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Pope Francis pays homage to the vision and visionary of the Jewish state. The author is in the background. Herzl is in his tomb.

In this exclusive interview, Herzl expresses appreciation of the Pope’s visit to his tomb earlier this week, but warns that the challenge of eradicating anti-Semitism and bringing about universal recognition of the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own has yet to be met.

David Breakstone

Theodor Herzl was positively animated when we met for the purpose of this interview immediately after Pope Francis laid a wreath on his tomb earlier this week. Generally reserved and imperially composed, he was visibly electrified by the event, which, he explained to me, he had been lying in anticipation of for 110 years already, referencing his profoundly discouraging meeting with Pope Pius X on January 26, 1904. Despite the outward veneer of optimism that he was always careful to project, he confessed to me that when he left the Vatican on that cold winter afternoon it was all but impossible for him to believe that this moment would ever arrive.

“Why the inner pessimism?” I asked. He didn’t need any prompting, and began recalling the conversation of more than a century ago as though it had just taken place yesterday.

“I arrived 10 minutes ahead of time and didn’t even have to wait,” Herzl began enthusiastically. “I was conducted through numerous small reception rooms to the Pope. He received me standing and held out his hand, which I did not kiss. Lippay (the Papal Count who’d arranged for the audience) had told me I had to do it, but I didn’t. I believe that I incurred his displeasure by this, for everyone who visits him kneels down and at least kisses his hand. This hand kiss had caused me a lot of worry. I was quite glad when it was finally out of the way.”

“Out of the way?” I enquired. “If I remember correctly, you blamed your failure to gain the Pope’s support for your scheme in part on your refusal to follow protocol.” Herzl acknowledged that my recollection was correct and continued reminiscing.

“I briefly placed my request before him. He, however, possibly annoyed by my refusal to kiss his hand, answered sternly and resolutely: ‘We cannot give approval to this movement. We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem—but we could never sanction it. As the head of the Church I cannot tell you anything different. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.'”

“It sounds as though your audience with His Holiness succeeded only in opening old wounds,” I observed.

Herzl concurred. “The conflict between Rome, represented by him, and Jerusalem, represented by me, was once again revealed.”

“Was there nothing you could do or say to appease him?” I asked.

“At the outset, to be sure, I tried to be conciliatory,” Herzl recalled. “I recited my little piece about extra-territorialization, explaining that the Holy Places would be outside of the area that would come under our dominion. It didn’t make much of an impression. Jerusalem,’ the pontiff said, ‘must not get into the hands of the Jews.'”

“He preferred that Jerusalem be in the hands of the Moslems?” I asked.

Herzl responded that he had challenged the Pope on exactly this point. “And its present status, Holy Father?”

“I know, it is not pleasant to see the Turks in possession of our Holy Places,” replied the pontiff. “We simply have to put up with that. But to support the Jews in the acquisition of the Holy Places, that we cannot do.”

“Our point of departure had been solely the distress of the Jews and we desire to avoid the religious issues,” Herzl told me he said to the Pope, but the statement did not appease him.

“Yes, but we, and I as the head of the Church, cannot support you. There are two possibilities. Either the Jews will cling to their faith and continue to await the Messiah who, for us, has already appeared. In that case they will be denying the divinity of Jesus and we cannot help them. Or else they will go there without any religion, and then we can be even less favorable to them. The Jewish religion was the foundation of our own,” he acknowledged, “but it was superseded by the teachings of Christ, and we cannot concede it any further validity. The Jews, who ought to have been the first to acknowledge Jesus Christ, have not done so to this day.”

I asked Herzl how he responded to that, imagining him squirming with discomfort. I should have known that instead he was ready with a sharp and penetrating answer. “Terror and persecution may not have been the right means for enlightening the Jews.”

I flinched. Then, apologizing to Herzl for my presumptuousness, suggested that perhaps this was not the best tack to have taken in attempting to win over the head of the Catholic Church. I even ventured that maybe it was a statement such as this, rather than his refusal to kiss the papal ring, that led to the disappointing outcome of the meeting. I wasn’t surprised that Herzl brushed aside my comment, apparently convinced that by this point in their conversation there was nothing more to lose and that if he were going to leave the Holy See empty-handed, he should at least do so with his pride intact. In any case, he continued with his recollection of events, even expressing a measure of awe with the quickness of the Pope’s rejoinder, which, he noted, “was magnificent in its simplicity.”

“Our Lord came without power. He was poor. He came in peace. He persecuted no one. He was persecuted. He was forsaken even by his apostles. Only later did he grow in stature. It took three centuries for the Church to evolve. The Jews therefore had time to acknowledge his divinity without any pressure. But they haven’t done so to this day.”

Herzl realized he needed to change course. “But, Holy Father,” he said, “the Jews are in terrible straits. I don’t know if Your Holiness is acquainted with the full extent of this sad situation. We need a land for these persecuted people.”

“Does it have to be Jersualem?”

“We are not asking for Jerusalem,” Herzl responded, “but for Palestine—only the secular land.”

“We cannot be in favor of it,” the Pope responded with a finality that Herzl was not yet prepared to accept.

“Does Your Holiness know the situation of the Jews?” Herzl told me he asked again, making one final attempt to gain the Pope’s endorsement for his Zionist program. The answer he received shut off any possibility for further discussion.

“I have always been on good terms with Jews,” the Pope responded with a non-sequitur, ignoring Herzl’s reference to their suffering. “Indeed, we also pray for them: that their minds be enlightened. And so, if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we shall have churches and priests ready to baptize all of you.”

Only now did I understand the full import of the ceremony I had just taken part in. The wreath Pope Francis laid on the grave of the visionary of the Jewish state wasn’t the only closed circle in sight. The act was not only of political significance but of theological consequence as well. With a tremor in my voice I paid my respects to Israel’s founding father. “Congratulations,” I whispered. “The journey that you set off on 120 years ago, to gain the world’s recognition for the Jewish people’s right of return to their ancient homeland has just been completed.” But as I turned to take my leave, I was intercepted by a voice from six feet under. Still not ready to rest in peace, Theodor Binyamin Zeev Herzl assured me that he was genuinely appreciative of the Pope’s visit and convinced of the sincerity and significance of the gesture but reminded me of what else had transpired this week. The murder of four innocents at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, the attack on two kippa-wearing brothers outside a synagogue in Paris, and the election of unprecedented numbers of blatantly anti-Semitic politicians to the parliament of the European Union meant that neither his journey, nor the Pope’s nor ours was over.

Pope Francis pays homage to the vision and visionary of the Jewish state. The author is in the background. Herzl is in his tomb.

The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, founded by Herzl in 1897. The quotations attributed in this article to Herzl and Pope Pius X are genuine and excerpted in their entirety from Herzl’s diary.