The Political Ritual at Herzl’s Tomb


A visit to a grave is often part of the political rituals that presidents and other political representatives include in their schedules during their State visits. In spite of the apparent mechanicity and automatism behind these gestures, they still constitute valid spaces from which we can expose the crucial political intentions they embody.

What is the meaning of Obama paying tribute to the founder of modern political Zionism in his last visit to Israel/Palestine? Which questions does this gesture raise on the latest US “broker of deceit”, to borrow the title of Rashid Khalidi’s recent book on the history of the relationship between the US administrations and the Palestinian question?

Well, a visit to Thedor Herzl’s tomb in one of the most unbalanced trips of a US president to Israel/Palestine can hardly be interpreted as an act of routine diplomacy. While expressing his unilateral support for Israel’s “dispossession in security”, perhaps Obama showed his will to support the foundational constitution of Israel in its most problematic guise.

As we know, Herzl is  author of “The Jewish State” (1896),  in which the author develops the organizational and ideological manifesto of modern political Zionism. The pamphlet contains the  coordinates for  transferring  the discriminated Jewish population of Europe to Palestine or to another “empty land”.  And this is also one of the first texts in which for the first time the solution to the “Jewish question” is articulated as a project of colonization and a civilizing mission:

“Should the Powers declare themselves willing to admit our sovereignty over a neutral piece of land, then the Society will enter into negotiations for the possession of this land. Here two territories come under consideration, Palestine and Argentine. In both countries important experiments in colonization have been made, though on the mistaken principle of a gradual infiltration of Jews. An infiltration is bound to end badly. It continues till the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the Government to stop a further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless we have the sovereign right to continue such immigration”[1].

Manifesting his preference for a “Palestinian solution”, Herzl continues: “Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency. If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism”[2].

Like an Orientalist of his time, Herzl theorizes the necessity of a Jewish state in a non-empty land using a military vocabulary of aggression: a rampart against Asia and anoutpost of civilization. Those who inhabit the land of the Jewish state to come are described as a barbarous population, the uncivilized to be redeemed.

Herzl’s settler-colonial vision –a military-like immigration protected by European powers that would have and has unavoidably resulted in depopulation, expulsion and ethnic cleansing– was inspired by a kind of Orientalism that is even more manifest and explicit in his 1902 novel “Altneuland” (“The Old New Land”): a novel in which the pioneer of political Zionism is even more explicitly Orientalist than in “The Jewish State”.  In what is misleadingly considered his “utopian” novel –misleadingly because those were the years in which Zionism was precisely looking for a non-utopian solution– Herzl describes Palestine after the first Jewish immigrations as a “new society”, by that meaning more civilized than the indigenous population. Palestinians are depicted as the recalcitrant remnants of a despicable rural backwardness, and their children as “grown up like dumb beasts”.  The novel contains the classical array of Orientalist stereotypes about Arabs.

Thus, we may ponder the meaning of visiting Herzl’s tomb while stating the un-discussable right of Israel to remain the kind of Jewish state that it is. Is the kind of idea of Jewish state that Obama has in mind founded on Herzl’s premises? Does Obama recognize himself in an outpost-rampart-state to be protected as a colonial frontier against barbarism? If Israel has been created and has developed and reproduced itself in a colonial framework like the one imagined by Herzl –the continuation of an experiment in colonization– is this the kind of Israel that Obama wants to support with millions of dollars? The political ritual on Herzl’s grave seems to suggest that the answer to all these questions is yes.

Nicola Perugini is an anthropologist who teaches at the Al Quds Bard Honors College in Jerusalem. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.


[1] Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, 1896
[2] Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, 1896
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