Theodor Herzl was born 2nd May 1860 in Budapest, Hungary, part of the old Austrian empire. He died 3rd July 1904, Edlach, Austria at only 44 years of age.
Herzl was born of well-to-do middle-class parents. His first taste of school life brought him considerable trauma due to violent anti-semitism. Therefore in 1875 his parents transferred him to a school where most of the students were Jews. In 1878 the family moved from Budapest to Vienna, where Theodor entered the University of Vienna to study law. Although he received his doctorate and a licence to practise law in 1884, he chose to devote himself to literature, and for a number of years was a journalist and a moderately successful playwright. In 1889 he married Julie Naschauer, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman in Vienna. The marriage was not a happy one, mainly because of his mother’s antagonism towards his wife. Theodor had a great attachment to his mother, and this didn’t help the marriage to work. However, they had three children.
In 1891 Herzl was transferred to Paris by his newspaper, Neue Freie Presse, as their Paris correspondent. He arrived with his wife in the autumn of that year, and was shocked to find that anti-semitism was as strong there as in the Austria of his homeland. This attitude problem had caused him numerous headaches in the course of his life, causing him to read widely on the subject. At one stage he even wondered whether the solution to the problem would be the wholesale conversion of Jews to Christianity, thereby ending the unwarranted, mischievous, andgratuitous hatred of Germanic and French people towards the Jews. His voluminous diaries show how he toyed with several such ideas. But conversion was eventually ruled out as a betrayal of the Jewish heritage.
One of his assignments as Paris correspondent was to attend the trial of Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. The blatant anti-semitism displayed in this case caused Herzl deep shock, and made him re-think all his previous considerations on behalf of the Jews, and as a result he became a convinced Zionist, a word that was coined to describe the new militant attitude that favoured Jews being restored to their native land.
He turned to one of the world’s wealthiest Jews, Baron Maurice de Hirsch (1831 – 1896) the railroad magnate and philanthropist, with a proposal for mass immigration. He visited him in Paris, but the Baron’s non-committal reply, refusing even to hear him out, caused Herzl to “go it alone”, and to write a pamphlet, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) published in Vienna in 1896 for general distribution amongst world Jewry. He used his journalistic skills to offer a vivid description of his envisioned Jewish state and a convincing account of the means by which it was to be achieved. Zionism for Herzl represented an act of will that could transcend everyday reality and create a new world.
One cannot help being struck by the rational, democratic, and progressive quality of the nation-building institutions that Herzl founded. The World Zionist Organisation (WZO) was embodied in its annual (later biennial) Congress, an assembly elected by all who paid a token annual fee. From 1898, women were allowed to vote for the congress, at a time when New Zealand was the only country with national female suffrage. The executive was fully responsible to the Congress, so also was the WZO’s bank, the Jewish Colonial Trust, and the Jewish National Fund, which was dedicated to land purchase in Palestine. Herzl’s writings and speeches called for a liberal utopia, with economic justice, free education, and an advanced welfare system. Political leadership would be exercised by an elite selected by merit alone. The state would have no demagogy, no chauvinism, and no war.
All this began out of Herzl’s revulsion in witnessing the blatant national anti-Semitism at the Dreyfus trial. He said in later years, “Were it not for the Dreyfus case, I might never have become a Zionist.” It is strange how certain people, with certain ideas, suddenly become watersheds in history. Herzl was by no means the first to suggest a return to Palestine for the Jewish people. It is recorded that Napoleon suggested it in 1799; Benjamin Disraeli, the Jewish prime minister, had written about it in his novel Tancred; Moses Hess, friend of Karl Marx, had published an important book, Rom und Jerusalem in 1862, in which he declared the establishment of a Jewish National State a world necessity. But it was this hitherto unknown Austrian journalist who rose to fame and fanned the flames of Zionism in Europe. Out of his pamphlet there arose a swelling, a yearning, a deep-seated desire amongst Jewry for a return to their land.
The first Zionist Congress was held in Basel, Switzerland, at the end of August 1897, and about 200 delegates attended, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, but with a few from Western Europe and even the United States. They represented every stratum of society and thought, from Orthodox Jews to atheists, from businessmen to students. There were also hundreds of onlookers, including some sympathetic Christians, and of course reporters from the world’s press. When Herzl’s imposing figure appeared on the podium he was greeted with tumultuous applause. “We want to lay the foundation stone,” he declared, “for the house which will become the refuge of the Jewish nation. Zionism is the return to Judaism even before the return to the land of Israel.”
The outcome of this three-day congress was the establishment of the Zionist Organisation, with Herzl as President, and the slogan, “Zionism aspires to create a publicly guaranteed homeland for the Jewish people in the land of Israel.” In the next chapter we shall see what some of the world’s journals and newspapers thought of the Congress, and of Herzl himself.