For many Israelis, he is – as one wag in Ha'aretz put it a couple of years ago – "that man with a beard" whose achievements are "irrelevant" to modern Israel. For American Jews, he is an unknown or just a name pulled out of history, often unconnected to any real sense of his importance.
But as we celebrate Israel's 58th birthday this week, it's appropriate to recognize that without Theodor Herzl, none of the major Jewish achievements of the last 100 years are possible.
Okay, you might answer, Herzl is the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Place a wreath on his grave and wave the blue-and-white flag if you like, but what exactly does he have to do with modern Jewish dilemmas? If you want to talk about the Jewish future, concentrate on the ferment in current Jewish culture – be it political, religious or cultural – no doubt many would say don't waste time on a long-dead figure from another world.
A Perfect Role Model
But with all due respect to the self-proclaimed "cutting edge" of modern Jewish culture, such as the preening editors and writers of "hip" magazines like Heeb or Guilt & Pleasure, the truth is that thinking seriously about the guy with the beard is a lot more relevant than their own self-important musings.
That's not just because without Herzl – and what he did in his short career before his tragic death at age 44 – there is no State of Israel and all that it means to the Jewish people. It's because Herzl the man is a profoundly compelling figure whose life bears special importance not just for Israelis, but also for those of us in the Diaspora.
To say that flies in the face of the tide of Jewish opinion in this country which surveys have been telling us for years has been less and less interested in Israel and its complicated politics and security dilemmas. How much more so would that be true for a Zionist icon, the George Washington of the Jewish state?
But the closer we look at him, we see someone who is, in fact, the perfect role model for a muddled Diaspora with a confused sense of identity.
Herzl was, after all, as assimilated as most American Jews are today, with a strong sense of pride in his identity but little sense of what it meant and little interest in living a Jewish life. Like many in the contemporary Diaspora, he was more at home in the secular culture of his day than its Jewish counterpart. As such, the young Herzl seems to be a precursor to the marginally affiliated Jewish intellectual circles that we are supposed to look to today for guidance.
But rather than stick to his fellow sophisticates, Herzl preferred to look hard at the crisis of a century ago, and saw that Jewish homelessness and powerlessness were leading inexorably to destruction.
After witnessing the degradation of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer falsely accused of treason, Herzl decided to act. That event was just the final piece of a puzzle that he had struggled with for years and led him to write a pamphlet called "The Jewish State," which launched political Zionism. And, as he himself predicted, 50 years after his movement's founding, Jewish statehood was a reality.
As Dan Polisar, the man recently appointed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to head a national council for promoting the legacy of Herzl, points out, it is "Herzl the visionary" who has an awful lot to say to us today.
And that is the key phrase. Herzl was a dreamer, not just of a haven for oppressed Jews (though that was a paramount concern to him), but a place where Jews could realize their full potential.
Polisar, the American-born president of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank, explains that "Herzl's Zionism was, in part, a reaction to anti-Semitism on a level that American Jews would not be familiar with today. But it also had a strong positive side. He believed that it was necessary for Jews to develop their own culture and ideas in order to make a unique contribution to the world."
Above Politics and War
Despite the "post-Zionism" of some of Israel's intellectual and cultural elites, Polisar insists that most Israelis instinctively turn to Herzl as a unifying figure because, unlike almost every other "founding father" of the country, he is someone who is above politics and not linked to purely military achievements.
Because of the ongoing Arab effort to destroy the state, Israel's people naturally tended to lionize those associated with national defense. But Polisar says that is changing. Herzl is someone, as Polisar puts it, "whose principal accomplishments were those that were intangible and in the realm of the world of ideas. There's still great respect for military leaders but even more respect today for visionaries."
And ours is a time when such visionaries are needed more than ever. Given Israel's intractable security challenges and a Diaspora Jewry with assimilation in this country rising as fast as anti-Semitism overseas, at times it seems as if all solutions are impossible.
Who better for us to emulate than a person who came up with a dream – the return of the Jews onto the stage of history – that virtually everyone thought was impossible at the time?
If his struggle has been forgotten and his brilliant ideas obscured by the passage of time, reviving his legacy has become a priority that fortunately some in Israel are trying to accomplish.
Two years ago on the 100th anniversary of his yahrzeit, the Knesset passed a law enacting an annual Herzl day on the day of his birth, the 12th of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar, which falls this year on May 10.
On that date, among other commemorations, ceremonies will be held at the redesigned museum dedicated to him, which was built on the mountain outside of Jerusalem that bears Herzl's name, and which is also the site of Israel's national cemetery where he and other Israeli heroes are buried. Israeli television will also air documentaries about his legacy. But the day will pass almost without comment here.
Polisar, whose council is supervising the festivities, hopes that in future years, Jews abroad will latch onto the holiday.
Let's hope he's right. Because in the story of Herzl, of his coming to embrace a proud Jewish identity and having the courage to contradict every bit of the conventional wisdom of his own day, is a hero that ought to resonate in the heart of all who believe that the Jewish people and their heritage must not perish. The 12th of Iyar should always be a day to celebrate Jewish dreams and dreamers with the centerpiece being the honoring of the greatest of our visionaries.
As Herzl famously wrote in the preface to Alteneuland, the futurist novel composed to fully articulate his dream of Israel, "If you will, it is no fairy tale."
At a time when Jewish survival, both physical and spiritual sometimes seems as doubtful as ever, his is a life we need to embrace more closely than ever before. Happy Herzl Day!