Philip Earl Steele

Opportunities seized – others not: reflections on Theodor Herzl’s 120th jahrzeit

Theodor Herzl street in Edlach, Austria - where Herzl passed away on July 3, 1904. Photo by Youval Orr, documentalist, who has kindly permitted me to use it.
Theodor Herzl street in Edlach, Austria - where Herzl passed away on July 3, 1904. Photo by Youval Orr, documentalist, who has kindly permitted me to use it.

120 years ago this week – July 3, 1904 – Theodor Herzl died at the age of 44 in the Alpine village of Edlach, not far from Vienna. The Father of Zionism, as he is known, had converted to Zionism just 9 years earlier, in 1895 – and yet in that relatively brief period he managed to push the cause forward like none of the numerous Zionists before him.

But in what condition did Herzl leave Zionism upon his early death?

Theodor Herzl truly is the pre-eminent Zionist leader of the 19th century. He turned the dream of an Israel restored in the ancient homeland into mobilizing, headline news all across Europe – and beyond. Moreover, he created and left sturdy structures for what would develop into a modern Jewish state: the regular Zionist Congresses, the Zionist Organization (today the World Zionist Organization), the Jewish National Fund, and what we now call the Bank Leumi, or national bank.

By 1903-04, however, it was plain to all too many Zionists that Herzl’s leadership had run aground. Try as he might to pull a rabbit out of his hat, he no longer could. The bid to return to Israel had failed, mainly because of the Sultan’s opposition to large-scale Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine, the Tsar’s nominal ban on emigration, the overwhelming attractiveness of America for emigrés – but also because of Herzl’s own blind spots.

Thus, following his premature death, the Zionist movement as such largely dried up. The Zionist Organization of course continued to exist, the Congresses continued to be held, but mass defections, witherings away, and general apathy plagued things to a point where one may speak of generals without armies in the period prior to the outbreak of the First World War.

David Ben-Gurion, who settled in Eretz Israel in 1906 as part of the Second Aliyah, guessed that 9 of 10 settlers in his initial years in Turkish-ruled Palestine gave up and left for gentler climes. Yet the Zionist movement was not just twice-born, as the historian Arthur Hertzberg aptly quipped about Hovevei and then Herzlian Zionism in the 19th century: it was thrice-born – and the third time proved a charm. For it was when the Jewish threesome Nahum Sokolow, Moses Gaster, and Chaim Weizman co-fathered the Balfour Declaration with the British government during WWI that the ball really got rolling – and this time didn’t stop.

Herzl’s blind-spots

Herzl was a highly cultured, urbane person deeply attached to modernism. Hence, like many such people, he had a strong allergy to religious beliefs. And certainly to messianism. Whereas Herzl was quite happy to refer to his support amongst the rabbis – and to criticize those rabbis who opposed him – he never touched on their argumentation for supporting or opposing Zionism. His references were just ad hominem.

The secular Herzl worked hard to keep religious beliefs at arm’s length, and thereby was not savvy to a lot of what was going on around him. For instance, although Herzl closely relied on the Anglican priest William Hechler to open VIP doors for him, including to the Grand Duke of Baden and even the German Kaiser, he nonetheless kept himself oblivious to the profoundly religious nature of the Grand Duke’s endorsement of Zionism. When the Grand Duke’s correspondence with Reverend Hechler came to light decades later in 1959-60, its focus on Biblical numerology and prophecies being fulfilled in Herzl left no less than Alex Bein, Herzl’s outstanding biographer, openly flabbergasted.

The chief example of Herzl’s blind-spot is the Uganda Plan, when at the Zionist Congress in August 1903, convened four months after the Kishinev pogrom, Herzl proposed that the British offer from that spring be accepted to create a Jewish homeland in what in fact is today’s Kenya. This was Herzl trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat, as I say – but the very idea was sheer blasphemy for most of the delegates. For them there was simply no alternative to the Land of Israel. Though Herzl walked the idea back, tried to cast his effort as merely a possible stopgap measure until Palestine opened up, and as powerful evidence of his clout in London – he lost the hearts and minds of numerous erstwhile adherents. Indeed, the Zionist movement split apart over the Uganda Plan.

