Who Was Theodor Herzl?
Theodor Herzl was born in the Pest section of Budapest, Hungary on May 2, 1860, to Jeanette and Jacob, a secular Jewish family originally from Zimony (today Zemun, Serbia). He was raised in a well-to-do home, received a basic Jewish education, and was educated in the spirit of the German-Jewish Enlightenment of the period, which was characteristic of Jews living in Central Europe at that time.
Herzl had one sister, Pauline, a year older than he was, who died suddenly on February 7, 1878, a catalyst for the family to pick up and move to Vienna, Austria There, Herzl attended the University of Vienna, and in 1884 he was awarded a doctorate of law. He worked in this profession for a short time in Vienna and Saltzburg, but after a year he decided to devote himself to his first love – writing.
Herzl devoted himself to a career in journalism and literature, working at first, as a journalist for a Viennese newspaper and a correspondent for Neue Freie Presse and then later on as it's literary editor.
In 1891, Herzl had become the Paris correspondent for the influential Vienna newspaper and during his work, he came into contact with the growing anti-Semitic atmosphere in France. While in this capacity, the "Jewish Question" became increasingly prominent. At the time, he regarded the Jewish problem as a social issue and wrote a drama, The Ghetto (1894), in which assimilation and conversion are rejected as solutions. He hoped that The Ghetto would lead to debate and ultimately to a solution, based on mutual tolerance and respect between Christians and Jews.
In 1894, reporting for Neue Freie Presse, Herzl attended the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, know as the Dreyfus affair - a notorious anti-Semitic incident in France in which a French Jewish army captain was falsely convicted of spying for Germany.
Herzl was appalled when he witnessed the Parisian mobs shouting “Death to the Jews.” This anti-Semitic atmosphere led Herzl towards a new conceptual horizon. He began to understand that the Jewish problem demanded a national and political solution.
More than the Dreyfus Affair, the anti-Semitic demagogue Karl Lueger's rise to power in Vienna in 1895 seemed to have had a great effect on Herzl - it was at this time that he wrote his play "The New Ghetto", which shows the ambivalence and lack of real security and equality of emancipated, well-to-do Jews in Vienna.
It was around this time that Herzl grew to believe that antisemitism could not be defeated or cured, only avoided, and that the only way to avoid it was the establishment of a Jewish state.
Herzl believed that only by establishing a state for the Jewish people could the Jews resolve their distress and bring an end to anti-Semitism.
His new Zionist vision was presented in its entirety in his book entitled, Der Judenstaat, which was published in February, 1896. The appearance of Herzl’s book unleashed violent disagreement. The enlightened elite rejected Herzl’s plan, for both ideological and practical reasons. On the other hand, his ideas were met with enthusiasm by the Jewish masses, who considered him to be a modern Moses.
Beginning in late 1895, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). It was published February 1896 to immediate acclaim and controversy. In the book he outlined reasons for the Jewish people to leave Europe, should they desire, either for Argentina or for their historic homeland, Palestine, which he seemed to prefer. Herzl believed that the Jews possessed a nationality and all they were missing was a nation with a political structure of their own. He also believed that the only way to avoid antisemitism was for Jewish people to have their own state and be able to practice their culture and religion freely. The book and Herzl's ideas spread rapidly throughout the Jewish world and attracted international attention. Supporters of existing Zionist movements such as the Hovevei Zion were immediately drawn to, and allied with, Herzl. Conversely, Herzl and his ideas were vilified by establishment Jewry, whose followers perceived his ideas both as threatening their efforts toward acceptance and integration in their resident countries and as rebellion against the will of God.
In contrast with others in the Zionist movement, Herzl believed it was very important to gain international and legal recognition of the rights of the Jewish people in Eretz Israel before beginning actual settlement there. This perspective was the basis of the Political Zionism Movement, of which Herzl was the leader.
While Herzl's ideas were met with enthusiasm by the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, Jewish leaders were less ardent. Herzl appealed to wealthy Jews such as Baron Hirsch and Baron Rothschild, to join the national Zionist movement, but in vain. He then appealed to the people, and the result was the convening of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, on August 2931, 1897.
Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Here, the World Zionist Organization was founded and Herzl was made its first president (a position he held until his death in 1904) and during this year he also founded his Zionist newspaper, Die Welt, in Vienna.
Coining the phrase “If you will, it is no fairytale,” which became the motto of the Zionist movement, Herzl would unfortunately not live to see the spoils of his labor and although at the time no one could have imagined it, Zionism led, only fifty years later, to the establishment of the independent State of Israel.