Understanding Herzl 110 years after his death

As we travel to Mount Herzl, recall what our pioneering Zionist did for us – he set the stage so a state could be formed.

Theodore Herzl 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Theodore Herzl 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘At Basel I founded the Jewish state,” was the bold statement Theodor Herzl penned in his diary in the fall of 1897 after the first World Zionist Congress.
“Universal laughter,” he felt was a certainty if his words had been expressed aloud.
“Perhaps in five years,” he suggested, “and certainly in 50, everyone will know.”
Herzl did not see it, but his vision became reality, the State of Israel.
110 years have passed since the Zionist revolutionary, Theodor Herzl, died on July 3, 1904, in Vienna.
“He was not the first Jewish intellectual in the 19th century to call for the establishment of a Jewish nation state,” Prof. Shlomo Avineri pointed out in his recent comprehensive study of Herzl. “Herzl’s activity was crucial in creating the institutional and organizational structure that helped to bring the idea of a Jewish state to the attention of world leaders and international public opinion.”
Without his powerful initiative, the Jewish people might not have labored so diligently for a renewed homeland. Over 2,000 people, young and old, attended the memorial meeting held at Carnegie Hall on July 8, 1904, following his unexpected death. Hundreds of others circled the building weeping openly.
The New York Times said “that only a few had ever seen Herzl in person, because he never foot on these shores... the tribute would never be forgotten especially by the multitudes of American immigrants.”
The writer could not help but ask, “Can his dream of a land for his brethren ever be fulfilled?” One of the speakers that day was Rabbi Isidor Myers, a native of Poland. He had been trained there and “polished” in the words of historian Ava Kahn in Australia before being ordained. An early “lover of Zion,” he spent three months in Palestine in 1890 touring the country from one end to the other and meeting the early halutzim. During the next five years he gave 200 lectures on Zionism in Great Britain and then headed a synagogue in Montreal for a year. Moving to the US, he became the rabbi of Ohabei Shalom synagogue in San Francisco. By accident, he was visiting in New York when Herzl died. Myers was asked to give a memorial tribute at the Manhattan event; fortunately, some of his remarks were preserved in the San Francisco Call newspaper.
“Great sorrow has overwhelmed all Israel in the death of the man who united the scattered Jewish race once more in the unity of old. The divisiveness of the Jewish people had overwhelmed all those who were suffering horribly in the Eastern European countries.
Then a meteor appeared – some called him ‘the King of the Jews.’ With incredible drive, he pulled the Jews together in seven short years and put them on the right path.
“Theodore Herzl is a ‘Cedar of Lebanon’ who has fallen,” Myers observed. “At 44 years of age, he had done what no other man in modern times accomplished.”
The rabbi felt honesty was required.
“Herzl did not create Zionism, but he drew it together, moved it into activity and made the salvation of a race possible,” the rabbi concluded. “Now the Jews, with effort, will have a home in a land hallowed by the blood of his fathers, and he will no more be a pariah driven here and there by the police of all nations.”
As we scan the thoughts of noted Jews who lived during the Herzl era, we begin to see how they carried his message forward. In 1898, writing about the language of Jewish life, Israel Zangwill suggested quite boldly.
“The modern progressive Jews of New York and London lead a life not necessarily inferior to a Jewish life, but a Jewish life it is not. It is the general life of the nation whose language they speak.”
Zangwill made his point stronger.
“Scrupulously buried in the same cemetery [with Jews], they have a common death but a common life, no, that they have not. Upon the clear mirror of language, they produce no breath.”
He underlined what his listeners must recognize, “If Israel is to live and speak again, it can only be on a soil of his own.”
In 1904, the Macon Telegraph, a Georgia newspaper, described the homeland during Herzl’s era in this fashion.
“Where the land was treeless and supposed to be worthlessly sterile, the colonists [halutzim] have caused the almond and the olive, the grape and the orange, the wheat and the sister cereals to thrive and abound. They are changing desert into a garden.... Hebrew, after a sleep of more than 2,000 years as a ‘dead’ language has again become a living tongue, serving as the medium of intercommunication between Jews from many countries of different languages. The renascence of the Hebrew language has, in turn, acted powerfully to revive the spirit of Jewish nationality.”
Images of Herzl abound; some he promoted himself – many others were developed to capture different aspects of his persona. Two are of special interest – one during his lifetime and the other a personal discovery.
Herzl was not only a Zionist revolutionary; he promoted social causes as well.
From 1900 on, amid his travels to promote the Jewish state, he began to feel that modern transportation – then only cars, buses and trucks had to be limited in their usage. Herzl, along with others, believed that the fuel to operate these vehicles had the capability of harming the atmosphere. So he transported himself around Vienna on a bicycle. Since he was one of the few Jewish leaders, who believed in this drastic limitation in travel, he decided to use a picture of himself on a bicycle to promote this cause.
It could be that he, publicist supreme, saw this image as a way of adding to his Zionist followers. Little is known about Jews’ perception of him as a “biker,” but we can recognize the diversity in his efforts to reshape the world.
In the creation of my American Heritage Haggadah 25 years ago, I searched in many archives to find unknown images of Passover in America. It was well known that the Orthodox Jews had a prejudice against Herzl, because he was such a secular Jew. So I was surprised to find an image, the seder of an American Orthodox family in a Hebrew magazine, with the portrait of Herzl hanging on the wall overlooking the participants. Orthodox Jews were best known for hanging pictures of noted rabbis, Rambam, Yosef Caro, Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, on the walls in their homes. Here is the Zionist idealist, cut down in the prime of life, who has entered an observant Jewish home.
I have not sought any more Herzl-Passover images; surely there are others to be found.
Professor Isaiah Friedman, Zionist historian, offered this evaluation of Theodor Herzl and his work.
“The shifts of emphasis in Herzl’s diplomatic activity from one capital to another gave the impression at the time that his policy was inconsistent, if not contradictory, but this was not so. His strategy was multilateral, though evolving in response to opportunities rather than by design.”
He was certain “the Jewish Question” for Herzl as Friedman stresses, “had to be tackled within the framework of international law.”
With the UN’s partition vote in 1947, it is clear that Herzl was correct.
As we travel to Mount Herzl, recall what our pioneering Zionist did for us – he set the stage so a state could be formed.
In August, the World Zionist Organization and the Herzl Center will honor the memory of Chaplain Oscar M. Lifshutz who arranged for the disinterment of Herzl’s remains in August 1949 so they could be brought to Israel and buried in Jerusalem at what is now Mount Herzl.