Skip to main content Skip to search

YU News

YU News

A Light Unto the Nation: Exploring the Enduring Relevance of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist Writings with Dr. Gil Troy

Dr. Gil Troy Speaks to Students

On January 25, 2022, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, in partnership with the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program, hosted Dr. Gil Troy, distinguished scholar in North American history at McGill University and scholar of Israeli political thought. Dr. Troy shared insights from his new three-volume collection, Herzl's Zionist Writings, a treasury of essays and speeches of modern Israel's founding father, Theodor Herzl. The collection is the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People, a new series that seeks to bring together the best writers and thinkers from Jewish history in the fields of rabbinics, arts and Politics. 

Dr. Troy introduced his talk by referring to the current political turmoil in Israel. Dr. Troy noted that, in modern Israel, Herzl serves as an icon of both the political left and the political right. Both ends of Israel's political spectrum will often invoke Herzl's image in support of their respective movements. On the face of it, this could indicate that Herzl's image has fossilized into a sort of hollow figurehead. However, Dr. Troy insisted that Herzl's political ideas are still highly relevant to modern Israelis, as they embody the core Zionist principles that unite all elements of Israeli society. 

Dr. Troy next had the students examine excerpts from Herzl's writings that illustrated the arc of his journey from a contemplative playwright to an activist leader of an unlikely political movement. Students picked up on the urgency in Herzl's tone. In 1900, he wrote: "I always feel the future peering over my shoulder." 

Dr. Troy explained that Herzl's every step was haunted by antisemitism. As a young law student, Herzl was exposed to vehement antisemitic rhetoric in his university's fraternity and resigned from the organization in protest. Later in life, as a journalist, he covered the infamous Dreyfus Affair, which had a dehumanizing effect on European Jewry. These experiences bolstered his belief that only Zionism could cure Europe's chronic antisemitism. 

In Altneuland (1902), his utopian vision of a future Jewish state, Herzl predicted that the state's assortment of many different kinds of Jews fulfilling different roles would shatter antisemitic stereotypes and render antisemitism abroad irrelevant. Thus, politically, Herzl's Zionist endeavor was conceived as little more than a pragmatic cure-all to antisemitism.

However, Dr. Troy illustrated how Herzl's Zionism simultaneously developed a transcendent quality. In his allegorical short story The Menorah (1897), Herzl's protagonist combats the gloom of antisemitism by reclaiming a traditional Hanukkah observance, the lighting of the Menorah. At the tumultuous Sixth Zionist Congress, which debated the proposed creation of a temporary Jewish state in Uganda, Herzl (who supported the plan) stood to his feet and affirmed the ancient Jewish oath, "if I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning." 

In this regard, Dr. Troy argued that Herzl's Zionism not only encapsulated political arguments but also spoke to the fundamental ideas which unite religious and secular Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. True, Herzl's Zionism was a matter of honor and self-defense, but in a broader sense, it was also a return to Judaism. That is a motive that all Israelis can relate to, and it is the reason why Herzl's Zionist writings continue to shape the political and ideological movements of the Jewish State. 

This seminar was the latest in a series of programs sponsored or co-sponsored by the Straus Center and the Schottenstein Honors Program. Recent events have included a conversation with the Jerusalem Post's Zvika Klein, a debate between Tablet's Liel Leibovitz and YU's own Rabbi Daniel Feldman, a lunch seminar with Adam Kirsch of The Wall Street Journal and a philosophical discussion with Dr. Ronen Shoval of The Tikvah Fund.

You can learn more about the Straus Center by signing up for our newsletter here. Be sure to also like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram and connect with us on LinkedIn.