Herzl, Dr Theodor

(1860–1904)
   Founder of modern Zionist movement. In a Paris room a man writes feverishly at his desk. The year is 1895. The title of the pamphlet he is drafting is The Jewish State (in the German original, Der Judenstaat). The sub-title reads: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question. The writer is Dr Theodor Herzl - a striking-looking man of thirty-five, above average height, with a black beard and magnetic brown eyes. Born in Budapest, Hungary, of a well-to-do Jewish family, Herzl became a doctor of laws at the universities of Vienna and Berlin. He married the daughter of a prominent Austrian Jewish family, and had three children, two girls and a boy. His newspaper columns on travel, art, literature and public affairs brought him a growing reputation as a journalist. In 1891, he accepted an important assignment as the Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse of Vienna, one of the leading liberal papers in Europe at that time.
   Although Herzl had been assimilated into the social and cultural life of the time, his grandfather had been an Ortho-dox Jew, and he himself had been conscious of anti-Semitism as a student. He was puzzled that feeling against the Jews should persist in the Western world where they had become emancipated. For some time he thought that conversion was the answer and even when he abandoned that idea, continued to believe that the Jews should be absorbed and disappear. As the Paris correspondent of his paper, Herzl covered several events that revealed the growing tide of anti-Semitism in France, such as the Panama Canal scandal, and a bill to disbar Jews from public office that was defeated, but gained 160 votes in the Chamber of Deputies.
   In 1894 a more serious national crisis started over the Dreyfus Affair. Captain Alfred DREYFUS, a Jewish officer serving on the French General Staff, was convicted as a spy for the Germans. The fierce dispute over l’Affaire split France from top to bottom, and made world headlines. It also brought to the surface all the latent anti-Semitism in French society. Evidences of anti-Semitism elsewhere in Europe depressed Herzl still more. For instance, in his own home town of Vienna, an anti-Semitic party almost swept into power in the city elections.
   The Jewish State
   The Jewish Question now became an obsession with Herzl. He withdrew from social life, neg lected his health and appearance and started writing incessantly. In the spring of 1895, he opened a diary with the words: ‘I have been pounding away for some time at a work of tremendous magnitude… For days and weeks it has saturated me to the limits of my consciousness; it goes with me everywhere, hovers behind my ordinary talk, peers at me over the shoulder of funny little journalistic work, over-whelms and intoxicates me. What will come of it is still too early to say. Title: The Promised Land’. The programme that was taking shape in his mind concerned the planned mass emigration of Jews from Europe to an autonomous overseas territory. In May 1895, Herzl called on Baron Maurice de HIRSCH, the great philanthropist, who was settling Jewish refugees on the land in the Argentine. The talk lasted half an hour and was not a success. Herzl attacked the Baron’s work as ‘breeding beggars’.
   Der Judenstaat was published in 1896. In the preface Herzl wrote: ‘…We are a people - one people. We are strong enough to form a state and indeed a model state.’ The sovereign territory could be in the Argentine, that had fertile spaces; or in Palestine, the historic homeland. In the latter part of the pamphlet, Herzl makes observations on a number of practical questions: organization, emigration, capital, land distribution, constitution, language, laws, army and flag. ‘I feel that with the publication of this pamphlet’, wrote Herzl, ‘my task is done.’ His task was in fact just beginning. The pamphlet was coolly received by the Jewish press. Some critics rejected it on grounds of patriotism or religion; others because it did not insist on Palestine as the only homeland and Hebrew as the national language.
