Theodor Herzl and the Jewish State

Black and white portrait of Theodor Herzl with a full beard and mustache, looking to the side. He has thick hair, a serious expression, and is wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and dark tie."
Theodor Herzl, 1897

“The idea I have developed in this pamphlet is a very old one: It is the restoration of the Jewish State.”

– Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl: Visionary of the Jewish State and Father of Modern Zionism

Theodor Herzl had a distinguished and commanding presence, with distinct features, including deep-set expressive eyes, which reflected his intensity and passion. He was born on May 2, 1860, in Pest, part of modern-day Budapest, Hungary, and grew up in a family of Ashkenazi Jewish descent that was not religious. They maintained some traditional customs but had largely assimilated.

As a child, Theodor didn’t have many friends. He spent much time daydreaming and reading, developing a vivid imagination. In school, Theodor was talented, particularly in writing and literature, and was known for his eloquence. Along with literature, he developed a love for theater and often participated in school plays.

After completing his early education, Theodor attended the University of Vienna, where he studied law and became an attorney. This career, however, was short-lived. He missed writing and quit a year into work to write plays and essays. Soon after, he was writing newspaper stories about his travels in Europe, bringing him what he longed for: an audience. Then, he was offered a position as a journalist. And in this role, Theodor would thrive.

But as Theodor’s early adult years passed, he became keenly aware of the rampant anti-semitism around him. He would write,

“The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. Wherever it does not exist, it is brought in together with Jewish immigrants. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilised countries.”

Even worse, he would conclude, was that “Things cannot improve, but are bound to get worse – to the point of massacres. Governments can’t prevent it any longer, even if they want to.”

These realizations sparked an idea, which Theodor penned into a book, “The Jewish State” in 1896. In this seminal work, he presented a bold vision: establishing a sovereign Jewish homeland. He believed that only through self-determination in their own land could Jews escape persecution and live in dignity and safety.

The idea of a Jewish homeland was not novel; it had been around for centuries. But Theodor gave it an energy and momentum, and a plan that helped bring the dream to life.

As he took leadership of the Zionist movement, Theodor organized the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. This congress led to the foundation of the World Zionist Organization, with Theodor as its first president. Over the next few years, he met with various world leaders to garner support for the Zionist cause. With his charisma, clear vision, and understanding of the media’s power, he publicized the Zionist cause and garnered significant attention for it.

But while he advocated for a Jewish State, Theodor’s vision was more than a return to a historic homeland. He envisioned a modern nation with a secular governance structure where Jews from all over the world could gather and where culture, science, and industry would flourish. Theodor believed that such a state would not only provide a refuge for Jewish people but would also contribute positively to the global community and be a home for others as well.

He would write,

“It is founded on the ideas which are a common product of all civilized nations … It would be immoral if we would exclude anyone, whatever his origin, his descent, or his religion, from participating in our achievements. For we stand on the shoulders of other civilized peoples … What we own we owe to the preparatory work of other peoples. Therefore, we have to repay our debt. There is only one way to do it, the highest tolerance. Our motto must therefore be, now and ever: ‘Man, you are my brother.'”

Theodor did not live to see his dream come to be. He passed away in 1904 at the age of 44. Israel became a nation on May 14, 1948. Though he passed away in the movements early years, people would refer to Theodor as the father of modern Zionism.

In later years, Theodor’s remains would be moved to Israel, about which a Prime Minister of Israel said,

“Only two men were privileged to have their remains returned to Israel in the course of 3,300 years…Both were sons of Jacob. The first was Joseph, who left a testament asking that his remains be returned to Israel with the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and the second was Herzl.”

Notes

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Click here to read a snapshot biography of another Zionist leader and Israeli politician, Golda Meir.

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