Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl: A Profile of a Leader


By Gideon

Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl was born in Budapest, Hungary on May 2, 1860. He was raised in a well-to-do home, received a basic Jewish education, and was educated in the spirit of the German-­Jewish Enlightenment of the period. His father’s family were originally from Zimony (todayZemun, Serbia). He was the second child of Jeanette and Jakob Herzl, who were German-speaking, assimilated Jews. Herzl’s father, was a highly successful businessman. Herzl had one sister, Pauline, a year older than he was. 

As a youth, Herzl aspired to follow in the footsteps of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, but did not succeed in the sciences and instead developed a growing enthusiasm for poetry and the humanities. This passion later developed into a successful career in journalism and a less-celebrated pursuit of playwriting. 

In 1878, after the death of his sister Pauline from typhus, the family moved to Vienna, Austria-Hungary. At the University of Vienna, Herzl studied law. As a young law student, Herzl became a member of the German nationalist Burschenschaft (fraternity) Albia, which had the motto Ehre, Freiheit, Vaterland (“Honor, Freedom, Fatherland”). He later resigned in protest at the organisation’s antisemitism.

After graduation with a doctorate in law, 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 a social reform, he left law and became the Paris correspondent for the Vienna Free Press, a liberal newspaper. He later became literary editor of Neue Freie Presse, and wrote several comedies and dramas for the Viennese stage. His early work did not focus on Jewish life. It was of the feuilleton order, descriptive rather than political.

In 1891, Herzl had become the Paris correspondent for the influential Vienna newspaper Neue Freie Presse. During his work he came fact-to-face with the growing anti-Semitic atmosphere in France; he became more and more concerned with the Jewish question, and sought various ways to cope with the issue. At a certain point, he considered working towards the idea of mass conversion of young Jews to Christianity, in the hope that this would solve the Jewish problem once and for all. But he quickly disabused himself of this notion.

In 1894 Herzl attended the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, an assimilated Jewish officer in the French army who was unjustly accused of treason. Herzl was appalled when he witnessed the Parisian mobs shouting “Death to the Jews.” This anti-Semitic atmosphere led Herzl towards a new conceptual horizon. He began to understand that the Jewish problem demanded a national and political solution. He believed that only by establishing a state for the Jewish people could the Jews resolve their distress and bring an end to anti-Semitism.

His new Zionist vision was presented in its entirety in his book entitled, Der Judenstaat, which was published in February, 1896. The appearance of Herzl’s book unleashed violent disagreement. The enlightened elite rejected Herzl’s plan, for both ideological and practical reasons. On the other hand, his ideas were met with enthusiasm by the Jewish masses, who considered him to be a modern Moses.

He turned his impressive writing skills to convincing the wealthy and influential Jews to support his ideas. However a loosely confederated organization called “Hovavy Zion” or “Hebat Zion” already existed in the eastern European countries. This organization, to which Herzl was unaware, was preparing young Jews to settle the land of Israel as agriculturists. The organization had the support of many of the wealthy Jews of that period.

When Herzl began to expound his ideas of a central world organization to mass move the Jews to some as yet unknown territory, he was met with mass resentment by the eastern European Jews who regarded him either as a madman or completely off the target. Herzl was not rebuffed and continued his promulgating his ideas. It did not matter to Herzl which country or territory was given to the Jews, to Herzl, the main concern was that the Jews be given an area to which they had there own dominion and hence the phenomena of anti-semitism would cease. Herzl’s genius at organization and convincing slowly began to bear fruits. He began to publish his ideas on the solution to the Jewish problems. Slowly the initial rejection by the established Zionist organization began to wear down and he began to increase in popularity amongst the masses. Many people admired his ideas on organization and financial banking that would fund the Jewish settlement.

Herzl was enthralled with the Zionist idea. He conducted diplomatic ties to disseminate his plans and to gain a Charter (the right of Jews to settle in Eretz Israel, granted by the Turkish Sultan). In contrast with others in the Zionist movement, Herzl believed it was very important to gain international and legal recognition of the rights of the Jewish people in Eretz Israel before beginning actual settlement there. This perspective was the basis of the Political Zionism Movement, of which Herzl was the leader.

With Jewish support, he began making political connections to further the territorial quest. Meeting with heads of states and ministers, he began making serious inroads towards his goals. In 1897, at considerable personal expense, he founded Die Welt of Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and planned the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Here, the World Zionist Organization was founded and Herzl was made its first president. 

Herzl visited Jerusalem for the first time in October 1898. He deliberately coordinated his visit with that of Wilhelm II to secure what he thought had been prearranged with the aid of Rev. William Hechler, public world power recognition of himself and Zionism. Herzl and Wilhelm II first met publicly on October 29, at Mikveh Israel, near present-day Holon, Israel. It was a brief but historic meeting. He had a second formal, public audience with the emperor at the latter’s tent camp on Street of the Prophets in Jerusalem on November 2, 1898. 

In 1902–03, Herzl was invited to give evidence before the British Royal Commission on Alien Immigration. His appearance brought him into close contact with members of the British government, particularly with Joseph Chamberlain, then secretary of state for the colonies, through whom he negotiated with the Egyptian government for a charter for the settlement of the Jews in Al ‘Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, adjoining southern Palestine.

Herzl worked hard to find a territory for the Jews. Sinai and Cyprus were two territories under consideration. Then in 1903, the British offered Herzl the area called Uganda. At this time pogroms and oppression in Russia reached a new high. Herzl felt that taking Uganda would be justified. He submitted the Uganda plan to the sixth Zionist Congress. The proposal aroused strong opposition and resentment. The eastern European Jews regarded it as a betrayment to the dream of settling in the land of Israel. So strong and hostile was the opposition, it caused Herzl to write a written commitment to abandon the Uganda plan.

In 1903, Herzl attempted to obtain support for the Jewish homeland from Pope Pius X, an idea broached at 6th Zionist Congress. Palestine could offer a safe refuge for the those fleeing persecution in Russia. Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val ordained that the Church’s policy was explained non possumus on such matters, decreeing that as long as the Jews denied the divinity of Christ, the Catholics could not make a declaration in their favour.

Herzl did not live to see the realization of his vision; he died in Edlach near Vienna on July 3, 1904. After his death, his reputation increased to that of a legend. He is credited with being the father of the modern Jewish state. In light of his final request, following the establishment of the State of Israel, his body was brought for reinterment in August 1949, on Mt. Herzl, which was named in his memory.

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 spend many years in hospitals and was taken by the Nazis to an extermination camp. 

Hertzl’s Quotes:

  • If  you will it, it is no dream.
  • The  Jews had, as a matter of fact, long been all along the most ingenious  entrepreneurs. It was only our own future that we had never built upon a  business basis.
  • It  is true that we aspire to our ancient land. But what we want in that ancient  land is a new blossoming of the Jewish spirit.