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February 10, 2020 9:10 am

The Audacity of Herzl

avatar by Sean Durns


Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“With audacity,” Napoleon Bonaparte once observed, “one can undertake anything, but not do everything.”

As Derek Penslar’s new book Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader makes clear, few men in history were as audacious as the man that many consider to be the founding father of political Zionism. Few had ambitions as grandiose, and as seemingly impossible.

Penslar’s biography of Herzl is the latest entry in the Yale University Press’ bestselling Jewish Lives Series. It is far from the first book on the Zionist leader; recent years have seen works by Shlomo Avineri and others. But Penslar, a professor of Jewish history at Harvard, has made an important contribution here. In a readable and concise volume, he shows that the very qualities that made Herzl both brilliant and troubled were essential to a movement in its formative years.

His was a life “as puzzling as it was brief,” the historian notes.

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Born on May 2, 1860, in the Hungarian city of Pest, Herzl was raised in a middle-class, assimilated, and secular Jewish household. Great leaders and figures in history fascinated Herzl as a young man. From the very beginning he demonstrated an aptitude for writing, creativity, and leadership. As Penslar observes, “the diligence, polish, and range that Herzl brought to bear on his writing certainly portended” his “future literary success and his astonishing fluency as a Zionist spokesman.”

But tragedy struck the adolescent. Both a young love of his named Madeline Herz, as well as his sister Pauline, died young and unexpectedly. He never got over it. These events, and a very unhappy marriage, would plague the deeply emotional Herzl, who would suffer from periods of depression throughout his life. His future plays and writings would often be filled with characters and storylines inspired by his wife, his sister, Madeline Herz, and most of all, Herzl himself.

Herzl’s family moved to Vienna shortly after Pauline’s death, and he soon began studying law at the University of Vienna. Herzl developed an interest in the military and dueling, even fighting in a brief duel and unsuccessfully attempting to join the Austro-Hungarian military. The draft board declined Herzl — perhaps, Penslar notes, because of a heart murmur. The effects of a “heart ailment” — with which he would be officially diagnosed at the age of 36 — would often leave Herzl in ill health, and eventually an early grave. 

Practicing law didn’t intrigue Herzl, who instead sought — and found — limited success as a writer and playwright. Herzl found greater success, however, as a journalist — a career choice that was to prove useful later.

It was in Paris, while working as a correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse, that Herzl began to wrestle with the plight of world Jewry. In the early 1890s, the overwhelming majority of his dispatches did not, as Penslar notes, deal with antisemitism. But it was increasingly on his mind — and for good reason.

According to the book, the 1892 bankruptcy scandal of the Panama Canal Company “played a major role in the intensification of French antisemitism” serving as a “springboard for the rise to fame of Edouard Drumont, whose 1886 book La France Juive would become a best seller, and who in 1892 founded a daily antisemitic newspaper, La libre parole.”

Initially Herzl thought that in France “the movement will pass, although most likely not without excesses and isolated catastrophes.” As time went on, and as Herzl observed antisemitism also emanating from the supposedly liberal French socialist left and elsewhere, he changed his mind. From 1892 to 1894, the journalist increasingly devoted more time to “the Jewish Question,” formulating “multiple and contradictory solutions,” Penslar writes. He advocated everything from German Jews embracing socialism, to Austria’s Jews undergoing complete assimilation, to dueling in order to win the respect of non-Jews.

At one point, Herzl even raised the idea of an orchestrated mass conversion of Austrian Jews to Catholicism.

The infamous Dreyfus affair, in which a French military captain of Jewish descent, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly convicted of treason in December 1894, did not lead, as some have suggested — including, much later, Herzl himself — to the journalist adopting Zionism, the belief in Jewish self-determination, as the solution. Examining Herzl’s own diaries and reports, Penslar notes that “more important than Dreyfus were the Viennese municipal elections in April and May of 1895,” which saw antisemite Karl Lueger elected mayor.

Herzl would later fantasize about fighting a duel with Lueger, that would either result in his martyrdom or, if he killed his opponent, making a captivating speech in the courtroom on the Jewish Question. Instead, he embarked — almost manically — on writing a manifesto, later called The Jewish State. In June 1895 alone, Herzl wrote the equivalent of 160 printed pages in his diary.

Herzl’s vision of what would constitute the Jewish state would be in flux in the coming years, as would his ideas on how to bring it to fruition. Herzl was not the first 19th century thinker to advocate for Zionism; individuals like Leon Pinsker in his 1882 tract Auto Emancipation had done so before. Small numbers of Jews had been returning to their ancestral homeland for centuries. The First Aliyah itself predates Herzl’s The Jewish State by a decade and a half.

But Herzl himself was, as Penslar makes clear, the indispensable man. His charisma, eloquence, and sheer force of personality were essential to what was, for many years, very much a minority movement.

Although he was often overly optimistic, Herzl demonstrated pragmatism, showing a willingness to look for various international sponsors, from Wilhelmine Germany to Victorian England. He managed to obtain meetings with the Pope, the British Colonial Secretary, the Ottoman Sultan, and, in one brief moment, Kaiser Wilhelm. Although all were largely unsuccessful and Herzl was unable to gain international support for the return of Jews to Zion, it was a remarkable accomplishment — particularly for a middle-class Jewish journalist of modest means at the beginning of the 20th century.

Perhaps more importantly, Herzl provided the energy and the shape for political Zionism to slowly rise, overseeing the establishment of the Zionist Congress and banks to oversee the purchase of land. In Penslar’s words, he was an “organizational genius” who inspired Jews in lands that he never visited — Jews with languages and customs that were largely alien to him. He believed “in the power of words.”

It came, however, at tremendous personal cost. By the time that Herzl died at only 44 on July 3, 1904, he left behind a movement that would, against all odds, help create the first Jewish state in two thousand years. That he did so a mere eight years after writing The Jewish State is an astonishing accomplishment, although he didn’t live to see his dream come to fruition.

Derek Penslar’s biography fleshes out Herzl, noting his failings: his vacillating emotions and erratic, but passionate, ideas, his unhappy marriage, and his manic behavior. What emerges is a portrait of a man whose ideas and energy contributed to a sea change in both Jewish and world history. That he is made human, and not of marble, is a credit to the biographer.

What stands out the most, however, is the sheer audacity of Herzl and his vision — and how important that audacity was for its eventual success. As Herzl himself said: Visions alone grip the souls of men.  

Sean Durns is a Senior Research Analyst for the Washington, DC office of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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