«Herzl is Still an Absolute Icon in Israel.»

Four questions for Alfred Bodenheimer

In 2022, the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land recei­ved three street signs from the Tel Aviv muni­ci­pa­li­ty com­me­mo­ra­ting the First Zio­nist Con­gress in Basel in 1897. To this day, streets, bus stops, squa­res and moun­ta­ins throug­hout Isra­el are named after Theo­dor Herzl and the Basel Con­gress, besto­wing Switz­er­land a pro­mi­nent role in Israel’s remem­brance cul­tu­re, as Alfred Boden­hei­mer of the Cen­ter for Jewish Stu­dies in Basel explai­ned to Bar­ba­ra Häne.

Bar­ba­ra Häne: In Isra­el, Theo­dor Herzl, the First Zio­nist Con­gress and Basel are remem­be­red on street signs and names of buil­dings. What is Theo­dor Herzl’s role in the Israe­li public awa­re­ness today?

Alfred Boden­hei­mer: Herzl is still an abso­lu­te icon in Isra­el. Per­haps even more so than the foun­der of the Sta­te, David Ben Guri­on, who was invol­ved in par­ty squab­bles, who waged wars and made some decis­i­ons which are view­ed cri­ti­cal­ly today. Herzl, on the other hand, was a visio­na­ry. No one remem­bers the dis­pu­tes in the ear­ly years of Zio­nism. And Herzl died so young that his cen­tral lega­cy remain­ed the foun­ding of the Zio­nist Orga­niza­ti­on. Who knows what Herzl would still have been asso­cia­ted with if he had lived ano­ther thir­ty or for­ty years? Inte­res­t­ingly, Israe­li poli­ti­ci­ans on all sides of the poli­ti­cal spec­trum refer to Herzl today. Left-libe­ral thin­kers refer to him as a libe­ral, uni­ver­sa­list desi­gner of a Jewish sta­te, while the move­ment «Im Tir­zu» (Eng­lish: «If you will»), cites Herzl’s per­haps most famous sen­tence, fami­li­ar to all in Isra­el, the mot­to of «Alt­neu­land»: «If you will, it is not a fairy tale.» This move­ment, who­se logo shows Herzl’s pro­fi­le, is on the right of the spec­trum and seeks to crack down on what it belie­ves are anti-Zio­nist acti­vi­ties at Israe­li universities.

BH: Do Israe­lis ever com­ment on or ask you about your Basel origins?

AB: Israe­lis are usual­ly more inte­res­ted in whe­ther they know anyo­ne from my city, and sur­pri­sin­gly often, they do. Peo­p­le may men­ti­on that they were in Basel and saw the Stadt­ca­si­no, but that is the excep­ti­on, not the rule.

BH: In our coll­ec­tion, we have an issue of the Schwei­zer Illus­trier­te Zei­tung from 1918, which por­trays Dr. Boden­hei­mer plan­ting trees in Pal­es­ti­ne (JMS 2011, p. 236). Are you rela­ted to Dr. Boden­hei­mer? What was your family’s atti­tu­de toward the Zio­nist movement?

AB: The lawy­er Max Boden­hei­mer (1865–1940) was one of Herzl’s clo­sest com­pa­n­ions, and his cen­tral merits in the Zio­nist move­ment were his invol­vement in for­mu­la­ting its sta­tu­tes as well tho­se of the Jewish Natio­nal Fund (KKL), who­se Ger­man sec­tion he also hea­ded for a long time. He was a nati­ve of Stutt­gart and later lived in Colo­gne befo­re emi­gra­ting to Pal­es­ti­ne in 1935, whe­re he died. My fami­ly comes from Hes­se, and I have not found any con­nec­tion to Max Boden­hei­mer so far. Howe­ver, a memo­ry from the nine­ties con­nects me with Max Boden­hei­mer. At that time in Isra­el, my expe­ri­ence was that few Israe­lis (and not many Swiss eit­her, by the way) remem­ber my name easi­ly, and so I was always asked for my name seve­ral times when intro­du­cing mys­elf. Once, I went to the Cen­tral Zio­nist Archi­ves in Jeru­sa­lem and regis­tered at the recep­ti­on wit­hout any gre­at expec­ta­ti­ons. But the lady the­re gree­ted me enthu­si­a­sti­cal­ly and brought me to the base­ment, whe­re the fur­ni­tu­re of Max Bodenheimer’s for­mer stu­dy were kept, which his daugh­ter had bequea­thed to the Archives.

My pater­nal grand­par­ents were inde­ed very con­nec­ted to the Mis­ra­chi reli­gious-Zio­nist move­ment. My father still remem­be­red that when he was a child, at one of the Basel Zio­nist Con­gres­ses (it must have been the 17th in 1931), pro­mi­nent repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the move­ment were invi­ted to meals at my grand­par­ents’ home, among them the first Pre­si­dent of Isra­el Cha­im Weiz­mann, the later Prime Minis­ter Mos­he Sharett and the long-time Minis­ter Josef Burg. I met the lat­ter mys­elf in the nine­ties, when he was alre­a­dy quite old, and he still remem­be­red my grand­par­ents’ exact address in Basel.

BH: The ico­nic pic­tu­re of Theo­dor Herzl on the bal­c­o­ny of the Hotel Drei Köni­ge in Basel has been repro­du­ced again and again. Is the­re a repro­duc­tion you find par­ti­cu­lar­ly note­wor­t­hy, or weird?

AB: Some time ago, the Israe­li news site Mako published a long artic­le with tou­rist tips for Basel. The edi­tors mani­pu­la­ted Herzl’s por­trait in such a way that Herzl is con­stant­ly rai­sing and lowe­ring one arm – you don’t know exact­ly whe­ther he is waving or hit­ting his head in anger… https://www.mako.co.il/travel-world/destinations/Article-e50977e9d50a961006.htm

The ico­nic qua­li­ty of Herzl’s pose is eye-cat­ching when you see the pic­tu­re of Herzl, pro­ba­b­ly taken during the same pho­to ses­si­on, whe­re he is sit­ting on the same bal­c­o­ny with his arms fold­ed. This rather con­ven­tio­nal pic­tu­re is hard­ly known and would never have had the poten­ti­al for his resound­ing success.

verfasst am 15.08.2022