, but the complete elision of them and other icky personal and political spots for Herzl gives the film a dead quality, ensuring its place in being forever looped in Jewish museums and late nights on PBS, so that those who are already interested in Herzl might know more, and those who aren’t will most likely continue to have no idea. A missed opportunity if ever there was one.