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The Jewish State

Theodor Herzl's Program for Zionism

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The Jewish State - 1896
Theodor Herzl's Program for Zionism

Theodore Herzl's pamphlet Der Judenstaat, The Jewish State, was published in 1896. It heralded the coming of age of Zionism. Several articles and books advocating the Zionist idea had appeared beginning in the 1840s, and small Zionist groups such as  Hovevei Tzion (Lovers of Zion) had begun recruiting immigrants to Palestine, but no group had a coherent plan or modern ideology. Herzl's plan for creating a Jewish State, arrived at after contemplating other solutions as well, provided the practical program of Zionism, and led to the first Zionist congress in Basle, Switzerland, in August, 1897.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, on May 2, 1860, Herzl was educated in the spirit of the German-Jewish "Enlightenment." His family moved to Vienna in 1878 after the death of his sister. He became a doctor of law in 1884 and worked for a short while in courts in Vienna and Salzburg. However, he soon left law and devoted himself to writing.

In 1891 Herzl became Paris correspondent for the liberal Vienna newspaper New Free Press. Herzl was in Paris when a wave of anti-Semitism broke out over the court martial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer. Dreyfus, falsely accused of espionage and banished to an island prison, was divested of his rank in a humiliating public ceremony in January 1895, as a mob shouted "Death to the Jews.

The Dreyfus case motivated Herzl to devote thought and effort to the Jewish problem. He contacted Baron Hirsch for the first time with his ideas in the spring of 1895, but Hirsch and others turned him down. Herzl began to keep a diary, in which his father made the entries for some reason. The diary, as it progressed, shows the evolution of his ideas and political understanding.

Herzl formalized the concept of emergence from the Diaspora (the dispersion of the Jews) and return to Zion in The Jewish State. In The Jewish State, he proposed, for the first time, a program for immediate political action. From the preface he wrote for the Jewish State, it appears that he was inspired in part by a socialist Utopia written by Theodor Hertzka, another Vienna visionary. Though Herzl claimed Hertzka's scheme was utopian, Hertzka did try to carry it out in Africa.

Remarkably, Herzl had not read any early Zionist writings when he conceived of his idea for a Jewish State. He heard about Leon Pinsker's Auto-Emancipation , about Elliots' Daniel Deronda  and Moses Hess's Rome and Jerusalem< only after he began traveling about and consulting with others about his ideas.. He did not even hear of the Hovevei Tziyon before embarking on his Zionist project.

The title "Der Judenstaat" was probably meant as an ironic play on words, since it literally means "The Jews'-State," a derogatory construction like the "Judenstrasse" (Jews' Street) of the medieval ghetto. In The Jewish State, Herzl proposed a modern solution to the Jewish question. He believed that attempts at assimilation of Jews into European society were in vain, as the majority in each country decided who was a native and who an alien. The persistence of anti-Semitism determined that the Jew would always be an outsider and only the creation of a Jewish state, a matter of interest to both Jews and non-Jews, would put an end to the Jewish problem.

The Jewish State proposed that diplomacy would be the primary way of attaining the Jewish State. Herzl called for the organized transfer of Jewish communities to the new state. Of the location of the state, Herzl said, "We shall take what is given us, and what is selected by public opinion."

Herzl's The Jewish State included social innovations such as the seven-hour working day. He was interested in an economy where free enterprise and state involvement went hand-in-hand. It was to be a modern, sophisticated and technologically advanced and Europeanized society.

The Jewish State established Herzl as the leader of Zionism, and the "father of the Zionist Idea." Zionism also provoked considerable opposition, in particular from the assimilationist Jews of Central and Western Europe. The book became required reading for all Zionists and was taken as the basic platform of political Zionism.

In the Jewish State, Herzl anticipated some of the antagonism that the Zionist idea would provoke, especially among those who believed in the abolition of nationalism:

" To the first class of objections belongs the remark that the Jews are not the only people in the world who are in a condition of distress. Here I would reply that we may as well begin by removing a little of this misery, even if it should at first be no more than our own.

It might further be said that we ought not to create new distinctions between people; we ought not to raise fresh barriers, we should rather make the old disappear. But men who think in this way are amiable visionaries; and the idea of a native land will still flourish when the dust of their bones will have vanished tracelessly in the winds. Universal brotherhood is not even a beautiful dream."

