Herzl Creates the Zionist Movement
Why would a highly respected journalist writing for one of Europe’s most respected newspapers, who was well traveled and spoke a number of European languages fluently, become a Zionist?
The nineteenth century was ending in a contradiction for the Jews: on the one hand, it seemed as if the most enlightened and advanced countries in Europe were making serious attempts to emancipate the Jews from centuries of discrimination by providing them with full and equal rights; on the other, Jew-hatred had not only disappeared, but had actually become more dangerous ...
It was August 1897 in Basle, Switzerland. The well-known Viennese newspaper commentator Theodore Herzl stood up to deliver his talk in German (the official language of the Congress) to the gathering of 197 delegates from local Zionist organizations in Eastern and Western Europe, from North America, from Algeria and from Palestine. He was dressed in formal attire, as were the other representatives and members of the press. Sensitive to how dramas are staged (he was a moderately successful playwright), Herzl insisted that this first gathering be very public, honorable, fully worthy of a meeting of leaders of a civilized nation.. Among the first things Herzl said was this: “We want to lay the foundation stone of the house which is to shelter the Jewish nation,” and “ Zionism is a return to the Jewish fold even before it is a return to the Jewish land.” A few days later, Herzl wrote: “[I] gradually worked the people up into the atmosphere of a State and made them feel that they were its National Assembly.”
Why would a highly respected journalist writing for one of Europe’s most respected newspapers, the Viennese New Free Press, who was well traveled and spoke a number of European languages fluently, become a Zionist? Moreover, Herzl had no particularly great interest in even being Jewish, no less being the major spokesman for its national expression. Nonetheless, Theodore Herzl became the prophet and creator of the Zionist movement.
Herzl was born and grew up in Budapest and, when he was a young man, moved with his family to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna was the city of Strauss waltzes, of Brahms and Mahler, Zweig and Schnitzler; of Freud. Vienna, unlike many of the other capital cities of Europe, was also a city in which you could actually see the crush of people from the many nationalities which made up this Empire in central Europe. German was the dominant language and culture, but one saw and heard Hungarians, Czechs, Bohemians, Slovaks, Poles, Galicians, Turks, Croats and, of course, Jews from all over.
Vienna was a place in which an assimilated Jew like Herzl could “make it”. He had had a supplementary Jewish education as a child and had fond memories of going to the liberal synagogue in Budapest and of the Jewish holidays celebrated with his family. Herzl chose to study law at the University of Vienna, but he enjoyed literature and music and became a writer. His father, a successful businessperson, allowed the young Herzl the leisure and money to travel widely around Europe. Theodore Herzl became a worldly young gentleman.
While Vienna was a place in which a Jew like Herzl could almost completely assimilate, it was also a place in which he could encounter the darkness of anti-Semitism. For many young and sensitive European Jews of Herzl’s generation, those looking to assimilate and “make it” in European society, being born Jewish was a curse. Not only were they rejected socially; they were denied entrance to government positions, to the national banks, to high army rank, to the positions of real power. One of the greatest of composers and conductors, Gustav Mahler, had to convert to Catholicism in order to get his contract to conduct the Vienna Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic, the musical positions which were fully worthy of his greatness. Otto Weinegen, a brilliant young philosopher, committed suicide out of profound Jewish self-hatred.
Herzl’s own direct experiences of anti-Semitism, as well as his observations of the phenomenon in Vienna and later in Paris (where he became the staff reporter for the Vienna New Free Press) among other places in Europe, made a profound impact on his own Jewish identity and on his thinking about the problems of being a Jew. For example, in 1880 when he was studying at the University, he joined a fraternity. Herzl completely enjoyed the intimacy and the identity: the drinking and singing together, the fencing, the uniforms. In 1883, however, his fraternity which was strongly German Nationalistic, became publicly anti-Semitic and Herzl withdrew his membership. This was probably the first powerful indication to Herzl that while Jews may have achieved legal equality in much of Europe, they (and he among them) continued to be outsiders socially. In too much of what he read whether in German or in French, and in too much of Viennese and Parisian politics, anti-Semitism was “in the air”.
