The Impresario of Zionism

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Theodor Herzl, father of modern political Zionism, was born in Budapest 150 years ago next Sunday, May 2. He died at age forty-four in Vienna, four-and-a-half decades before the establishment of the state of Israel. Herzl came into maturity with no particular Jewish learning, no Hebrew, and scant ties to his community. Yet with his top hat, white gloves, and tails, this broadminded Central European journalist with a utopian streak came to be the foremost revolutionary of the modern Jewish world.

The basics outlines of Herzl's life are fairly well known. Born into a comfortable, assimilated family, he considered law but settled on writing for the theater and journalism, where he excelled. Politically, the pivotal moment for him came in 1894 when he was covering the Dreyfus trial in presumably enlightened France. There and then he concluded that the only answer to European anti-Semitism was the creation of a Jewish state, warning that, as far as hatred of Jews was concerned, "much worse is to come." To the chagrin of many rabbis, socialists, and assimilationists, his personal magnetism drew masses of Jews to the Zionist cause, while his sense of destiny gave him the confidence to seek support from Ottoman rulers, the Vatican, and Jewish grandees.

Herzl was not the first theoretician of political Zionism, or the first to think sensibly about the steps needed to create a third Jewish commonwealth. His unparalleled contribution was to put Zionism on both the Jewish and the international agenda. As the movement's leading prophet, he waged a fanatically intensive yet tactically shrewd campaign that virtually willed the state into being.

In 1897, after the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, Herzl recorded in his diary: "In Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this out loud today, everybody would laugh at me. In five years, perhaps, but certainly in fifty, everybody will agree."  Unlike a Washington, Gandhi, or Mandela, Israel's founding father did not live to see his dream come to fruition; but he foresaw correctly. 

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