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Bonnie K. Goodman
Librarian, Historian, and Journalist

Theodor Herzl, myth, reality, and the First Zionist Congress 125 years later

Sketch of Theodor Herzl by Bonnie K. Goodman, 2022, graphite and charcoal on paper 9 x 12.
Sketch of Theodor Herzl by Bonnie K. Goodman, 2022, graphite and charcoal on paper 9 x 12.

On this day in history… August 29–31, 1897, Theodor Herzl convenes the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the first secular meeting about creating a Jewish state. [1]

In 1894 France, Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Austrian journalist and playwright with a doctorate in law covered Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s trial for treason for the Viennese paper the Neue Freie Presse. The French captain’s case was more about antisemitism than treason, with calls by the public to kill Frances’ Jews despite them being emancipated for over 90 years. In the same year, Herzl wrote the play “The Ghetto” (1894), outlining that he no longer believed assimilation would end antisemitism; the only solution was a homeland for Jews. In 1896, Herzl wrote “Der Judenstaat” (The Jewish State, 1896), his grand manifesto outlining his plans for political Zionism to create a socialist and secular state. Herzl has spent his life and career hiding from his Judaism. However, with his belief in Zionism and leadership role, he began to embrace his Jewish identity and name Binyamin Ze’ev. In June 1897, Herzl created the Zionist newspaper, “Die Welt,” and after the Congress in September 1897, Herzl declared, “no true Jew can be an anti-Zionist.” (Penslar, 114)

To move forward, Herzl wanted to create an organization that would work to realize a Jewish state, and he wanted to convene a Zionist Congress. According to historian Derek Penslar in Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader, the Congress would serve as a “national parliament that would meet regularly and would authorize the creation of a council to manage the diplomatic enterprise.” (Penslar, 107) Herzl faced opposition after opposition to his Congress from many within the Jewish community. Especially the Orthodox rabbinate, which thought Herzl’s vision of a Jewish, violated the tenets of Judaism, which placed the Torah and commandments at the center of the religion.

Additionally, Herzl wanted the Congress held in Munich, Germany, because of its centrality and access to kosher food. Still, the Orthodox and Reform rabbinate opposed the idea because they opposed Zionism, believing it countered religion and devotion to their nation. Herzl decided on having the Congress in Basal, Switzerland because the small town had no conflicts with hosting the Congress. There was a small Jewish community, and the Chief Rabbi did not oppose Congress. However, there was no kosher slaughtering allowed in the country, but they could bring meat from Germany. They rented the City Casino, which had a concert hall.

At the Congress, the 250 delegates present created and adopted the Basel Program. The delegates were not elected but did represent different elements within the Jewish community, including seventeen countries. Derek Penslar recounted, “About seventy represented Jewish communities or organizations, and the rest, including ten non-Jewish sympathizers, were invited by Herzl himself. About one-third of the attendees were from eastern Europe. In terms of the overall strength of the Zionist movement, Germany, with forty-two attendees; Switzerland, with twenty-three; and France and Britain, with eleven each, were strongly overrepresented. Twenty-two attendees were women.” (Penslar, 115, 116) In the first year of the Congress, women did not have voting rights, only obtaining them at the second Congress, held the following year in 1898.

Herzl was strict about hearing about his program, schedule, and formal coat and tails dress code. The three-day event started on Sunday, and Herzl embraced Judaism for the event. On Shabbat, he attended a synagogue and had a Torah aliyah, where he said the blessing. He allowed Aron Marcus, a Hasidic Jews, to address the opening session and wear his traditional garb rather than Herzl’s prescribed dress code. Herzl wanted a balanced agenda allowing both his supporters and detractors to speak.

Herzl gave the opening address. Penslar explains, “Herzl coolly noted that whereas Jews’ first responses to modern antisemitism were astonishment, pain, and anger, now it was possible to view the situation with utter calm and to devote the Congress’s energies entirely to developing the most effective means to enabling mass Jewish settlement in Palestine.” (Penslar, 116) Herzl was relaxed in his tone, but the mention of settling in Palestine led to loud applause in the hall; the raucous lasted a quarter of an hour. Not everyone was impressed with Herzl; Ahad Ha-am called Herzl a false prophet.

