Following Herzl's footsteps in Jerusalem

Theodor Herzl never returned to the Holy City during his lifetime, but he did after his death.

Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On Friday, October 28, 1898, Theodor Herzl stepped out of a train that had just arrived in Jerusalem.
Coming from Vienna in order to meet the German kaiser, this was Herzl’s first and only visit to the Holy City – a visit that would have a profound effect on Herzl and Zionism.
Herzl’s trip to Jerusalem represented a peak in his rapid rise. Just four years after he articulated his thoughts and one year after he first convened a congress of 200 Jews in Basel, Switzerland, Herzl was able to secure an audience with Wilhelm II. The kaiser, who was making a historic visit to Ottoman-controlled Jerusalem, was amenable to asking the sultan to grant the Jews a chartered company in Palestine under German protection.
Herzl’s train was scheduled to arrive two hours before Shabbat, but it was an hour late leaving Jaffa and further delayed making its way up the mountains.
Upon recognizing that the train would not make it in time for Shabbat, Herzl began to feel unwell. As he wrote in his diary, his fever “increased as we went into Shabbat.”
When the train finally arrived, dark was settling in and Herzl’s first moments in Jerusalem were on Shabbat.
His ailment did not stop his decision to walk to the hotel instead of taking a carriage in observance of the day of rest.
Stern House in the Mamilla Mall. Credit: Marc Israel SellemStern House in the Mamilla Mall. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Located by what is now Davidka Square, it was a long walk away, and some of his travel companions tried to dissuade him from walking.
One of them, David Shuv, reflected: “As we walked from the station to town, I saw Herzl did not have the strength to walk and [I told him] that since he was sick, he was allowed to travel by carriage. But Herzl would not under any circumstances agree to ride the carriage and violate Shabbat. Even after I clarified that as a sick person there would be no violation of Shabbat, he replied immediately: ‘This is my first time in Jerusalem, the Holy City – I will not ride.’” Herzl walked toward Jaffa Gate, on today’s Hebron Road, leaning on his cane in one arm and on the shoulder of one of his companions on the other. He then turned left to Jaffa Road toward his hotel. The intense excitement of being in Jerusalem apparently gave him strength.
That walk was his honeymoon with Jerusalem. It was before he would be stunned by the beggars (not active on Shabbat), before he would notice the garbage and neglect (the streets that night were unusually clean and decorated in preparation for the arrival of the kaiser the following day) and before he would experience the biggest setback of his nascent Zionist movement. “In spite of my weariness, Jerusalem and its grand moonlit contours made a deep impression on me,” Herzl recounted those first moments in his diary. “The silhouette of the fortress of Zion, the citadel of David – magnificent!”
The thrill of seeing the sights was augmented by the excitement of seeing the people. Just a day earlier, Herzl broke into tears as he met Jewish farmers living in the settlement of Rehovot. Now he was encountering the Jews of Jerusalem, wearing their Shabbat garb, glowing, returning from synagogues, walking to their Shabbat meals. They wished him and his entourage along the way “Shabbat shalom” and “Shalom aleichem.”
Herzl wrote: “The streets were alive with Jews sauntering in the moonlight.”
The honeymoon lasted for just one hour. Upon arriving at the Kaminitz Hotel, sick and exhausted, he was stunned to learn that his reservation for three rooms was canceled. The kaiser’s visit was one of the biggest events in the new-ancient city’s history. The hotels were overbooked and priority was given to Turkish dignitaries, German officers and other people of influence.
Another of Herzl’s companions, Aharon Hayut, recalled Herzl’s reaction upon hearing the news: “I remembered like yesterday how Herzl sat on the stairs in front of the entrance, silent and exhausted from his high fever... I will not forget this face... It seemed that the entire suffering, sorrow and misery of our people in the last 2,000 years were reflected on the face of Herzl at that hour in that place.”