It has to be added that Herzl, shunning religious thinking and motives as he did, also failed to try and tap the support of Evangelical Christians, whether in Britain or the US. Faith-based diplomacy, as we say nowadays, was something Herzl never grasped, and therefore never pursued.

When Jewish Zionist leaders helped draft the Balfour Declaration

From February 1917, three Zionist leaders were literally in the kitchen with British statesmen like Mark Sykes, Herbert Samuel, and Lord Balfour. They were Moses Gaster, Nahum Sokolow, and Chaim Weizmann. We probably best know Weizmann, the renowned chemist who was to become Israel’s first president. Moses Gaster was a Romanian Jew who’d become the chief Sephardic rabbi in Britain. Back in the early 1880s Gaster had been a leader of Hovevei Zion in Romania, and was a principle figure in founding some of the earliest new Jewish settlements in today’s northern Israel. At that time he also befriended the British Christian Zionist, Laurence Oliphant – and so Gaster had long understood the potentials of Christian Zionist allies. Indeed, it was in his kitchen that the joint committee of Zionist officials and David Lloyd George’s War Cabinet first met. The Polish Jew Nahum Sokolow, a titan of the Hebrew-language press and another friend of Laurence Oliphant, arrived in England in 1912 and at once set about making contacts with pro-Zionist Anglican clergymen. Not surprisingly, he did so via the good offices of the above Rev. Hechler, who in the meantime had returned to England. In Sokolow’s biography, written in Polish by his son, we read that a particularly memorable encounter he owed to Hechler took place at the home of one Rev. William Henry Baptist Proby, a prominent Bible scholar. Florian Sokołów describes how Proby, Hechler, and his father entered into a passionate discussion on Old Testament arcana, almost forgetting their meeting was to focus on Zionism’s challenges. When Nahum Sokolow did, at long last, manage to turn to the Zionist cause, Florian Sokołów writes:

“the old theologian Proby was so moved that he rose up out of his chair and started to fervently pray, and Rev. Hechler right along with him. It was a sight my father would never forget. Two venerable pastors awash in tears, calling upon the grace of God for the success of his mission in England. He was at once transported back to his childhood and youth in Wyszogród, Płock, and Maków in Poland. The sagely theologians, each of whom resembled the author of the Torah, the pile of Hebrew works stacked on the table, the discussions of the Scriptures … for a moment my father succumbed to the illusion that he was once again standing beside his rabbis of old, his Talmudic masters.”

Partners Together in This Great Enterprise

Jewish and Christian Zionisms have been inextricably linked from the beginning. After all, for Jews and Christians alike, Zionism arose on the fertile basis of religious, especially messianic thinking that – in interpreting the early-19th century’s promising signs, seeing in them the finger of God, anticipating the imminent fulfillment of prophecy – made the shift from passive longing to ‘active messianism’ (Jody Myers). Whereas Zionism among the Jews was swift to embrace approaches that were no longer strictly religious (Theodor Herzl being a prime example), Christian Zionism remained starkly religious throughout the 19th-century: from Robert Haldane, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, and Lord Shaftesbury – to Henry Dunant, Rev. William Hechler, and the Chicagoan William Blackstone. Active messianists, all – ones who discerned the dawning of a new age in a way altogether kindred to the visions of rabbis Yehuda Alkalai and Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer, rabbis Samuel Mohilever and Yitshak Reines, and rabbis Kook, father and son.

Naturally, Christian Zionism continues to be fundamentally religious to this day. And as many Israeli and other Jewish leaders and pro-Israeli activists have long known, this is by no means problematic. On the contrary, though at times overlooked and neglected, Christian-Jewish faith-based co-operation and cross-pollination were a key ingredient to Zionism’s flowering – and no doubt they will remain relevant to Zionism’s ongoing growth in the 21st century.

About the Author
Philip Earl Steele is an American historian based in Poland, specializing in the history of early Zionism. His recent book on Theodor Herzl, published by the Polish Academy of Sciences, is available in Open Access:
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