Editor’s note: Excerpted from the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” edited by Gil Troy, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People, to be published this August marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. This is eighth in a series.
The First Zionist Congress in 1897 electrified the Jewish masses – and stirred the (kosher) doubting Thomases. Critics came not only from the assimilationists and the fundamentalists but from some Zionists. Veteran activists resented Theodor Herzl as an ignorant Johnny-come-lately so pleased he had discovered something they had known for years. Others feared Herzl’s focus on diplomacy and politics, considering Jews’ political and diplomatic impotence during millennia of powerlessness. Hashiloah, the Odessa-based Cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am’s publication, warned that the “new enthusiasm is artificial … and its end will bring despair … Israel’s salvation will come from ‘prophets’ rather than from ‘diplomats.’”
Political Zionism was a leap. But it was timely. Blending pragmatism and grandiosity as usual, Herzl would write in his diary on September 3, 1897: “At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.” On November 29, 1947, the United Nations would vote in favor of establishing said Jewish state in Palestine. And on May 14, 1948, this old-new Jewish-democratic state was established.
Herzl’s growing fame got his play, “The New Ghetto,” produced in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague. Reaction in Vienna was mixed – but in Berlin it was merciless, devastating Herzl. The Viennese production in January 1898 did get Sigmund Freud from 19 Berggasse dreaming about the play written by Herzl, who lived at 6 Berggasse from 1896 to 1898. Freud worried “about the future of children to whom one cannot give a fatherland.” Although never a Zionist, Freud would flatter Herzl in 1902, calling him a “poet and fighter for the human rights of our people.”
While mapping out his thoughts for a state in a novel, Herzl enjoyed some diplomatic progress. He succeeded in meeting the German emperor in Constantinople in October 1898, then followed Wilhelm II to Palestine, arriving in Jaffa on October 19. This ten-day mission would be Herzl’s only trip to the Holy Land.
Romantics still celebrate the visit as the secular Zionist version of the priestly blessing, with Herzl, the high priest of Jewish nationalism, embracing the Jewish homeland.
Romantics still celebrate the visit as the secular Zionist version of the priestly blessing, with Herzl, the high priest of Jewish nationalism, embracing the Jewish homeland. But it was more like a European-Jewish version of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” One photo captures a handsome Herzl sitting cross-legged on the deck of his ship, the Emperor Nicolai II, waiting to dock in Israel. Flanking Herzl are European Jews in stiff suits and local Arabs in flowing robes. Another has Herzl and his four companions, looking like proper European bourgeois-penguins, waiting in formal wear on rocky Jerusalem soil to meet the Kaiser, with David’s Citadel and the Old City’s walls looming in the background. And, perhaps most fitting for the diplomatic misfire that occurred, a photo shows the Kaiser passing by the delegation, with only Herzl’s foot appearing in the actual shot, before a standing photo of Herzl was photo-montaged in.
Ever-conscious of his image and fearing mockery, Herzl refused throughout the trip to mount “a white donkey or a white horse.” Years later, this memory charmed Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele III. It was “so no one would embarrass me by thinking I was the Messiah,” Herzl admitted. The king laughed.
Herzl’s words captured the rollercoaster emotions so many pilgrims had on visiting Jerusalem. “The silhouette of the fortress of Zion, the citadel of David,” he writes, “magnificent,” conveying his woozy first impression. Then, the letdown, contemplating that “if Jerusalem is ever ours, and if I were still able to do anything about it, I would begin by cleaning it up.” Finally, the Herzlian, dream-catching, ever-tinkering, flourish: “I would build an airy, comfortable, properly sewered, brand new city around the holy places” – which, essentially, has happened.
Two moves were perhaps most portentous. Herzl visited Motza, a small settlement neighboring Jerusalem, to plant a tree – a Zionist act of renewal replicated by millions of Jews since. And when Herzl arrived in Jerusalem on Friday night, despite feeling ill, he walked to his hotel instead of riding. This secular Jew was honoring the Holy City’s mostly religious Jews.
When the Kaiser refused to push his Ottoman allies to make Palestine a Jewish protectorate, Herzl started lobbying the Russians and the British. He also focused on launching the Jewish Colonial Trust, authorized by the Second Zionist Congress and incorporated in London in 1899, the bank’s central mission including financing land purchases and settlements in Palestine while more generally supporting the Zionist enterprise. After the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, Herzl insisted and the delegates finally voted to establish the Jewish National Fund, to raise money to buy land in Palestine. Herzl gave the second donation.
Herzl struggled daily. He was draining his wife’s dowry. Their interactions usually ranged between frosty and testy. He remained frustrated by his inability to write a play that popped and felt constant pressure from his assimilationist Jewish publishers to stop embarrassing them and the paper with his Zionist antics. In fact, they never mentioned their most prominent journalist’s connection to the movement until Herzl’s death. The diplomatic initiatives proceeded fitfully, as did his outreach to many of the wealthiest Jews – whose resistance rankled. And, despite his relative youth, Herzl kept experiencing fatigue, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizzy spells, and other signs of rapidly advancing heart disease. “The wind blows through the stubble. I feel the autumn of my life approaching,” Herzl wrote in 1901. “I am in danger of leaving no work to the world and no property to my children.” He was barely forty-one years old.
Professor Gil Troy is the author of “The Zionist Ideas” and the editor of the three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings.” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People, to be published this August marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress.