«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
JMS 1904- 10, Tel-Aviv / Strassenschild / Gemüseladen / Herzl-Strasse, Foto: Anais Steiner
JMS 1904- 21, Herzliya / Herzl-Schule, Foto: Anais Steiner
JMS 2048 1-3, Strassenschilder, Israel.