Quite accurately, Herzl foresaw the sort of objections that some in the Jewish community would raise to the idea of Zionism:

It might more reasonably be objected that I am giving a handle to anti-Semitism when I say we are a people--one people; that I am hindering the assimilation of Jews where it is about to be consummated, and endangering it where it is an accomplished fact, insofar as it is possible for a solitary writer to hinder, or endanger anything. This objection will be especially brought forward in France. It will probably also be made in other countries, but I shall answer only the French Jews beforehand, because these afford the most striking example of my point.

Precisely these objections were raised to the Balfour declaration in Britain, by some British Jews. Along with objections to nationalism, they echo in the arguments of Jewish anti-Zionists today.

If however, Herzl foresaw the tremendous antagonism of ultra-orthodox rabbis to the "heretical" doctrine of Zionism, which would supplant religious governance of the Jews by a political and ideological framework, he was careful not to mention this issue, perhaps because he understood the need to cultivate the allegiance of the rabbis and the religious camp.

Without apparently having read modern Zionist writings, Herzl nonetheless understood the paradoxical basis of modern anti-Semitism:

Modern anti-Semitism is not to be confused with the religious persecution of the Jews of former times. It does occasionally take a religious bias in some countries, but the main current of the aggressive movement has now changed. In the principal countries where anti-Semitism prevails, it does so as a result of the emancipation of the Jews

In conclusion, Herzl wrote:

" And what glory awaits those who fight unselfishly for the cause!

Therefore I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabeans will rise again.

Let me repeat once more my opening words: The Jews who wish for a State will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.

The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.

And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity. "

(The Jewish State, Chapter 6).

In the Jewish State, at least, Herzl largely ignored the presence of Arabs or other minorities in the prospective Jewish State. The book was not necessarily about colonization of any particular country. Though he mentions Argentina or Palestine as choices, he generally refers to the location of the state as "over there." By 1902 Herzl, who had visited Jerusalem by then, had a different perspective and included Arab citizens in his vision of the Jewish State which was now more firmly anchored around the ancient Jewish land.

Herzl was not a racist, and did not base his conception of the Jewish people on racist ideas of nationalism current at the time, but rather on cultural and historical development. He described himself as a "Spinozist" - a follower of Baruch de Espinoza, the Portuguese Jew who rejected literal interpretations of the Bible and formal religion. Spinoza, who had been excommunicated by the Jewish community, inspired many 19th century Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers, including Zionists, from Heine and Marx and Hegel to Hess and Herzl. Nonetheless, Herzl had a great respect for the formal manifestations of religion, perhaps in part because he understood that he could only mobilize support for Zionism through the rabbis, who were the leaders of Jewish society, especially in Eastern Europe. He wrote:

... We shall first of all ask for the cooperation of our Rabbis.


...Our rabbis, on whom we especially call, will devote their energies to the service of our idea, and will inspire their congregations by preaching it from the pulpit. They will not need to address special meetings for the purpose; an appeal such as this may be uttered in the synagogue. Thus it must be done. For we feel our historic affinity only through the faith of our fathers as we have long ago absorbed the languages of different nations to an ineradicable degree.

Herzl completely rejected the race theories of Israel Zangwill. He became increasingly aware of the existence of Sephardic Jewry, but he envisioned the Jewish State as a state of Europeans, who might speak German. In his diaries he wrote:

"I believe German will be our principal language...I draw this conclusion from our most widespread jargon, 'Judeo-German.' But over there we shall wean ourselves from this ghetto language, too, which used to be the stealthy tongue of prisoners. Our teachers will see to that." (June 15, 1895, Diaries, 1: 171)


In The Jewish State, Herzl envisioned the government of the new state to be an "Aristocratic Republic," apparently modeled on contemporary Austria or Germany. In 1902, Herzl published a utopian novel about the Jewish state,  Altneuland (old-new land) a vision complete with monorails and modern industry.  Altneuland envisioned a multipluralistic democracy in which Arabs and Jews had equal rights. The novel concludes, "If you will, it is no legend."

Der Judenstaat and  Altneuland were visions of a Jewish state to be populated by European Jewry, who in 1900 were far more numerous than the tiny remnant of oriental and Sephardic Jews in Muslim lands and the Balkans. Herzl himself was no doubt aware of Zionist yearnings among Sephardic Jews. His grandfather was a friend of Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai, a Zionist precursor. But Herzl addressed his vision to the Jews of Europe.

