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'Like touching the handwriting of Moses'

Handwritten manuscript of Herzl’s utopian ‘Altneuland’ on display for first time

Each of the 396 pages is insured for NIS 1 million; curator says father of Zionism’s vision of modern Israel, with light rail and electronic newspapers, is part ‘prophecy’

Susan Burns, curator at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem points to the opening of Herzl's 'Altneuland,' on May 9, 2022. (Screen grab/Channel 13)
Susan Burns, curator at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem points to the opening of Herzl's 'Altneuland,' on May 9, 2022. (Screen grab/Channel 13)

The original handwritten German manuscript of Theodor Herzl’s novel, “Altneuland” (Old New Land) went on public display this week for the first time at the Herzl Center in Jerusalem, as part of a new exhibition celebrating 120 years since it was published.

The utopian novel, published in 1902, outlined the founder of modern Zionism’s vision for a Jewish state.

According to the center’s website, the new exhibition features a tour of Herzl’s study, now featuring the manuscript, and an additional exhibition that ties Herzl’s vision of a Jewish State to the modern State of Israel.

“It’s like touching the handwriting of one of the writers of the Old Testament, maybe even Moses,” Herzl Center chair Uri Zaki told Channel 13 news, explaining the value of the manuscript.

“If I’m forced to, I can give you an evaluation — each page is insured at the moment for NIS 1 million ($293,000), and ‘Altneuland’ has 396 pages,” he said.

Suzanne Berns, curator of the Theodor Herzl archive at the Central Zionist Archives, which lent the manuscript to the museum, explained that Herzl foresaw a future society with light rail as a mode of transport and electronic newspapers read by an enlightened public.

“Part of what he wrote is prophecy,” she said.

Famous picture of Theodor Herzl on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland (photo credit: CC-PD-Mark, by Wikigamad, Wikimedia Commons)
Theodor Herzl on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland, 1897. (CC-PD-Mark, by Wikigamad, Wikimedia Commons)

The Zionist utopian novel was published six years after Herzl’s political pamphlet “Der Judenstaat” (The Jewish State) set out its author’s vision of the Jewish people’s return to their homeland.

“Altneuland,” beginning with the famous phrase “If you will it, it is no dream,” tells of Jewish Viennese intellectual Friedrich Löwenberg and Prussian aristocrat Kingscourt, who are on their way to settle down on a Pacific island when they stop over in Ottoman-ruled Palestine.

They find a poor, barely populated land and leave disappointed. However, deciding to return from isolation in the Pacific 20 years later, they find a developed and cosmopolitan Jewish state.

Herzl, who began his career as a journalist, is considered to be the father of political Zionism. On August 29, 1897, he convened the First Zionist Congress in the city of Basel. Some 200 participants from 17 countries, including 69 delegates from various Zionist societies attended, in what is considered a watershed moment in the effort to create a Jewish state.

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