Political Zionism

One of the spectators at the Dreyfus trial was a man in his early thirties by the name of Theodore Herzl. He was the foreign correspondent for a Jewish-owned paper in Vienna called, The New Free Press. He had been their Paris correspondent for a number of years.

His presence at the trial would not only change him forever, but Jewry as well.

A Committed Assimilationist

Herzl was born in Hungary into an assimilated family. He had little knowledge of Jewish tradition, even though his grandfather apparently had been a traditional, observant Jew. Ideologically, Herzl was fully committed to the assimilation of Jews in Western European civilization. He believed that the only viable hope for the Jewish people was that Europe would slowly become more and more liberal, allow Jews to assimilate into their society and that the Jews would oblige them by assimilating.

It is not even possible to say that Herzl was a follower of Haskalah, because such followers had a strong Jewish background and were committed to some type of Jewish culture. Herzl was not even committed to a Jewish culture. He was committed to being a Viennese.

Misplaced Optimism

In Herzl’s view, life was going to get better and better for the Jews in Europe. He is a perfect example of 19th century man. The great inventions and technological advances of the Industrial Revolution convinced 19th century man that it was only a matter of time before science would unlock all the secrets of nature and the universe, and that all the great social problems which long plagued civilization would be solved as well.

By the middle of the 20th century, educated people were aware that the optimism of the previous century was seriously misplaced. For every door opened there were five more closed behind it that no one even knew existed. By the late the 20th century more than 100 million people had been killed by their own governments or war. That was almost the entire population of the world at the time of the Roman Empire. Therefore, modern man was jaded and cynical; he hopes for the best but expects the worst, preferring most of all not to think about it too much, settling for sports, television and mindless entertainment.

In the world of the 19th century, educated masses were full of buoyant optimism. Theodore Herzl embodied this optimism. It was the part of the Austrian culture into which he was born. The benign Franz Joseph had been the emperor for 70 years. For all anyone knew, the relative stability and peace was going to continue that way forever. No one saw what was coming – that the century ahead would be the world’s more horrendous and bloodiest.

One of the great Talmudic scholars of the generation was a rabbi in Latvia, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk. With profound vision, he wrote in his biblical commentary, “Woe to those who say that Berlin is Jerusalem. God will bring upon them a whirlwind.” In other words, they will be beset by such a terrible series of events that they will be forced to admit their Jewishness. In the end, their tragedy will be that they will have suffered all the pangs and punishments of being a Jew without realizing the rewards of being a Jew.

It was a poignant, sad but true prophecy regarding assimilated Jewry in Europe. In the next 50 years it would come to pass with such vehemence that no one at the time would have believed it. This and other signs will fall on deaf ears because it would be so incomprehensible.

Herzl’s Transformation

Herzl arrived at the Dreyfus trial and was exposed to the virulent anti-Semitism that existed in Paris. He could not believe the shouts of the mob, the open hatred, the cartoons in the newspapers, the comments from the political leaders, etc. Paris was supposed to epitomize progress, modernity and cosmopolitanism. The French Revolution had been founded on the motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” It was the cradle of civilization. How could such a thing happen in Paris of all places?

As often happens such events shock Jews into an existential exploration of who they are. If the Dreyfus trial would never have happened, Herzl would have remained a famous correspondent without having any affect whatsoever on Jewish life. But, outside forces such as anti-Semitism thrust upon Jews a bitter realization. Then the choice becomes black or white. One drops his Jewish identity forever – converting or assimilating completely — or one is shocked into taking up his Jewish identity with a greater fervor than Jews brought taking their Jewishness for granted.

Herzl never became an observant Jew or a Jewish scholar. However, the Dreyfus trial created within him a single-mindedness toward what he called the Jewish problem.


Herzl’s reaction to the Dreyfus trial was instantaneous. He said that the Jews will never find a cure for anti-Semitism unless they “normalize” their situation. By “normalize” he meant that Jews needed their own state, army, flag, diplomats, etc. – Jews had to be a nation like all other nations.

