Portrait: Theodor Herzl, father of modern political Zionism

Wednesday, 25 August 2021 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Portrait
Reading Time:  10 minutes

Theodor Herzl © Alberto Fernandez Fernandez

Theodor Herzl © Alberto Fernandez Fernandez

Theodor Herzl was an Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist, playwright, political activist, and writer who was the father of modern political Zionism. Herzl formed the Zionist Organization and promoted Jewish immigration to Palestine in an effort to form a Jewish state. Though he died before its establishment, he is also known as “Visionary of the State” of Israel/”The prophet” of Israel. Herzl is specifically mentioned in the Israeli Declaration of Independence and is officially referred to as “the spiritual father of the Jewish State”, i.e. the visionary who gave a concrete, practicable platform and framework to political Zionism. However, he was not the first Zionist theoretician or activist; scholars, many of them religious such as rabbis Yehuda Bibas, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Judah Alkalai, promoted a range of proto-Zionist ideas before him. Herzl Day is an Israeli national holiday celebrated annually on the tenth of the Hebrew month of Iyar, to commemorate the life and vision of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl.

Theodor Herzl was born in the Dohány utca (Tabakgasse in German), a street in the Jewish quarter of Pest (now eastern part of Budapest), Kingdom of Hungary (now Hungary), to a Neolog Jewish family. His father’s family had migrated from Zimony (today Zemun, Serbia), to Bohemia in 1739, where they were required to Germanize their family name Loebl (from Hebrew lev, “heart”) to Herzl (diminutive of German Herz; “little heart”). He was the second child of Jeanette and Jakob Herzl, who were German-speaking, assimilated Jews. It is believed Herzl was of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic lineage predominately through his paternal line and to a lesser extent through the maternal line. He also claimed to be a direct descendant of the famous Greek Kabbalist Joseph Taitazak. Jakob Herzl (1836–1902), Herzl’s father, was a highly successful businessman. Herzl had one sister, Pauline, a year older than he was, who died suddenly on 7 February 1878, of typhus. Theodor lived with his family in a house next to the Dohány Street Synagogue (formerly known as Tabakgasse Synagogue) located in Belváros, the inner city of the historical old town of Pest, in the eastern section of Budapest.

In 1878, after the death of his sister, Pauline, the family moved to Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and lived in the 9th district, Alsergrund. At the University of Vienna, Herzl studied law. As a young law student, Herzl became a member of the German nationalist Burschenschaft (fraternity) Albia, which had the motto Ehre, Freiheit, Vaterland (“Honor, Freedom, Fatherland”). He later resigned in protest at the organisation’s antisemitism. After a brief legal career in the University of Vienna and Salzburg, he devoted himself to journalism and literature, working as a journalist for a Viennese newspaper and a correspondent for Neue Freie Presse, in Paris, occasionally making special trips to London and Istanbul. He later became literary editor of Neue Freie Presse, and wrote several comedies and dramas for the Viennese stage. His early work did not focus on Jewish life. It was of the feuilleton order, descriptive rather than political.

As the Paris correspondent for Neue Freie Presse, Herzl followed the Dreyfus affair, a political scandal that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. It was a notorious antisemitic incident in France in which a Jewish French army captain was falsely convicted of spying for Germany. Herzl was witness to mass rallies in Paris following the Dreyfus trial. There has been some controversy surrounding the impact that this event had on Herzl and his conversion to Zionism. Herzl himself stated that the Dreyfus case turned him into a Zionist and that he was particularly affected by chants of “Death to the Jews!” from the crowds. This had been the widely held belief for some time. However, some modern scholars now believe that due to little mention of the Dreyfus affair in Herzl’s earlier accounts and a seemingly contrary reference he made in them to shouts of “Death to the traitor!” that he may have exaggerated the influence it had on him in order to create further support for his goals. Beginning in late 1895, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews), which was published February 1896 to immediate acclaim and controversy. The book argued that the Jewish people should leave Europe for Palestine, their historic homeland. The Jews possessed a nationality; all they were missing was a nation and a state of their own. Only through a Jewish state could they avoid antisemitism, express their culture freely and practice their religion without hindrance. Herzl’s ideas spread rapidly throughout the Jewish world and attracted international attention. Supporters of existing Zionist movements, such as the Hovevei Zion, immediately allied themselves with him, but he also encountered bitter opposition from members of the Orthodox community and those seeking to integrate in non-Jewish society.