The Jewish State would not have been important if Herzl had not taken active steps to implement its program. Because of his contacts and organizational genius, Herzl was able to organize the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland,  which was probably the key event in the coming of age of the Zionist movement. Herzl did not invent either practical or 'political' Zionism. > Practical Zionism , the settling of the land for purposes of rebuilding a Jewish community in Palestine, had been practiced by the BILU and other groups before Herzl. Political Zionism, the attempt to secure a "charter" for a Jewish state from Turkey, Egypt or another country, had been around for hundreds of years. It was the program of the false Messiah Shabetai Tzvi in the seventeenth century. In 1839, Sir Moses Montefiore had petitioned the Khedive of Egypt for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Herzl's contribution was to establish a unified Zionist movement that made a public statement of its political ambitions and settlement program. 

The Jewish State of Israel was only established after the Holocaust had resulted in the murder of about 40% of European Jewry, For most of the first fifty years of its existence, Israel had an oriental, Sephardic majority. Nonetheless, Herzl's vision dominated many aspects of the Zionist program for better or worse. Like Herzl, Zionists ignored the presence of Arabs in Palestine. Like Herzl, they became committed to the premise that Jews must return to performing productive work, and like Herzl, they were committed to a democratic society. As in Herzl's utopian vision, Israel evolved, through conscious effort, to an advanced technological society. Herzl's vision of a secular, liberal democracy inspired the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Herzl appealed in vain to wealthy Jews such as Baron Hirsch and Baron Rothschild, to join the national Zionist movement. He found allies however, in impoverished Eastern European socialists and Zionists who had already formed Zionist groups. The result was the First Zionist Congress in Basle, which established the World Zionist Organization and adopted the program of attaining a Jewish State to be provided by "public law." Herzl convened six Zionist Congresses between 1897 and 1902. The Congresses created the instruments of Zionist action for implementing the settlement plan, including The Jewish Colonial Trust, the Jewish National Fund and the movement's newspaper Die Welt.

After the first Basle Congress, Herzl wrote in his diary, "Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word- which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly- it would be this: 'At Basle, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.'"

Herzl attempted to gain a charter from the Sultan of Turkey for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire. To this end he met in 1898 with the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, in Istanbul and Palestine, as well as the Sultan, but these meetings did not bear fruit.

Herzl then negotiated with the British regarding the possibility of settling the Jews on the island of Cyprus, the Sinai Peninsula, the El Arish region and Uganda. After the Kishinev pogroms, Herzl visited Russia in July 1903. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Russian government to help the Zionist Movement transfer Jews from Russia to Palestine. At the Sixth Zionist Congress Herzl proposed settlement in Uganda, on offer from the British, as a temporary "night refuge." The idea met with sharp opposition, especially from the same Russian Jews that Herzl had thought to help. Though the Congress passed the plan as a gesture of esteem for Herzl, it was not pursued seriously, and the initiative died after the plan was withdrawn. Herzl met with the king of Italy, who was encouraging, and with the Pope, who expressed opposition.

Herzl quarreled with the Zionist movement over the Uganda project, which had proposed only as a "night refuge" and at one point he resigned from the chairmanship briefly. However, he never thought of Uganda as a preferred solution. In September 1903, he wrote in his diary of a visit to the Duke of Baden:

At one point the good old Duke seemed moved: when I told him that we would gladly renounce the good land in East Africa for the poor land in Palestine. I would particularly regard it as a vindication for us avaricious Jews, if we gave up a rich country for the sake of a poor one.(Sept. 1, 1903, 4: 1549)

Frustrated by quarrels in the Zionist movement, Herzl wrote in his diary what may be a fitting epitaph:

One day, when the Jewish state will be in existence, everything will appear petty and self-evident. Perhaps a fair-minded historian will find that it was something, after all, that an impecunious Jewish journalist, in the midst of the deepest degradation of the Jewish people and at a time of the most disgusting anti-Semitism, made a flag out of a rag and a people out of a decadent rabble, and was able to rally this people around such a flag. (June 1, 1901, Diaries, 3: 1151).

Herzl died in 1904 and was buried in Vienna. After the establishment of the State of Israel his remains were reburied on Mt. Herzl, Jerusalem in the summer of 1949.

Ami Isseroff


Introduction adapted from MidEastWeb for Coexistence by permission. Copyright 2002-2008 by Ami Isseroff and MidEastWeb for Coexistence.

The Jewish State is available in the versions: a PDF file, an html version in six chapters and a preface, or individual html pages. The first two have been extensively corrected and updated. The individual pages are the original translation of Sylvie d'Avigdor.

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Translated from the German by Sylvie D'Avigdor
This edition published in 1946 by the American Zionist Emergency Council

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