Herzl, Theodor (1860-1904)
Theodor was an Austrian Jewish journalist who became the founder of modern political Zionism. His Hebrew name was Benjamin Ze’ev.
Herzl was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1860. His parents, though Jewish, had no religious sentiment and young Herzl was educated in the spirit of the German-Jewish “Enlightenment” of the time. He attended a Jewish grade school, then a local high school, and finally an evangelical high school. The family moved to Vienna in 1878 after the death of his sister. He studied law at the University of Vienna and received a doctorate in law in 1884.
Herzl worked several years in Germany and at the same time began to produce philosophical stories and plays. During this period, he married and had three children. This was not a happy period in his life, searching for meaning and social reform; he left law and became the Paris correspondent for the Vienna Free Press, a liberal newspaper. Herzl was in Paris to witness the rise of anti-Semitism, which, resulted from the court martial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, who was divested of his rank in a humiliating public ceremony in January 1895, as a mob shouted “Death to the Jews”. In June 1895, in his diary, he wrote: “In Paris, as I have said, I achieved a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism”.
After considering a number of possibilities, Herzl became convinced that the salvage of the Jews was mass exodus from their present environment to a resettlement in a territory of their own. Herzl now began a new era in his life – convincing and organizing what turned out to be the World Zionist Organization. Herzl, who was completely cut off from his Jewish roots and brethren, felt that any territory would suffice. He turned his impressive writing skills to convincing the wealthy and influential Jews to support his ideas.
Although Herzl, never lived to see his dreams fulfilled, his organizational skills moved the existing Zionist organizations, from small ineffective groups to a truly worldwide supported organization.
He published a pamphlet, The Jewish State in 1896. Although others had suggested solutions to anti-Semitism, Herzl was the first to call for immediate political action. Jewish reaction to his plan was mixed. Many Jews rejected it as too extreme, although there were those who responded with enthusiasm and asked him to head what was to become the Zionist movement. He succeeded in convening the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, August 29-31, 1897.
In his diary Herzl wrote,
“Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this: At Basle I founded the Jewish State”.
The congress adopted the Basle Program and established the World Zionist Organization to help create the economic foundation for the proposed Jewish state. Herzl was elected president of the organization and chaired the first six Zionist congresses. He spent much of his time in his remaining years meeting with world leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish, trying to enlist financial and political support for his dream of a Jewish state. He died in 1904 before his dream could become reality.
After his death, his reputation increased to that of a legend. He is credited with being the father of the modern Jewish state. Unfortunately, as it is with so many great personalities, being a father to his family was not successful. Of his three children, his older daughter became a drug addict and of devious character, dying in unfortunate circumstances. His only son converted to Christianity and subsequently committed suicide. His youngest daughter spent many years in hospitals and was taken by the Nazis to an extermination camp. Although Herzl transformed to Zionist world, he was not able to influence his own family to follow his lead. Unfortunately we have seen that Judaism could exist two thousand years with out Zionism, but Zionism could not exist one generation with out Judaism.
Herzl envisioned a Jewish state that was devoid of most aspects of Jewish culture. He did not envision the Jewish inhabitants of the state being religious, or even speaking Hebrew. Proponents of a Jewish cultural rebirth, such as Ahad Ha’am were critical of Altneuland.
Herzl did not foresee any conflict between Jews and Arabs. The one Arab character in Altneuland, Reshid Bey, is very grateful to his Jewish neighbors for improving the economic condition of Palestine and sees no cause for conflict.
The name of Tel Aviv is the title given to the Hebrew translation of Altneuland by the translator, Nahum Sokolov. This name, which comes from Ezekiel 3:15, means tell – an ancient mound formed when a town is built on its own debris for thousands of years – Aviv (the season) spring. The name was later applied to the new town built outside of Jaffa, which went on to become the second-largest city in Israel. Nearby is Herzlya, named in honor of Herzl.
In 1949 his remains were transferred to a mountain in western Jerusalem, which became Mount Herzl, and is today a major military cemetery.