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 seventh in a series.
In July of that critical year of 1896, when he became “a sort of poor man’s lawyer for unfortunate Jews,” Theodor Herzl returned to Vienna, becoming the Neue Freie Presse’s feuilleton editor. Herzl would spend the rest of his life as a full-time Zionist and a part-time journalist, just to keep some income streaming in. He felt enslaved to the newspaper but proud that he earned nothing from the movement. His diaries track the meetings he pursues and has, the articles he conceives and writes, the strategies he ponders and follows, the relationships he makes and leverages, and the ideas for this new Jewish state he keeps generating, refining, spreading.
With his manifesto “Der Judenstaat, The Jewish State,” the talk of the Jewish world, Herzl started thinking about how to give this Zionist movement forming around him official status and organizational shape. In mid-June 1896, Herzl had to note how far he had traveled in barely a year. He visited Constantinople with his diplomatic agent Philipp Michael de Newlinski, an impoverished Polish aristocrat turned journalist. Although he initially failed to secure an audience with the Sultan, who controlled Palestine through the Ottoman Empire, Herzl met with the Vizier and received the “Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Medjidie.” This man came with no formal organization, a stateless people, and only a popular pamphlet behind him. Nevertheless, the Turks took Herzl seriously. When Herzl stopped in Sofia on his way home, hundreds of Jews cheered their new Messiah. Herzl was encouraged – the Jewish masses were awakening.
Such adulation gave Herzl “strange sensations. I saw and heard my legend being born.”
By August 29, 1897, then, when Herzl convenes the First Zionist Congress, momentum has already been building for two years. More Zionist circles are forming, expanding a network that started decades earlier, especially after the Russian pogroms from 1881 to 1884. Characteristically, Herzl has already established a Zionist newspaper, Die Welt. And equally characteristically – for the Jewish people – the backlash is growing: from “Protest Rabbis” in London and Vienna, to refused invitations from the more culturally-oriented and settlement-focused Hovevei Zion rival group in England, to the refusal of the Munich Jewish community to host this first Zionist congress. Reform and Orthodox rabbis, who rarely agree on anything, agree on one thing: they do not want the Zionists in their city.
That is why Herzl shifts the Congress to Basel, Switzerland. But that, of course, solves only one of his many headaches. As the Congress approaches, Herzl’s agitation increases. On the train to Zurich in late August, he catalogs the invisible “eggs” he is juggling in this excruciating “egg-dance” threatening his dream. They include the eggs of the Neue Freie Presse, of the Orthodox, of the modernists, of Austrian patriotism, of Turkey and the Sultan, of the skeptical Edmond de Rothschild, of the rival Hovevei Zion, of the colonists in Palestine whose financial subsidies “must not be queered.” Herzl adds the “egg of the Russian government, against which nothing unpleasant may be said, although the deplorable situation of the Russian Jews will have to be mentioned” and the “egg of the Christian denominations, on account of the Holy Places,” along with the eggs of personal differences, envy, jealousy. This whole endeavor “is one of the labors of Hercules,” he sighs.
Thanks to Herzl’s tortured journey and his still deeply inadequate, obviously scarred, sense of self, he makes one of his great moves. He insists that the 197 delegates – including thirteen women – attend the Congress in formal eveningwear. “These people should consider this Congress as the most superior and festive of all,” he explains to an even more prominent enlightened European Jew turned Zionist, Max Nordau.
The Zionist Congress’s pageantry was doubly effective. By impressing the outside world, it launched Herzl’s feverish diplomatic efforts, which many historians today say put the Zionist movement on the international agenda and by 1917 resulted in Great Britain’s Balfour Declaration. But it also stirred the Jewish masses. It took a Herzl – a Western, assimilated Jew, mastering the symbols of modernity while refusing the Enlightenment’s cover-up-your-Judaism bargain – to impress the beaten-down Eastern European Jew that this movement was credible – and able to spawn a New Jew, not just a solution to the Jewish Problem.
One delegate from Odessa, Mordechai Ben-Ami, wrote: “Before us rose a noble, almost angelic figure whose deep and piercing stare mixed quiet majesty with unutterable sorrow. This was … not the elegant Dr. Herzl of Vienna, but a royal scion of the House of David, risen suddenly from the grave in all his legendary glory.”
In those “three days of awakening Jewish history,” Herzl proclaimed, “Zionism introduced itself to the world.” Before Basel, the movement “remained in the ghetto. … Now it has entered the public arena and engages public opinion around the globe. Many hundreds of newspapers wrote of it during the past week.”
Building on dozens of other initiatives, including the farming villages already being established in the Holy Land, the First Zionist Congress voted in the Basel Program, proclaiming: “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.” Four essential “means” would achieve that goal: promoting settlements in Palestine, organizing Jews “into local or general groups,” strengthening “the Jewish feeling and consciousness,” and appealing to governments to help for “the achievement of the Zionist purpose.” Most practically, the Congress adopted “HaTikva” as the national anthem, accepted a blue-and-white flag with a six-pointed star in the middle as the Zionist standard, and established the Zionist Organization, with Theodor Herzl elected as president.
Looking back, Herzl admitted that “when I started out, I was only a ‘Jewish Statist.’” Gradually, he became “a Hovev Zion [Lover of Zion]. For me there is no other solution but Palestine for the great national question which is called the Jewish Question.”
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