   The First Zionist Congress
   In spite of that, the Herzl legend started to grow and spread among the Jews in the towns and villages of eastern Europe. Somehow they heard that a new Moses had emerged in the West and would perhaps lead them out of bondage to the Promised Land. What was most encouraging was the response of the Zionist student societies in Vienna, Berlin, Geneva and elsewhere. Herzl started seeking ways to carry out his plan. Almost without realizing it, the writer was becoming a man of diplomatic action. Herzl’s first aim was to get from the sultan of Turkey a political charter for Palestine, that had been part of the Ottoman empire for four centuries. Herzl gained an introduction to the kaiser’s uncle, the Grand Duke of Baden, and talked to him for over two hours, in the hope of enlisting the kaiser’s support with the sultan. In June 1896, Herzl went by train to Constantinople. He was given a chance to talk to several of the sultan’s leading advisers, and put forward an idea mentioned in The Jewish State - a settlement of the Ottoman debt problem in exchange for Jewish sovereignty over Palestine. The sultan’s advisers were cautious, having no proof that Herzl could ‘deliver’ the big Jewish financiers. Herzl then proceeded to London. His reception by the Anglo-Jewish leaders was unfriendly. On the other hand, he addressed an enthusiastic overflowing meeting organized by the poor Jews in the East End slum of Whitechapel. On returning to Paris, Herzl went to see Baron Edmond de ROTHSCHILD, the benefactor of the struggling Jewish colonies in Palestine. Rothschild rejected Herzl’s plan, and thought the talk of statehood would only upset the Turkish authorities and endanger the slow and difficult colonization work already going on.
   For a little while Herzl felt tired and depressed. He had made no progress on the international front or on the Jewish front. His doctor found that his heart was strained. He wrote to his friend and supporter, David WOLFFSOHN (a Russian timber merchant) that ‘my movement has come to an end… I cannot overcome the initial difficulties.’
   But then his faith reasserted itself. He decided to work for a democratic ‘world congress of Zionists’. The preliminary announcement said that ‘the Jewish question must be taken away from the control of the benevolent individual. There must be created a forum before which everyone acting for the Jewish people must appear and to which he must be responsible.’ For months, Herzl worked night and day preparing for the congress, attending himself to every invitation and every detail. On 29 August 1897, the First Zionist Congress met in Basle, Switzerland, attended by 197 delegates from many countries. They were all conscious that history was being made. This was the first international Jewish assembly for nearly two thousand years. At the opening session Herzl insisted that each delegate should wear a tail-coat and white tie, to mark the importance of the occasion.
   When he walked up to the podium to make his opening address, the audience broke into a storm of applause which lasted fifteen minutes. Herzl declared: ‘We are here to lay the foundation stone of the house which is to shelter the Jewish nation… A people can be helped only by itself…’ The Basle Programme adopted by the Congress laid down that ‘the aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law.’ The congress would be the chief organ of the movement, and it would elect an actions committee located in Vienna.
   When the meeting was over, Herzl wrote in his diary: ‘In Basle I created the Jewish State.’
   Herzl had known nothing about the five million Ostjuden living under the czar’s rule, and was surprised by the intellectual calibre of the Russian delegation to the congress. He was to discover that they had very definite views of their own about their destiny.
   The Kaiser
   In 1898 the Grand Duke of Baden told Herzl that the kaiser might be sympathetic to the idea of taking Jewish migration to the Holy Land under his protection. During the kaiser’s forthcoming trip to Palestine, he would be willing to receive Herzl in Constantinople and then in Jerusalem. Herzl chose four of his Zionist colleagues to form the delegation with him. The Constantinople interview was not an easy one. The kaiser revealed that he was attracted by the idea of getting rid of undesirable Jews from Germany. Herzl outlined his proposals, and stressed the benefits that Zionist activities would bring to both Germany and Turkey. He requested the kaiser’s support for a colonization charter from Turkey, under German protection. The following morning Herzl and his party sailed for Palestine. He found it a poor and backward country, after centuries of inefficient and corrupt Turkish rule. It had not more than half a million inhabitants. Less than 10 per cent of the soil was cultivated, most of the rest being desert, stony hills or malarial swamp. There were fifty thousand Jews in the country, mostly in Jerusalem and Jaffa. Some of them were traders and artisans, others were supported by alms collected from pious Jews abroad. A few thousand Jews struggled to make a living from the soil, in eighteen settlements.
