A Century After Herzl Vienna Re-imagines Zion

Forward (06/18/04)

Former Austrian President Thomas Klestil


This article is taken from a speech given by the late Austrian President on the occasion of the opening of the Fifth International Theodor Herzl Symposium in the Vienna City Hall on June 14, 2004. The speech was translated by Ruth Weinberger and appeared in the American weekly, "Forward" (N.Y.). President Klestil died on July 6, 2004.

At the turn of the last century, a wave of culture washed over Vienna, carrying central European society into modernity. The contribution of Austrian Jewry to this heritage was significant - from Enlightenment to Liberalism to Art Noveau. It was in this milieu that the modern Jewish state was envisioned by Theodor Herzl, the 100th anniversary of whose death we commemorate on July 3, 2004.

We Austrians are proud that 1,800 years after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, the idea of creating a Jewish state was born in Vienna. It was an idea that tremendously moved the world and has engaged it ever since. This pride, however, is mixed with the bitter knowledge that Austrians played a key role in the Holocaust, the worst crime ever committed against the Jewish people. The unparalleled and inexcusable humiliation, persecution and murder of our Jews has left a permanent scar on the collective Austrian conscience. These scars are painful to this very day and remind us how easy it is to destroy humanity and tolerance. Today, more than ever, we must remind ourselves that humans are the root of all inhumanity.

The 100th anniversary of Herzl’s death comes at a time when we sadly cannot talk of peace among the nations. The scourge of international terrorism, not to mention numerous regional conflicts, has made peace no more than a far-fetched dream in many parts of the world. Prosperity has proved equally elusive as globalization has not led us to the paradise on earth that so many had envisioned.

While Herzl’s legacy is embodied in the Jewish state, I firmly believe it has a relevance that extends beyond the borders of Israel to the global issues that confront us today. His vision was one based on tolerance and peaceful interaction between different religions, a vision he worked tirelessly to realize. His pragmatic idealism can serve as a guide as we work to reconcile enemies and to promote social justice.

Our efforts must begin with an acknowledgement of the hatred in our midst. Today, 100 years after the death of the father of the Jewish state, anti-Semitism is often disguised as anti-Zionism.

Let there be no doubt: The poison of intolerance has found its way back into today’s language. There is daily proof that the vocabulary of the barbarians’ dictionary has not disappeared. To the contrary, the words of hatred are creeping evermore into discussions on Israel. The problem is far more than just semantic. Language is not only clothing for thoughts but also a tool for forming people. The language of hatred is not only derived from resentment, it is also the cause of resentment.

The bar must not be allowed to sink any lower in regard to the acceptance of racist or anti-Semitic comments - not in Austria, not in Europe, not anywhere. Language is never innocent. Language can heal and it can kill. Language can change lives, for better or for worse. As we remain vigilant against the words of hatred, let us also speak the language of peace. Although the current situation in the Middle East may seem to push Herzl’s vision of coexistence to the edge of the horizon, we all know that we must work together to resolve the conflict. In the tradition of Herzl’s pragmatic idealism, Austria, as part of the European Union, should take part in effective peacekeeping missions in order to silence the voices of violence.

It is my personal conviction that a long-lasting peace can only be the product of honest and peaceful dialogue. Judaism, with its dialectic tradition, is a wonderful premise from which to begin. It is upon the foundation of dialogue that bridges between people can be built. Bridges create trust, and trust will eventually lead to peace in Israel. I cannot think of a greater way to honor the memory of Theodor Herzl.