Russian Zionist journalist Mordechai Ben-Ami recounted, “That is no longer the elegant Dr. Herzl of Vienna; it is a royal descendant of David risen from the grave which appears before us in the grandeur and beauty with which legend surrounded him. Everyone is gripped as if a historical miracle had occurred . . . it was as if the Messiah, the son of David, stood before us.” Ben-Ami could not prevent himself from shouting ‘yehi hamelekh [long live the king]!’” (Penslar, 117) Reuben Asher Braudes of the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Maggid assessed, “The Congress was like a wonderful dream, a fabulous, divine spectacle. . . . It was an extraordinary event, not because it arrived at any great decisions, witnessed any great debates, or produced any great insights, but in and of itself. . . . It is enough for our people to know that it now has something to hope for, that it still has the will to live, that it has taken its future into its hands.” (Penslar, 118)

The Basal program delineated the basic structure to create the State of Israel, including the World Zionist Organization, known then as the Zionist Organization. Herzl was elected the president of the Congress and the Zionist Organization, with Max Nordau elected as one of the organization’s three vice presidents; Nordau spoke at the opening session after Herzl. Nordau was instrumental in helping Herzl with founding the Zionist Organization and the Basal Program. Anglo-American Zionist Jacob de Haas called Nordau “a radical Parisian writer, debonair, square-shouldered, with an imperial beard, one of the most modern of the intellectuals, who a year before was not even known to be a Jew.” In “throbbing accents, [he] intone[d] Jeremiah, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children.’” (Penslar, 117)

The Basel Program defined Zionism as derived from the Biblical word Zion for Jerusalem, “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.” Herzl did not want to declare statehood as their goal to allow the maximum amount of ability to negotiate; he also wanted to compromise and please all factions in attendance and homeland satisfy them.

The Basal Program outlined:

“For the attainment of this purpose, the Congress considers the following means serviceable:

(1) the promotion of the settlement of Jewish agriculturists, artisans, and tradesmen in Palestine;

(2) the federation of all Jews into local or general groups, according to the laws of the various countries;

(3) the strengthening of Jewish feeling and consciousness;

(4) preparatory steps for the attainment of those governmental grants which are necessary to the achievement of the Zionist purpose.” (Penslar, 119)

In his biography, Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader, historian Derek Penslar discusses Herzl’s emergence as a Zionist leader. Penslar recounts, “Herzl emerged from outside the traditional centers of Jewish power: the rabbinate and the Jewish financial elite. He claimed authority to act as an agent on behalf of the entire Jewish people and created the Zionist Organization with himself as its self-appointed head, not subject to recall. He captured and represented Jews’ longings through the convening of annual Zionist Congresses, which Herzl’s lieutenant, the celebrated writer Max Nordau, passionately depicted as “the autonomous parliament of the Jewish Risorgimento” and ‘the authorized, legitimate, representative of the Jewish people.’” (Penslar, 5)

The Congress was the first significant step in Herzl’s vision to create a Jewish state. After the Congress, Herzl wrote, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly, in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.” Shlomo Avineri, in his book “Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State,” notes, “Few readers have paid much attention to the passage in his diary that followed his famous declaration, but it displays far more profound historical and political insight than the memorable and grandiose statement that preceded it.” (Avineri, 141) Herzl wrote: “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… It was at Basel that I created this abstract entity which, as such, is invisible to the vast majority of people into the mood of the State and made them feel that they were in its National Assembly.” (Avineri, 141)

Until 1901, Herzl and the Zionist Organization held the Congress every year, and from 1903–1913, 1921–1939, they were held every second year, with the two World Wars interrupting the congresses. True to his word, less than 51 years later, on May 14, 1948, the Provisional Government of Israel created the modern State of with a formal declaration of Independence. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Congress, and the WZO is convening an anniversary Congress with thousands attending, including Jewish leaders from around. The WZO calls it “the most significant Zionist gathering this decade.” Yaacov Hagoel, the chairman of the World Zionist Organization, expressed in a statement, “Many of us were born into the reality of the State of Israel existing as a sovereign, powerful, Jewish and value-based entity. But just five generations before, it was a distant dream.” The conference with speeches and panels is being held over two days, August 28 and 29. [2]

Herzl loomed large over the Congress, not just his presiding over the Congress as its president but also his physical presence. Although only five foot five, those at the Congress and afterward, including historians, have attributed a Biblical mythic and grandiose to Herzl, the Founder of modern political Zionism and a new King of Israel. Penslar described that “Herzl’s charisma manifested itself in his stately carriage, his baritone voice and elegant German, and, most important, his beauty.” In 1937, Samuel Bettelheim wrote an essay, “What Did Herzl Look Like?” Penslar recounts that Bettelheim described “Herzl’s visage as combining aspects of an English lord and east European rabbi ‘in his Jerusalemite glory.’”

Herzl’s physical presence was partly attributed to the success of the First Zionist Congress. Bettelheim described Herzl as the Congress’ president as “a miracle . . . as if King Solomon had arisen from his grave, because he could no longer bear the suffering of his people and its humiliation.’” (Penslar, 7) Herzl’s presence entranced those reporting about the Congress equally; Reuven Brainin said in the Ha-Melitz that Herzl was “The Hebrew type at its purest, with a rare charm, an Oriental grace, and two dark eyes, burning like coals.”

