One Hundred Years Without Theodor Herzl
Conference organized by
the Jewish Museum of Rio de Janeiro and
the Austrian Consulate General Rio de Janeiro
in cooperation and in presence of
the Austrian Ambassador in Brazil, Werner Brandstetter, and
the Israeli Ambassador in Brazil, Daniel Gazit as well as
the Jewish Federation of the State of Rio de Janeiro
July 15, 2004, at the
Academia de Letras
Rio de Janeiro
THE MAJOR LEADER OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE IN MODERN TIMES
With the exception of Biblical times, no other Jew besides Theodor Herzl caused such a great impact on his people, no other Jew contributed in such an effective and successful way to changing the course of Jewish history that, a hundred years before, seemed destined to total stagnation. Moreover, Herzl’s biographies have always been presented in a schematic form, without an analysis of the essence of his mind and behavior.
Theodor Herzl had a profoundly complex personality, a giant in his public life and an unhappy man in his personal life. Hungarian by birth, of German culture and naturalized Austrian, he was a typical Viennese intellectual of the second half of the nineteenth century, a time in which Vienna was the cultural capital of Europe, much more so than Paris. The standard biographies portray him as a totally assimilated Jew, which is not the truth. Although he grew up in a secular environment, with minimal religious contacts, he always had Jewish preoccupations, feelings and pride.
Above all, Theodor Herzl was an exceptional statesman without ever having been a head of state or ever belonging to the state that he idealized, not even as a common citizen. However, Herzl’s political vocation never overshadowed his extreme sensibility, constant poetic vision and even a certain naiveté. Had he not possessed these virtues it is possible that he would not have found such a simple form to resolve the very complex Jewish situation. He left a diary in which he explains the entire road he traveled, from being a common journalist and an aspiring playwright to being the major leader of the Jewish people in modern times. Such a description makes it seem like a long road. Nonetheless, only nine years passed from the publication of The Jewish State, in 1895, to his death in 1904. If we count from the First Zionist Congress, in 1897, it was only seven years. Never, in the history of mankind, did someone accomplish so much in so little time.
Born to Jeanette and Jakob, an upper middle class couple, Theodor (Benyamin Zeev) Herzl was born in Budapest, Hungary, on May 2, 1860. In 1878, the Herzl family moved to Vienna, residing in a beautiful apartment on the third floor of number 25 of Praterstasse. On the same street lived the Jew Arthur Schnitzler, who would become a famous playwright, two years older than Herzl. On the corner lived a Jewish young man of 22 years of age called Sigmund Freud and, some streets nearby, a young musician that answered to the name of Gustav Mahler. When Herzl started studying to be a lawyer, already preoccupied with issues related to anti-Semitism, Herzl decided that his vocation would be literature and not law, and he took his first steps in journalism. In 1885, he was nominated as an employee of the district court of the city and the following year he met Juliette Naschauer, daughter of a millionaire industrialist, whom he would marry.
Soon afterwards, he left for Paris as correspondent of the newspaper Neue Freie Presse. By this time, Herzl, who already had some of his theatrical productions presented in Vienna, Prague and Berlin, began to write a play called The New Ghetto. It was, as he said, the great ghetto in which the Jews of Europe found themselves, a new ghetto with invisible walls but so solid that the Jews could not cross them. In 1894, he began to follow the strongly anti-Semitic case against Captain Dreyfus – whose influence on his thoughts and behavior was overestimated over time. In the articles he wrote on the judgment, he did not even mention the fact that the French military man unjustly accused of espionage for the Germans was indeed Jewish. What really worried Herzl in that frame of events was the emergence of extreme nationalist movements in various countries in Europe. These movements threatened Jews and could create persecutions and great waves of refugees from Eastern Europe.
It was then that he began to germinate the idea of a territorial solution to the Jewish problem. He sensed the demise of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that had been a tranquil refuge for more than two million Jews. The worsening of the Jewish situation corresponded to the reflex reaction of a profound crisis that shook European society and that this society did not know how to resolve. Consequently, in his vision, the Jewish situation should be resolved outside the context of Europe. Furthermore, it had to be placed in the context of the interests of the great powers of the time.
Herzl hesitated between the careers of journalist and playwright. He wanted to pull into the political arena but did not know how. He traveled to England, where he exchanged ideas with Max Nordau and Israel Zangwill. Upon returning to Vienna, he concluded a short book which he called The Jewish State: A Tentative Modern Solution to the Jewish Situation. This book was the powder spark that set the Jewish world ablaze. Concise and objective, the text proposed the establishment of a Jewish nation, detailing how this new country could be constituted. Why, therefore, did it have such an impact? Because Theodor Herzl removed the Jewish problem from a parochial sphere and elevated it to a universal awareness. Because up to that moment, the Jews only talked about anti-Semitism in closed circles and now, for the first time, someone denounced it completely and without restrictions. Soon afterwards Herzl’s meetings with the statesmen of Europe and the Middle East took place, as well as his trip to Palestine and the First Zionist World Congress. It was a period of nine years of passionate and intense dedication to the Zionist ideal. His words in the preface to The Jewish State continue to be relevant today.
“I am profoundly convinced that I am right. I don’t care if in my lifetime I will be proven right. The first men that began this movement perhaps will not be able to see its glorious conclusion. I consider my task complete with the publication of this book. The Jews that want it will have their own state and will work to deserve it”.
Those who research the two thousand pages of his diary can find this precious annotation, dated 1895: “No one thought in looking for the Promised Land where it is really found. After all, it is so close. It can be found inside of us.”
Herzl elevated the Jewish problem to a universal awareness
*Zevi Ghivelder is a journalist and writer
"Herzl", by Amos Elon. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
"The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl". 5 vols. Herzl Press, 1960.
Centenary of the Death of Theodor Herzl (1860 – 1904)