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.