A History of Zionism – Part II: The Herzlian Moment

The Jewish State

Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl

Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl

Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), considered by many to be the founder of the Zionist movement, was an Austrian journalist living in Vienna. Born to a secular household, he wrote many stories of interest throughout the world for his paper. In Vienna and abroad, Herzl was witness to numerous serious anti-Semitic events. In his own Vienna, for instance, Karl Lueger, a rabid anti-Semite, was elected mayor twice in the 1890s and widely supported.

Incidents like this made Herzl devote more thought to the question of the Jewish people. He realized that the non-Jewish societies where Jews were living around Europe would never let Jews fully integrate. Individual Jews who gave up all connection to their Judaism and Jewish culture and history might be accepted, if they completely assimilated. The bulk of the Jewish people would have to look elsewhere for a ‘home’.

In 1896, Herzl published his views in a little pamphlet called “The Jewish State”, which was translated into several languages. In addition to explaining the impossible situation of the Jews, who were rejected by their host societies, he explained that the solution to the problem of the Jews was an independent state. Only in an independent state, with its own flag and government, would the Jews be able to stand proudly among the nations and live as equal citizens with full human rights.

What made Herzl’s views different than, say, those of Leo Pinsker, was that he placed the emphasis on Zionism as a political solution. In Herzl’s view, all the Zionist efforts should be geared towards gaining international recognition of Jewish national rights in a territory of their own (A “charter”, in his words). Although Herzl kept open the possibility of acquiring territories other than the land of Israel, ultimately he chose Israel as the desired, territory because it was the only place where the Jewish people had an ancient historical connection and where Jewish culture could be fully actualized.

“In Basel, I founded the Jewish State”: The Zionist Congress

First Zionist Congress

First Zionist Congress

Herzl was not satisfied with only writing a pamphlet. Already in 1865, he began approaching wealthy Jews in Western and Central Europe for financial support for his idea. They rejected him, as his ideas seemed impractical. Herzl decided that he needed to strengthen the Zionist movement before continuing with his ideas otherwise he would never be taken seriously. For that, that he needed to organize the disparate Zionist societies, still stagnant after the failure of the Lovers of Zion movement. It was time to unite them into a single Zionist movement, and that required a general Congress.

On August 29, 1897, 197 Jewish delegates from all over the world attended the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, organized by Herzl himself. Herzl was the first speaker, and he was greeted with thunderous applause. The Congress was a milestone, its reputation reaching far and wide. Now people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, throughout the world, knew of the existence of the Zionist movement.

The Congress established as its aims the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel, to be accomplished through political and practical (i.e. settlement) means. The Congress established a permanent Zionist Organization and rules for elections to its institutions. The Congress also decided to work towards establishing a Zionist bank (established in 1902, inspired by Herzl), a fund for financing the Zionist movement (established in 1920, called Keren Hayesod, or Foundation Fund) and a fund for purchasing land in the land of Israel (established 1901, and called Keren Kayemet Leyisra’el, or the Jewish National Fund).

At the end of the Congress, Herzl wrote in his diary-

“If I had to sum up the Basel Congress in one word—which I shall not do openly—it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50, everyone will see it.”

It would take much more toil and sweat, as well as many crises and disappointments, but Herzl’s vision would ultimately come true – only nine months later than his original fifty year prediction.

Diplomacy and Crisis

Herzl spent much of his time between 1898 and 1903 negotiating with world leaders trying to gain political support for Jewish national rights to the land of Israel. Unfortunately, his efforts ran into trouble. The Ottoman Sultan, ruler of the administrative districts that included the land of Israel, refused to allow any substantial Jewish immigration or settlement there. All attempts to change his mind failed.

Herzl tried to persuade the Ottoman Sultan indirectly by talking to his ally, the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, when the latter visited Jerusalem in 1898. Although the Kaiser was courteous, he turned Herzl down. Germany would not enter a confrontation with its ally on this issue. Yet another path to Jewish independence was closed.

Herzl then approached the last remaining power which had lands close to the land of Israel: the British Empire. Since 1882, the British ruled Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula (1906), which was on the border of the land of Israel. Herzl approached the British government to get permission to settle Jews in the el-Arish region of the Sinai Peninsula, which could later serve as a springboard for Jewish settlement of the land of Israel itself. Yet once again, the British turned him down, as the project would require far too much water from the Nile.

Herzl was becoming increasingly frustrated and desperate. The situation of the Jews of the Russian empire was becoming steadily worse. Mostly poor, forced to live in restricted conditions, these Jews were subject to increasing anti-Semitic decrees and attacks. In 1903, Jews were attacked in a violent pogrom in the city of Kishinev, leaving 49 Jews horribly murdered. The Jews needed to be evacuated and fast. They could not wait forever for the Ottoman Sultan to eventually allow them to go to the land of Israel.

In 1903, British Colonial Minister Joseph Chamberlain proposed that the Jews settle part of British East Africa (today Kenya and Uganda). Herzl, desperate to help his brethren, decided to propose in 1903 to the annual Zionist Congress to accept Chamberlain’s proposal. Herzl argued that this region serve as a “temporary shelter” for the Jews until the land of Israel becomes available.

Zionist delegates were shocked at what they felt was a betrayal of Zion. The proposal to send a committee to investigate the feasibility of what was known as the “Uganda Plan” was passed by a bare majority thanks to Herzl’s prestige (because part of the land included Uganda). Those who objected walked out of the congress in protest, protesting loyalty to Zion alone. It was the worst crisis the Zionist movement had faced since its inception.

Herzl, already tired out and ill from his frantic diplomacy and Zionist activities, died in 1904, before the next meeting of the Zionist Congress. In this Congress, the Zionist Organization decisively rejected the idea of settling the Jews anywhere other than Zion. The Uganda plan was dead.

Theodor Herzl had dedicated everything to the Zionist movement – his fortune, his prestige as a foreign journalist, and ultimately, his health. He was not successful in his goal to achieve diplomatic recognition for Zionism. However, he succeeded in turning Zionism into a world-wide force. Jews and Gentiles the world over knew of Zionism and its goals, and Zionism was recognized in the capitals of the world. This recognition would help pave the way for the Zionist movement’s first real diplomatic success – the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

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Published: 21-01-2011