Theodor Herzl: An Appreciation

On October 28, 1898, a squadron of Turkish Janissaries swept by the Mikve Israel school near Yaffo followed by German cavalry at full gallop, their sabres gleaming in the midday sun. Then, a quarter mile back came Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, astride a white stallion, his helmet of gold. Behind him trailed a swarm of courtiers, all in splendid uniforms.

The Kaiser suddenly halted his horse— and the glittering procession— so abruptly that a courtier lost his mount. There, at the roadside, stood a solemn figure with a magnificent black beard: Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism. Herzl considered the Kaiser’s recognition crucial to his plan for resettling the Jews in the land of Israel with international approval. But the “All Highest,” as the Kaiser liked to be called, could muster only this observation: “The land needs water, very much water.”

Today, after the Holocaust, we strain to imagine a world where Germany appeared to many Jews as the most enlightened of lands. The Kaiser would soon renege on his promise of support but Herzl, who greatly admired the Prussian aristocracy, always hoped that Germany would become the Great Power patron of an independent Jewish state. Unbelievable? Yes, but then Herzl’s entire life defied belief. Perhaps the best way to understand Herzl is to recall that he was a playwright, who used the dramatic tensions of a plot to reveal important truths about human nature. For Zionism Herzl was writer, producer and actor on a global stage. He had a tragic vision and the happy ending to his play depended on political self-help.

Herzl’s aristocratic Viennese mannerisms overlay a modest Jewish background. His grandfather he remembered as a religious Jew of the old style; his mother later claimed descent from high-born Spanish Marranos. He also received a synagogue school education until Bar Mitzvah. But his great uncles had converted to Christianity and his father, a businessman, he described as indifferent to any religion. Herzl himself soon regarded Judaism as a burden. When his son was born, he did not have him circumcised.

Herzl aspired to make his mark on the Viennese stage. He also became a theater reviewer and star correspondent for the prestigious liberal Viennese newspaper, Neue Frei Presse. Although he knew many anti-semites, he experienced very little anti-semitism himself. He thought that assimilation would eventually deprive the Jew-haters of their target.

In 1894–95, however, he experienced the dramatic moment that was to create his vision and his role. Covering the Dreyfus trial in enlightened France for his newspaper, Herzl found no competing nationalisms as in Vienna, where the Jews were often caught in the middle but only a simple violent cry: “Death to the Jews.” He suddenly saw catastrophe ahead. The Jews of the east in the Russian Empire were caught in the old, religious hatred; the Jews of the west would soon be trapped in the new, national hatreds. They were therefore condemned to be regarded as “less than men” unless they could recover the essence of their nationhood— a land and state of their own.

Herzl’s feverish discovery of Zionism as the answer to the modern Jewish problem—that of those Jews without a Jewish religious identity— struck the readers of his book Der Judenstaat (the Jewish State) as utterly new. And to this novelty he added another: He would use anti-semitism to create the Jewish State, arguing to the anti-Jewish politicians and rulers that Zionism was the best way to get rid of the Jews they hated. Herzl complained once that he led an army of “schnorrers and schmucks.” The Jews possessed little political power. But Herzl the dramatist took the greatest prejudice of the age—the supposedly enormous financial clout of families like the Rothschilds—and used this lore to launch a fantastic scheme. He would “buy” Palestine from the Ottoman Turks in exchange for paying the Turkish public debt, freeing the Ottoman rulers from a crippling weakness in dealing with the Europeans. Thus, Herzl would use hatred of the Jews and the myth of Jewish money to secure international approval of a Jewish state. Only in this way, he thought, could many Jews move to Palestine.

Would the Jews respond? Herzl did not help his case when he insulted most of the Jewish philanthropists— especially the French Baron Edmond de Rothschild who already supported colonies in Palestine. Beyond the surface charm there lived an aloof, lonely man; his autocratic impulses and thin skin offended many people. Herzl, however, was strong willed above all else. He believed that he alone could prevent Jewish catastrophe.

Herzl decided to prod the kings and the money men through mass action. He therefore financed and organized the first Zionist Congress in Basel. Ever the master of theater, Herzl insisted on white-tie tuxedos and a solemn atmosphere. He was astonished by the outpouring of support and affection, especially by the East European Jews, who, he discovered, were not at all the depressed, unenlightened masses of myth. These Jews, more than he, had a strong sense of religion and culture; many spoke Hebrew and were dismayed by Herzl’s ignorance of Judaism. Ahad Haam and others complained that Herzl’s Jewish state lacked Jewish content.

Here the ironies of history had the final say. In 1904, at the sixth Zionist Congress, Herzl offered the pogrom-beset Russian Jews a “homeland” in Uganda, courtesy of the British government, which did not want any more Jewish refugees in England. His proposal was rejected by the outraged Russian Zionists and the movement nearly collapsed. Herzl was overwhelmed by the Russian Jews’ fidelity to Zion, and despite enormous personal embarrassment, he communicated this to London. The then Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour, never forgot the Uganda incident. Nor did David Lloyd George, the politically active solicitor who prepared draft articles for the Uganda project. He was to be the wartime British Prime Minister who authorized Lord Balfour to issue the Balfour Declaration in 1917, offering support for the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, the very sort of endorsement Herzl had sought in vain from Germany. And it was Chaim Weizmann, earlier a heated opponent of Herzl’s political schemes, who persuaded Balfour to issue the Declaration, in the form of a letter to the Chairman of the British Zionists— Lord Rothschild, cousin of Baron Edmond!

Herzl died of heart disease on July 3, 1904 not long after the sixth Congress. He was only 44. By that time, he knew that his faith in princes had been misplaced. The Great Powers, the Turks, the anti-Semites and the rich Jews were not going to play their assigned roles in the drama— not yet. But those from whom he expected the least, the Jews of Eastern Europe, gave him the most. They supported him heart and soul; they corrected him when he strayed from Zion; and he organized them for international political action. As he put it, “I gradually hounded them into the mood for a state.” This was Herzl’s lasting dramatic achievement.

After the first Zionist Congress Herzl wrote in his diary these famous lines: “In Basel I founded the Jewish State.” To which he added: “If I said this aloud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will agree.” The date was September 3, 1897. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.