   The delegation visited the Jewish village of Rishon-le-Zion, where Herzl was appalled at the backward conditions. In the next village, Rehovot, they found a different spirit. Twenty young men galloped out on Arab ponies, singing Hebrew songs. The whole village, with children in the front, was drawn up to meet them. Early next morning, Herzl stood at the side of the road leading to the agricultural school of Mikveh Israel, waiting to see the kaiser pass by on his way to Jerusalem. On spotting Herzl, the kaiser reined in his horse, leaned down to shake hands with the Zionist leader, and remarked that what the country needed was plenty of water. Wolffsohn took two camera shots for posterity. One failed to come out; the other showed the outline of the kaiser and Herzl’s left foot. Next day, Herzl and his party travelled by train to Jerusalem. He was weak with fever, and walked with difficulty from the station to the hotel. The shapes of the buildings bathed in moon-light moved him, especially the Tower of David. Next day, however, he was shocked by the dirty alleys, the beggars, and the atmosphere of religious fanaticism. He promised himself that one day a splendid new Jerusalem would be built outside the walls of the Old City. After anxious days of suspense, the audience was fixed with the kaiser in his imperial tent. With his usual passion for detailed planning, Herzl drilled his colleagues in their deportment, clothes and answers to questions they might be asked. There was a last-minute problem about finding a silk top hat for one of them. In a state of suppressed excitement, they drove in the white dust and burning noonday heat to the kaiser’s encampment. Herzl noted proudly in his diary: ‘A few Jews in the street looked up as we passed. Pond ducks, when the wild ducks are flying overhead.’
   The kaiser received them in grey colonial uniform, veiled helmet on his head, and holding a riding crop in his right hand. On one side stood his foreign minister, Count Von Bulow, in a dusty lounge suit. Herzl proceeded to read the address he had prepared, setting out the Zionist proposals. When he was through, the kaiser remarked that the matter certainly called for further study and discussion. ‘The settlements I have seen, the German as well as those of your own people, may serve as samples of what can be done with the country. There is room here for everyone. Only provide water and trees. The exertions of the colonists will also furnish a stimulating example to the local population. Your movement, with which I am thoroughly familiar, is based on a sound healthy idea.’ Herzl observed: ‘We can supply the country with water. It will cost millions, but it will produce millions.’
   ‘Well, you have plenty of money’, the kaiser exclaimed jovially and clapped his boot with his riding crop, ‘more than all of us.’ Soon after that, the kaiser closed the audience. As they left, Herzl remarked to his companions, ‘He said neither yes nor no.’ It was clear that the kaiser’s enthusiasm had cooled. Herzl was beginning to perceive the monarch’s dramatic but unstable temperament.
   This anti-climax increased Herzl’s weariness and impatience. He wrote in his diary that ‘nothing happens the way you fear or you hope’. After his Palestine trip, Herzl worked in his spare time on a novel projecting what the future Jewish State would be like. It was published in 1902, with the title Altneuland (‘Old-New Land’). As a novel it is poor, and the people in it are unconvincing; but the story serves as a peg for Herzl’s idea of a ‘new society’ in Palestine. On the title page of the book is the motto: ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’ Herzl was disappointed in the lack of response the book aroused, even among the Zionists. AHAD HA-AM wrote sarcastically that Altneuland had too much technology and too little Jewishness.
   Negotiations with the Sultan
   In May 1901, Herzl set out once more for Constantinople. This time he was granted an audience with the sultan himself, that lasted over two hours. Herzl again offered to arrange financial help for Turkey if the sultan would declare his support for the Jews in a specific way. The sultan seems to have been impressed by his unusual visitor. He remarked later that ‘Herzl looks altogether like a prophet, like a leader of his people. He has very clever eyes and speaks prudently and clearly.’ Herzl himself summed up his talks: ‘With this we have actually entered upon negotiations for the charter. All we shall need now to carry through what I have planned is luck, skill and money.’
   His immediate worry was to raise for Turkey a loan of one-and-a-half-million pounds. But all his efforts to enlist the help of rich Jewish bankers and financiers were unsuccessful.
