Theodor Herzl and the Jews’ leap of hope


Gil Troy | Jewish Journal via JNS

Today, Theodor Herzl is best known for his beard, not his books, for an aha-moment he never had, for being an anti-anti-Semite rather than an idealist and for launching the Zionist movement in 1897 — 18 months after he released his history-changing Zionist manifesto. Despite this confusion, he remains Israel’s iconic founder, with George Washington’s mythic status, Thomas Jefferson’s ideological impact and Winston Churchill’s talent for memorable bon mots. One-hundred-and-eighteen-years after his death at the age of 44, and 125 years after he convened the First Zionist Congress in August 1897, Theodor Herzl remains influential. His outsized shadow — and the true, complicated, multi-dimensional person behind the myth — are precisely why it is so important to read his Zionist writings in this new edition, which, quite fittingly, is also inaugurating the Library of the Jewish People.

It was a perfect match: The People of the Book got themselves a bookish savior. Theodor Herzl wrote articles, plays, novels, poems, manifestos, editorials, diary entries, stylish literary essays — feuilletons — and hundreds of letters. These volumes recreate his last 11 years as a Zionist leader. On these pages, Herzl works out his ideas, works through his problems, works his contacts and works himself to death trying to hustle a Jewish state into being. These pages demonstrate that Herzl was not just another bookish Jew. As a proud Jewish nationalist seeking to revive the independence Jews celebrate at Chanukah, he was also a Maccabean — a fighting Jew — a Jew with a spine and spunk, not just a Jew with a mind and soul.

The diaries’ rollicking, free-flowing nature make them among the most easily misquoted and misunderstood sources in the Zionist canon. Anti-Zionists frequently rifle through Herzl’s writings, cherry-picking an entry here, a phrase there, to indict the entire Zionist enterprise as “ethno-nationalist,” “racist,” “imperialist,” “colonialist” or in today’s popular phrase “settler-colonialist.” These volumes confirm that the often vain, petty, thin-skinned and imperious Herzl was not perfect and very much a turn-of-the-century European. Nevertheless, this historical scavenging tells us little about Herzl’s Zionism and much about Zionism’s enemies — who daily demonstrate Herzlian Zionism’s biggest failure: It did not end antisemitism.

The diaries record the cascade of feelings and ideas as Herzl’s Zionism evolves. He shifts from imagining a novel explaining his vision to drafting a manifesto charting out the Jewish future to trying to make his dreams come true. It is a brainstorming book, which is why extracting one line here or there to define the man or the movement distorts the diaries’ freewheeling, free-associational character. Day after day, Herzl’s Jewish consciousness and self-importance grow, along with his doubts. His life has become a high-wire act, with big ideas, great thrills and historic stakes.

Perpetually struggling with tone and self-definition, Herzl writes that “artists will understand why I, otherwise of rather clear intelligence, have let exaggerations and dreams proliferate among my practical, political and legislative ideas, as green grass sprouts among cobblestones. I could not permit myself to be forced into the straitjacket of sober facts. This mild intoxication has been necessary. Yes, artists will understand this fully. But there are so few artists.”

As a result, Herzl’s diaries frequently read like the political-science version of an artist’s sketchbook. He draws in the contours of the Jewish state. He plans different dimensions, from a flag to the architectural aesthetic, from labor-capital relations to the dynamics between rabbis and politicians. Sometimes, he is more playwright than architect, as when he plots out the Jews’ redemption in three acts from “Introduction” to “Elevation” to “Emigration.”

On these pages, Herzl emerges as the Zionist Organization Man, building an infrastructure for the movement that would eventually become a provisional government and then today’s sovereign government of Israel. He emerges as the Great Jewish Diplomat, advancing the Zionist project by leveraging relationships while exploiting antisemitic assumptions that the super-rich Jews could buy themselves out of exile. He emerges as the Jewish Dreamcatcher, living his phrase that became a cliché: If you will it, it is no dream. And he emerges as the Liberal-Nationalist Tinkerer, generating ideas about how to make the Jewish state into a model that saves the Jews and inspires the world.

These writings help solve the ongoing interlocking historical mysteries surrounding Theodor Herzl. First, what made him tick? Why did this ambitious, outer-directed, journalistic hotshot and somewhat successful, somewhat frustrated playwright become a Jewish visionary and leader? Second, what did he accomplish in barely a decade on the Jewish stage? And third, what made him the one? How is Herzl the Modern Moses: Of all the Jews’ leaders, of all the Jews’ thinkers, of all the proto-Zionists who sometimes grumbled that they came to the party first, how did he become the face of Zionism and the prophet credited with transforming millennia of Jewish trauma and longing into today’s Jewish-democratic state?

Herzl’s diaries show that even in his thirties, he felt the angel of death hovering about. He sensed his heart would not keep him going for much longer. In 1897, when he was 36, Herzl wrote a will, explaining: “It is proper to be prepared for death.” Sure that “my name will grow after my death,” he trusted that “a future generation will be better able than the masses of the present to judge what I meant to the Jews.” He deemed these writings, “in which I have recorded my work on behalf of the Jewish cause,” his “principal legacy.” Even he, the great Jewish Dreamcatcher, grandiose enough in his Zionist career, began to imagine that we would still be reading his writings more than a century later. But he was not as sure about an even bigger legacy: a thriving Jewish state which still horahs — and waltzes — to some of his rhythms.

Excerpted from the new three-volume set “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of the Library of the Jewish People edited by Gil Troy.

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