12 Things You Need to Know About… Theodor Herzl

The visionary behind the State of Israel

1. Theodor Herzl was born Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl in May 1880, in Pest, Hungary, the younger child of German-speaking, assimilated Jews. His upbringing, as he described it, was “thoroughly emancipated, anti-traditional, secular.” He was a “would-be German boy” who viewed religion as uncivilized. Indeed, there was a time when he thought the best solution to the “Jewish problem” in Europe would be mass conversion of the Jews – but this was before the Dreyfus Affair.

2. Following the death by typhus of his sister, the family moved to Vienna, where he studied law at the University, encountering anti-Semitism. After a brief legal career, he became a journalist and devoted himself to writing. He authored some plays and became a correspondent for the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Press, where he also served as literary editor. In 1891, he became the Paris correspondent for the paper.

Herzl3. 1895 was a watershed year for Herzl. The Dreyfus Affair broke, and he followed the trial for his paper. At the same time, in Vienna, an anti-Semitic demagogue named Karl Lueger rose to power. Herzl was converted to a new view of European anti-Semitism: that it could not be overcome by any means, only avoided by the establishment of a Jewish state.

4. His 86-page pamphlet, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) came out in early 1896 to immediate acclaim by existing Zionist groups such as Hovevei Zion; and to vilification by establishment Jewry who either felt their own assimilation threatened by it or thought that Herzl’s ideas went against God’s will.

5. Having visited Baron de Hirsch, members of the Rothschild family, Jewish architect Oskar Marmouk and journalist Friedrich Schiff with no great result, he proceeded to wangle “direct and publicly known” meetings with heads of state in order to legitimize his standing with his fellow Jews, so that they would “believe in me and follow me.” He met with the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Court, offering payment by Jews of the entire Turkish foreign debt in return for Palestine as a Jewish homeland under Ottoman rule. Five years later, he met with the Sultan, who turned down the offer. He met with Bismarck. He met with the Grand Duke of Baden, uncle of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

6. He had popular support. In July 1896, in London’s East End, an enthusiastic crowd greeted him at a mass rally.  The following year, he founded the Zionist newspaper Die Welt, and with his friend Max Nordau planned the first Zionist Congress [see my blog post of June 19]. It was the very first inter-territorial gathering of Jews to be held on a national, secular basis; and it brought together about 200 delegates, mostly from central and eastern Europe, with a handful from western Europe and from the United States. They elected him President of the organization, a position he held until his death.

7. More visits: In 1898, he went to Palestine, coordinating his trip with that of Kaiser Wilhelm. They met twice, but Wilhelm dismissed his entreaties with anti-Semitic remarks.

8. He was deeply affected by the Kishinev pogroms of 1903, of the desperate condition of Russian Jews, and continued to seek the support of world leaders for a Jewish homeland. Through connections with the British government, he negotiated with Egypt for a charter to settle Jews in the Sinai; he sought the Pope’s aid, but he was denied – as long as the Jews continued to deny the divinity of Jesus.

9. Finally he received an offer from the British to facilitate a resettlement of a large number of Jews in East Africa, where they would have an autonomous government under British suzerainty. After traveling to Russia to obtain the approval of that government, he presented the “Uganda Program” to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel in August, 1903. A motion to investigate the offer further was carried by a vote of 295 to 198 with 98 abstentions (the Russian delegation walked out in protest.) The plan was rejected at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905.

10. Herzl’s last literary work, Altneuland (Old New Land), a novel, was published in 1902. In it, he envisioned what would be accomplished by 1923 in a state combining Jewish culture and European heritage. The government he imagines is not a religious state, though the Temple has been rebuilt. Economically, he foresees a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. Socio-politically, he sees no conflict with the Arabs; and women have political equality.

11. He died on July 3, 1904, of illness variously described as a heart ailment, cardiac sclerosis and pneumonia – all of which may be true. “Greet Palestine for me,” he told a friend. “I gave my heart’s blood for my people.” In 1949, his remains were moved from Vienna and reinterred in Jerusalem on Mount Herzl.

12. How to sum up his contribution in one bullet point: having offered a reassessment of the Jewish problem as a national problem requiring an international political solution, Herzl initiated diplomatic steps toward that end; and having proposed a practical program for collecting funds from Jews around the world (the blueprint for the Zionist Organization), Herzl strengthened the ties of Jews around the world through his indefatigable efforts traveling, writing, speaking.

Theodor Herzl has been commemorated on Mount Herzl; in the Herzl forests at Ben Shemen and Hulda; in the Herzliya Gymnasium, the first Hebrew language high school; in the city of Herzliya; and in neighborhoods and streets all over Israel.

A note to the followers of this blog: Well, I’ve done it, tackled Herzl, a task and an opportunity that I’ve been ducking for half a year. I deserve a break, so in honor of Independence Day, and in commemoration of the anniversary of Herzl’s death, I’m taking next week off. Look for a new post on July 10.


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