On February 14, 1896, The Jewish State by Theodor Herzl first appeared in print. Rachel Elboim-Dror reflects upon the importance of the anniversary.
The 100th anniversary of the publication of Theodore Herzl's book The Jewish State provides a welcome opportunity to re-eva luate one of the most enigmatic leaders of our time and his vision of the Jewish state.
Herzl was a second generation emancipated Jew, a liberal European intellectual. He studied at the University of Vienna, the city to which his family had moved from Budapest. He received a doctorate in law, but became a writer. He wrote feuilletons and plays and worked as a reporter for an influential liberal Viennese newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse.
In 1891, Herzl was sent to Paris as a correspondent. He attended the Dreyfus trial in 1894. It is customary to attribute Herzl's change from liberal assimilationist to Jewish nationalist to the effects of the Dreyfus trial and the calls for "Death to the Jews" which echoed throughout a France caught in the throes of anti-Semitism. However, there are those who stress, instead, the painful and difficult time Herzl had as a young and enthusiastic student much taken by German nationalism who was forced to confront the realities of anti-Semitism in Vienna….integrating the Jews into European society and culture were basic issues that concerned Herzl from his youth on. Thus he writes in his diary: "When, really, did I first begin paying attention to the Jewish problem? ...I think it was in 1881 or 1882 ...The Jewish problem of course confronted me in every corner."
He was seeking a radical solution to the Jewish question, such as a demonstrative conversion of the Jews. He looked at the Jewish ghetto, which kept to itself, through the eyes of an assimilated Jew and accepted anti-Semitic stereotypes regarding Jewish life and the need to change it.
The idea of the establishment of a Jewish state came to Herzl in a flash, like a sudden vision which seized him and refused to let go.
In May 1895, Herzl met Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the initiator and funder of Jewish settlement in Argentina, to try to persuade him of the need to found a Jewish state as a radical solution to the Jewish question. When he failed, Herzl went on to the Rothschild family -but here too he failed. Before visiting Hirsch, Herzl prepared a 29-page document and in preparation for his meeting with the Rothschilds he enlarged it to 65 pages, entitling it A Speech to the Rothschilds. Afterwards, he renamed it, A Speech to the Jewish People. This document served as the basis for his Der Judenstaat, The Jewish State -An attempt At a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question, which was published in February 1896.
From that time on, Herzl worked unceasingly for the realization of that idea: in August 1897 he convened, in Basel, the first Zionist Congress, founded the Zionist movement, a Zionist newspaper and bank and he met with the Turkish sultan and with many of the European heads of state to try to persuade them to have the sultan issue a … for the Jewish settlement of Eretz Yisrael….
He was the first leader who gave a clear political definition of the solution to the Jewish problem and acted to implement it. Herzl's message was phrased clearly and unequivocally: the establishment of a Jewish state. He was the first who dared to declare this openly, to speak on behalf of modern Jewish nationalism and to work to implement it.
One can define his work as politicization of the Jews, the establishment of a central political authority and its institutionalization. The lack of a united political leadership was regarded by him as the primary problem of the Jewish people and he acted with all his might to rectify it.
One can summarize Herzl's basic arguments as follows: The integration of the Jews into European society has failed despite emancipation. The blame for this failure lies on both parties. Europe cannot overcome its anti-Semitic tradition and the Jews themselves need to change and surmount their negative characteristics. This change can take place only in their own land as free people. The solution is the establishment of a Jewish state.
A Jewish state is thus an outcome of disappointment and failure. But out of this failure a new example of a modern liberal society will be born. A state that will carry a message of peace, tolerance and freedom to all of mankind, a model to be esteemed and imitated. The dreams that failed in Europe will be realized in the old-new land. Herzl's vision is a complex mixture of reality and imagination, rationalistic approaches and wild-eyed fantasies. As he writes in the introduction to his diary: This is a majestic idea, which "confuses and intoxicates me."
