Herzl: blame the Jews for antisemitism?

How relevant is Theodore Herzl understanding the source of antisemitism as represented in his 1896 volume, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), How relevant for today? According to Herzl,

We have developed in the Ghetto into a bourgeois people, and we stepped out of it only to enter into fierce competition with the middle classes.”

Antisemitism, as represented by this quote, is a Christian response to Jewish competition. And while this continues a popular charge heard from both admitted and denying antisemites, it only represents one of a dozen such stereotypes that Anti-Defamation League uses in polling for antisemitism. Standing alone, “competition” fails as sufficient explanation. Which raises three questions: how did the “father of Political Zionism” arrive at his definition; what accounts for the gap between how the 21st and 19th centuries understand antisemitism, and; what represents a more adequate definition?

The danger in comparing past with present is in failing to account for the past as separate reality. For example, I write disapprovingly regarding the response of American Jewish leadership during most of the years of the Holocaust (an attitude that generally carries forward for me). But the reality of 2012 is very different from 1933-1945. We have to account for this difference, not impose today upon yesterday.

Similarly, Herzl in 1896: I doubt his reference to “ghetto” involved the “Anatevka’s” of the 19th century Russian Pale of Settlement. More likely he was speaking from personal experience, which would mean Austrian Jewry. And the “ghetto” he referred to was most likely a colloquialism, a reference to Jews living together in a fairly restricted or self-selected Viennese neighborhood. Jews residing in such a “ghetto” were far more likely to fit his definition of a competitive Jewish “bourgeoisie,” of Herzl’s suggested well-spring of antisemitism.

Following the relative “normalcy” of the 19th century with its occasional outbursts of  pogroms in the East, antisemitic riots in the West came the twentieth century and the Holocaust. A significant departure, a radical break from past Jewish experience of discrimination and persecution when “massive anti-Jewish campaign” typically referred to and was limited to “thousands murdered,” communities destroyed. The Holocaust was a game changer, a radical break from prior centuries of Christendom’s approach to its Jewish Problem: a final solution.

In defense of Herzl it is necessary to look beyond the relative simplicity of the Jewish Problem as appeared to him forty years before the Holocaust. In order to understand the source of Christendom’s Final Solution we must go beyond Herzl to the source, the energy motivating Christianity’s Jewish Problem. And that demands we go beyond superficial explanations based on our immediate perception of the world surrounding us. Perception is personal, an “interpretation”: we see what our personal experience prepares us for. And most of us have not been personally threatened with murder-because-Jewish. For us our immediate world is benign, familiar: peopled with friends, neighbors, coworkers. As was Germany for German Jews.

But the Holocaust… The Holocaust was something previously unanticipated, beyond imagination. Even Jabotinsky only fully appreciated the threat relatively late, his warning shouted at Polish Jewry in 1936 when for but a few the threat was obvious, and for Polish Jewry imminent.

So we cannot fault Herzl for the shortcomings of his analysis; he was limited by his personal experience, his perception of pre-Holocaust Europe.

But we live in the world where the Holocaust is no longer unprecedented, inconceivable: beyond experience. As such a more historical and psychodynamic approach is called for. For myself, a child (as are we all) of the Holocaust I see the persistence of horrors that preceded 20th century technology making efficient the means of murder, the disposal of human remains. I (as are we all) am therefore positioned to reframe the question, Why the Holocaust; how explain two-thousand years of anti-Jewish persecution that preceded the Shoah?

Herzl and the early Zionists drew the same conclusion as I regarding the insecurity of Jewish survival in Christendom, but without the experience of the twentieth century. They intuited that which Jabotinsky warned, that which should today be obvious:

“Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will eliminate you!”


David Turner also blogs at, Antisemitism and Jewish Survival, where a lively discussion of Christendom’s Jewish Problem is open to all interested.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.