Theodor Herzl

The foremost leader of Political Zionism was inspired by the Dreyfus Affair.

Theodor Herzl (1860‑1904) was the foremost leader of political Zionism. Herzl belonged to a fairly assimilated Jewish family in Vienna. He took a law degree at the university but earned his living as a playwright and particularly as a successful journalist on the Neue Freie Presse.

The story has often been told of how Herzl, reporting for his paper in Paris on the Dreyfus Affair, in which the thoroughly assimilated Captain Dreyfus, in an anti‑Semitic plot, was falsely accused of treason, came to realize that the Emancipation of the Jews, far from solving the Jewish problem, only aggravated it by creating severe tensions between the Jews and their neighbors in European society. In Herzl’s view, the Jews had to consider themselves to be not only a religious body but also a nation capable of developing its own political institutions in a land of its own.

Herzl gave expression to his views in 1896 with the publication of Judenstaat (“The Jewish State“). He eventually came to appreciate that the creation of such a Jewish state could be feasible only in Palestine, the traditional homeland of the Jewish people. Herzl has been described as a practical dreamer, and it is true that, with considerable organizing ability, he worked for the practical realization of his aim, succeeding in winning many Jews to co-operate with him in, at the time, a seemingly impossible task.

The first Zionist Congress was held in Basle in 1897 at which the World Zionist Organization was founded and Herzl elected its president. In 1902 Herzl published his utopian vision of the Jewish state, the Altneuland (“Old New Land“). Herzl died, at the early age of 44, in Vienna, where he was buried. In 1949 Herzl’s remains were taken to Jerusalem where they were buried on a hill, now called Mount Herzl. More than any other thinker and politician, Herzl was indirectly responsible for the emergence of the State of Israel and is acknowledged to be the state’s true founder.

FROM THE JTA ARCHIVE: Basle, Again the Scene of Zionist Congress, Accentuates Contrast (1927)

It is undeniable that Herzl’s ideas, while contributing immensely to the survival of the Jewish people, created problems for the Jewish religion. For Herzl and for political Zionism as a movement, the Jews were a nation like other nations, and this raised questions about the nature of Judaism.

The majority of the rabbis in Herzl’s day, whether Orthodox or Reform, were opposed to his views on precisely these grounds. The Reform rabbis believed that the new emphasis on nationhood frustrated the universalistic thrust of Judaism as a world religion independent of nationality. The Orthodox, at the opposite end of the spectrum, believed that the particularistic elements in Judaism were contained in the Torah and the practice of its laws, not in any form of secular nationalism; though the Mizrachi (Religious Zionist) movement sought to combine the ideas of nationalism and religion for Jews in a modern state. Once the State of Israel had been established, the whole debate became purely academic, which is not to deny that many of the problems still await their solution.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press

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