Norwegian sardines might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one considers the father of modern Zionism, but such was Theodor Herzl’s iconic status at the turn of the 20th century that even purveyors of the tinned salty fish sought to trade on his reputation.
That was one of the unusual facts that emerged on Wednesday night during a Zionism Victoria Q&A with the world’s largest collector of Herzl memorabilia, David Matlow, to mark the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress.
The Toronto-based lawyer, who attended this week’s celebrations in Basel, shared items from his collection, including a label from Dr Herzl’s Norwegian Sardines, telling the online audience in Australia that the 19th-century journalist who put Zionism on the map was fully aware of the power of branding.
“He understood that he needed images and he needed ways to inspire the Jewish people behind his plan,” said Matlow.
“His plan was for there to be a homeland for the Jewish people which is now axiomatic ‘cos it’s existed I daresay for the whole lifespan of you and me and many of the people watching this webcast … but it was a crazy new idea, so he knew he needed images to inspire the people and he became one of those images, and he was like a superstar to the Jewish people.”
Asked whether Israel today is the Israel Herzl envisaged when he convened the Congress, Matlow reflected that in his book Altneuland, “He talked about things like telegraphic newspapers … he conceived of electric cars … he conceived of there being great medical breakthroughs coming from Palestine, the Jewish homeland, he conceived of communal farming, freedom of the press, great culture, that from the new society whenever there was a crisis in the world – a flood , a tornado, an earthquake – a call would come to Jerusalem and people would go out from there to help.”