If you drive north out of Tel Aviv for about 15 minutes you come across Herzliya, a settlement founded in 1924 by seven immigrant families and named after Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. More than 80,000 people live there today, and countless tourists visit each year. Herzliya has a long seafront promenade with many hotels, a harbor for yachts and even a small airport.
And of course there's a monument to Theodor Herzl. It's a huge water tank next to the motorway, with a slim male figure standing on top of it with his arms crossed and looking down at "his" town in a pose in which Herzl is often portrayed -- the visionary.
The man who wrote "The Jewish State" died at the age of 44 in 1904, 44 years before the foundation of the state of Israel. Those who believe in Kabbalah and the mysticism of numbers may see a hidden message in those digits: It's hard not to ask oneself what Herzl would think were he to visit Herzliya today.
He'd probably think: "This isn't how I imagined it, but I like it." Because he would see a high-tech center with laboratories in which hundreds of experts work for Microsoft, Motorola and Nokia, surrounded by shopping malls and restaurants. Some 20 years ago this was an area of auto repair workshops and warehouses, and 40 years ago there was nothing but the wind whistling between the dunes.
The whole country has changed as rapidly as the small town of Herzliya. Other societies took 150 years to develop from agricultural economies to the post-industrial age, but Israel managed it in 60. Sometimes starting from scratch can be an advantage.
But there is something that hasn't changed, a strangely constant element in the turbulent, crisis-ridden life of the world's smallest major power. Something that not even the visionary Herzl could foresee. Israel's existence is called into question day after day -- not just by militant Palestinian organizations such as Fatah and Hezbollah and the president of Iran, but also by congenial European intellectuals who devote themselves to the "Middle East question" with the dedication of someone who has long since completed all his other homework.
Recently a group of German thinkers including the political scientist Johano Strasser, Green Party parliamentarian Claudia Roth and writer Gert Heidenreich published a paper to mark Israel's 60th birthday entitled "Congratulations and Concerns."
In it they praise Israel's "development, the cultural diversity, the scientific and technological successes, the intellectual productivity and the democratically organized pluralism." But they also voice doubt about whether the Israelis are really doing enough to settle the conflict with their neighbors.
Israel, the writers warn, is endangering "its own existence", "making a fool of the whole world," and "deceiving itself." The paper calls on German politicians "not to lose sight of the connection between the extremely difficult economic and political situation of the Palestinians on the one hand and the uncertainty and menace facing Israel on the other."
The entire paper is a collection of cheap platitudes concocted by hobby astronauts zooming through virtual space on their games consoles, convinced that everything hinges on their navigation skills.
The paper "Congratulations and Concerns" was preceded by another position statement: "Friendship and Criticism," written by 25 political scientists who accuse Israel of instrumentalizing the Holocaust for its own political ends and who call for a rethink of the "special relationship" between Germany and Israel in order to render the "internal German discourse" between "non-Jewish, Jewish and Muslim Germans" broader and more impartial.
'A Total Lack of Historical Substance'
An open letter signed by 120 academics caused a Europe-wide stir in 2002. The letter called for academic relations to be frozen between Israel and European countries in protest against Israel's policies. In other words, the cultural and scientific cooperation between the countries should be stopped. The letter went largely unnoticed in Germany, for a very simple reason -- only two of the 120 signatories were German.
Meanwhile, there is hardly any well-known writer who has not made some kind of statement about Israel. Jostein Gaarder, the Norwegian author of the bestseller "Sophie's World," wrote Israel out of the pages of history with the words: "We no longer recognize the State of Israel." Gore Vidal, the American author who lives in self-imposed exile in Italy, South Africa's Breyten Breytenbach and the Portuguese author Jose Saramago have all also expressed their opinions, with latter comparing the situation in Ramallah to Auschwitz. When asked where the gas chambers were, he reportedly replied: "There are no gas chambers, yet."
One floor lower, we find people such as Thilo Bode, the former director of Greenpeace Germany. Bode believes that "refraining from criticizing Israel is immoral." Germany, Bode feels, should help "Israel to learn a lesson which Germany itself has successfully learned, namely the historical costs of subjugating others."
The most striking thing about such statements is not just the total self-assurance with which they are made, but also the total lack of historical substance: The same people who feel responsible for the fate of the Palestinians and feel driven to give Israel advice, want to be released from the historical responsibility for the fate of the Jews, which has weighed on them for over 60 years as a heavy burden. As early as the late 1960s, the Berlin revolutionary Dieter Kunzelmann called on the Germans to get over their "Jewish problem."
And little changed has until now, except that the language has become a little more subtle. Significant parts of the German intelligentsia see it as their task to watch day and night to make sure that the Jews (in other words, Israelis) do not backslide and do not gamble away the moral credit that they gained by being the victim of the Nazis. But Israel's original sin isn't its poor treatment of the Palestinians but rather the fact that it makes it so hard for those nice Germans to like the Jews.
Many years ago, an article appeared in German weekly Die Zeit, with an appeal to the "responsible men of the government of Israel." The author said they should pause and recognize "how far they have already come along that path which recently led another people to doom."
That was on Sept. 23, 1948, just four months after the founding of Israel. The author? The German journalist and intellectual Marion Dönhoff.