If anyone in the mid-1880s had identified the young Viennese dandy, Theodor Herzl, as a likely savior of the Jewish people, he would have almost certainly been laughed off as a fantasist.
Herzl, born 150 years ago this week, was then a law school graduate whose facility for the German language had driven him towards journalism and the theater, with which he had a particular affinity.
His upbringing produced very little sign that he would become widely regarded as a great Jewish emancipator. His parents were thoroughly assimilated Jews and although they gave their son a bar mitzvah (which Herzl recorded as a confirmation), he grew up without a substantive knowledge of the Jewish religion nor its practices. In fact, prior to the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897, both he and Max Nordau could not follow the Sabbath services they had been invited to attend - their Hebrew language skills and familiarity with the Jewish prayer service being so limited.
While experiencing anti-semitism, first as a schoolboy and then as a university student, he had become accustomed to accepting, like many of his generation, that it would only be through a process of assimilation that Jews would finally be accepted within Austrian society.
His conversion from that view, to one in which he accepted and the creation of Jewish national homeland in Palestine itself was the only realistic solution to Jewish suffering , became one of the most consequential journeys of self discovery in modern history.
It began in France, where he was posted as a reporter for the Neue Freie Presse in the early 1890s. Here, he was certain, he would find nothing of the rabid hatred he had experienced in his own country, since the land of liberté, egalité and fraternité was sure to proscribe such an attitude. He was not only to be shocked to find that it did not, but was distressed to discover that the situation was even more dire than in Austria.
When, in 1895, Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French army, was falsely accused of transferring national military secrets to the German High Command, the country was set aflame with a level of hysterical anti-Semitism that he had never before experienced. Major newspapers concocted the most vile accusations against Dreyfus and French Jews and key intellectuals took their side. He witnessed mass rallies in Paris following the Dreyfus trial where many chanted “Death to the Jews!”
Herzl thereafter came to reject his early ideas regarding Jewish emancipation and assimilation, and to believe that the Jews must remove themselves from Europe and create their own state. Despite the existence of a powerful lobby which fought for Dreyfus’ innocence, Herzl came to believe that the contagion of anti-Semitism could not be ever eliminated and that Jews would be subject to the torments of the anti-Semitic plague wherever they went.
To enshrine his ideas, Herzl published Der Judenstaat ( The Jewish State) in 1896 and an idealized view of the new nation in Alte Neue Land (Old New Land) in 1898. His drive for a political solution to anti-semtism attracted few adherents among the Jewish leaders of the Diaspora. Lord Rothschild in England refused to see him and even worse, made his refusal public. Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the French philanthropist who had for many years supported the development of Jewish settlements in Palestine, dismissed him as an ignorant theorist. Edmund de Rothschild in Paris , who ran nine existing small colonies in Palestine, thought that a political movement such as Herzl proposed would jeopardize his nascent project.
It was only among the poorer Jewish communities - of England, Poland and the Russian Pale of Settlement - that the nascent political movement of Zionism began to catch on with the force of a whirlwind. In London’s East End, when he addressed a Jewish audience at a synagogue, his reception was so rapturous that he began to understand the power of a grass roots movement and recorded in his diary that he watched as his own legend was spun to life . Future Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann, then a university student and David Ben Gurion, then only 10, saw in the appearance of the man the harbinger of a Jewish renaissance.
One of the things that gave Herzl his power to attract supporters was his extraordinary appearance. Over six feet tall, with a stentorian voice, a shock of black hair, dark, piercing eyes and a flowing beard that reached to his chest, Herzl presented much the model of an ancient Jewish prophet - a commanding presence capable of awing Jewish peasants and European nobility alike.
Herzl also brought a decisive edge of drama to Zionist proceedings which was to have an impact on the development of the public realtions side of Jewish nationalism. He was determined that Jews dress the part of a people who deserved a state, insisting on a strict dress code at all meetings, which included starched shirts and expensive frock coats. He also urged the playing of bombastic Wagnerian music at the opening of the Zionist Congresses (the first of which took place in Basle, Switzerland in the late summer of 1897) and was given to dramatic flourishes in his speech.
The combination of these traits began to bear fruit. The English Rothschild moved from hostility to neutrality; British leaders, such as the powerful Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, was won over and began meeting with Herzl with some regularity.
Within a few years, he was being received by the monarchs of Europe including Wilhelm II of Germany and the Sultan of Turkey as well as the political leaders of Austria. He had gradually transformed himself, through sheer dint of will and perseverance, into an international celebrity.
It was a long way to come from the self centered dandy who had so cynically dismissed Judaism and observant Jews only a few years before.
But Herzl also made some very serious mistakes which have bedeviled the Zionist movement until this day. By launching a purely secular movement, unattached in any formal way to Judaism or Jewish teachings, he undercut one of the prime arguments of religious Zionists – that a return to Zion was mandated by Jewish law, inscribed and predicted in the Torah. He thereby delayed by decades the subscription of Orthodox Jewry to his cause and threatened a division in the Jewish world which took on a very vitriolic cast in Zionism’s early years. His willingness to accept Joseph Chamberlain’s offer of Uganda as a temporary solution to Jewish suffering, brought unprecedented condemnation down upon him and may, in some way, have contributed to his early death in 1904. It made many feel that he was not serious about his own Zionist ideas, an attack that must have been mortifying.
Yet in the light of the growth of the Zionist movement and the ultimate establishment of a Jewish state in the late 1940s, these are minor quibbles. Herzl, through his personal magnetism, the power of his pen and oratory , as well as his brilliance as an organizer, was able to marshal the resources of the Jewish world and funnel them into a nationalist movement that gave a goal and a purpose to a largely oppressed and unfocused people.
Today’s tea partiers and budding nationalist movements could learn a great deal from Herzl’s example. In only eight years, this Viennese journalist, with little political or diplomatic experience nor connections, was able to bring international attention to the plight of his people and the justice of their cause in securing a permanent national home. His name and image rightly festoons the Israeli currency, Jerusalem streets and Israeli cities. He left his people with a dramatic vision of a future that in 186o few of them could appreciate.
But even more than this he left them with a credo that has come to define Israeli perseverance and willingness to take risks - “Im tirzu ein zo aggada” - if you will it, it is no dream.”
In an age of deep cynicism, this is a rallying cry that should find resonance among Israelis and non-Israelis, Jews and gentiles, alike.