Herzl’s ties to the red, white and blue

Although he never set foot in the United States, Theodor Herzl still made some interesting connections with American Jewry, as David Geffen recounts on the 109th anniversary of his death.

June 29, 2013 22:05
Herzl's portrait at Independence Hall

Herzl's portrait at Independence Hall 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

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 reality.

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.

An American 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 pages.

In 1900 he wrote: “We wish to give the Jews a homeland.

Not 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 Exponent.

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 press.

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 1897.

That number can be stated with certainty because on the official composite photograph of the participants only four Americans are included.

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 description.

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 work.

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.”

Now the 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 bike-rider.”

(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 Christians.”

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 never conquer.”

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 matter.

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 was held.

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 way.

A second building for education has been constructed.

There, 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.

His words 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.

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