I’m currently writing a book on the origins of Zionism, the political movement to re-establish a Jewish nation in the Land of Israel. One of the great pleasures of writing the book is learning more about Theodor Herzl, the writer who made the idea of a return to Zion popular and who organized the movement that eventually led to the birth of Israel.
Herzl was a deeply unlikely hero of the story of Zionism. He identified with German culture. For example, he loved going to Wagner’s operas. He kept a Christmas tree in his home. He didn’t know the Hebrew necessary for religious ceremonies or a lot about Jewish life, traditions, or history. He was, that is, hovering over the precipice of assimilation. Herzl was born in Pest (later Budapest) in Hungary on May 2, 1860 in a building next to the Dohany Synagogue. He was next to Judaism but not part of it.
After attending law school and starting a career in the law, Herzl eventually found his way into journalism. When he was 22, Herzl first became aware of the depth of hatred of the Jews. Although the Dreyfus trial is often considered to be the triggering event in Herzl’s conversion to Zionism, in fact his desire to solve the problem of anti-Semitism started after he read Eugen Duhring’s book The Jewish Problem as a Problem of Race, Morals and Culture. No book on a Jewish subject took up more space in his reading journal. Duhring’s stunningly horrific conclusion to his analysis of Jews as a race was that the Jews could not be absorbed into European societies and therefore had to be annihilated.
Herzl took these words more seriously than other Jewish readers. Intellectuals saw the power of words, but to them words of hate were either dismissed as without influence in polite circles or, if serious, countered by other words. Herzl was a different kind of intellectual. He was deeply attracted to the emotional power of words, but as his interest in the theater and opera showed him, words accompanied by a setting, costumes, and dramatic events taking place in front of him, were even more powerful than the words alone. Somehow, Herzl differed from many other Jewish intellectuals in that he was not satisfied in live in the world of German. He had to take the world he created in his head, the world of ideas, and travel with it to the real world. This was the crucial difference in his personality.
Seeking an appropriate response to anti-Semitism, Herzl first considered doing what European aristocrats had always done to deal with opponents—challenge them to a duel. He quickly realized that he could not duel to the death every anti-Semite in Europe, and so his search continued. Herzl’s next possible solution rested on his reasoning that those who hated Jews would not let them assimilate because they remained Jews. Herzl thought if they converted to Christianity they would then be accepted. He envisioned himself, with a few other non-converting leaders, bringing the Jewish masses before the Pope to convert. But his newspaper publisher made light of the idea, both its improbability and the more telling argument that Herzl had no right to set himself up as the end point in Judaism, which had preserved itself through the generations.
Again at bay, Herzl considered the revolutionary movements of socialism and communism then popular in Europe. But his deep respect for the law, his sense that legal order overlapped the nineteenth century’s notion of legal order as nationhood, and his belief that the radical utopian visions offered no immediate practical relief for suffering Jews made him reject all these alternatives.
The answer for him almost seems inevitable. That answer was that for the Jews, the escape from anti-Semitism required them to have a national home, a haven from hatred. Although Herzl and the other Zionists did not know it, he was in a race with history and Hitler. Sadly, the Zionists lost that race. But that was certainly not for Herzl’s want of trying.
The idea of a nation developed and then exploded in his mind, refusing to depart for a moment, leaving him haunted by it day and night, seeing all his other work as pitifully meaningless.
And so his Zionist work began.
And that story will be in the next post about Theodor Herzl.