Editor’s note: Excerpted from the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” edited by Gil Troy, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People, to be published this August marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. This is fifth in a series.
In late 1895, while Theodor Herzl steeped himself in writing his often overlooked play, The New Ghetto , reporters broke the story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish officer arrested for espionage. Herzl downplayed Dreyfus’s Jewishness at first. Nevertheless, on January 6, 1895, Herzl’s dispatch described the painful ceremony stripping Dreyfus of his rank – as the patriotic, betrayed Dreyfus cried, “You are demoting an innocent person. Vive La France! ”
Then, Herzl reported, as Dreyfus marched away with his buttons and insignia cut off and his sword broken, “he reached a line of officers who roared at him: ‘Judas! Traitor.’” The mob, watching the scene, “shouted from time to time: ‘Death to the traitor!’”
Four years later in 1899, in his unpublished essay “On Zionism,” written for the North American Review , Herzl updated, simplified, and Zionized his story. By then, the Dreyfus affair had become a cause célèbre and the novelist Emile Zola had written his famous essay “J’Accuse .” Seeking to dramatize his own conversion and illustrate Zionism’s allure, Herzl reported hearing the mobs cry, “Death to the Jews.” Only then did he say, melodramatically, “What made me a Zionist was the Dreyfus trial.”
In fairness, while he may have been simplifying his life story, Herzl was not making anything up. Other reporters record the crowd in 1895 denouncing the Jews explicitly.
In spring 1895, the victory of Karl Lueger and his antisemitic Christian Social Party in the Viennese municipal elections probably unnerved Herzl more personally. This was Vienna, his adopted hometown, which symbolized the liberal-democratic German future. Lueger’s populist demagoguery would inspire the phrase that “antisemitism is the socialism of fools.” Herzl was starting to see just how many fools surrounded him in supposedly enlightened Europe. That spring, enlightened France again disappointed with a two-day parliamentary debate about “the Jewish infiltration.”
Jew-hatred was on the march.
In his diaries, begun, as he wrote “around Pentecost, 1895,” a Christian holiday because he lived on Christian time, Herzl recalled how unnerved he was in 1882 when he read Eugen Dühring’s 1881 Jew-hating diatribe, “The Jewish Problem as a Problem of Race, Morals and Culture.” “As the years went on,” he noted, “the Jewish Question bored into me and gnawed at me, tormented me, and made me very miserable.” Herzl admitted toying with the idea of “getting away from it,” but he insisted: “I never seriously thought of becoming baptized or changing my name.”
In Vienna, Herzl apparently was visibly Jewish, but somehow in Paris he noticed, “here I pass through the crowd unrecognized.” The result was a more sobering conclusion about Jew-hatred: “Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of efforts to ‘combat antisemitism.’ Declamations made in writing or in closed circles do no good whatever.” No matter how many petitions are signed or committees are struck: “Antisemitism has grown and continues to grow – and so do I.” Eventually, Herzl would outgrow his naïve faith in assimilating, seeing those efforts as futile too.
Herzl spent 1895 churning, thinking, refining his ideas. Ironically, a Jew-hater, Alphonse Daudet, impressed by Herzl’s analysis of the Jewish Question, advised Herzl to “look at Uncle Tom’s Cabin ” and write a novel bringing alive his ideas. Instead, Herzl drafted a lengthy letter to the super-philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, then pitched the idea of a Jewish state to Hirsch – who was unimpressed.
Yet Herzl’s appeal was impressive. He was realizing that national identity – and national renewal – required a revival of the Jewish body and Jewish soul. To achieve that, Herzl proposed pragmatic steps and symbols – accompanied by speculative leaps. Writing to Baron Hirsch, on June 3, 1895, Herzl insisted a flag was not just “a stick with a rag on it. … With a flag one can lead men wherever one wants to, even into the Promised Land. For a flag men will live and die; it is indeed the only thing for which they are ready to die in masses, if one trains them for it; believe me, the policy of an entire people – particularly when it is scattered all over the earth – can be carried out only with imponderables that float in thin air.” Toggling between the hard-headed and the ethereal – “Dreams, songs, fantasies, and black-red-and-gold ribbons,” Herzl noted, after all, “What is religion? Consider, if you will, what the Jews have endured for the sake of this vision over a period of two thousand years. Yes, visions alone grip the souls of men.”
It’s remarkable. In the seven months from November 1894 to June 1895, from the end of writing The New Ghetto to the start of this conversation with Baron Hirsch, Herzl discovered hope – HaTikva – which not coincidentally is the name of the Zionist anthem. If for years Jews survived thanks to leaps of faith, Herzl would now free Jews with his leap of hope.
This geyser of optimism could not have been tapped from the press. Newspapers were filled daily with more and more sobering stories about Jew-haters killing Herzl’s parents’ dream of full acceptance. Instead, this infectious wellspring of hope for his downtrodden people came from deep within Herzl’s Jewish soul, his thwarted European aspirations, and his unique personality. But, unlike his neighbor Sigmund Freud, who saw dreams as every individual’s “royal road to the conscious,” Theodor Herzl turned his dreams into the Jewish people’s populist path to liberation.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.
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Prof Gil Troy · 20 Derech Bet Lechem · Apt 2 · Jerusalem 9310925 · Israel