(National Photo Collection of Israel)

Theodor Herzl

Though he died decades before the State of Israel's establishment, he is considered the country's founding father.

Theodor Herzl was an Austrian Jewish journalist and playwright best known for his critical role in establishing the modern State of Israel. His pamphlet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), published in 1896, helped launch Zionism as a modern political movement whose objective — the establishment of a Jewish homeland — Herzl spent the rest of his life advancing.

The term “Zionism” itself is attributed to another Austrian Jewish writer, Nathan Birnbaum, and the Jewish longing for a return to Zion — a biblical synonym for Jerusalem — is millennia old. But it was Herzl who was chiefly responsible for turning Zionism into a political project. Though he died decades before that project would come to fruition, Herzl is remembered today as Israel’s founding father, his grave located in Israel’s national cemetery in Jerusalem and his Hebrew birthday (the 10th of Iyar) observed as a national holiday. His portrait hangs today in the plenum hall of the Israeli Knesset.

Born in Budapest in 1860 to a family of assimilated German-speaking Jews, Herzl moved to Vienna as a boy and earned a degree in law from the University of Vienna. He later turned to journalism and playwriting, authoring more than a dozen works (mostly comedies) through the 1880s and ‘90s.

As a young man, Herzl believed Jews should seek to assimilate into European culture. According to several of his biographers, Herzl had an ambivalent relationship to his Jewish identity, both proud and ashamed, and sought to shed his distinctly Jewish traits and meld into the wider culture. But over time he came to lose faith in that approach. The conventional view has it that Herzl was deeply influenced by the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish army captain falsely accused of treason in 1894. The case, which has come to be seen as a textbook example of enduring European hostility toward Jews, unfolded when Herzl was the Paris correspondent for the Viennese Neue Freie Presse. However, later scholars have suggested that Herzl’s transformation occurred earlier and that he played up the impact of the Dreyfus affair on his thinking only to win support for his political goals.

Either way, Herzl eventually came to believe in the futility of Jewish assimilation and efforts to combat anti-Semitism, promoting instead the idea that Jews should remove themselves from Europe and establish their own independent polity so as to secure their national rights. In Der Judenstaat, he proposed an independent state as the solution to the so-called “Jewish question” and laid out a detailed plan for its establishment. Herzl did not believe the Jewish state had to be established in the land of Israel. In Der Judenstaat, he considered both Palestine (then under Ottoman rule) and Argentina, writing that Jewish public opinion should determine which option was preferred. Later, he lent his support to the idea of a Jewish state in east Africa.

Though Herzl was inspired by the plight of Jews in Europe, his writings presented the Jewish question as a universal one. “The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers,” he wrote in Der Judenstaat, adding:

Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilized — for instance, France — until the Jewish question finds a solution on a political basis. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America. (Translated by Sylvie d’Avigdor and Jacob De Haas)

Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state was greeted with derision from liberal Jews, who rejected his separatist vision, and from the Orthodox, who believed the establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the holy land needed to await the coming of the Messiah. Nevertheless, in 1897, Herzl presided over the inaugural conference of the Zionist Organization (later the World Zionist Organization) in Basel, Switzerland, which drew about 200 delegates and established the Zionist goal as establishing a legally assured home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Herzl was elected the group’s president and assumed the mantle of global Zionist leadership.

In the years that followed, Herzl actively promoted his ideas, meeting with German Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II in an attempt to win their support for the Zionist cause. In 1903, he secured support from the British for the establishment of a Jewish state in east Africa and brought the proposal before the Sixth Zionist Congress. But the idea proved controversial and was ultimately shelved in 1905.

In addition to not being wedded to the idea of the land of Israel as the locale for a Jewish state, Herzl  initially opposed the adoption of Hebrew (then being revived by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) as the state’s official  language. Writing in Der Judenstaat, Herzl argued:

We cannot converse with one another in Hebrew. Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway ticket in that language? Such a thing cannot be done.

He also rejected the use of Yiddish, which many European Jews then spoke, calling for Jews to “give up using those miserable stunted jargons, those Ghetto languages which we still employ, for these were the stealthy tongues of prisoners.”

Instead, Herzl supported the idea of a multilingual “federation of tongues” in which Jews could retain the language with which they felt most comfortable, citing Switzerland (which has four official languages) as an example of the idea’s viability. The language “which proves itself to be of greatest utility for general intercourse,” Herzl wrote, would be adopted as the national tongue “without compulsion.” (He would later become more supportive of efforts to revive Hebrew and even made an effort to learn it himself.)

In 1902, Herzl published Altneuland (“Old New Land”), a novel that describes the transformation of Palestine into a thriving, prosperous and modern country with the return of the Jewish people.

In 1904, Herzl died in Austria at the age of 44. In 1949, in accordance with his wishes, Herzl’s remains were transferred to Jerusalem, where they were reinterred on Mount Herzl, named in his memory. The quote “If you will it, is is no dream” is commonly attributed to Herzl. A modified form of the line appeared in Altneuland.

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