Soon, the suffering, sorrow and misery would also be reflected in Herzl’s face as a result of what he saw in Jerusalem. “Hideous, miserable, scrambling beggary,” he reflected after returning from the Kotel. Two days after writing about magnificent Jerusalem, Herzl concluded in his diaries: “If I remember thee in days to come, O Jerusalem, it will not be with delight.”
The first grave of Herzl in the cemetery of Döbling, Vienna, in 1921. Credit: Wikimedia CommonsThe first grave of Herzl in the cemetery of Döbling, Vienna, in 1921. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
THAT FRIDAY night, the delegation was permitted to stay in the hotel, but was forced to leave the following day. Attempts to find another hotel for the rest of the stay would be pointless given the kaiser’s visit. As one of Herzl’s colleagues commented: “You would need a magician to get a hotel room.”
And so, with all other options exhausted, at 38 years old, Herzl resorted to the old-new Jewish tradition of couch-surfing. Through friends of friends, contact was made with Jonas Marx, whose family had built a spacious house right outside the city walls. Once Shabbat ended, Herzl and his delegation moved to the beautiful Stern House, located on today’s Mamilla Road.
The generous hosts cleared an entire floor for Herzl and his delegation. The luxurious accommodations allowed him and his colleagues to properly prepare for the audience with the kaiser. Herzl stayed there for six days. Quite rapidly, the Stern House turned into an epicenter of Jewish Jerusalem. There, Herzl would receive delegations, hold meetings, respond to letters.
Outside, people would gather in hope of catching a glimpse. Herzl’s colleagues and the hosting family served as gatekeepers, event planners, personal aides and schedulers. For that week the Stern House turned into an early prototype of the Winter White House.
Herzl recovered from his illness, but soon the suffering, sorrow and misery returned to his face in a much more detrimental manner. The audience with the kaiser was under a dense cloud of uncertainty. Attempts to contact the German delegation to confirm the meeting failed.
Herzl took extreme risks in deciding to meet the kaiser. It included risk to his life and risk of incarceration by the Turks, who assigned spies to shadow Herzl’s movement. One such spy was holding an arrest warrant that could be exercised at any moment.
There were also financial risks, exhausting the Zionist movement’s funds for this trip. But mostly, there were dire political risks. Failure to meet the kaiser could be devastating to the Zionist movement.
Worse, such failure could lead the Turks to view Jews as disloyal and there could be retribution. Herzl closely followed the 1894-1896 Armenian massacre, perceived to be orchestrated by the Turkish sultan. Rabbis in Turkey urged caution, pointing to the risk Herzl’s quest could pose to Jews throughout the Ottoman Empire.
Unlike the Europeans who repeatedly persecuted the Jews, Turkey viewed the Jews as beneficial contributors to their empire. That was now put in danger by Herzl.
Herzl was warned before launching his movement: “No individual has the right to take upon himself the tremendous moral responsibility of setting this avalanche in motion – endangering so many interests,” but Herzl decided to risk it, betting the farm in coming to meet the kaiser.
Herzl wrote as he waited for the kaiser’s response: “The uncertainty has just about completely demoralized us.” Yet, as with many of Herzl’s other woes, the agonizing uncertainly was also a blessing in disguise: Herzl spent the tense waiting days by seeing Jerusalem and its periphery: The Western Wall, Tower of David, Mount of Olives, the Via Dolorosa and Rachel’s Tomb.
He met Jerusalem’s Jewish residents, appreciated the warm welcome of the city’s non-Jewish residents and solidified his connection with his Jewish soul.
Those lingering days in Jerusalem allowed him to sharpen his thinking, much of it reflected in his novel Altneuland.
AFTER DAYS of waiting, pleading and lobbying, Herzl was received for a cold and laconic audience with the kaiser. His address was preapproved and edited down by the Germans. The small talk was centered around the weather and water. The official German account of the meeting was that “the kaiser received a Jewish delegation that submitted a photo album from the Jewish colonies.” Other German accounts went further. German prime minister Bernhard von Bülow, who was no fan of Zionism, wrote in his memoirs 30 years later that there was no meeting at all with Herzl in Jerusalem.