Theodor Herzl grave on Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem © Marco Plassio/cc-by-sa-3.0 Altneuland by Theodor Herzl Der Judenstaat by Theodor Herzl Theodor Herz in Basel, 1901 © Ephraim Moses Lilien Theodor Herzl in 1897 © Carl Pietzner Theodor Herzl © Alberto Fernandez Fernandez
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Theodor Herzl grave on Mount Herzl in West Jerusalem © Marco Plassio/cc-by-sa-3.0
In 1897, at considerable personal expense, he founded the Zionist newspaper Die Welt in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and planned the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. He was elected president of the Congress (a position he held until his death in 1904), and in 1898 he began a series of diplomatic initiatives to build support for a Jewish country. He was received by Wilhelm II on several occasions, one of them in Jerusalem, and attended the Hague Peace Conference, enjoying a warm reception from many statesmen there.

Herzl visited Jerusalem for the first time in October 1898. He deliberately coordinated his visit with that of Wilhelm II to secure what he thought had been prearranged with the aid of Rev. William Hechler, public world power recognition of himself and Zionism. Herzl and Wilhelm II first met publicly on 29 October, at Mikveh Israel, near present-day Holon, Israel. It was a brief but historic meeting. He had a second formal, public audience with the emperor at the latter’s tent camp on Street of the Prophets in Jerusalem on 2 November 1898. The English Zionist Federation, the local branch of the World Zionist Organization was founded in 1899, that Herzl had established in Austria in 1897. In 1902–03, Herzl was invited to give evidence before the British Royal Commission on Alien Immigration. His appearance brought him into close contact with members of the British government, particularly with Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain through whom he negotiated with the Egyptian government for a charter for the settlement of the Jews in Al ‘Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, adjoining southern Palestine. The project was blocked as impractical by Lord Cromer, the Consul General in Egypt. In 1903, Herzl attempted to obtain support for the Jewish homeland from Pope Pius X, an idea broached at 6th Zionist Congress. Palestine could offer a safe refuge for those fleeing persecution in Russia. Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val ordained that the Church’s policy was explained non-possumus on such matters, decreeing that as long as the Jews denied the divinity of Christ, the Catholics could not make a declaration in their favour. In 1903, following Kishinev pogrom, Herzl visited St. Petersburg and was received by Sergei Witte, then finance minister, and Viacheslav Plehve, minister of the interior, the latter placing on record the attitude of his government toward the Zionist movement. On that occasion Herzl submitted proposals for the amelioration of the Jewish position in Russia. At the same time Joseph Chamberlain floated the idea of a Jewish Colony in what is now Kenya. The plan became known as the “Uganda Project” and Herzl presented it to the Sixth Zionist Congress (Basel, August 1903), where a majority (295:178, 98 abstentions) agreed to investigating this offer. The proposal faced strong opposition particularly from the Russian delegation who stormed out of the meeting. In 1905 the 6th Zionist Congress, after investigations, decided to decline the British offer and firmly committed itself to a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A Heimstätte—a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine secured by public law.

When looking at the development of political Zionism by Theodor Herzl, then it was about the creation of a liberal, open/cosmopolitan, democratic Jewish state that should grant its non-Jewish residents the same rights as the Jewish residents. As is often the case with liberal movements, sooner or later they are hijacked and completely distorted by right-wing nationalists. So also with Zionism. In particular, the Netanyahu government, driven by Revisionist Zionism and ethnonationalism, has steered Israel into an “illiberal semi-autocracy” (later adapted for Hungary by Viktor Orbán). Herzl would probably react somewhat frightened if he had to look at what has been made of his ideas.

Read more on JewishVirtualLibrary.org – Theodor Herzl, Knesset.gov.il – Theodor Herzl and Wikipedia Theodor Herzl (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.






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