Wednesday, July 3, marks the 109th anniversary of the death of Theodor Herzl. In
the US the Yiddish newspapers’ headlines rang out in 1904: “Our Prince has
Fallen.” In seven brief but intense years of activity, Herzl fashioned the
building blocks upon which the Jewish state, Israel, became a
Previously unknown in Jewish circles in Europe and America,
until his first book, AltNeuland, “OldNew Land,” appeared in 1894, he went about
weaving a coalition of secular and religious Jews together with noted world
leaders and committed Christians so that his project, a homeland for the Jews,
could get off the ground. In his feverish period of activity, he proved that “if
you will it, it is no dream.”
In the seven years he strived for his
ideal, it was the case that every world Jewish leader had to answer the question
– what is your relationship to American Jewry? Since the foremost Jews in the US
were most concerned with all the new immigrants, they took an isolationist stand
toward the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. But there are some connections
between US Jewry and Herzl that some may find surprising.
Jewish Army chaplain arranged the disinterment of the remains of Herzl and his
parents so that they could be flown to Israel in August 1949? In addition, the
only firsthand report in English of the first Zionist congress in 1897 was
written and published by Rosa Sonnenschein in her monthly magazine, American
Jewess? The death of Herzl in July 1904 inspired American Zionists to
successfully lobby for the Magen David flag to be flown publicly in the US, for
the first time, at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri? THE NEWSPAPERS
in the US recognized immediately that his was a fresh voice. The impact of
Herzl, “who against all odds, who was a mere cosmopolitan Viennese playwright
and journalist,” was literally amazing, especially in an age of the written
word, photos and the telegraph only.
Although he never walked on American
soil, numerous American publications in cities large and small, such as Norfolk,
Virginia, Scranton, Pennsylvania and Atlanta, Georgia chose to feature his
striking picture and his plan for a homeland for the Jews prominently in their
In 1900 he wrote: “We wish to give the Jews a homeland.
by dragging them ruthlessly out of their sustaining soil but by removing them
carefully, roots and all, to a better terrain.” That was a definition of aliyah
that everyone could live with over a century ago.
The only problem for
American Jews, then and now, is that they have never been inspired, numerically,
to take the step and come to live in Israel.
The first American Jewry
ever heard of Herzl was in a small item appearing in the Philadelphia Jewish
There in 1888 was a brief story about a young Austrian
playwright, whose first theatrical attempt had been a success. For the next
eight years not a word about Herzl was heard in the American Jewish
Finally, after his “OldNew Land” book appeared in English in 1886,
certain circles of American Jews sat up and took notice.
The lack of
interest of American Jews in Zionism is easy to see because only four US Jews
actually participated in the deliberations of the first congress in
That number can be stated with certainty because on the official
composite photograph of the participants only four Americans are
Professor Richard Gottheil, president of the Federation of
American Zionists, urged his membership to attend, but they were not interested
enough to make the effort. As the leader of Zionism in America, Gottheil was
placed on several of the main committees at the Zionist Congress which were
developing the priorities to which the new organization should commit itself. In
a committee decision to strive for Palestine as the Jewish state, Gottheil spoke
passionately in favor of that position.
The American woman on that 1897
composite was Rosa Sonnenschein, editor of the American Jewess, the first Jewish
women’s magazine in the world. A talented journalist from St. Louis Missouri and
a committed Zionist, she had corresponded with Herzl and received his permission
be an observer at the congress.
Her detailed description of the
deliberations in 1897, along with reproductions of several of the major
addresses, are quite striking.
She labeled that meeting “the first Jewish
parliament in 2,000 years,” but she noted that there was not “a female face
among the delegates.” Immediately after the congress an English translation from
German, of the proceedings, appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. A month later the
American Jewess filled an entire monthly issue with Rosa’s
It was only 25 years ago that the American Jewess report of
the first Zionist Congress became known.