   At the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basle (December 1901), some of the Russian Zionists criticized his diplomatic efforts and urged that the movement concentrate on practical work and cultural activity. They organized themselves into an opposition group, the Democratic Fraction. Herzl’s heart was becoming increasingly strained. On his forty-first birthday, he noted in his diary that six years of his movement had made him ‘old, tired and poor’. The negotiations with the sultan dragged on. Herzl was in Constantinople in February 1902 and again, for the last time, in July. He could get no nearer the charter he sought. The direct road to Palestine through Constantinople was blocked.
   Negotiations with Great Britain
   But a promising detour now seemed to open, through the support of the mightiest world power at that time, Britain. The Fourth Zionist Congress (August 1900) was held in London, to arouse the interest of the British public. In his opening speech, Herzl uttered prophetic words: ‘England, …will understand us and our aims. From this place the Zionist idea will take a still further and higher flight.’
   In 1902, Herzl was invited to appear as a witness in London before a royal commission to consider imposing immigration restrictions, aimed chiefly at the influx of Russian Jews. Herzl expounded the Zionist idea. Later that year, an English supporter, Leopold GREENBERG, succeeded in arranging a meeting for him with the powerful colonial secretary, Joseph CHAMBERLAIN. The English statesman listened attentively to Herzl’s account of his dealings. Herzl raised the possibility of interim settlement of Jews in the El Arish district of Sinai. Chamberlain explained that the area did not fall under the Colonial Office, and arranged for Herzl to be received the following day by Lord Lansdowne, the foreign secretary. The latter was courteous and friendly and promised to write to Lord Cromer, the British agent in Egypt, for his opinion. The decisive question was whether there would be sufficient water for irrigation. It was agreed that a small Zionist commission of experts should carry out a survey on the spot, and report as soon as possible. Herzl personally selected the commission and made the practical arrangements. A few months later, he went himself to Cairo. The first reports from the commission were discouraging. The water required to settle the El Arish area could come only from costly irrigation works, based mostly on diversion of Nile water. The Egyptian government rejected the project. Negotiations with the Russians
   In 1903, the world was horrified by a fresh wave of bloody pogroms against the Jews in Russia, starting in Kishinev, the main town of Bessarabia, during Easter week. Herzl went to St Petersburg to see Count Von Plehve, the anti-Semitic minister of the interior, and the strong man of the czarist regime. At the interview, Plehve said he was in favour of the Zionist movement, as long as it confined itself to taking Jews out of Russia. Herzl made three requests: one, Russian influence with the sultan of Turkey to help secure a charter for Palestine; two, financial aid for emigration, with money raised from Jewish taxes; and three, Zionist organization work to be permitted in Russia. Plehve accepted these three points. Herzl then gained access to Count Witte, the finance minister, from whom he obtained some financial and tax concessions for Jewish emigration. Witte was bluntly unfriendly, and made clear that his only interest was to get rid of Jews.
   On his way back from St Petersburg, Herzl stopped over for twelve hours in the Lithuanian city of Vilna. His reception by the large Jewish community was full of excitement and emotion. That evening one young Jew called out a toast to ‘“King Herzl” - an absurdity …’ wrote Herzl in his diary, ‘Yet it had an uncanny ring in that dark Russian night’
   The Uganda Project
   In 1903, Chamberlain returned from a visit to East Africa, and sounded Herzl out about settling Jews in the empty territory traversed by the new Uganda railway. Local autonomy could be granted to such a colony. With the collapse of the El Arish venture, Herzl became interested.
   Just before the Sixth Congress, while Herzl was in Russia, he received a letter from the British Foreign Office. It suggested that a commission be sent out to establish whether a suitable area of land could be made available in East Africa for a ‘Jewish colony of settlement’, with internal autonomy. The letter was cautious, and did not as yet commit anyone. But it was a historic document. This was the first official offer made to the Zionist movement by a government. When Herzl reported on the British offer to the Zionist Congress in Basle, a storm of applause swept the hall. He stressed that the project was intended only as an emergency measure to rescue the Jewish refugees from the Russian pogroms. He did not propose at this stage that the project be endorsed, but only that a small survey commission be sent. Its report could then be placed before a special congress.
