Sunday, May 28th | 8 Sivan 5783

April 28, 2023 10:28 am

Remembering the Genius and Courage of Theodor Herzl

× [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]

avatar by Joshua Blustein


Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern-day Zionism, leans over the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois (Three King’s Hotel/Hotel drei Könige) in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Readers of Thedor Herzl’s draft of” Der Judenstaat” vowed to destroy it at the eleventh hour. Alexander Scharf met with Herzl and begged him to stop his treatise before it hit bookshelves in a week. Well, not many bookshelves. The publisher Breitenstein, Herzl noted in his diary, “wants to have a first printing of only 3000 copies. He has no faith as yet in its selling power.”

Scharf argued Herzl “would do the Jews grievous harm,” and said quite darkly that “if I did not know that you can’t be bought … I would offer you five million to suppress the pamphlet. Or I would assassinate you. For you will do the Jews a frightful injury.”

Theodor’s colleague, Moriz Benedikt, angrily confronted him, contending that Herzl was “endangering so many interests” and that “we shall not yet have the Jewish state.” “There was, besides,” Benedkit threatened, “a personal danger for [you]” if Herzl did not “desist from publication.”

“He threatened me in no uncertain manner,” Herzl said, but replied to Benedikt, “My honor is pledged.”

Related coverage

May 28, 2023 3:39 pm

Tour Guide School May Help Solve the Israeli-Arab Riddle - Tour guide school in Israel, as any graduate will agree, is quite an ordeal. It requires 60 full-day...

On February 15, 1896, Herzl scribbled into his diary: “the pamphlet has appeared in the bookstores. For me the die is cast.” Holding the first copies, he said, “I trembled violently. The great decision wrapped up in this bundle. From here on, my life will perhaps take a new turn.”

“Der Judenstaat” was received terribly in its first days. “Acquaintances ask me,” Herzl wrote, “did you write that pamphlet people are talking about? Is it a joke or something meant to be serious?” A university professor came to Herzl “and opened the conversation by asking whether I had meant the pamphlet to be taken seriously, or whether it was a satirical presentation of Zionism.” The toll on Herzl was tremendous, and it would eventually help kill him. He felt on the 14th “another day of heart palpitations and labored breathing.” Alone and embattled,  he wrote “my good father is my only standby.”

“I feel no one at my side but that beloved old man,” Herzl said. He stands firm as a rock.”

Theodor was rock-firm too: “I’ll fight hard,” he reassured his diary. “The most remarkable of all things is when a man never gives up.”

“Remarkable.” Never has a word so defined a man as Thedor Herzl, whose birthday is this Tuesday.

Herzl, almost single-handedly and nearly overnight, raised the Jews — phoenix-like — from the ashes of our oppression and exile, from our shibud to our geulah.

“We had to arouse the Jewish people,” Herzl thundered. The Jew “will climb ever upwards, despite everything, always and ever higher, ever higher!” Herzl was no mere dreamer, but a practical tactician. He won over the Jews and world leaders. He laid the blueprint down to the smallest details. Herzl bought land and planted trees, organized immigration and settlement, and settled disputes and unified a people. Nearly all the successes of Israel today trace their origin to a Herzlian idea: the kibbutz, Jewish army, Knesset, even the Dead Sea saline chemical industry. All in nine years.

But Herzl is also misunderstood. He was not — as I used to think — an assimilated and fully secular Jew who reluctantly faced the overwhelming antisemitic tide. “It would be far from the truth,” the late Marvin Lowenthal explained, “to imagine that [Herzl’s] family and background were innocent of Judaism. He came to the Jewish scene as no outsider.” Indeed, “during his boyhood the essential Jewish customs were observed in the Herzl household, the festivals were celebrated in the traditional manner.”

Herzl went to synagogue twice weekly with his father, and was even a brief member of the Chevra Kadisha. He never considered converting or changing his name, and pridefully defended his Jewishness several times as a young adult. A self-described free thinker, he had nothing but respect and even, at times, admiration for religious Jews and Judaism.

While some early Zionists sought to do away with the old faith, Herzl flatly disagreed, and saw Judaism and religious Jews as integral parts of the Zionist project and eventual state. “There are Jews” Herzl maintained, “who live on Judaism, and those who live for it,” with him squarely in the latter. Herzl did not consider himself assimilated: “Let the craven, assimilated, converted Jews remain behind… we loyal Jews, however, will once again become great.”

Herzl, on his 163rd birthday, earned from the Jewish people what he gave the Jewish people: devotion, loyalty, and love.

Joshua Blustein is a University of Chicago Law School student and a Krauthammer Fellow at the Tikvah Fund.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

Share this Story: Share On Facebook Share On Twitter

Let your voice be heard!

Join the Algemeiner

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.