The Architect of the Jewish Nation

On my first visit to Tel Aviv back in the 1980s I went to the Knesset to see Marc Chagall’s grandiose frescoes. Once there, I peeped into the Assembly Hall where –to my surprise- the only decoration was a huge portrait of Theodore Herzl behind the Speaker’s seat. It was time when diplomatic relations between Hungary and Israel were suspended due to the 1967 war in which the Soviet Union sided with the Arab countries and the rest of the Communist Bloc had to follow suit. Ever since then, Herzl’s Moses-like face with sparkling eyes made a deep impression on me.

Though he was born in Pest in 1860, apart from a plaque on the house of his birth next to the Dohány utca Synagogue, there is hardly any trace in Hungary of his cult to resemble the one in Israel, where even a law was passed in 2004 to commemorate his legacy.  Indeed, his endowment to the Jewish Cause made history at the time and still polarizes Jews and non-Jews alike.

It all started in the family. Brought up in a secular fashion he received his basic education in the Lutheran Grammar School in Pest. After his sister’s death, the family moved to Vienna when he was 18, a fact that later explains his definition of his identity: “I am a German Jew from Hungary.” Identity became his topos for the rest of his life. Having a restless mind, even at a young age, Tivadar, was adamant in believing that he was born to fulfill a mission.  After studying law and a brief legal career he found his mission in becoming a playwright. Though quite a few of his comedies and dramas were performed in the theatres in Vienna, soon he had to realize that he could not surpass a mediocre level in literature.

Journalism provided much more success, so much so that in 1891 he received an offer from the Neue Freie Presse to be a correspondent for the prestigious Viennese paper in Paris. His Parisian years led him to find the real mission of his life. He became more and more concerned with the issue of anti-semitism sweeping Europe, including the pogroms in Russia, the Dreyfus Trial in 1894, which he attended as a correspondent, and after returning to Vienna in 1895 he found that an arch anti-semite, Karl Lueger – whose famous bon mot was to coin the word ‘Judapest’ – was elected Mayor.

It was in those days that he had a revelation of what the real solution for the Jewish issue would be. After revising his views on possible ways of assimilating Jews into various European societies, including the option of massive conversion, he came to the conclusion that the only way for the Jews to be free was to have a homeland of their own. The choice for the new home for all Jews fell on Palestine, then under Ottoman rule, though Argentina and later Uganda cropped up as alternatives.  But with the solidifying of the idea of rebuilding the City on Mount Zion, Palestine became the only option.

Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl Herzl approached the Rothschilds to support his idea and started to write a detailed argumentation for why the Zionist solution would be the best cure for the plight of the Jews in the poorer part of Europe. Out of this correspondence was born his famous pamphlet, Der Judenstaadt (the Jewish State), published in 1896, which led to controversies and heated debates among the Jewish communities, but surprisingly was supported by most anti-semites.  Der Judenstaadt became the centre piece of the Zionist Cause, the main point of which was that Jewishness was no longer a social, religious or racial issue, i.e. there was no need for assimilation, but the Jews are a nation who needed to have a state of their own where anti-semitism would vanish and the Jews could  take things into their own hands.

Herzl became so agitated by the reaction to his book that he started frantically  organizing support for his idea among bankers, politicians and most of all Jewish communities affected by anti-semitism like the Polish, Galician and Russian Jews where he was hailed as a Saviour. Not so much in Hungary, Austria or Germany where Zionism never took roots.

Now that Herzl had written  the best script he ever wrote, there was no stopping him from fulfilling a mission he had always dreamed of. Taking his own words literally – ‘If you will it, it is not a dream’ – he conducted – most of the time fruitless – negotiations with  Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Sultan Abdulhamid II, Pope Pius X and innumerable influential statesmen. After visiting Palestine he wrote a novel Altneuland (The Old New Land), published in 1902, about the Zionist utopia where in Palestine Jews live freely, convert the desert into fertile soil, democracy flourishes and even the Arabs embrace the newcomers, feeling grateful for their having brought civilization.

In possession of the script for the New State in Palestine, Herzl launched the Zionist movement, the first Congress of which took place in Basle in 1897. There he claimed:

”At Basle I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered with universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”

What became of the Zionist movement is a different story but the paradox of history is that 50 years later his prophecy came true when, standing beneath his portrait, Ben Gurion proclaimed on May 14, 1948 the formation of Eretz Israel.

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