His Jewish state is both a country of refuge from anti-Semitism and a model of progressive social ideas. It is based on mass immigration and develops a meritocratic…where army and religion are kept out of politics. Using the most advanced technologies it will make the desert bloom. Ignoring the realities of the Middle East, the Arab inhabitants, the conflicting ideas and ideals of religious and secular Jews, Herz1 prepared a plan of action that ignited the imagination of thousands.
Herzl appeared as a meteor on the Jewish skies. His Zionist activity lasted but nine short years. He died in 1904. But during the nine years of his Zionist activity he succeeded in making a fundamental change in the Jewish world: He transformed the self-image of the diaspora Jew; he converted the bourgeois, conservative Hovevei Zion movement into a revolutionary nationalistic and modern Jewish protest movement; he institutionalized the Zionist idea and established the foundations of the state-in-making.
The Jewish State, his utopia Altneuland, his diaries, letters, plays, articles and speeches all shed light on the complex personality of the leader of the Zionist movement -and yet he remains an enigma.
There are those who described him as a playwright of limited ability and moderate success as well as a noted journalist; a person with superficial ideas and a naive analysis of the Jewish question, who presented his ideas simply and with gall -but in a spirited manner; a man who presented himself as "the king of the Jews.' There were those who regarded him as a politician, who acted as a gambler and sought to establish a Jewish state at one fell swoop; a person who lived in different cultures -the Jewish, Hungarian and German -and was alien to all of them.
Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, described him as one who appeared from on high, "He came from a world which was concealed to us and we bowed down before the Great Eagle who came from that world….
What enchanted the Jews about Herzl was his origin in European culture. Had Herzl been a product of the cheder, the Jews would not have followed him."
A good part of Herzl's drawing power stemmed from the very fact that he was alien to the Jewish world, that he was a representative of the European cultural world upon whose doors the Jews beat but to which they were not granted full admission. The fact that Herzl had physical charm, that his bearing was aristocratic and far removed from that of the masses of Jews, enhanced his attraction.
After being disappointed by the Jewish money barons, Herzl discovered the Jewish masses and his own charismatic powers as a leader of these masses. He became aware of the nature of modern mass politics.
One may assume that Herzl's very limitations, that very superficiality and ignorance of the complexities of the cultural aspects of the Jewish question and his concentration on a single dimension, the political, were what enabled him to act efficiently and change reality. Herzl was one of the few people who in practice lived his utopia. He prepared a utopian model and lived and acted in accordance with it, as if it was about to be realized; and indeed later, after his death, he succeeded.
Herzl believed that Jewish religion would adjust to the new situation of independent political life in a Jewish state. Such changes cannot be foreseen and, therefore, there was no reason to deal with them at the formation…consensus needed to engage in immediate political action. In Herzl's priorities, what stood first and foremost was the formation of a political and organizational framework. However, this "narrow" view was not acceptable to Ahad HaAm and his colleagues, who were therefore critical of Herzl' s program.
Herzl was the leader of the masses, a charismatic leader about whom legends and myths were woven already during his lifetime. The profound need to fill this role was undoubtedly deeply embedded within him and found release on those occasions when his needs and those of the masses intersected. Herzl answered the needs of the Jewish masses who sought "a new messiah." In his case, a "historic moment" and his personality coincided to bring about a shift in history.
He aroused in the Jewish masses messianic hopes. His starting point was political and rational, but he derived his emotional power and political force from irrational levels. Herzl's political Zionism, the modern secular Zionism in whose name he spoke, was nurtured by the fertile soil of thousands of years of yearning for a messianic revelation. The cries that followed Herzl, "King of the Jews" and "Messiah, son of David," found echoes in his soul, for dreams of grandeur had been one of his personal traits ever since his youth. He was able to realize both his yearning and desires and those of the Jewish masses, for redemption, for a transcendental experience.
Without doubt Herzl is one of the greatest visionary leaders history has known, one of the few whose vision -as presented in The Jewish State -changed history and became reality.