Reading Herzl’s ‘The Jewish State,’ 125 years later

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Theodor Herzl
Theodor Herzl

By Saul Golubcow

Special to WJW


Feb. 14 marks 125 years since Theodor Herzl published “The Jewish State.” Herzl termed his piece a “pamphlet,” yet this short tract was pivotal in solidifying isolated Zionist yearnings as a core Jewish doctrine.

Certainly the dream of returning to the Jewish homeland had been present for the previous 1,800 years. Heartfelt proclamations of “Next Year in Jerusalem” were uttered every Pesach. But Herzl’s pamphlet immediately galvanized and united disparate elements of worldwide Jewry in sharing this commitment to restore their nation. How so?

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The answer lies in Herzl’s opening sentence: “The idea which I have developed in this pamphlet is a very old one: It is the restoration of the Jewish State.”

Note that Herzl says “restoration” and not “creation,” which would imply that Jews need to form, ex nihilo, a national history, identity and purpose. To have done so would have left his advancement of a non-existent Jewish state in a beggarly and disadvantaged position. Rather, Herzl confidently declares that this “very old” idea is steeped in an existing national identity of a people with historical antecedents.


In a single sentence, Herzl establishes the present and future legitimacy of the Jewish state. With this axiom in place, Herzl continues to emphasize that while Jews “are a people — one people,” they are exiles from their ancient homeland who, for the sake of their dignity and self-preservation and as a benefit “essential to the world,” deserve a place among the other nations.

The rest of the pamphlet builds a rationale for why the nations in power should welcome a Jewish state, presents a viscerally compelling case to fellow Jews and constructs a blueprint for the restoration.

In 1897, following the publication of “The Jewish State,” the first of a succession of international Zionist congresses was held, and doors opened to centers of power in Berlin, Paris and London leading to the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that declared “sympathy for the establishment in Palestine of a national Jewish home.”

As Herzl sardonically predicted, European nations saw the benefits of being rid of Jewish economic competition, along with the segregation of “Jewish” science, medicine, art, music and literature within Jewish borders.

To promote commitment among Jews, Herzl asked them to picture their liberation from unrelenting anti-Semitism. Jews suffering pogroms in Eastern Europe were being assaulted and murdered. In cosmopolitan Berlin, the cries of Juden raus (Jews out) were heard daily. In Vienna, anti-Semitic smears and taunts reverberated throughout salons and universities. In France, Herzl observed the Dreyfus trial in which Jew hatred in the French military was used to condemn an innocent man.

For Herzl, whether it be the lure of enlightenment, nationalism, capitalism, socialism or especially conversion and attempted assimilation, Jews had remained outside of the controlling culture. Jews cannot defeat anti-Semitism while being unprotected, anxious and without a home of their own that would provide them with a positive sense of self through a shared history, kinship, autonomy, security and eye to a Jewish future.

Herzl’s blueprint calls for “debate, practical, large, earnest and political.” That a Jewish state must exist is a given — the rest are non-rigid details for how to restore. He envisions a “model state,” but has no thought of a “utopia” in which political, economic or religious conflicts are absent. At the plan’s heart is the sense of Jewish history, values and practices, along with the sensibilities of the Jewish soul.

Though he toys with various locations for restoring the state, Herzl clearly wishes a return to what was once Judea as it is “our ever-memorable historic home.” The government will be constituted by the people and answer to the people. Non-Jews will be afforded “equality before the law.” There will be a civilian army beholden to a civilian government. Hard work and determination will maintain the country and the rights of the individual will be protected in balance with the needs of the larger community. And always, the Jewish state will be “a land of experiments.”

As we know from subsequent history, the Jewish response to Herzl’s call for migration was tragically minimal. As Herzl feared, the poorer Jews were loath to abandon their ancestors’ graves; the more successful reluctant to give up what they had built up. Yet thanks to Herzl, Zionism did take root as a guiding Jewish precept, and the state of Israel was restored in 1948.

We might say Herzl was naïve in thinking that anti-Semitism would go away with the restoration of the Jewish state. Sadly, Israel has become both a focal point and pretext for anti-Semitism. Canards out of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are heard throughout the world. Synagogues, pogrom-like, are being attacked. At many universities, Jewish students are threatened and demeaned. And only Israel, of all countries in the modern era, has been the object of other nations’ state policies to eradicate it and its people.

Yet naiveté and imagination, along with what Herzl would constantly refer to as the “will,” may very well be the defining elements of Jewish chutzpah that have propelled modern Zionism and restored the Jewish homeland. Who would think that such a tiny nation like Israel could repeatedly fend off multiple armies arrayed against it? Remain democratic despite sharp theological, demographic and political divisions? Make the desert bloom? Desalinize water from the sea? Send rockets into space? Take capsule trips through the body? Or start up ideas and inventions one upon another?

Herzl would.

Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Saul Golubcow presents a brilliant commentary on Zionism and Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State” !! I add one more comment regarding Herzl’s concept of Israel as a “model state.” Although Herzl was not a fully practicing Jew, he obviously had a Jewish soul; what is called a “pintele Yid.” In that regard, I have no doubt that what Herzl meant by Israel becoming a model state was that Israel will fulfill its divinely-inspired mission: ” God says to me, ‘It isn’t enough for you to be my servant. You must do more than lead back survivors from the tribes of Israel. I will also make you a Light to the Nations , that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’.” Isaiah [49:6]. It is incumbent upon all the Jewish people, individually and collectively, to strive to make the Jewish state a model of political, environmental, and moral harmony in order to enlighten all the other nations of the world. MARC L. CAROFF

  2. Mr. Golubcow’s reflections on Herzl’s “The Jewish State” would be unambiguously uplifting were it not for the reality that the State was founded on territory that, for well over a thousand years, was the homeland of people who were not Jewish. Given the nature of anti-semitism in the West, Herzl’s dream was understandable. But let us not pretend that its fruition was without terrible cost to the non-Jewish inhabitants of the land and to our own self-image as a just people. The tragic history of nationalism has been the displacement and oppression by one group one of another. How we deal with this horrible dilemma when we become the displacers will determine the spiritual and perhaps the physical fate of our people.

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