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The Old New Land

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The Old New Land  
1st edition cover
Author Theodor Herzl
Original title Altneuland
Translator Lotta Levensohn (1997 edition)
Country Austria
Language German
Genre(s) Utopian novel
Publisher Seemann Nachf
Publication date 1902
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 343 pp
OCLC Number 38767535

The Old New Land (or Altneuland in the original German) is a utopian novel published by Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, in 1902. Outlining Herzl’s vision for a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, Altneuland became one of Zionism's establishing texts. It was translated into Yiddish by Israel Isidor Elyashev. Translated into Hebrew as Tel Aviv (Hebrew: תֵּל־אָבִיב‎) by Nahum Sokolow - which directly influenced the choice of the same name for the Jewish-Zionist Jaffa suburb founded in 1909 which was to become a major Israeli city.

Plot introduction

The novel tells the story of Friedrich Löwenberg, a young Jewish Viennese intellectual, who, tired with European decadence, joins an Americanized Prussian aristocrat named Kingscourt as they retire to a remote Pacific island (it is specifically mentioned as being part of the Cook Islands, near Raratonga). Stopping in Jaffa on their way to the Pacific, they find Palestine a backward, destitute and sparsely populated land, as it appeared to Herzl on his visit in 1898.

Löwenberg and Kingscourt spend the following twenty years on the island, cut off from civilization. As they pass through Palestine on their way back to Europe, they discover a land drastically transformed, showcasing a free, open and cosmopolitan modern society, and boasting a thriving cooperative industry based on state-of-the-art technology.

In the two decades that have passed, European Jews have rediscovered and re-inhabited their Altneuland, reclaiming their own destiny in the Land of Israel.

The basic plot device of a person finding himself transported to an utopian future and being given a "guided tour" of the society he finds there is similar to the plot of "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy, already considered a classic Utopian work at the time of writing and with which Herzl was likely to have been familiar.

Major themes

Herzl’s novel depicts his blueprint for the realization of Jewish national emancipation, as put forward in his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) published in 1896. Both ideological and utopian, it presents a model society which was to be radically spiritual and ethical, along the lines of the Mussar Movement and adopt a liberal and egalitarian social model. Herzl’s vision was a socialist one, though not strictly so. Altneuland’s "new society" is based on collective ownership and state welfare, while at the same time encouraging private entrepreneurship. A true modernist, Herzl rejected the European class system, yet remained loyal to Europe’s cultural heritage.

Rather than imagining the Jews in Altneuland speaking Hebrew and reviving Jewish traditions, he envisaged a German-speaking society reproducing European customs, going to the opera and enjoying the theatre. Its industrial and cultural center is not located in historical Jerusalem, the object of diasporic Jewish yearnings for millennia, but rather the modern city of Haifa. In the actual Israel, this role was to be taken by Tel Aviv, a city which did not yet exist at the time of writing and whose name was inspired by the book itself (see below).

Herzl saw the potential of Haifa Bay for constructing a modern deep water port. However, in reality it would be the British Empire rather than the Zionists which would realise that potential and make considerable stategic use of it during the Second World War. Though Israel would eventually inherit the Haifa port and city, by 1948 the central role of Tel Aviv was established, with Haifa - though a major Israeli city - relegated to a secondary position.

As envisoned by Herzl, "All the way from Acco to Mount Carmel stretched what seemed to be one great park". Unfortunately, in the actual Israel the very same area is a giant industrial zone, reckoned the most heavily-polluted part of the country.

References to Arabs

In Herzl's vision, the creation of the Third Temple in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount had been accomplished without opposition from either local Arabs or the wider Muslim World, since they accept that it will usher in a period of redemption and peace for all mankind, since the legitimate heirs, the Jewish People, will direct their national and personal influence from there. The sole Arab character in the book, Reshid Bey, tells the protagonists that the Jews had in no way harmed him, but on the contrary, increased the value of his property.

Based on an assumption of no Arab hostility to the Zionist project, the "Jewish Society" in the book (Herzl does not call it explicitly a "state", apparently in order to avoid antagonising the Ottoman authorities) is depicted as having no armed forces at all.

Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science

Altneuland had an immediate impact on the nascent Zionist movement, and served as a major inspiration for Socialist Zionism which became the dominant strain in Zionism during its early days. The cooperative agricultural settlement portrayed in the novel is in many ways a precursor to the kibbutz, while the phrase "If you will it – it is no fairy tale", adapted from the novel’s epilogue, was adopted as a popular Zionist slogan. Ahuzat Bayit, the 'first Hebrew city' founded in 1909, was soon renamed Tel Aviv after the novel’s Hebrew title as translated by Nahum Sokolov (a conflation of 'old' – an archeological mound, Tel – and 'new' – represented by spring, Aviv). However the novel was also received with criticism by some, most notably Ahad Ha'am who lambasted Altneuland both for its lack of Jewish identity, Torah and the infeasibility of its vision of settling millions of Jews in Palestine without disowning the Arab population.

Release details

  • 1902, Austria, ? (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1902, hardback (First edition) (as Altneuland in German)
  • 1941, USA, Bloch Publishing (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1941, paperback (translated ... by Lotta Levensohn)
  • 1961, Israel, Haifa Publishing (ISBN NA), Pub date ? ? 1961, paperback (as Altneuland in German)
  • 1987, USA, Random House (ISBN 0-910129-61-4), Pub date ? December 1987, paperback
  • 1997, USA, Wiener (Markus) Publishing (ISBN 1-55876-160-8), Pub date ? November 1997, paperback

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