Rosa wanted “to spread the
excitement of Zionism” in the US. Even though Herzl did not see that happening
in America, he was not discouraged – continuing on with his pioneering
FOLLOWING THAT first congress in 1897, the New York Times provided
its readers with two approaches to Theodor Herzl. The first article appeared in
October 1897 and was a balanced evaluation of this young visionary: “Dr. Theodor
Herzl, originator of the Zionist scheme that has been so much discussed in
Europe, and so coldly received by those to whose attention it has been cited in
this country, is a resident of Vienna.”
It must be understood that the
Jews with power in the US then were the “Our Crowd” group, who had come to
America as early as the 1840s. They were mostly of German origin, and many had
been quite successful. As one put it, in the oft-repeated phrase, “Washington
was their Jerusalem and America their Palestine.”
The article further
pointed out that in Vienna Herzl “is a man of enough importance that when he
writes or speaks people take notice.” An Englishman quoted by the Times
described Herzl in this fashion: “He is tall, handsome, courteous... but when he
talks about a Jewish nation in Palestine he is full of fire.”
paper offered a more definitive description of this mover and shaker: “The
doctor brings to the execution [of the realization of a Jewish homeland] the
vigor of maturity and a large amount of varied experience for he has been in
turn a lawyer and a playwright, and is now a journalist and a
(He chose to transport himself by bicycle in Vienna to
demonstrate against the use of what would become known as fossil fuel. His
contemporaries lauded him for taking such a stance.) The lengthy article praised
Herzl’s enthusiasm, his ability to woo the sultan of the Ottoman empire and his
understanding of world economics. Finally, there was already contemplated a use
for the Jewish homeland which “would form a new outpost against Asiatic
barbarians and a guard of honor to hold intact the sacred shrines of the
Particularly fuming after the Times article appeared was
anti-Zionist Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of Reform Judaism in the US and
the father-in-law of Adolph Ochs, owner of the Times. As you can imagine, a
second story about Herzl appeared immediately.
In this article the Times
carried the headline, “Can Don Quixote Herzl and Sancho Ponza Nordau Do It?” The
newspaper detailed all the ports of call which Herzl had visited throughout the
world to garner support for establishing a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. The
Pope, the Sultan, the German Kaiser, the writer noted, “all encouraged him but
did not offer Herzl actual assistance.” As a Don Quixote figure, the paper
stressed that “he will merely continue to tilt against windmills, which he can
LET US jump ahead to August 1949. In the biography of her
late husband American Army Chaplain Oscar M.
Lifshutz, entitled The World
is My Pulpit, Miriam Braver Lifshutz describes the important task of her husband
in bringing Herzl to Israel.
For many years efforts had been made to
enable the remains of Herzl and his parents to be carried home to Eretz Yisrael,
where he wanted to be buried when there was a Jewish state. In Vienna Herzl had
been interned in the family plot, and as late as 1949 Austria was under American
jurisdiction. Early in the summer of 1949 General Balmer, the deputy commander
of the area for the US Army, had been notified that the American government was
prepared to let Herzl’s remains be sent to Israel. Balmer assigned Lifshutz, an
active duty officer in Vienna from 1946 to 1949, to act for the US in this
In August the chaplain put the wheels in motion for the actual
event. On August 16 Herzl’s remains and those of his parents where disinterred
in their coffins from the burial plots, overseen by Lifshutz. The coffins were
brought to the Stadtstemple in Vienna where people paid tribute and a service
After that was completed, Lifshutz led the cortege of the
remains of the three, linking up with Chief Israeli Chaplain Shlomo Goren as the
coffins were carried by a guard of honor onto the El Al plane especially sent to
bring Herzl home.
On August 19, 1949, a procession carried Herzl and his
parents through several towns as they approached the site in Jerusalem for
burial. That area became known as Mount Herzl and is the locale for the
beginning of Israel Independence Day each year.
Today there is a Museum
Theater next to Mount Herzl where his story is told in a most captivating
A second building for education has been constructed.
Chaplain Lifshutz will be remembered in a special memorial for him. Now he will
be honored for his role in ensuring that the founder of modern Zionism be laid
to rest in the soil of Israel.
Herzl did leave his impact on US Jewish
community, even though he never met many of them in person.
have inspired all of us in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
They carry with them the inspiration which Herzl brought to the Jewish people
and the Jewish state.