Herzl: The interesting character that inspired a nation

Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland. Photo by E.M Lilien

Standing over railings looking out towards the horizon in his suit, thinking about his writing, about his life, and most likely about the nation of Israel. This is the picture that most of us know of Herzl, the man who first planted the seeds and ideas behind the fact that the Jewish people needed a place that they would call their own, and even more importantly behind the concept that he often reiterated: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

The love of Israel that we all hold, undeniably comes with an understanding of the perplexing man that first began the few steps towards the achievable dream of a Jewish State. Namely, Theodor Herzl, known as the “father of Zionism,” the journalist, lawyer, and writer played an integral part in forming the ideology that would unite the Jewish people of Europe, even around the world to the almost inconceivable idea in the the late 19th century of having their own homeland. Yet, the life and times of this man, although precipitous were not something devoid of heartbreak, and even at times there were things which would make us raise our eyebrows at some of his decisions, and actions. In the grand study of history however, it becomes clear that the line between myth and reality must be settled however hard it is at times to do so.
Herzl’s character, and personality perhaps although aloof to some, was one that was undoubtedly a reaction to the raging antisemitism that plagued most of Europe, even after the Emancipation of Jews in most countries- which led Herzl to set up the precepts for Zionism, and later the Zionist Congresses that would make history in the consolidation of at least the basic ideals behind Israel. It was hatred towards him, his family, and his people that led him to want to leave and start over in the lands from which his ancestors came from- or at least encourage the Jewish people to do so.
Born in 1860, in Budapest, Herzl belonged to an upper-middle class Jewish family. His father, a successful businessman was overbearing in personality, and wanted Herzl to either go into business or in the sciences. Yet, Herzl became fascinated with writing and journalism, most likely because he was rather good at it, although he went on to study law in Vienna and Salzburg. He had a brief career in it, yet he continued on to work in journalism for numerous Viennese publications, and even for the Neue Freie Presse. Perhaps, what is most interesting in regards to his stay in Vienna was the fact that he joined the right-wing nationalist group Burschenschaft Albia, where he found the persistent antisemitism too abhorrent to handle which obviously led him to leave, and I believe, played a role in the formation of his ideas about the position of the Jewish people in continental Europe.
Truly Herzl came to the conclusion that to fight antisemitism was to an extent too much trouble as the roots of hatred were far too entrenched within Europe’s mindset, for far too long, and thus the only true and viable solution was the creation of a Jewish state. The only issue was that it was still not certain where this place might be although places such as Argentina were considered.
In 1895, Herzl while embroiled in his career in journalism wrote and published the renowned Der Judenstaat- The Jewish State- that outlined the idea of regrouping the Jewish people within their own nation, as the only way to escape the drudgery of Europe, as after ceaseless pogroms, and still lack of acceptance of Jews would be something that would not in fact get better, but much worse with the passage of time, despite the great strides towards both legal and social emancipation. He wrote: "The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers” to bring to light the persistent problems that most Jews lived through in Europe, especially those in the East who continued to live in the Pale of Settlement.
The Judenstaat made it clear, rather tersely, that although a Jewish nation was a viable solution it could only come true through the establishment of a state run by Jews, and not mass immigration to a place controlled by a foreign power. It is for this reason why Herzl made it his cause in his writings to try and get the Ottomans, who owned Palestine at the time, to accept the wave of Jewish immigration, but more importantly re-colonization of Eretz Yisrael for the purposes of creating an autonomous homeland, where Jews actually could live in peace.
Although it has been controversial as to what extent Herzl was actually influenced by the Dreyfus Affair, the infamous anti-semitic event that made it clear that emancipated Jews were still very much not welcome in the more tolerant nations such as France, it still played a salient role in showing the actual position of Jewry in Europe-something which in fact did lead Herzl to write his infamous Judenstaat. Yet, I also believe that Herzl, saw such things as the Dreyfus affair in the grander sea of xenophobia towards Jews, as only a consequence of a people not living in their own land, and country due to their ethnic background and religion regardless of how emancipated or well integrated they truly were.
Despite the image that we have of Herzl, there have been a few instances which seem rather deplorable, even if they were acts of realpolitik, in his search for a greater Yisrael. He lost some respect among other Jewish journalists when he supported the Ottoman cause of destroying Armenian Christians, although it was not clear that he actually knew what was happening to the Armenians at the time, in order to try and gain favor and support from the Sultan to allow Jews to immigrate to Palestine freely. More precisely in 1896, when he visited Sultan Abdul Hamid to try and persuade him to open up Palestine, he did not gain any ground, yet due to his fame as a journalist agreed to provide support for the Sultan in the papers, as he was ravaged by Europe’s press for his deplorable and unspeakable actions in Armenia. These are the instances when we must look at history and understand its reality, however much we wish we did not, for although Herzl was indeed a great figure, he was not by any means a perfect one.
Most historians have given Herzl a great deal of criticism because of his support for the Sultan in the Armenian-Ottoman conflict which of course was a genocide, which infallibly has even led some to call it-unjustly by the way- the “first original sin of Zionism.” Yet we must understand that the difference between myth and reality in history is a fact of its study. To think of Herzl as a faultless man is to raise him to some providential stance, which of course he was not. We must indeed remember that he made some very wrong decisions, yet he also played a role in the formation of the ideas that would later save hundreds of thousands from the dreaded reality of Nazism in the next century. Still we must look at Herzl as the conflicting character that he was and understand the period in which he lived in, for it was more than 120 years ago.
After a few years of promoting his new version of ‘Herzelian Zionism,’ although he was the one to come up with the term,  through extensive writing, speeches, and lobbying he finally played a leading role in the First Zionist Congress in 1897 that was held in Basel, Switzerland. A year later after he gained more momentum he visited Yerushalayim for the first time where he would meet Wilhelm II for the second time.
After his visit to Yerushalayim, Herzl became more committed to the idea of a Jewish state, having appealed even to the Pope in Rome in 1903, where of course he was turned down, and later even brought the “Uganda Project” to the table at the Sixth Zionist Congress, which as it sounds called for the establishment of a temporary Jewish state, for the outflow of Jews from Tsarist Russia who were leaving the country after incessant pogroms, and antisemitism that spanned for hundreds of years.
His death which came suddenly and rather unexpectedly after a few bouts of illness that seemed unchecked after a year of being bed ridden regardless of his continuous Zionist activities that he engaged in sporadically throughout his career. Despite his tragic death, which incidentally was a heart attack, the continuous misfortunes that continued to plague his family decades after his death would be just as horrific. Suicides, unfortunate deaths, even in the concentration camps of Europe which were the culmination of antisemitism that Herzl himself feared all of his life.
If there is one thing that we can learn  from Herzl’s life and times was his obvious dichotomous character as the first real Zionist thinker and philosopher, the author of the “Judenstaat,” and undeniably the individual who would set in motion the indisputable concept in the minds of all Jews around the world that Israel was not only a dream, but very much a reality that would one day become a fact. Every time we read about his life, and his struggle we realize that Yisrael continued to struggle everyday for its existence,. The nation is now here to stay, and we do not owe it to Herzl alone, but to the entire Jewish people to make sure that it does.
Am Yisrael Chai.
Milad Doroudiam a native of Jassy Romania, is a writer, historian, and the senior editor of The Art of Polemics magazine. He is currently working on a book on The Jassy Pogrom of 1941.