The measure of a person’s greatness is the change that lives after him. By this measure Theodor Herzl was a great man because of the gifts he gave Jews – hope and a future. The Jews of Eastern Europe had been locked in shtetls under the rule of czars for centuries. Poverty-stricken, isolated and subject to over 200 pogroms just in the years of 1881-1884, Jews desperately needed hope and a future out of Russia.
The man who gave them these gifts, Theodor Herzl, was most unlikely to become the leader of his people. Herzl was an assimilated Jew and one of the leading journalists of his day. He gave little thought to the plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe until fate and a newspaper assignment brought him to the 1894 Paris trial of the French Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been brought up on treason charges by the French military. The charges were concocted and laced with anti-Semitism, leading to Dreyfus’ conviction. It was during the public ceremony that stripped Dreyfus of his rank that the reaction of the crowd changed Herzl’s life. “Death to the Jews” was the cry from Frenchmen who were supposed to be the most liberal and democratic people in Europe. Upon hearing this anti-Semitic outcry, Herzl recognized that Jews must have their own homeland, that coexistence would not work.
In 1896, Herzl put his new-found passion into a book “Der Judenstaat” (The Jewish State), in which he outlined how a Jewish homeland should be organized and governed. In his book, Herzl set down his challenge to the world: “The Jews who will it shall achieve their State. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die.” Der Judenstaat received immediate attention with its statement of the necessity of a Jewish state and the details of the machinery of government.
But then Herzl added action to his words. In 1897, he convened the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, for the expressed purpose of establishing a Jewish homeland, electrifying Jews all over the world. The Congress was arguably the most important meeting of Jews in 1,800 years and, with Herzl at its head, Political Zionism was launched. At the close of the first Congress, Herzl wrote in his diary, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State.”
With the mandate of the Congress and the prayers of Jews all over the world, Herzl set about to find land for a Jewish homeland. His first visit was with the Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the ruler of Ottoman-controlled Palestine, who rejected Herzl with these words, “…never did I blacken the pages of the Muslims — my fathers and ancestors, the Ottoman sultans and caliphs. And so I will never accept what you ask of me.” He traveled to the capitals of Europe speaking to kings, emperors and the Pope, only to find that there was no land available for sale or for rent for a Jewish homeland. Each year Herzl had to make an inconclusive report at the annual meeting of the Congress with little progress for a homeland. In 1903, under pressure for results after the particularly virulent Kisinev Pogrom, Herzl proposed an alternate to Palestine as a homeland. His proposal was that the Congress accept the British offer of Uganda, now Kenya, as a temporary “safe harbor” for Russian Jews. But because of the strong tradition that only Palestine could be a Jewish homeland, Herzl’s proposal was put off to the 1904 agenda.
Herzl would never make that 1904 meeting. Weakened by a heart condition and extensive travel, he died on July 3, 1904. World Jewry lost a great leader, but the measure of his greatness is the change he left behind. Before Herzl, a Jewish homeland was just a dream; after Herzl, it was a work in progress. The Zionist movement he founded was resolute on the necessity of a Jewish homeland. Herzl said it best, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Historian Herbert Belkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.