Theodor Herzl. The man who will forever live on as the founder of political Zionism. Without this man, the state of Israel may never have been created. Herzl had a dream. A dream of a Jewish state that would absorb Jews from around the world and help end anti-Semitism. But Herzl made sure to turn this dream into a reality.
It irritates me when college courses that teach Zionism – even those from pro-Israel professors – often start off with Theodor Herzl. This is primarily due to ignorance. There were many Zionist leaders before Herzl, who encouraged settlements in Palestine (the geographic area at that time). But none was more important and famous than Theodor Herzl.
His legacy lives on today. The honorable Simon Weisenthal Center, through Moriah Films, created a documentary on Herzl’s life, entitled It is No Dream: The Story of Theodor Herzl. I had the honor and privilege of traveling to New York City with six of my peers to attend the movie’s debut in New York City at Lincoln Center. The movie was spectacular (typical of documentaries created by Moriah Films), and I highly recommend it to everyone.
It is No Dream: The Story of Theodor Herzl was narrated by the famous actor, Sir Ben Kingsley, with Christoph Waltz as the voice of Theodr Herzl. Interestingly, Christoph Waltz’s grandfather knew Theodor Herzl from Vienna, and Waltz was impressed by his description. In honor of his grandfather and his children, Waltz asked to be the voice of Herzl, and was chosen for the job.
The movie traced Theodor Herzl’s life, since his early days at college, through his encounters with anti-Semitism, his coverage of the Dreyfus Affair, his meetings with sultans, European leaders, and Jewish leaders, the World Zionist Congress conferences he held, and up until his tragic death from a massive heart attack. I had entered the movie with a basic understanding of Herzl’s life and work, and had left with more knowledge and more interest in this man who has had a profound impact on history.
Herzl’s life serves as a message to us all. Herzl was the typical secular European Jew, even somewhat anti-religious. But did this stop the poisonous grasp of anti-Semitism from squeezing him? Of course not. Just like the Nazis, anti-Semitism does not differentiate between Jews. And every Jew must be actively aware of this. Liberal or conservative, European or non-European, secular or religious, it doesn’t matter. You may not like it, but it’s a fact.
It’s a fact, and Theodor Herzl came to terms with this fact. He was disgusted whenever he heard an anti-Semitic rant by a member of his dueling fraternity, leading to him to quit the dueling club. He was repulsed by the Russian government’s support of Zionism for the reason that they hated the Jews and wanted them all to leave. And most of all, he was tormented by the Dreyfus Affair, which accused a Jew in the French army of being a traitor when he was not, and was accused by other soldiers because he was a Jew.
Herzl’s coverage of the Dreyfus Affair for Neue Freie Presse led Herzl to realize the full extent of anti-Semitism. Herzl was devastated. This was 19th century Europe, after so many Enlightenment thinkers had helped bring about equality and reform! How could this happen? How could this hatred be so rampant and increase so quickly, and be so malignant?
Unfortunately, that is the nature of anti-Semitism. It is a disease that rapidly consumes all who fall victim to it, and makes the host become insane with a wide variety of lunatic conspiracies and loud rants. Herzl was repulsed by anti-Semitism, and became proud of his Jewish roots, despite being secular. But Herzl desperately needed a solution to anti-Semitism before the situation worsened. Already, pogroms were widespread in the Pale of Settlement in Russia. How much longer until this happens in Europe? He contemplated many solutions, before arriving at the one he liked most – establishing a Jewish state as a refuge for Jews to protect them against anti-Semitism.
Herzl got to work. He met with rich Jewish leaders, such as Baron de Rothschild, and sought their support. He built a network of friends and supporters, which quickly expanded across Europe and Russia. Herzl created the first World Zionist Congress, which was hosted in Basle, Switzerland, and also subsequent Congresses.
It is worthy to reflect whether this truly worked. Of course, anti-Semitism is rampant in the world, and has quickly increased in European countries in recent years, even leading to physical attacks on Jews. This is tragic – just seventy years after the Holocaust, the world has not learned its lesson. But the beauty of the state of Israel is that these Jews around the world have a place they can flee to if their life is in danger. The Jews of Europe did not have this during the Holocaust, due to a disgusting policy by the British, whereby immigration was severely limited to 75,000 immigrants over 5 years (the White Paper of 1939).
No longer will the Jews be put down and trampled upon. No longer shall they be taken to the gas chambers and slaughtered like sheep. It is ironic, but it reflects the character of the state of Israel and the Jews – most Jews feel safe in Israel, despite frequent rocket fire and threats of terrorism. Israel is the eternal homeland of the Jews, their birthright, and nothing will change this, even if six Arab countries choose to invade… Twice! The victory of Israel does not lie.
Israel is also a shining democracy in a dark region of despotism and autocracy. While President Assad murders thousands and thousands of Syrian protestors dying for democracy, Israel flaunts the lowest civilian to combatant death ratio in the world. Civilian deaths are tragic, and are often a result of the use of human shields by terrorist organizations, but the IDF takes multiple steps to ensure the safety of civilians. Journalists can criticize the government freely (just ask some op-ed writers in Ha’aretz!) without being thrown in prison, like they are in Turkey if they support the Kurds or recognize the Armenian Genocide. And that’s Turkey – a supposed secular democracy. Don’t even get started on countries such as Iran, Lebanon, Syria, etc.
There are other valuable lessons to learn from Herzl too. Most importantly, never give up. Do you have a goal? Great! Go out there and achieve it! It is pointless to simply recognize anti-Semitism and cry over it. Herzl decided to do something about it. Likewise, it is pointless to simply recognize anti-Israel bias and misinformation. It is imperative to counter this information with the facts and help educate others on Israel. Do you have a particular initiative? Do it immediately! There’s no time to wait! Get started, and make it a success!
Perhaps this can be summed up with a famous quote by Herzl:
If you will it, then it is no dream.”
Perhaps you will not reap the fruits of success immediately. Herzl knew this. At first, everyone mocked him. Herzl famously stated that in five years, or fifty years, people would not laugh anymore. It is almost prophetic, because 50 years later, the state of Israel was created. Without Herzl’s valuable international work, Israel may never have been created.
At Basle 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 fifty, everyone will know it.
It is No Dream: The Story of Theodor Herzl is a fantastic movie detailing the life of a fantastic man. I recommend it to everyone, and I highly recommend that everyone appreciate who Herzl was, and learn from his life the valuable lessons of combatting anti-Semitism and motivation to achieve. Because it is with your help that we can make a difference.