The truth is that for much of Herzl’s career, being Jewish was simply not relevant: for instance, he didn’t go to the trouble of having his first-born son Hans circumcised. Occasionally, being Jewish was a nuisance for Herzl, but it was not a professional, nor a psychological, burden. As he got older and became a more experienced observer and reporter, the problem of being Jewish in modern Europe occupied more of his thinking and of his time.
Herzl was increasingly concerned with the continuing hatred of the Jews in Western and Central Europe. In the past it was grounded in Christian religious belief and culture and also in the ignorant, primitive suspicion and fear people often have of those who seem strange and different. One would have imagined that with the coming of the enlightenment in Europe; with the spread of popular education; with the increase of science and critical thought; with the increase of Jewish acculturation and assimilation and their coming into contact with greater numbers of non-Jews; and with more countries giving Jews full and equal civic rights, that the hatred of Jews would decline and disappear.
Just the opposite was happening. A new form of Jew-hatred was developing. Anti-Semitism, a term coined only in 1879, defined Jews neither as a religion, nor as a culture or a people, but as a race, its members having common physical traits. Those adhering to anti-Semitic beliefs also thought that Jews were distinctly inferior to other races. The more that inferior Jews intermingled socially with Europeans, they felt, the greater the chance that Jewish blood would mongrelize European blood, and thus lower not only pure racial standards but also cultural standards.
The nineteenth century was ending in a contradiction for the Jews: on the one hand, it seemed as if the most enlightened and advanced countries in Europe were making serious attempts to emancipate the Jews from centuries of discrimination by providing them with full and equal rights; and on the other, Jew-hatred had not only not disappeared, but had actually become more dangerous as the twentieth century would show.
Herzl lived this contradiction. He enjoyed his professional success and his sense of being a true European, but he became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that being Jewish was not really sanctioned by the people amongst whom he lived. At best it was patronized and very often it was being attacked. Herzl had the luxury of being a reporter: he could play the role of being an observer, a witness, or someone in the audience; in fact, what he saw was hitting home.
The final push for Herzl was the well-known incident in January, 1895 in which he observed the public dishonoring of the French Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus, a Jew, was accused, tried and found guilty of spying for the Germans. Dreyfus, dressed in full uniform, was paraded around the grounds of the French Military school. He had his stripes ripped off his uniform, his hat thrown on the ground and his sword broken. All the while the French crowd watched on and shouted “Death to the traitor” and “Death to the Jews” (ten years later, Dreyfus was acquitted and released from his captivity). What went on in Herzl’s soul?
One year later, Herzl published a book which he called The Jewish State and during the year after that he organized the First Zionist Congress. With these two acts Theodor Herzl changed the course of Jewish history.
The basic premise of The Jewish State was simple: The European emancipation of the Jews cannot possibly succeed. The Jews themselves must find a solution to their problem of being accepted as equals in the world.
Herzl’s analysis was that the Jews really were a very strange phenomenon in Europe; the Jews were different. They weren’t a nation in the normal sense with their own land, language and culture. On the other hand, they certainly weren’t only a religion and they clearly weren’t a class. What exactly were they? Herzl said simply: We are different as any nation is different from another. We must now create the conditions to become a nation like the nations of Europe. This means that the Jews must reclaim their ancient land, to gradually leave their places of dispersion and recongregate in the homeland and, of great importance, to make certain and in advance, that the world publicly recognizes their legal right to do so. This was the only way, Herzl believed, in which the Jews could be fully accepted in the modern world.
I consider the Jewish question neither a social nor a religious one, even though it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, and to solve it we must first of all establish it as an international political problem to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.
We are a people - one people.
In defining the Jewish problem as primarily a political issue, Herzl set the direction for his future. He immediately threw himself into... politics. Herzl held meetings with European royalty and even with the Sultan of Turkey (Turkey controlled Palestine until World War I); meetings with Jewish leadership; met the Jewish masses; created a Zionist paper called Die Welt (The World); organized a Congress. Herzl accomplished this in the space of one and a half years.
During the following 7 years, Herzl created a movement. He, together with some key colleagues, began translating ideas into policies and policies into action. Committees were formed; world leaders were propositioned; policy directions were debated and decision taken. A Jewish politics appropriate to the modern world was taking shape.
Herzl died on July 3, 1904. By means of his own direct political activity, Herzl had placed the Jewish problem and the Political Zionist solution on the agenda of the Jewish people and of major world powers. This was his true greatness.