It’s common knowledge that the trial of French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus led Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl to propose the idea of a Jewish nation.
It’s also wrong, says Shlomo Avineri.
In “Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State,” he says: “There is in fact no evidence of this, not in Herzl’s voluminous diaries nor in the many articles he sent from Paris to his newspaper in Vienna.”
The 1,500-page diaries, a major source for this exceptional book, mention Dreyfus, but it was “Herzl’s long analysis of the failure of [Jewish] emancipation and the rise of German and Austrian anti-Semitism that led him to his radical conclusions,” Avineri says.
Herzl’s conclusions appear in “The Jewish State,” which Avineri calls “a book without precedent in Jewish history – a modest few pages [under 100] that spurred many people to action.”
Early in it, Herzl said: “We have honestly endeavored everywhere to integrate ourselves into the social life of our surrounding communities and to preserve only the faith of our fathers. Yet we are not permitted to do so. … In countries where we have lived for centuries we are denounced as strangers,” often by those who arrived later.
The first serious proposal for a Jewish nation usually is credited to Leo Pinsker, whose 1882 booklet, “Auto-Emancipation,” Herzl hadn’t read before “The Jewish State” was printed in 1896. What distinguished Herzl from Zionist dreamers was creating an action plan, says Avineri, professor of political science at Hebrew University; foreign ministry director-general under Yitzhak Rabin; recipient of the Israel Price; and author of 12 previous books.
“Herzl was the first person to understand that the Zionist goal could not be achieved without the establishment of a recognized institutional authority that could claim to speak publicly on behalf of the Jewish people,” Avineri says. So he created the first one in 18 centuries — the first Zionist Congress, which met in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Its Zionist Organization became “the institutional structure that would in time serve as the foundation for the state of Israel.”
Avineri seeks “to present an adequate picture of [Herzl’s] intellectual development and to transform the canonical image of a larger-than-life person … into a real, living human being and thus extricate him from the mythological qualities connected with his name.” Avineri does this beautifully, with a flowing translation by Israeli author and Jerusalem Report columnist Haim Watzman.
Herzl was born 1860 in Budapest, moved to Vienna as a teen and became a reporter and editor for the prominent Neue Freie Presse. Newspapering taught him the need for publicity and how to get it. He entered public life at 35 and, in the nine years before his death at 44, “transformed Jewish public discourse,” elevating Zionism from a debate among a handful of intellectuals “to a challenge for the international community,” Avineri says. “This was his phenomenal achievement.”
Herzl remained employed while traveling across Europe and, in 1898, to Palestine, finding a decrepit, filthy backwater of the Turkish Empire. He became a diplomat without a nation, meeting with top governmental officials — twice with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm — and amicably with Russia’s authoritarian Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve, who agreed Russia would support Zionism’s goals.
Through Herzl’s reporter-like diaries, Avineri takes us inside Herzl’s thoughts and reactions to being given real or false encouragement or being rebuffed. Avineri also outlines the development of Jewish prominence in Europe by 1900.
But “the more successfully the Jews integrated into Europe’s culture and economy, the more they were condemned for being different,” Avineri says. Presciently seeing no future for Jews in Europe, Herzl proposed or considered temporary Jewish homeland locations, including an attempt to get a charter for El Arish from British-controlled Egypt.
At that 1897 first Zionist Congress, Herzl envisioned a Jewish state in 50 years; the U.N. voted partition in 1947.
“Herzl’s Vision,” as engaging as a novel, is packed with more than I ever expected to know about the man who accurately confided to his dairy: “At Basel, I founded the Jewish state.”
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.