Theodore Herzl Theodore Herzl was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1860. He was raised in an assimilated Jewish family that celebrated Christmas. He moved to Vienna, Austria, where he studied for the bar exam and later in 1884 was awarded a doctorate of law from the University of Vienna. However, instead of practicing law, he chose the dual career of journalist and playwright. His Judaism was not much of a factor in his life.
In 1894, when Herzl was 34, an earth-shattering event in France transformed his life forever. He was sent there to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was a French Jewish Army captain accused of treason, for selling military secrets to Germany. It soon became obvious to Herzl that the charges against Dreyfus were erroneous and that he was innocent. As a Jew, Dreyfus had become the scapegoat for the frustrations of the people of France, which had just suffered defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The Dreyfus trial had unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism in France.
Herzl, whose Jewish connections were weak, nonetheless saw in the Dreyfus affair a harsh reminder of the poisonous persistence of anti-Semitism. He concluded that Jews could never be integrated fully into their adopted countries. They would always be considered outsiders. They could never feel safe from persecution except in a land that they could claim as their own. Hundreds of other Jews also saw the Dreyfus affair as evidence of incurable, widespread anti-Semitism.
Yet, few, like Herzl, believed that we needed a special Jewish homeland. Soon, thereafter, Herzl wrote his first major book, Der Judenstaat- The Jewish State. Here he outlined his program of political Zionism. He wrote that the solution to the problem of Jewish vulnerability was a Jewish state. This state would be legally recognized and sanctioned by most of the world’s super powers. He even proposed the transfer of Jewish populations from around the world to that homeland.
The State was to be modern, sophisticated, and technologically advanced. What Herzl did not discuss, was the Jewish content of that state. Was it to be a state of the Jews or a Jewish state? He essentially saw that place as a secular entity. It was to be a haven of safe refuge for harassed Jews, rather than a vibrant center of Jewish spiritual life. There were two groups whose religious outlook could not have been more different opposing Herzl. First were the Reform Jews. They insisted that we must live comfortably in any nation of the world where we find ourselves as citizens.
They go on by saying that don’t need our own land. Furthermore, the Reform Jews argued that we as Jews are not a national entity. That we are solely a religious community, and that we differ from our Christian counterparts only in one way: we practice the Jewish religion and they practice Christianity. We go to a synagogue and they go to a church. In every other respect, we are the same.
The other fierce opponents to Zionism were the Orthodox. They insisted that as Jews we could not have a state of our own, until the Messiah comes. Nonetheless, Herzl was undeterred by these objections. He persisted in pursuing his goals. In 1897, exactly 100 years ago, Herzl organized the First Zionist World Congress, in Basle, Switzerland. About 200 participants representing different countries assembled there. Following the Congress, Herzl continued to try to gain support of European statesmen towards the Zionist cause. Some, like Kaiser Wilhelm II, of Germany, seemed favorably inclined, however others, like the Sultan of Turkey were unreceptive.
Herzl was now somewhat discouraged by his lack of success. In fact, he was willing to settle for any land that he could obtain as a haven of refuge for Jews. Eventually he developed the Uganda Plan and negotiated with Great Britain. Great Britain proposed, as a temporary solution, that the Jews secure a section of East Africa. Herzl thought it would be politically sensible to accept the offer. He viewed Great Britain’s proposal to be an official endorsement of the Zionist cause. He thought that Britain would eventually come around to accepting the idea of the land of Israel as the Jewish homeland.
However, the Zionist masses, especially those in Eastern Europe roundly rejected the Uganda Plan, and Herzl had to abandon it. He continued to appeal to political dignitaries for support, yet most of them were not encouraging. Herzl soon decided that all his efforts must be directed toward securing the land of Israel as the Jewish national homeland and that no other country would be acceptable. After visiting the Holy Land, Herzl wrote his second major work, a novel in German, called, “Altneuland- The Old New Land.” Many stresses caused Theodore Herzl’s health to deteriorate. In 1904, at the age of 44, Herzl succumbed to a fatal heart attack.
He was buried in Vienna. In 1949, a year after the State of Israel was established, his remains were brought to Jerusalem to Mount Herzl, the site of Israel’s military cemetery, for reburial. Herzl came to understand that the Zionist idea was probably too revolutionary for its time. Yet he predicted that, within 50 years, it would be widely accepted. After the 1897 Zionist Congress, he wrote in his diary: “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word- which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly- it would be this: ‘At Basel, I founded the Jewish State.
If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.'” His prediction came true. Almost 50 years after the First Zionist Congress, as he forecasted, the State of Israel was established, thus ending 2000 years of Jewish homelessness. During those first 50 years, more and more of the world Jewish community had come to accept Zionism. Orthodox Jews, except for the extreme fanatics among them, had accepted Zionism shortly after the turn of the century.
After the Six Day War in 1967, Reform Jews finally accepted the Zionist idea. In fact, today, there is even an official Reform Zionist organization, called ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. It took the Holocaust and other monumental events of recent Jewish history, to convince Reform Jews that we needed a Jewish state. Had there been a place of escape for victims of Nazi persecution during the Holocaust, countless numbers of Jews could have been saved from Hitler’s executioners. Theodore Herzl dedicated his life to the Zionist cause and lost his life fighting to obtain a Jewish state. His efforts, although at first were unappreciated, and looked to be unnecessary, were later understood and found to be a great necessity for the Jews of today.