Theodor Herzl was a man with an idea that once seen to fruition would change the world dramatically. But his reasons for creating the modern Zionist movement were never as black and white as people made them out to be.

History tries correcting the tricks memory plays on us—while respecting memory’s power. Thomas Jefferson is famous for writing the Declaration of Independence during the Revolution—although he served as Virginia’s governor during the war too. Paul Revere is best known for his Midnight Ride in 1775—although the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow coined the phrase “One if by land, two if by sea” … 85 years later.

Similarly, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, is mostly famous for launching his movement in reaction to the anti-Semitism of the Alfred Dreyfus trial. As with all great historical tales, Israel’s foundation story conveys one essential truth—reactions to European Jew hatred did inspire Zionism. But this too-simplistic story risks eclipsing other nuanced truths, making Zionism seem too defensive and a critique of French liberalism rather than a more affirmative nationalism that also feared Austro-Hungary’s blood-and-soil anti-Semitic right.

But first, Herzl’s Zionist Aha Moment.  It’s December 1894 in Paris. Theodor Herzl, a 34-year-old assimilated Austrian-Hungarian Jew, is covering the Dreyfus Affair. This lawyer, playwright, and journalist, with piercing eyes and a beautiful black beard, embodies the Enlightened rationalism and liberalism that freed Europe from the Middle Ages and Jews from their ghettoes. Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer, stands trial for treason. On December 22, 1894, when the court convicts Dreyfus—on trumped up charges, leading later to Emile Zola’s famous J’accuse—the crowd, inflamed by nationalism, doesn’t shout “Down with Dreyfus.” Instead, they yell—in Enlightened Paris—“Down with the Jews.”

Theodor Herzl has his Jewish awakening. Watching European nationalism cohere, appreciating the nation-state as the modern world’s defining political unit, knowing that, as he writes, “the Jews are one people,” Herzl realizes that until the Jews control their own country, Jew hatred will persist. The Jews must leave Europe and re-establish their ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel.

With this evolution from the Wandering Jew to the Settled Israeli, Herzl theorized, anti-Semitism would disappear, Jewish pride would reappear. Jews could be normal again—after centuries of national purgatory causing persecution. Herzl writes a pamphlet, Der Judenstat, the Jewish State, in 1896; organizes the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897; visits Palestine in 1898; and dies tragically in 1904. The man who insisted “If you will it, it is no dream,” was prophetic. Herzl wrote in 1897, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.” Fifty-one years later, in 1948, Israel, the Jewish State, was established.

It’s a great story, mostly accurate, although not fully true. The idea of Jewish peoplehood and a homeland was thousands of years old. And pressure for a modern Jewish State had been building for decades before Herzl’s epiphany.

Herzl himself is more complicated. He endured anti-Semitism in Vienna and worried for years about “the Jewish Problem”—can that perennially persecuted people ever fit into Europe? He also wasn’t some illiterate, anti-anti-Semitic Jewish pagan fleeing anti-Semites to build a garrison state of Jews. He loved Judaism, calling Zionism “a return to Jewishness, even before it is a return to the Jewish land”—although it took him awhile to realize Palestine was the only option for his Jewish state. He understood that the Jews’ unique heritage mixing religion and peoplehood could yield a State filled with Jewish values without being a theocracy because “Jewish” is a national concept too. He wanted—as he titled his 1902 utopian novel—an Altneuland, an Old-New Land, being what Barack Obama would call someone “who had the foresight to see the future of the Jewish people had to be reconnected to their past.” And, as a good liberal democrat, Herzl captured the universal possibilities pride in your particular heritage can bring. “We shall live at last as free people on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die,” he concluded in Der Judenstat. “The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.”

Historically, Herzl wasn’t just reacting to liberal France’s illiberalism but to what we might today be tempted to call the “alt-Right” that emerged as the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. In Herzl’s home city of Vienna, anti-Semitic, radically populist candidates emerged, with Karl Lueger of the Christian Social Party denouncing “corrupt liberalism” and Jewish power. These anti-Semites were “deterministic” racists, the political scientist Shlomo Avineri explains, fearing Jewish blood not attitudes. And they feared Jews’ perceived “success” not “weakness.”

Israel’s current status leads friends to overlook one of Herzl’s failures and foes to exaggerate another one. Given how central the Jewish national project is to Jews today, and given how the Holocaust justified Herzl’s fears, it’s easy to minimize just how marginal, even ridiculous, Herzl seemed to be. There he was, visiting European leaders, negotiating with the Ottoman Sultan, purporting to represent European Jews, most of whom wanted to stay home—or move to rich and free America not godforsaken Palestine.

And, given how the last century has played out, and given how wrong Herzl was about a Jewish state eliminating Jew hatred, many distort his views regarding the Arabs of Palestine. Palestinian critics caricature Herzl as a Cecil Rhodes-like Western imperialist, solving the Jewish problem on the Arabs’ backs. Israeli fans caricature him as a male, Jewish, Mother Teresa, sure that a Jewish state will redeem the Arabs too. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the nuanced middle. Herzl did imagine Jews and Arabs living happily ever after in “our common Fatherland.” But Herzl also underestimated how deep Arab ties were to the land—and their resistance to the Jews’ return.

Ultimately, we must abandon the Hollywood black or white version of Theodor Herzl, appreciating this complex character tackling a confounding problem in complicated times. He shared liberals’ idealistic faith in nationalism—even as he saw its ugly reactionary side. He echoed some Europeans’ condescending attitudes toward others. And he wasn’t some superhero saving the Jews, the Arabs, or the world.

However, like all great leaders, Theodor Hezl had an appealing vision suited to a particular moment that by (eventually) mobilizing millions shaped history. And like all great democratic leaders, he wasn’t just defending his people—or targeting enemies. In his moving Chanukkah story “The Menorah,” about a “man who deep in his soul felt the need to be a Jew,” Herzl imagined a once-assimilated Jew lighting the traditional Jewish candelabra. Watching the lights flicker, he and his family conclude, “The darkness must retreat.” Herzl adds: “The young and the poor are the first to see the light; then the others join in, all those who love justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity and beauty.”

Herzl’s vision, like Jefferson’s and Revere’s, was neither perfect nor sin-free. But its liberal nationalist sensibility gave the resulting movement—and state—that extraordinary democratic capacity to evolve ideologically, demonstrating not just grit and resilience but idealism and goodness, seeking “love, justice, truth, liberty, progress, humanity, beauty”—and may we add, peace.


Shlomo Avineri, Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State (2008, 2013): based on Herzl’s diaries, puts Herzl’s Zionist “Aha” moment in broader historical context.

Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State (1896): Herzl’s vision for a Jewish State.

Theodor Herzl, Altneuland (1902): Herzl’s utopian novel imagining an Old New country flourishing for all in Palestine.

George Yitzhak Weisz, Theodor Herzl: A New Reading (2013): argues that Herzl’s Jewish roots were deeper and more resonant than most believe.