Jerusalem — When a group of Birthright Israel students entered the Herzl Museum on Mount Herzl earlier this month, they knew next to nothing about Theodor Herzl, the man who galvanized his fellow Jews to dream about, and work toward, the establishment of a Jewish country.
An hour later the students emerged with a greater understanding of how and why Israel was established, and amazed that a totally secular Jew with no prior yearning toward Zion could become the world’s most outspoken advocate for a secure Jewish homeland.
The once-stuffy museum, which was modernized in 2005, has recently become a player in the sphere of Zionist education. Given the post-Zionist attitude of many young Israelis — and the consequent spike in the number of 18-year-olds seeking to dodge mandatory military service or a life abroad — the museum and its programs constitute an important contribution to Jewish identity, according to educators.
Located at the edge of the beautiful Mount Herzl national cemetery, the museum offers students, soldiers and other visitors a glimpse into the life of a fascinating man against the backdrop of European anti-Semitism. By the end, visitors appreciate just how visionary — and audacious — Herzl really was, and come out feeling proud of Israel’s many achievements.
The museum’s is one component of the Herzl Learning Center, which offers workshops, seminars, conferences, worldwide traveling exhibitions and walking tours in several languages. In partnership with MELITZ, an educational resource facility in Jerusalem, it is developing new educational tools that will motivate visitors to delve into some of the issues raised by the museum: assimilation, anti-Semitism, the meaning of the Land of Israel in Jewish tradition, personal Jewish identify, the power of the individual, and the character of the Jewish state.
The museum’s hour-long presentation is the starting point. Visitors enter a room whose walls light up with images from Europe in the late 1800s. On another screen we watch a play within a play: a young, skeptical (and beardless) Israeli actor must learn about Herzl in order to play him.
We watch along with the actor as he learns about the pogrom that spurred Herzl into action; about the Herculean effort it required to organize the first Zionist Congress; how Herzl slowly used up much of his own fortune to further Zionism; how he paid off middlemen in order to gain audiences with world leaders.
We see how Herzl seriously considered accepting Uganda rather than Palestine as the Jewish homeland in order to save Jewish lives; and how he all but abandoned his wife and three children (all of whom met tragic deaths) during his years of international travel in pursuit of a piece of land and sovereignty.
Authentic footage, a compelling narrative and Herzl’s remarkable story prevent the story from becoming too corny, although the ending segment, showing Israel’s achievements from Herzl’s perspective, is a bit over the top.
When, at the end of the presentation, the dramatized Herzl comments on modern-day Israel (poignant, given that Herzl died before the establishment of the state), he comments not only on the country’s strengths but also on its weaknesses. Footage of the intifada and wars run alongside news clips of Israeli officials being greeted by the Pope, Queen Elizabeth and the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
“The ideal Israel I envisioned made Arab citizens equal partners,” Herzl says regretfully. Ultimately, though the presentation ends on a high note, with Herzl proclaiming his most famous line: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
David Breakstone, head of the department for Zionist activities of the World Zionist Organization, says the museum was refurbished to engage young Jews who often do not share the same love of Judaism and Israel as their parents and grandparents.
“We want a new generation to reclaim and to reframe the Zionist vision. With all the negativism about Zionism today, with all of the distortions in the world press, in the United Nations, in comparisons with apartheid and racism, we felt the need to help the young today to rediscover the Zionist ideal: self-determination, national liberation, the right to a place under the sun that the Jewish people cold call their own.”
Most importantly, Breakstone said, the educational programs have been designed to motivate young Jews to examine what they can do to make Israel and the world a better place.
In the museum and in the cemetery (where Herzl, Yitzchak Rabin and many soldiers are buried), “an individual is going to grasp that there is a real person buried in the grave. He or she will ask and confront questions that the casual tourist simply isn’t going to think about, Breakstone said.
On a national scale, Breakstone said, Herzl’s Zionism was something of a rephrasing of Hillel’s famous dictum, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” into “If I am only for myself, who am I?”
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