The Making of a Zionist Visionary
We must never take Theodor Herzl's story for granted.
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Many people know him as one of the visionaries of modern-day Zionism, but few know the parts of Theodor Herzl’s story that are universal examples of what we all seek: self-discovery, vision, and perseverance.
Born in Budapest in 1860 to a family of assimilated German-speaking Jews, Herzl moved to Vienna as a boy and earned a law degree from the University of Vienna.
Herzl aspired to follow the footsteps of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, but did not succeed in the sciences and instead developed a growing enthusiasm for poetry and humanities. This passion later developed into a successful career in journalism and a less-celebrated pursuit of playwriting.
As a young man, Herzl was an ardent Germanophile who saw the Germans as the best cultured people in Central Europe and embraced the German ideal of education and self-mastery, to appreciate the beautiful things in life and thus become a morally better person.
Herzl believed that through such education and self-mastery, Hungarian Jews such as himself could shake off their “shameful Jewish characteristics” caused by long centuries of impoverishment and oppression, and become civilized Central Europeans, a true cultured person along the German lines.
As Herzl wrote himself, he had “long ceased to trouble his head about his Jewish origin or about the faith of his fathers” and his “material circumstances were satisfactory enough.” He was making an adequate living and, in his words, fortunate enough to have a vocation in which he could create “according to the impulses of his heart.”
But then the age-old antisemitism reasserted itself under a fashionable slogan across Europe. Like many others, he believed that this movement would soon subside. But instead of getting better, it got worse. Although Herzl was not personally affected by it, the attacks pained him anew each time, until he realized that it was leading to a catastrophic persecution of the Jews.
Though Herzl was inspired by the plight of Jews in Europe, his writings presented the Jewish question as a universal one.
“The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers,” he wrote in a pamphlet called “The Jewish State,” adding:
“Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilized — for instance, France — until the Jewish question finds a solution on a political basis. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.”
But Herzl’s critique of the Jewish condition ran deeper. Even Jews living in physical safety were in an intolerable position, he believed, because they had given up their dignity and honor in leaving the identity and traditions of their forefathers. As he wrote in another essay:
“The atrocities of the Middle Ages were unprecedented, and the people who withstood those tortures must have had some great strength, an inner unity which we have lost. A generation which has grown apart from Judaism does not have this unity. It can neither rely upon our past nor look to our future. That is why we shall once more retreat into Judaism and never again permit ourselves to be thrown out of this fortress. We shall thereby regain our lost inner wholeness and along with it a little character — our own character. Not a Marrano-like, borrowed, untruthful character, but our own.”
“This secret psychic torment” had the effect of steering him to its source; precisely, his Jewishness. According to Herzl, he experienced a change that he might never have in better days because he “had become so alienated.” He began to love Judaism with great fervor.
At first he didn’t fully acknowledge this mysterious affection, but finally it grew so powerful that his vague feelings crystallized into a clear idea to which he gave voice: “The thought that there was only one way out of this Jewish suffering — namely, to return to Judaism,” Herzl wrote.
The conventional view has it that Herzl was deeply influenced by the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish army captain falsely accused of treason in 1894. The case, which has come to be seen as a textbook example of enduring European hostility toward Jews, unfolded when Herzl was the Paris correspondent for a Viennese media outlet.
However, later scholars have suggested that Herzl’s transformation occurred earlier and that he played up the impact of the Dreyfus affair to win support for his Zionist goals.
It was antisemitic demagogue Karl Lueger’s rise to power in Vienna in 1895 that seems to have had a greater effect on Herzl, before the Dreyfus campaign had fully emerged. It was at this time that Herzl wrote his play “The New Ghetto,” which shows the ambivalence and lack of real security and equality of emancipated, well-to-do Jews in Vienna. The protagonist is an assimilated Jewish lawyer who tries unsuccessfully to break through the social ghetto enforced on Western Jews.
Around this time, Herzl grew to believe that antisemitism could not be defeated or cured, only avoided, and that the only way to avoid it was the establishment of a Jewish state. Beginning in late 1895, Herzl wrote “The State of the Jews,” which was published one year later to immediate acclaim and controversy. The book argued that the Jewish People should leave Europe for Palestine, their indigenous homeland.
The Jews possessed a nationality, he wrote; all they were missing was a nation and a state of their own. Only through a Jewish state could they avoid antisemitism, express their culture freely, and practice their religion without hindrance.
“The Land of Israel is our unforgettable historic home,” Herzl wrote. “Its very name would attract our people with a great and potent force.”
Starting in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, Herzl convened and chaired the First Zionist Congress, where a Zionist platform was created, known as the Basel program. It also adopted a poem called Hatikvah (Hebrew for “The Hope”) as its anthem, and aimed at establishing a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine for the Jewish People which, among other items, included initial steps to obtain government grants from the established powers that controlled the area.
Herzl wrote shortly thereafter:
“Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word — which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly — it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.”
Herzl considered antisemitism to be an eternal feature of all societies in which Jews lived as minorities, and that only a separation could allow Jews to escape eternal persecution.
“Let them give us sovereignty over a piece of the Earth’s surface,” he wrote, “just sufficient for the needs of our people, then we will do the rest!”
Herzl began large-scale political campaign activity in Europe on behalf of the supreme Zionist goal — a Jewish state, prodded by the success of the First Zionist Congress. He oscillated between meetings with politicians from Germany, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Russia until the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903.
There, Herzl proposed Uganda as a solution for the Jewish state, which created a massive rift between Western and European Jews, and ultimately led to his demise. In his last address to the Congress, Herzl reiterated that Uganda was only a temporary solution, raised his right hand, and vowed: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.”
Herzl passed away one year later, at age 44.
After World War II and the destruction of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe, Zionism was eventually successful in establishing the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 as the homeland for the Jewish People.
The proportion of the world’s Jews living in Israel has steadily grown since the movement emerged. By the early 21st century, over 40 percent of the world’s Jews lived in Israel, more than in any other country — an achievement unmatched by any other Jewish political movement in the past 2,000 years.
Zionism gave Herzl a microphone, and he used it to confront and change the Jewish world. Hence why he is the only individual mentioned by name in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which refers to him as the “author of the vision of the Jewish state.”
He tested the concept of a Jewish state for all of us, through his fearlessness, through moments of doubt, of love, of frustration — the path to change is never linear. Herzl did all this not just for his children, but for the children of his dreams. He also left behind a growing movement of Zionists, who knew that with all of his achievements, at his core he was always trying to be a better Jewish ancestor, because that love always endures.
In his utopian novel, “The Old New Land,” Herzl wrote:
“If you will it, it is no fairy-tale. But if you do not will it, it is and will remain a fairy-tale, this story that I have told you. All the activity of mankind was a dream once — and will again be a dream.”
Herzl repeatedly emphasized that the creation of a Jewish homeland was merely the external change that he wished to attain. The true aim was the establishment of a firm Jewish consciousness, a unique Jewish “character” and perspective on things that the Jews would contribute to the world, and by means of which they would again be able to play a special role among the nations.
As he told the assembled delegates at the First Zionist Congress, “Zionism is a return to Judaism even before there is a return to the Jewish land.”