The disappointment was immense, a collapse from the high expectations that the preparatory meeting with the kaiser in Istanbul produced. Fearing for his life and incarceration, Herzl fled the city the next day, getting on the first boat out of Jaffa he could find – a dilapidated cargo ship carrying oranges.
It is not clear what caused the kaiser’s change of heart. Herzl speculated that the kaiser was well-intentioned, but that his suggestion to grant a Jewish charter was rejected by the sultan. The kaiser’s own memoirs support that view.
Another reason was provided by Bülow, who years later disclosed that in preparing for the meeting, the German Foreign Office contacted leading Jews. Those “establishment Jews” dissuaded the Germans from engaging with Herzl, claiming that Zionism is an irrelevant stream within Judaism, led by a fringe.
Jerusalem marked the end of Herzl’s four-year climb.
Subsequent diplomatic forays he made did not yield tangible results in his lifetime, and Zionism went into hibernation shortly after his death in 1904. But the foundations Herzl put in place were strong enough that when global circumstances changed, Zionism was awakened.
As it became evident that the British might acquire Palestine from the Turks, who unexpectedly entered World War I, the Zionist infrastructure was already firmly in place. So was the recognition of Zionism by the British government thanks to the Uganda process and the strong relations Herzl had established. The support across the British apparatus was solid enough to counter objections by London’s “establishment Jews.”
On November 2, 1917, Heshvan 17, 5678, on the 19th anniversary of Herzl’s meeting with the kaiser, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, viewing with favor the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
A month later, on December 11, British general Edmund Allenby entered the Holy City, and in doing so, drew a contrast with the kaiser. While Wilhelm entered in a carriage through a breach in the city wall the Turks broke in his honor, Allenby did the reverse. As he approached Jaffa Gate, he got off his horse in honor of the city. Just like Herzl, Allenby insisted on making his first steps by foot.
IF IN Basel Herzl founded the Jewish state, in Jerusalem he previewed it to the world. For one week, he was “king of the Jews,” as he was called by the local Arabs. Manifesting magisterial presence in Stern House, Herzl was regarded for that week as a representative of Judaism by Jews, Arabs, Turks and Germans. In doing so, he marked the beginning of the transformation of Zionism from an irrelevant stream to Judaism’s dominant force.
“If Jerusalem is ever ours, and if I were still able to do anything about it, I would begin by cleaning it up,” he wrote. “I would build an airy, comfortable, properly sewered, brand new city around the holy places.”
Sixty-nine years after he wrote those words, the city came under full Jewish control. In the almost 50 years that have ensued, it has been cleaned up, and an airy, comfortable brand new city has been built around the holy places: The First Station, where Herzl experienced his first moments in Jerusalem, is now home to restaurants, bars and cultural events – a showcase of the capital’s vibrancy.
Jaffa Road is no longer filled with garbage and filth. Just as Herzl envisioned, it hosts a light rail, which makes the lively traffic safer, easier and quieter.
The Stern House was restored, as was Mamilla Road, which now houses luxury stores and cafes.
Confident about such outcomes, Herzl provided the recipe: “There would gradually rise a glorious new Jerusalem... Loving care can turn Jerusalem into a jewel.”
Glorious new Jerusalem continues to rise. In the coming years, the slow train Herzl took from Jaffa will be replaced with an express train, just as he predicted. Similar investments in infrastructure, as well as the flourishing art and culture scene, the city’s academic centers, technology start-ups and unique vibrancy, all provide a powerful demonstration that loving care is turning Jerusalem into an astonishing jewel.
Herzl never came back to the Holy City during his lifetime, but he did after his death. As ordered in his will, Herzl’s remains were reinterred once the Jewish state was established, on the mountain that now bears his name.
Last week, Israel marked its 69th Independence Day. As every year, the official celebration ceremony was held by Herzl’s grave. In doing so, we expressed the enormous gratitude we owe to Herzl, and with it, the responsibility to continue to dream.