Herzl: Up Close and Personal
In Pursuit of the Zionist Vision
Biography: Theodor Ze’ev Binyamin Herzl (1860-1904)
His life lasted a scant 44 years, and he dedicated only the last nine of them to the Zionist cause. But in this brief and extraordinary span of less than a decade he was able to mobilize the forces and craft the infrastructure that would revolutionize the Jewish world and bring about the realization of the Jewish people’s age-old dream of returning to Zion.
Herzl was born on May 2, 1860 in Budapest, Hungary, where he was educated in the secular spirit of the German-Jewish Enlightenment. His views about the plight of the Jewish people changed forever when, as Paris correspondent for the influential liberal Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse, he observed the trial and conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Due to anti-Semitic prejudice, this Jewish officer in the French army was unjustly accused of treason and divested of his rank in a humiliating public ceremony. Hearing the mob’s shouts of “Death to the Jews,” Herzl became convinced that assimilation was not the answer to dispelling anti-Semitism. Rather, the only solution to the problems of the Jewish people was to create a Jewish homeland.
In 1896, Herzl published “Der Judenstaat” (The Jewish State), in which he argued that the Jewish question was not to be dealt with on a personal level but rather in the arena of international politics. In his Zionist novel “Altneuland” (Old New Land, 1902), Herzl envisioned a socialist Jewish utopian society constructed according to modern science and technology which would be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Herzl proposed the establishment of a company owned by stockholders in order to collect funds from Jews around the world for this purpose.
Despite ridicule from Jewish leaders, who regarded this plan as too extreme, Herzl’s ideas were greeted with enthusiasm by Jewish masses in Eastern Europe. Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland on August 29-31, 1897. The congress established the World Zionist Organization, electing Herzl as its first president.
Herzl was well aware of the profundity and immensity of the mission he so passionately embarked upon. Immediately following the first Zionist Congress, he wrote in his diary:
“In Basle I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this out loud today, people would laugh. But perhaps in another five years, certainly in another 50, everyone will recognize it.”
In the last eight years of Herzl’s life, he labored tirelessly for the sake of his dream of a Jewish state behalf of Zionism, meeting with world leaders to try to gather financial and political support. Herzl died on July 3, 1904.
Half a century later, true to his prophecy, the State of Israel indeed came into being.
In 1949, following the establishment of the State of Israel, Herzl’s remains were transferred to a mountain in western Jerusalem now known as Mount Herzl, today a major military cemetery.