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Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl

Theodor (Binyamin Ze’ev) Herzl (May 2,1860 - July 3,  1904), founded the Zionist political movement. He  was born in Budapest in 1860, and educated in the spirit of the German ­ Jewish Enlightenment, as a secular Jew, though his grandfather had been a friend of Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai, a proto-Zionist of an earlier era. In 1878 the Herzls moved to Vienna, where Theodor Herzl studied law in the university of Vienna, graduating in 1884. However, rather than studying law, Herzl became a writer, a playwright and a journalist, acting as Paris correspondent for influential liberal Vienna newspaper Neue Freie Presse.

Theodore Herzl - Founder of the Zionist movement


Herzl probably first experienced anti-Semitism while studying at the University of Vienna (1882). He thought of the Jewish problem as a social issue and wrote a play, The Ghetto (1894), about the dilemma of Vienna Jewry, in which assimilation and conversion were rejected as solutions. He hoped that The Ghetto would lead to debate and ultimately to a solution, based on mutual tolerance and respect between Christians and Jews.

In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was falsely accused and convicted of treason (See Dreyfus Affair ) .  Mobs shouted “Death to the Jews” in France, the home of the French Revolution and the emancipation of the Jews. Herzl became convinced that the Jews needed a country of their own.

Herzl witnessed the Dreyfus affair as a newspaper correspondent. According to conventional accounts, his Zionism resulted from contemplating the persecution of Dreyfus. According to some others, he may have been more influenced by the election of the anti-Semitic Karl Luger as mayor of Vienna.

Herzl concluded that anti-Semitism was a stable and immutable factor, which assimilation would not solve, and which it was futile to combat.  Despite ridicule from Jewish leaders, he published The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat) in 1896. Herzl claimed that the Jews could gain acceptance in the world only if they stopped being an anomaly among nations. He asserted that the scattered Jews are one people. Their plight could be transformed into a positive force by the establishment of a Jewish state guaranteed in international (public)  law - "volkerrechtig" -- with the consent of the great powers. Echoing Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai and a few other Zionist forerunners, Herzl saw the Jewish problem as an international political issue. His ideas were quite similar to those of Leon Pinsker, but he evidently was unacquainted with Pinsker's Auto-Emancipation.

Herzl proposed to collect funds from Jews around the world by a company which would work toward settling Jews in Palestine. and securing a state. Eventually this idea was transformed into the Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund and other organizations.   The Jewish State and Herzl's novel,  Altneuland (Old New Land) published in 1902,  pictured a Jewish social utopia in Palestine. It would be a pluralist, technologically advanced, secular society with equality for Arabs.   Altneuland became a symbol of the Zionist vision in the Land of Israel. It was translated into Hebrew almost simultaneously with the name "Tel-Aviv," which soon became the title of the first Zionist city in Palestine.

Herzl's ideas were rejected in Western Europe. Herzl was turned down by Jewish magnates such as Baron Hirsch and Baron Rothschild. Herzl then appealed to the people, organizing  the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, on August 29­31, 1897. (see Theodor Herzl: Address to the first Zionist Congress )  The congress was historic not just for founding the Zionist movement, but because it was the first time an organized body , representing at least the Jews of the Western world, had been convened since the exile nearly 2000 years ago. 

Herzl's ideas found mass support from the poor Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia. At Basle, the Zionist movement resolved to " establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” The Basle congress also resolved to set up a political organization and financial institutions to carry forward the Zionist idea. The World Zionist Organization was established, and Herzl was elected president. Herzl wrote in his diary, "At Basle, I founded the Jewish state.. If not in five years, then certainly in fifty, everyone will realize it.

Herzl presided over six Zionist Congresses between 1897 and 1903, setting up the Jewish Colonial Trust, the Jewish National Fund  and the movement's newspaper Die Welt. After Herzl's death, the movement continued to meet every year except during war. In 1936 the center of the Zionist movement moved to Jerusalem.

In his quest for great power backing, Herzl traveled to Palestine and Istanbul in 1898 to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.


Theodor Herzl and Kaiser Wilhelm II in PalestineHerzl met Kaiser Wilhelm in Palestine, where he showed him a Jewish settlement. However, the meeting turned out to be a ceremonial one only, and the Kaiser refused to commit himself to backing a Jewish national home.


Herzl's plan was to obtain money from Jewish financiers to pay off the onerous debt of the Ottoman Empire, and in return, get a charter from the Sultan to develop Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people. But the Jewish financiers were unenthusiastic. Rothschild ridiculed the idea that Palestine could be a home for the Jews. Herzl negotiated with the Sultan nonetheless. He assumed that the financial backing would be forthcoming if he could obtain a charter from the Sultan. But the Sultan, after lengthy negotiations was unwilling to give up Palestine and unwilling to have a concentration of Jews there. He offered immigration to other parts of the Ottoman empire instead. In 1902, the negotiations came to a final end. Herzl recorded in his diary:

”February 15. ‘All right, let us establish on both sides what is involved here’, said the Sultan’s representative, Izzet. ‘His Imperial Majesty is prepared to open his Empire to Jewish refugees from all countries, on condition that they agree to become Ottoman subjects with all the duties that this imposes, under our laws and our military service.’ ‘Exactly!’, I replied. He continued: ‘Before entering our country they must formally resign their previous nationality and become Ottoman subjects. On this condition they may establish themselves in any of our provinces except - at first - Palestine.’ I did not bat an eyelash, also understood at once that this was only the first offer and that they would be open for bargaining. ‘In return’, Izzet went on, ‘His Imperial Majesty asks you to form a syndicate for the consolidation of the public debt...’

