During his short life, Herzl experienced ideological changes that eventually led him to develop his Zionist vision. After initially taking the view that the Jews should assimilate completely in European society, he came to realize that assimilation was no response to anti-Semitism, which was not a transient phenomenon but one with deep theological, social and cultural roots. He recognized that seeing anti-Semitic incidents as marginal episodes was tantamount to closing one’s eyes. Given the failure of emancipation, he understood that the Jews would only be able to find a solution for their distress if they established their own independent state. Having reached this conclusion, Herzl began to act consistently to secure his goal – strengthening ties among the Jews of the world in order to unite them under a common platform, contacting world leaders to secure recognition for the Zionist enterprise, and initiating diplomatic steps to this end.
Herzl did not live to see his ideas come to fruition. The State of Israel was established only fifty years after his death, and in his later years he faced more than a few disappointments and came to fear for the fate of the Jews. Yet during his life, he managed to establish the central institutions of the Jewish people, some of which continue to serve us to this day. The World Zionist Organization, the Zionist Congress, the Zionist Executive, the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency were all established or inspired by Herzl.
However, there were many bends in the road leading to the establishment of the Zionist movements and institutions, with numerous difficulties and setbacks along the way.
Herzl and the Wealthy Barons
From the beginning, Herzl realized that in order to ensure that the idea of the Jewish state could become a feasible proposition, he would have to secure both ideological and financial support. To this end, he initiated meetings with senior political and financial figures in the hope that he could convince them of the importance of Zionism and recruit them to the cause.
One of the first figures he met was Baron Hirsch, with whom he held a “Jewish political discussion” in May 1895. The two men met again in June, after Herzl sent the wealthy philanthropist a detailed letter explaining his position. “If only we had a united political state, we could begin to solve the ‘Jewish question,’” Herzl wrote, adding that the dispersal of the Jewish people and the absence of a unified leadership meant that “there is no-one willing… to educate us to be true men.” The only solution to this, he continued, was a political one.
The meeting between the two men had no practical outcome, and is of primarily historical importance. Hirsch rejected Herzl’s ideas, which he felt were unfeasible, and dismissed Herzl’s strong criticism of his philanthropic approach. He was also dismissive of Herzl’s goal of establishing “a national Jewish fund that would raise ten million marks.” Hirsch saw Herzl’s vision as an impossible mission, and scornfully predicted that “the rich Jews will not give a penny.” Thus their meeting was of no practical benefit, though it served as a “baptism by fire” for Herzl, who would later meet many similar skeptics who regarded his enthusiastic faith in a critical, scornful or apathetic manner.
As a young man (and, indeed, as he grew older), Herzl was not alarmed by the Baron’s cool response. “Do not find fault with me because I am a younger man,” he wrote after the meeting. “Would you care to wage a bet with me? I shall found a national loan fund for the Jews.” The disappointing meeting did not discourage Herzl, who continued to engage in correspondence with leading figures such as the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, the well-known Jewish architect Oskar Marmorek, the talented journalist Friedrich Schiff, and wealthy members of the Rothschild family. Herzl explained his ideas to them, hoping to secure a positive response that would encourage him as he continued his efforts. However, these figures were unimpressed by his initiatives, which they received with disdainful reservations. Herzl realized that he could not rely on rich philanthropists, and must turn his attention to the masses.
Herzl’s efforts to enlist the Rothschilds to his ideas were unsuccessful and ended in mutual disappointment. However, the fierce argument between the two sides proved that debate could provide fertile ground for action, and that feelings of resentment and anger could produce energies to be channeled into fruitful avenues. The tension between Herzl and the Rothschild family led the young leader to clarify his own positions, and his resentment encouraged him to express his thoughts in a fiery and determined manner. Under the impact of his difficult meeting with the Rothschilds, Herzl decided to make an impassioned speech before them, and spent five days feverishly writing some 65 dense pages he intended to read before the wealthy family.
The dramatic reading never took place. However, like many others, the Rothschilds were exposed to the speech in its refined version, when it appeared as Herzl’s book Der Judenstaat
The First Zionist Document
The book The Jewish State, An Attempt for a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question, (Der Judenstaat) was published on February 14, 1896. On the same day, Herzl wrote in his diary: “Toward evening, 500 copies of The Jewish State arrived. When I asked that the parcel be taken to my room, I was profoundly excited. This collection of booklets is a concrete manifestation of the determination. It seems that my life is at a turning point.”
Herzl was right. Not only his own life, but also the life of the entire Jewish people was indeed at a turning point. In The Jewish State, which would later become the fundamental manifesto of the Zionist movement, the Zionist vision was described for the first time, reinforcing the readers’ faith that a Jewish state was neither a legend nor a dream. In clear, precise terms, in a well-developed and well-phrased text, Herzl described the steps to be taken in order to realize the Zionist ideal and the character of the future state. Thus this work came to secure a place of honor on the Jewish bookshelf.
In the first part of the book, Herzl clarifies that the only solution to the distress faced by the Jews is to establish a sovereign political entity. In eloquent and well-argued terms, he explained that, despite the dispersion of the Jews around the world, they nevertheless constitute a people – a Jewish people with a distinct national identity; a Jewish nation that deserves a proper definition and independent territory, which will provide an economic and social solution not only for the Jews, but for the entire world.