Even those that were “skeptical” of Herzl, like Nahum Sokolow, were converted after seeing and meeting Herzl in action. Sokolow later recounted, “And I saw before me a man tall in stature . . . the first impression he made upon me was that of a man of a handsome, serious, and thoughtful visage. . . . It was his way to stare directly into the face of his conversation partner, in his piercing, hawk-like gaze, in his most beautiful eyes and in the strength of their authority. . . . From the first moment there was the impression of an extraordinary personality, there was an element of suffering in his exterior form. His head was large and somewhat oval, wonderfully symmetrical, a blend of strength and grace.” (Penslar, 119)

In addition to this short essay, I also sketched this portrait of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl in honor of the 125th anniversary of the First World Zionist Congress. In his time, Herzl was mythic and larger than life, but now 118 years after his death and 125 after the first Congress, his stature is more caricature. There are only a few photographs of Herzl, and we have become desensitized by them; they seem more like iconography than a photo of a real person, the image of the mythic Zionist leader and creator of modern Political Zionism. Any artwork or painting seems to affirm that notion; Herzl does not seem real but a caricature.

In my sketch, I wanted to humanize him; I approached the drawing using one of the available photos as if I would someone living; I looked at the source material as a real, living, breathing person. Here is Herzl as he was in 1896, a 36-year-old man on the verge of becoming the leader of modern political Zionism. While Herzl, in action and all his glory, was viewed as a modern king, sketching him, one can see the features that people revered and deep sadness. Despite his being on the verge of greatness, his vision was still a dream with skeptics; his personal life also conflicted over his political aspirations for world Jewry and a wife questioning his dream’s realism.

When we look at Herzl, we must look at both sides of this persona. As one of my professors at McGill University, Gil Troy, the Zionist thinker, historian, and author of the new edition of Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, said there is a public and private persona. In the introduction to the volumes, Troy writes Herzl “remains Israel’s iconic Founder, with George Washington’s mythic status, Thomas Jefferson’s ideological impact, and Winston Churchill’s memorable bon mots. One hundred and eighteen years after his tragic death at the age of forty-four, and 125 years after he convened the first Zionist Congress in August, 1897, Theodor Herzl remains influential. His outsized shadow — and the true, complicated, multi-dimensional person behind the myth — are precisely why it is so important to read his Zionist writings.” [3]

Over thirty years earlier, historian Ernst Pawel wrote in the book, The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl, “Yet in the end, Herzl himself remains the most important source and witness. Though barely forty-four years old at the time of his death, he left behind a truly staggering volume of writings, which, in ways both deliberate and unwitting, provide vital clues to the enigma of his personality. The literary fame to which he aspired eluded him, but he nonetheless a writer by vocation, avocation, and compulsion — playwright, journalist, essayist and novelist, pamphleteer, diarist, and indefatigable correspondent. The bulk of this prolific output has been lovingly preserved, a tribute to the politician rather than the artist, but an inexhaustible challenge to those trying to discover the human encapsulated in the legend.” (Pawel, 4) We must remember with the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress that Herzl was also human, not just a legend or icon. Israel is the reality of human hopes and dreams; as Herzl said, “Im Tirzu, Ein Zo Agadah” “If you will it, it is no dream,” and it is that humanity we have to remember when we study and celebrate Theodor Herzl.

READ MORE

Shlomo Avineri and Haim Watzman. Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State. Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2013.

Jacques Kornberg. Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism. Indiana University Press 1993.

Ernst Pawel. The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl. 1st ed. Farrar Straus & Giroux 1989.

Derek Jonathan Penslar. Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader. Yale University Press 2020.

Ritchie Robertson and Edward Timms. Theodor Herzl and the Origins of Zionism. Edinburgh University Press 1997.

Gil Troy. Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings. Library of the Jewish People, 2022.

[1] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/first-zionist-congress-and-basel-program-1897

[2] https://www.jta.org/2022/08/29/israel/world-zionist-organization-convenes-hundreds-in-basel-to-mark-125th-anniversary-of-first-zionist-congress

[3] https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/opinion/350884/theodor-herzl-and-the-jews-leap-of-hope/

[4] https://zionism-israel.com/hdoc/Theodor_Herzl_Zionist_Congress_Speech_1897.htm

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South,” “We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism,” and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History, and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused on Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman has been an artist since she was 13 years old; she sketches in graphite, pastels, and paints in acrylics, oils, and watercolors. She has a Diploma in Collegial Studies (DCS, DEC) from Vanier College in Communications: Art, Media, and Theater specializing in the Fine Arts. She also majored in Jewish Studies and was awarded the Kleinman Family Foundation Scholarship at graduation.

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over fifteen years of experience in education and political journalism.

About the Author
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS is a librarian, historian, and journalist. She has a BA in History & Art History, an MLIS, Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University. She has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program, where her thesis was entitled, "Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Anti-Semitism, 1860-1913." She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, Judaism, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism. She is currently expanding her article about Confederate cabinet secretary Judah Benjamin "The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South" into a full-length biography.
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