February 17. Thereupon Izzet took my letter to the Sultan. While we were waiting, Ibrahim and Ghalib raved about the happy conditions to come: how it would be when the Jews came. They dreamed aloud of the improvement of agriculture and industry, of banks which would not serve foreign interests, etc. But then Izzet returned with the Sultan's decision, and it was unfavorable. The Sultan is willing to open his Empire to all Jews who become Turkish subjects, but the regions to be settled are to be decided each time by the government, and Palestine is to be excluded...A charter without Palestine! I refused at once.” And so the meeting ended.

Herzl wrote to the Greater Action Committee of the failure of the Turkish negotiations, but wished to keep the setback a secret to prevent discouragement.

Herzl then met with Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary and others, who offered, not Palestine, which Britain did not have, but possibilities of settlement in Cyprus or  in east Africa, in what was called Uganda (actually part of Kenya today). Likewise, the possibility of settlement in the Sinai, near El Arish which would be "close" to Palestine, was explored. The British government in Egypt vetoed the El Arish project on the grounds that it would require an impractical scheme of bringing large quantities of water from Egypt. 

The Kishinev Pogrom  in 1903 caused Herzl to realize the urgency of finding some shelter for the Jews of Russia. He travelled to Russia in 1903 in order to meet with the notorious anti-Semite von Plehve, who was thought to be responsible for the wave of Pogroms instigated against the Jews. Russian Zionists were upset by this visit, which they felt was playing into the hands of the enemy. Herzl to proposed   that the Russian government assist the Zionist Movement to transfer Jews from Russia. Von Plehve gave a partially favorable reply, which he later withdrew. But Herzl did get Von Plehve to rescind some of the very restrictive laws against Zionist political activity. Nonetheless, the Russian Zionists were not happy with his visit.

With the British offer in hand, Herzl proposed the British "Uganda" offer as a temporary refuge - a "night shelter"  for the Jews of Russia, at the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903. Herzl made it clear that this program would not affect the ultimate aim of Zionism, which was settlement in "Eretz Yisrael" - Palestine. However, the proposal aroused great anger, particularly, and surprisingly, among the Russian delegates, the very people whom Herzl had sought to help. Menahem Ussishkin in particular, organized a protest congress of the Russian Zionists, the Kharkov Conference, that presented Herzl with an ultimatum requiring him to withdraw the Uganda proposal. Herzl wrote in his diary that the Russian Zionists were in open rebellion.  A bitter exchange ensued. Herzl upbraided Ussishkin the pages of Die Welt. He asked rhetorically, if Ussishkin knew of a better and shorter way to bring about the open public settlement of Palestine by the Jewish people. If he knows such a way, then it is wrong for a such a good Zionist not to reveal it, Herzl noted sarcastically. But if he knows no such way, then it is better that he should keep silent and not destroy with empty rhetoric the unity of the Zionist movement, which is worth more than a couple of bits of land in Palestine.

The proposal was finally rejected in part because the British themselves had withdrawn it.  Though alternative homes such as Uganda were never considered by Zionists as more than a temporary measure, anti-Zionists have falsely seized on these initiatives for national homes outside Palestine as "proof" that Jews have no special tie to Palestine.  The contrary is true. Prior to the Zionist movement, various Jewish thinkers and philanthropists had proposed "national homes" in the United States or South America. However, though Baron Hirsch set up colonies in Argentina, the idea never captured the imagination of the people. The hearts and minds of the Jews were always set on "the Holy Land."

On April 11, 1904, at a reconciliation meeting of the Greater Action Committee of the Zionist movement, Herzl redeclared his support for Palestine as the ultimate goal of the Zionists. His speech was characteristic of personality - tinged with hurt dignity and bitterness, it also defined with fair precision what Herzl had accomplished for the formerly disunited and ineffectual Zionists:

