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Theodor (Binyamin Ze’ev) Herzl

(1860 - 1904)


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Theodor (Binyamin Ze'ev) Herzl was the visionary behind modern Zionism and the reinstitution of a Jewish homeland.

Herzl (born May 2, 1860; died July 3, 1904) was born in Budapest in 1860. He was educated in the spirit of the German-Jewish Enlightenment, and learned to appreciate secular culture. In 1878 the family moved to Vienna, and in 1884 Herzl was awarded a doctorate of law from the University of Vienna. He became a writer, playwright and journalist. The Paris correspondent of the influential liberal Vienna newspaper Neue Freie Presse was none other than Theodor Herzl.

Herzl first encountered the anti-Semitism that would shape his life and the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century while studying at the University of Vienna (1882). Later, during his stay in Paris as a journalist, he was brought face-to-face with the problem. At the time, he regarded the Jewish problem as a social issue and wrote a drama, The Ghetto (1894), in which assimilation and conversion are 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.

The Dreyfus Affair

In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was unjustly accused of treason, mainly because of the prevailing anti-Semitic atmosphere. Herzl witnessed mobs shouting “Death to the Jews” in France, the home of the French Revolution, and resolved that there was only one solution: the mass immigration of Jews to a land that they could call their own. Thus, the Dreyfus Case became one of the determinants in the genesis of Political Zionism.

Herzl concluded that anti-Semitism was a stable and immutable factor in human society, which assimilation did not solve. He mulled over the idea of Jewish sovereignty, and, despite ridicule from Jewish leaders, published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896). Herzl argued that the essence of the Jewish problem was not individual but national. He declared that the Jews could gain acceptance in the world only if they ceased being a national anomaly. The Jews are one people, he said, and their plight could be transformed into a positive force by the establishment of a Jewish state with the consent of the great powers. He saw the Jewish question as an international political question to be dealt with in the arena of international politics.

Herzl proposed a practical program for collecting funds from Jews around the world by a company to be owned by stockholders, which would work toward the practical realization of this goal. (This organization, when it was eventually formed, was called the Zionist Organization.) He saw the future state as a model social state, basing his ideas on the European model of the time, of a modern enlightened society. It would be neutral and peace-seeking, and of a secular nature.

In his Zionist novel, Altneuland (Old New Land, 1902), Herzl pictured the future Jewish state as a socialist utopia. He envisioned a new society that was to rise in the Land of Israel on a cooperative basis utilizing science and technology in the development of the Land.

He included detailed ideas about how he saw the future state’s political structure, immigration, fund­raising, diplomatic relations, social laws and relations between religion and the state. In Altneuland, the Jewish state was foreseen as a pluralist, advanced society, a “light unto the nations.” This book had a great impact on the Jews of the time and became a symbol of the Zionist vision in the Land of Israel.

A Movement Is Started

Herzl's ideas were met with enthusiasm by the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, although Jewish leaders were less ardent. Herzl appealed to wealthy Jews such as Baron Hirsch and Baron Rothschild, to join the national Zionist movement, but in vain. He then appealed to the people, and the result was the convening of the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, on August 29­31, 1897.

The Congress was the first interterritorial gathering of Jews on a national and secular basis. Here the delegates adopted the Basle Program, the program of the Zionist movement, and declared, “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” At the Congress the World Zionist Organization was established as the political arm of the Jewish people, and Herzl was elected its first president.

Herzl convened six Zionist Congresses between 1897 and 1902. It was here that the tools for Zionist activism were forged: Otzar Hityashvut Hayehudim, the Jewish National Fund and the movement’s newspaper Die Welt.

After the First Zionist Congress, the movement met yearly at an international Zionist Congress. In 1936, the center of the Zionist movement was transferred to Jerusalem.

Uganda Isn’t Zion

Herzl saw the need for encouragement by the great powers of the aims of the Jewish people in the Land. Thus, he traveled to the Land of Israel and Istanbul in 1898 to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The meeting with Wilhelm was a failure - the monarch dismissed Herzl’s political entreaties with snide anti-Semitic remarks. When these efforts proved fruitless, he turned to Great Britain, and met with Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary and others. The only concrete offer he received from the British was the proposal of a Jewish autonomous region in east Africa, in Uganda.

In 1899, in an essay entitled “The Family Affliction” written for The American Hebrew, Herzl wrote, “Anyone who wants to work in behalf of the Jews needs - to use a popular phrase - a strong stomach.”

The 1903 Kishinev pogrom and the difficult state of Russian Jewry, witnessed firsthand by Herzl during a visit to Russia, had a profound effect on him. He requested that the Russian government assist the Zionist Movement to transfer Jews from Russia to Eretz Yisrael.

At the Sixth Zionist Congress (1903), Herzl proposed the British Uganda Program as a temporary refuge for Jews in Russia in immediate danger. While Herzl made it clear that this program would not affect the ultimate aim of Zionism, a Jewish entity in the Land of Israel, the proposal aroused a storm at the Congress and nearly led to a split in the Zionist movement. The Uganda Program was finally rejected by the Zionist movement at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905.

Herzl died in Vienna in 1904, of pneumonia and a weak heart overworked by his incessant efforts on behalf of Zionism. By then the movement had found its place on the world political map. In 1949, Herzl’s remains were brought to Israel and reinterred on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Herzl’s books Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”) and Altneuland (“Old New Land”), his plays and articles have been published frequently and translated into many languages. His name has been commemorated in the Herzl Forests at Ben Shemen and Hulda, the world's first Hebrew gymnasium — “Herzliya” — which was established in Tel Aviv, the town of Herzliya in the Sharon and neighborhoods and streets in many Israeli towns and cities.

Herzl coined the phrase “If you will, it is no fairytale,” which became the motto of the Zionist movement. Although at the time no one could have imagined it, Zionism led, only fifty years later, to the establishment of the independent State of Israel.

Herzl’s Family

Herzl and his wife Julia, who was prone to mental instability, had three children, each of whom met a terrible end. His eldest daughter Pauline was a drug addict who died in a French hospital. His son Hans, who shot himself upon learning of his sister’s death, had left Judaism for a series of Christian churches. Herzl had failed to have his son circumcised, and the Zionist leadership, following Herzl’s death, saw to it that the oversight be remedied when the boy was 15 years old. His youngest daughter Trude perished in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Her son, Stephen Theodore Norman (born Stephen Neumann), had been sent to safety in England. On November 20, 1946, after learning of the death of his parents, he jumped to his death from the Massachusetts Avenue bridge in Washington, D.C. at the age of 27.

Herzl himself was 44-years-old when he died in the summer of 1904, on the 20th of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar.


Sources: Family information taken from: The Jerusalem Report, July 12, 2004. "Israel: 100 Years Since Herzl's Death."

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