   But the first excitement evaporated and opposition set in. The opponents included most of the Russian Jews - even the delegates from Kishinev, whom Herzl had expected to be the first to welcome a place of refuge. All their dreams were focused on the return to the ancestral home in the Land of Israel. The African detour seemed to them a betrayal of the Basle Programme. Herzl took little part in the long and painful debate that followed. He preferred to keep in touch with the various groups behind the scenes. Moreover, his heart condition was getting worse under such pressures. The resolution to send the commission was put to the vote in a tense atmosphere. There were 295 votes for it, 278 against, and about 100 abstentions.
   The neinsagers (negative voters) rose and left the hall. They gathered in another room in great agitation; some of them were moved to tears, and a few sat on the floor in an attitude of mourning. Later in the evening Herzl came to speak to them. He was earnest and impressive. He affirmed his unswerving loyalty to the basic Zionist aim, but pointed out the difficulties he had been facing for years. His fellow-Zionists had failed to find the money he had needed to get a charter from the Turks. Now they failed to support his diplomatic moves. His position would be impossible if Congress would not even examine the proposal he had obtained from the British. ‘I need your faith in me, not your distrust… You may drive me out if you wish; I shall return without complaint into the private life for which I long.’
   These words had their effect. A face-saving formula was found next morning for the return of the dissidents. They declared that their walkout had not been a demonstration against Herzl, but only a spontaneous expression of their distress. It was agreed that no Zionist public funds should be used to pay for an expedition to East Africa, and that its report should be submitted to the Actions Committee before a new congress was called.
   The Curtain Rings Down
   Herzl was left exhausted and ailing, and told a few friends that he might resign at the next congress, as a way out of the impasse. In fact, he would not live to see the next congress.
   In January 1904, London made a definite offer of the Uashin Gishu plateau, an area of some five thousand square miles in what later became known as the White Highlands of Kenya. Herzl reluctantly agreed that the area be examined on the spot.
   Meanwhile, he continued his diplomatic efforts to gain wider international support for Zionism. In January he set out for Italy and was received by Pope Pius x. The pope declared flatly that the Church could not give its blessing to Zionist aims. The papal secretary of state later gave Herzl an assurance that settlement of Jews in Palestine would be regarded as humanitarian work, and would not be obstructed by the Church.
   The next day Herzl enjoyed an hour’s lively and informal talk with the diminutive King Victor Emmanual in. In the diary notes of this interlude under Italian skies, Herzl recaptured some of the old sparkle. But he had not recovered from the stormy Sixth Congress and there had been unceasing strains since then. In addition to the complications in the Movement, his own health was failing, his wife had been desperately ill, and he was beset by financial worries. A friend who visited him at his home in Vienna, after his return from Italy, was shocked at his appearance.
   The opposition camp of Russian Zionists met at Kharkov and adopted resolutions demanding the formal abandonment of the East African Project and the restriction of Herzl’s powers as president. In April 1904, Herzl called a special meeting of the Action Committee in Vienna, and his emotional appeal for unity was well received. His doctor then sent him to a spa for a complete rest. He said to a fellow-Zionist who came to see him: ‘Why should we fool our-selves?… The bell has rung for me. I am no coward and can face death calmly, all the more as I have not spent the last years of my life uselessly. I was not altogether a poor servant of my people, don’t you think.’ His condition became worse. He died on 3 July 1904, two months after his forty-fourth birthday. The news sent a wave of shock and bereavement throughout the Jewish world. Thousands and thousands of people from all over Europe walked tearfully behind his bier. In 1949, when the State of Israel was just over a year old, Herzl’s coffin was brought to Jerusalem and interred on a hilltop called Mount Herzl, looking out upon the Holy City from the west.
   Some years before his death, when he was under attack for having raised false hopes, Herzl wrote in his diary an estimate of his own work which could serve as a fitting epitaph for him: ‘Maybe one day, when a Jewish State will have come into existence, all this will appear trivial and self-evident. Maybe a just historian will find it was after all no mean achievement for a Jewish journalist without resources…to turn a rag into a flag and a downtrodden rabble into a people rallying erect around that flag.’

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

Look at other dictionaries:

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