I have undertaken to bring you a word of peace. I know what distress and anxiety reigns among the masses of our fine, good, faithful Zionists throughout the whole world, and particularly in Russia; I know with what concern they follow these negotiations, how profoundly they fear that these beginnings of a national organization, brought about with so much labor for the benefit of the national cause, may suffer injury. As far I am concerned, I am without obstinacy; I pass the sponge across whatever has been said against me personally, and will say not another word about it. But I am aroused when it is a question of safeguarding our organization, completing our work, guarding our unity and fulfilling the obligations to which we pledged ourselves in accepting our mandates to the Congress.
My personal point of view was and is that we have not the right simply to reject such a proposal, fling it back without even asking the people whether they want it or not. I do not want to use the much debated word "Night Refuge" in describing the English offer, but say rather: "Here is a piece of bread." I, who perhaps have cake to eat, and in any case can always have a piece of bread, have not the right to reject the piece of bread which is being offered to the poor because I don't need or want it. Perhaps I personally can be moved to great enthusiasm by the fact that there are some people who, in the midst of their need and hunger, are strong enough in their idealism to say: "No, we don't want the bread." But I am obligated at least to transmit the offer to the people. That is my conviction.
For, gentlemen, here in Vienna I tore myself loose one day from that which had been my life till then, from my friends and acquaintances, and devoted myself to that which I considered right. I do not feel the need of a majority. What I do need is that I shall be at one with my convictions. Then I am content, though not even a dog will take a piece of bread from my hand.
We want the continuous growth of Zionism, we want Zionism as the representative of the people. Why do we want this? Because we believe that we cannot achieve our goal without great forces, and these great forces are not to be found in a federation of little societies. Such a federation you had twenty years ago, and you are always telling me that you were already Zionists twenty and twenty-five years ago. You are always throwing that up to me. But what do you prove thereby? What could you achieve as long as you did not have political Zionism? You lived in little groups and collected money. Undoubtedly your intentions were magnificent, your idealism unchallengeable. Nevertheless you could not achieve anything because you did not know the path to the objective. This path is the organization of the people, and its organ is the Congress. That is why you must submit to the Congress, even though you may be utterly dissatisfied with its decisions.
It was as a Jewish statesman that I presented myself to you. I gave you my card, and there the words were printed: "Herzl, Jewish statesman". And in the course of time I learned a great deal. First and foremost, I learned to know Jews, and that was sometimes even a pleasure. But above all, I learned to understand that we shall find the solution of our problem only in Palestine. ... If today I say to you: "I became a Zionist and have remained one, and all my efforts are directed toward Palestine", you have every reason in the world to believe me.
Gentlemen, I have certain things to forgive you, for in certain matters pertaining to me you are to blame. But let me pass over that. I ask nothing more than that you do your duty as organized Zionists, without doing violence to your convictions. Fight as much you like, think of every device which may obtain for you a majority at the Congress, but do not do it with the help of the instruments of the movement; do it in your personal capacities. If you should create a majority of votes, a party, against me, I would certainly be grateful, but only on condition that you really do get a majority. I counsel you: submit to the Congress decisions, as the rest of us have to do. Until now I have not conducted a fight against you. If you should leave this session of the Actions Committee and agitate against the Congress, than I shall carry out an agitation against you, and I promise you that you will be defeated. Please believe me that this effort at reconciliation, the trouble I have taken, the words I have uttered not altogether consonant with my dignity, do not indicate that I am in any way afraid of the struggle. We have a tremendous majority on our side. But what I want is that you shall be able to come home and say to your people: We have received reassuring declarations, we know that the Executive in Vienna is working, and we know what the leader wants. Do not fix your eyes on an uncompleted house, just begun; wait till it is ready, and put your confidence in those men whom you have trusted till now and who have done nothing to lose your confidence!

Herzl took ill in May. He died in Vienna a few months later, in July of 1904, of pneumonia contracted as a complication of heart disease, but the essential part of his work was done.  In 1949, Herzl's  remains were brought to Israel and buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

All of Herzl's political activity for Zionism was condensed into the brief period of eight years. He did not achieve a charter for a Jewish national home in his life time. However, he had done something almost as impossible: he created, by the force of his unique personality, a movement that unified not only the splintered Zionist groups, but much of the Jewish people, overcoming the opposition of assimilationists and reactionary religious leaders, as well as the indifference and aloofness of magnates. He got the secular, socialist, capitalist and religious Zionists to sit together in one hall and to bind themselves together into a single organization for a common purpose. This unity, which he recognized and hailed in his Address to the first Zionist Congress is what made the Zionist project into a practical reality. Herzl's constant struggles to unite the quarreling factions behind a single Zionist program came at a price. Significantly, he had written In 1899, in an essay entitled “The Family Affliction” written for The American Hebrew, “Anyone who wants to work in behalf of the Jews needs - to use a popular phrase - a strong stomach.”

Herzl became the symbol of Zionism. His  picture dominates offices of the Israeli government and Zionist organizations. His name is commemorated in the names of towns, schools and streets. Every fair sized town in Israel has a Herzl street. On the other hand, foes of Zionism caricature the picture of Herzl, as well as his image. For Arabs and other anti-Zionists, Herzl is the symbol of "Zionist Colonialism." For ultra-orthodox Jews, he is the symbol of secularist evil. An ultra-orthodox anti-Zionist MK once declared in the Knesset, "May Herzl turn over in his grave.

The Israel government has declared that his birthday is to be marked each year on the twelfth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, exactly one week following Israel independence day.

Herzl's work made possible what others had only dreamed about. He said "If you will, it is no legend."  He was the midwife of a movement that was to fulfill the age-old impossible  dream of the Jews, to be a free people once again in their own country.


Ami Isseroff

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