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 ninth in a series.
Amid all of Theodor Herzl’s personal, professional, and movement tensions, this remarkably resilient man was deep in the writing of his utopian novel “Altneuland,” “Old New Land,” which he published in 1902. “Der Judenstaat” was one of a series of nineteenth-century nationalist manifestos, asserting claims to various homelands. “Altneuland” was unique, Herzl’s biographer Shlomo Avineri explains, because it was “not just about Jews having a right,” but also about Jews making the right kind of state.
The novel was progressive and prescient. It envisioned equal rights and dignity for women – and for Arabs, whose ties to the land Herzl respected. It anticipated some of modern Israel’s tensions pitting secular versus religious Jews and non-Jews versus Jews. Most important, “Altneuland” provides a vivid if romantic vision of what a Jewish state would be reassured Jews that a Jewish state could be.
The novel’s Hebrew translation captured Herzl’s alluring mix of romanticism and pragmatism, of dreaming and problem-solving. The Zionist intellectual and translator Nahum Sokolow rendered the title poetically as “Tel Aviv” – the ancient rubbled hill of spring. A tel is an artificial mound built up from archaeological relics and ruins, while the phrase comes from that most redemptive book of the Bible, Ezekiel 3:15. Seven years later, in 1909, the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv, sprang up from the sand dunes just north of the ancient Jaffa port where Herzl had landed.
For a newly crowned King of the Jews, who knew little about Jews, Herzl did a masterful job of keeping the Zionist movement together. He usually harmonized his disparate diplomatic, organizational, and ideological initiatives, while carving a reasonable consensus around most issues. Alas, what might have been his greatest diplomatic breakthrough almost broke the movement.
Joseph Chamberlain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies of the United Kingdom, was as properly dressed as Herzl – and with a monocle to boot. As a liberal sympathetic to the Jewish plight, and an imperialist happy to keep Britain dominating the international arena, he was open to Herzl’s proposal in 1902, for a temporary Jewish home in Cyprus or El Arish. Consultation with the Cypriots and Egyptians redirected Chamberlain. When they met again in 1903, the colonial secretary offered Herzl 13,000 square kilometers at Uasin Gishu in the East Africa Protectorate – today’s Kenya.
Somehow christened the Uganda Plan, it gained momentum after April 1903, when antisemites rampaged in Kishinev for two endless days, beating, raping, and murdering Jews. Coming six years into Herzl’s crusade, these Kishinev Pogroms validated his Zionist project, reinforcing his happy conclusion that the Jews were one people – with nerve endings overlapping and uniting them – and his unhappy conclusion that the Jews had no home in Europe. Desperate for an immediate solution, seeing dark clouds over Europe most Jews denied, Herzl presented the British offer at the Zionist Congress in August 1903 – and almost destroyed the movement he had sweated so hard to build.
Max Nordau would call the idea a “nachtasyl ,” a refuge in the night. Menachem Ussishkin, who had been the secretary at the First Zionist Congress, was one of many Russian Zionists who felt the proposal repudiated the Zionist idea. If Herzl pursued such folly, Ussishkin and others threatened “to organize an independent Zionist Organization without Dr. Herzl.” Equally indignant, Herzl mocked the dissidents as typical hacks – for the “first thing they acquire are all the bad qualities of the professional politicians.” Showing his imperious side, he threatened to “mobilize the masses of the lower class … then cut off their funds.”
This time, the masses abandoned Herzl.
There was good news hidden in the bad news from that volatile, vehement, angry, anxious Congress. The British government was treating the Zionist Organization and its leader Theodor Herzl seriously, marking a milestone in Jewish history. And when people take a young institution seriously enough to walk out of it, if it survives, it proves it is alive. Even a subsequent assassination attempt by a Uganda opponent on Max Nordau’s life confirmed Zionism’s growing relevance – “It does show love for an idea,” the wise Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, whose own father was shot dead in 1900, told Herzl. As one Altneu-nationalist to another, the king said. “I like this love for Jerusalem.”
The Sixth Zionist Congress voted 295 to 178 in Basel to explore the proposal. Nevertheless, the initiative’s formal defeat two years later would settle it: Zionism was about settling in Zion, nowhere else; it was a Jewish homecoming, not a spinoff to the European colonial adventure.
Herzl also enjoyed some diplomatic success with Russia’s interior minister, Count Wenzel von Plehve. This Jew-hater was open to schemes that might rid his country of the Jews. Herzl was realistic enough to focus on results and ignore motives. In retrospect, this recognition from Russian officials, followed by meetings in January 1904 with King Victor Emmanuel III and Pope Pius X, legitimized the movement and cemented Herzl’s legacy. Herzl kept trying to finalize a deal with the Ottoman Empire, sensing the “Sick Man of Europe’s” weakness, but multiple contacts and interactions never resulted in anything concrete.
With each passing year, Herzl realized that Zionism was also about reinvigorating Jewish identity and resolving many human dilemmas, not just solving the Jewish problem. “Zionism is a return to Jewishness even before there is a return to the Jewish land,” he explained. Herzl’s ideological journey, which tens of millions of Jews have now replicated, proved that the quest for Jewish normalcy is chimerical. Zionism does not work as a de-Judaized movement or a movement lacking big ideas or transformational values. It is as futile as trying to cap a geyser; Jewish civilization’s intellectual, ideological, and spiritual energy is too great.
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