The book then describes the steps to be taken to realize this idea. Herzl explains how the people were to be organized, led and governed; illustrates how economic resources can be recruited; and describes the ways in which diplomatic support may be secured. He then goes on to offer a portrait of the future state, including its social and cultural structure, noting the steps necessary in order to prepare the country to receive immigrants. The first step to be taken, he argues, is to establish orderly institutions that will act to realize the state. To this end, Herzl proposes the establishment of two main bodies: A “Jewish Association,” to be responsible for the organizational and diplomatic aspects, and a “Jewish Society,” charged with the financial aspects and responsible for executive action.
The Reception of TheJewish State around the World
The strength of the reaction to The Jewish State was in inverse proportion to the slender dimensions of the booklet. A work of just 86 pages provoked media discussion and a stormy public debate. Some angrily criticized Herzl, whom they saw as a “false messiah” liable to bring disaster upon the Jews of the Diaspora through his exaggerated “prophecies.” Others saw his thoughts as the manifestation of dangerous delusions of grandeur. Still others felt that the book managed to provide a profound and accurate description of the components of the “Jewish problem,” to outline in a surprisingly sharp manner the ways to resolve this problem; their feeling was that the author, Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, was a visionary rather than a dreamer, and that he deserved the title of the “New Moses.”
Herzl’s diary entries from this period illustrate the profound impression The Jewish State made on European society as a whole. We can learn that numerological calculations and spiritual awareness are not the exclusive prerogative of the New Age, as testified by the enthusiasm of William H. Hechler*, a priest who described Herzl as “a sympathetic and gentle man, with a long prophet’s beard.” Hechler claimed, on the basis of ancient numerological signs and an ancient prophecy from the time of Omar (637-638) that “after 42 prophetic moons, which are 1260 years, the Land of Israel shall be returned to the Jews, viz. in 1896-1898,” as Herzl wrote in his diary (March 10, 1896), reporting the clergyman’s reaction.
This story may seem at first glance to be no more than an amusing anecdote, but it is evidence of the broad support Herzl secured from a wide range of individuals and groups, businessmen, public figures and ideologues. By way of example, Herzl secured the support of the Marmorek brothers of Paris, the encouragement of Alfred Stern, a member of the Vienna city council, and the support of the Zionists of Sofia, Bulgaria, 600 of whom wrote to express their willingness to join the movement.
Herzl – A Rising Power
The heartening responses to The Jewish State galvanized Herzl’s determination to continue with his diplomatic activities in order to secure his goals. Hechler, the clergyman with his encouraging ancient prophecies, attempted to arrange a meeting between Herzl and the German Chancellor, and helped mediate contacts with other political figures.
Thanks to Hechler’s mediation, a meeting was arranged between Herzl and Friedrich, the Archduke of Baden** and uncle of Wilhelm the Second, the emperor of Germany. Herzl’s extensive preparations before the meeting proved worthwhile. The encounter was particularly successful – the archduke was fascinated by Herzl’s personality and ideas. Herzl explained the advantages of the future Jewish state from the perspective of the German empire, and convinced him that his support in its establishment would bring great benefit both for the Jews and for the nations of Europe.
The vigorous support of the archduke encouraged Herzl to continue his diplomatic contacts, and he began to initiate contacts with the Ottoman Empire. He could not yet arrange a meeting with the sultan, but he managed to meet other leaders in the Ottoman administration, such as Prime Minister Khalil Rifat Pasha, the secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry, Nuri Bey, and the sultan’s secretary, Izat Bey, who later became the “Grand Vizier” or prime minister of the empire.
Alongside his diplomatic efforts, Herzl continued to enhance his status among the Jews of Europe. Although he was sometimes subjected to hostile criticism, he was increasingly convinced that, in order to realize the Zionist vision, it was necessary to unite the Jewish masses and organize Zionism as an official movement uniting the Jewish people under a common ideological platform. “The land of our forefathers still exists… The ancient land renews its youth under the touch of diligent hands. Again it bears flowers, again it bears fruit, and, one day, one fine day, it may yet bear the happiness and dignity of the Jews,” predicted Herzl in a speech to the members of the Maccabeans Club. In order to establish this state, he knew, it was essential to consolidate Zionism as an orderly movement and convene the Jews of the world.
Within a few weeks, Herzl was successful in his task, and the First Zionist Congress was opened.
* William Henry Hechler (1845-1931)
A South African-born British priest who was on close terms with Kaiser Wilhelm the Second. Hechler, who was identified with the Anglican Church, was an unusual figure who had a strong interest in the spiritual and mystical worlds. In 1884, he published his essay “The Return of the Jews to the Land of Israel in accordance with the Prophets,” in which, drawing on ancient prophecies, he predicted that around 1897 the Jews would return to their homeland. He met Herzl while serving as chaplain at the British embassy in Vienna, and the two men developed a special friendship.
** Freidrich, Archduke of Baden(1826-1907)
The archduke, who controlled the State of Baden from 1876, was considered the most democratic and liberal of the German princes, and supported Herzl and Zionism. “The noblest man I know,” Herzl wrote of him, “A great man who is ready to help.” The archduke was the uncle of the German Kaiser Wilhelm the Second, with whom he had a close relationship. It was Friedrich who crowned Wilhelm emperor of Germany (in 1871), and he helped greatly to develop contacts between Herzl and the Kaiser.