July 20, 2020

When in December 1895 Moritz Güdemann, Chief Rabbi of Vienna, called on the noted journalist Theodor Herzl at his apartment to discuss establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, he happened upon the future founder of Zionism standing beneath a Christmas tree which he was decorating for the amusement of his (uncircumcised) son.

Raised in ultra-assimilative Budapest Neolog-Judaism, Herzl’s acquaintance with Hebrew and (in adulthood) Jewish practice was minimal, and he was a most unlikely man to spark a global movement of Jewish self-consciousness.

Yet, within eight years of meeting Güdemann, he had created the structures of a worldwide campaign, mobilised a mass following of impoverished Orthodox Jews in Russia and Galicia, and argued his cause in person to the representatives of three world powers. Within a decade he was dead, and since then he has remained in many ways a mystery. It is this mystery that Derek Penslar’s recent biography Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader makes strides toward unravelling, in doing so posing questions for Israel today.

Zionism’s foundational text, the 1896 Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”) was born almost by accident. In May 1895 Herzl’s long gathering background despondency regarding the Jewish predicament in Europe was energised by an external shock: rabid anti-Semite Karl Lueger’s election as mayor of Vienna. This would prove the spark for the explosion of creativity that launched Zionism, the fuel being Herzl’s deep emotional unease arising from a fraught marriage and frustrated literary ambition.

“Herzl was in the grip of an existential crisis” Penslar writes: “he experienced a prolonged period of heightened energy that in June escalated into a frenzy… Herzl’s Zionist program emerged as a kind of condensation, in which an effulgence of psychic energy gradually thickened and stabilised.”

He later recalled writing while “walking, standing, lying down, in the street; at table, [and] at night when I started up from sleep.” Herzl needed Zionism as an overarching purpose just as Zionism needed Herzl’s energy to come to life.

Despite frenzied composition Der Judenstaat’s tone is powerfully controlled. Herzl dissects the “Jewish Question” with forensic rigour, evoking the psychological “de-personalisation” of advanced depression, “standing outside himself” as observer, watching dispassionately. “The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers,” Herzl wrote: “Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migration. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution.”

Paradoxically, Herzl argued, if Jews embraced the “otherness” gentile Europeans attributed to them, disdaining Jewish assimilation, then reconciliation would follow. Removing Jews en masse from Europe would eliminate anti-Semitism. If Jews “become an independent nation, settled on the soil of their own land and leading the life of a normal people” Christian Europeans would view them as reliable international partners — not “enemies within”. The few Jews remaining behind in Europe would be indulged by Christians as a benign curiosity.

Jews too would be transformed: “We are what the ghetto made us,” but the Jewish authorities would “make it impossible… for those of our people, who are hawkers and peddlers here, to re-establish themselves in the same trades there”. Gentile esteem would ensue. A “blank slate” would facilitate innovation: a seven-hour work day; funded worker education; centralised labour agencies matching need to supply. Success would attract Jewish diaspora migrants and, again, Christian respect.

Though no theocracy, Herzl’s Jewish state would honour religion because Jews “feel our historic affinity only through the faith of our fathers” — even if many Jews lacked faith at the present. Palestine was preferred not because God commanded it but because tradition meant it “would attract our people with a force of marvellous potency”.

Herzl was happy to embrace stereotypes to make the case. “We have attained pre-eminence in finance,” he argued, so Jewish financiers should alleviate Ottoman public debt as the price of statehood. He even sought help from anti-Semites like Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, who he hoped could be motivated to pressure Sultan Abdul Hamid II in order to answer Germany’s own “Jewish question”.

Herzl tirelessly promoted his project through speeches, articles, meetings and a futuristic novel Die Altneuland (“The Old-Newland”) which attempted to communicate the texture of lived experience in the hoped-for state. The novel gave Zionism emotional content, offsetting Die Judenstaat’s arid rationalism. Herzl understood that for a political project to succeed it must appeal to the imaginative faculty, yet he rejected categorisation of Die Altneuland as “utopian”. The book’s subtitle If you will it, it is no dream was meant to be taken seriously.

Penslar deems Herzl a paradigmatic exemplar of what sociologist Max Weber later termed “charismatic authority”. From Vilnius to Sofia crowds assembled – even at dead of night – to watch Herzl’s carriage passing by.

Jewish criticism of Herzl was incessant, and prior to 1945 anti-Zionism was the majority position in world Jewry. Assimilationists balked at Herzl’s despair of achieving Enlightenment pluralism in Europe; rabbinical scholars decried his ambition to restore a Jewish polity through human agency as a blasphemy.

“Heart neurosis! That, and the Jews, will kill me off!” Herzl complained to physician Alexander Mamorek in September 1903. His struggles presaged the coalition instability which plagues modern Israeli politics, sustaining unity among partners in Zionism’s fractious alliance proving nightmarish. The yearnings of Secularists for European culture, the Orthodox for inherited tradition and Hebrew language enthusiasts for a newly-created identity were painfully antithetical. Herzl’s words to Mamorek proved prophetic: he succumbed to a lethal combination of stress and cardiac arrhythmia nine months later.

Herzl was very much a product of Budapest, the city where he lived until he was 18, and one of the great centres of European Judaism. The Herzl home abutted Dohanhyi Street’s Great Synagogue, then the world’s largest and built to resemble the ground plan of a church, and staffed by cassocked rabbis. The family worshiped there regularly, if not zealously.

Today an extension of the synagogue incorporates the site of Herzl ’s home; the garden in which he played is merged within land which became (and remains) a mass grave for around 2,000 Jews of the Budapest ghetto who died variously by bullet, starvation and disease in autumn 1944. That coincidence presents a powerful argument for his project’s necessity.

Penslar’s presentation of Herzl presents strong implicit arguments regarding the state he imagined and most importantly the proposed annexation of the West Bank. For one thing, nowhere in either Der Judenstaat or Die Altennueland did Herzl specify what the geographic boundaries of the Jewish homeland should be.

In Die Autlnueland Herzl even retreated from asserting territorial sovereignty itself. In his mature thought the “Jewish State” was to be a “charted” – not sovereign – entity sheltering within a great power: more like the State of New York than the United States of America. It would have no army of its own.

Herzl was clear that land transfer would be through consensual purchase. Even this should be preceded by international approval under “public law”. Initially Der Judenstaat hinted at Jewish exclusivism, but later Die Altneuland stressed Arab equality. The assertion of a biblical mandate for control of the West Bank (or “Judea and Samaria” as Likud politicians’ term it) clashes even with Der Judenstaat’s earlier rejection of theocracy.

For Herzl the Jewish people’s self-consciousness, not Palestine’s land mass, was what enabled statehood. Hence his claim to have “founded the Jewish State” at Basel before it had any land whatsoever. In the already quoted diary entry of 3rd September 1897 he asserted that “The foundation of a State lies in the will of the people for a State). Territory is only the material basis; the State, even when it possesses territory, is always something abstract. At Basel, then, I created this abstraction.”

On top of his many other talents Herzl possessed an eerie capacity for prediction. On 3 September 1897, reflecting on the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Herzl wrote: “to sum up… I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years and certainly in 50, everyone will know it.” Fifty years and two months later, on 29 November 1947, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.

Six months later, on 15 May, 1948, David Ben Gurion read out Israel’s independence declaration in the Tel Aviv Museum standing beneath Herzl’s portrait and thereby invoking his authority. Yet it’s an authority that is often misunderstood or misused by his successors, so that today it could be argued that what Israel desperately needs today is more Zionism.