Unfortunately, he also predicted that once that happened anti-Semitism would disappear. We today — long after the establishment of the State of Israel and the “normalization” of the Jewish people in Herzl’s terms — are painfully aware how off the mark he was about that.

In any event, with great optimism he established a platform upon which political Zionism was founded. The first part of that platform was that the Jewish people would have Jewish state on a piece of land somewhere in the world. Herzl did not necessarily say that it should be the Land of Israel. We will see that he was ready to take Uganda.

Second, it did not have to have a Jewish culture; Western culture would be acceptable. Herzl never dreamed that the language his future state would be Hebrew. To him, whatever language was dominant at the time would be the language of his new Jewish state. He had in mind German or French.

In short, his idea of the Jewish state was not very Jewish. Nevertheless, to him just having a Jewish state would solve the problem of anti-Semitism. It would be a place where downtrodden Jews from anywhere in the world could emigrate to and find refuge.

Political vs. Practical Zionism

In 1896, Herzl published a pamphlet which electrified the Jewish world. Written in German, it was entitled, “The Jewish State.” In it he called for the creation of a Jewish state and the creation of an organization that would bring Jews there. He also called for the Jews throughout the world to lobby with the great powers to grant the Jews “a charter to have our state.”

There was a great difference between political Zionism and practical Zionism. The former felt that the only way the country would become Jewish was through a charter granted by the British Empire or a body like the League of Nations. Somebody outside the Jewish people had to grant them the right to have a country. That was the goal of political Zionism, beginning with Herzl.

Practical Zionism, who included among its adherents David Ben-Gurion, phrased it as follows: “It matters not what the Gentiles say. It only matters what the Jews do.”

He said that Palestine would become Jewish if enough Jews went there and started developing the land. It was not dependent upon having a charter. Therefore, the practical Zionists felt that the emphasis upon diplomacy and finding favor with governments was misplaced. All the efforts, money and talent should be poured into the practical up-building of the country.

This created a bitter feud within the Zionist movement. The State of Israel was created a little by both. It was created by a United Nations Resolution, but it was also created by the fact that there were 600,000 Jews living there who had built an agricultural and industrial base, as well as an army.

The First Zionist Congress

In 1897, Herzl convened the first World Zionist Congress to discuss how to implement this plan of obtaining a Jewish state and bringing Jews there.

Herzl opened the proceedings with the following declaration, “Today, I have founded the Jewish state. It will take you 50 years to see it.”

He was pretty close.

From the onset, control of the Zionist Congress lay in the hands of Western, assimilated Jews like Herzl. But the masses of delegates and the support for the movement was mostly from Eastern European Jews.

One has to understand that the Zionist movement was a minority within the Jewish people, and it was opposed by very strange bedfellows. First, it was opposed by the Reform, who looked at it as a terrible event. They were the most anti-Zionist of all, because they felt that somehow it compromised their position as good Germans or good Frenchmen or good Englishmen and raised the specter of dual loyalty. It was a frightening thing to them.

The second group that opposed Zionism was the Bund, the Jewish left-wing labor unions. The Bund in the 1890s and early 1900s was committed to world communism and the victory of the proletariat. They saw themselves as saving the whole world, whereas the Zionist Jews were worried about a little country. Therefore, they opposed political Zionism very strongly.

The third group that generally opposed Zionism was a large section of Orthodox Jewry. The majority opposed it for two main reasons. First, they felt that somehow it was a desecration in the belief of a supernatural coming of the Messiah. Second, they felt that nothing good could come out of a movement headed by assimilated, secular and anti-religious people.

Indeed, the secular leadership had a great deal to do with the alienation of most of Orthodox Jewry from the Zionist movement. Also, by this time, the Haskalah had taken control of the Lovers of Zion movement.

Even though the majority of religious Jews opposed the Zionist movement, a significant minority favored it. In 1902 Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines along with a few rabbis of Eastern Europe and even some Chassidic rabbis joined together to form what later would be called the Mizrachi Party, which was the religious Zionist section of the Zionist movement. They never were powerful enough within the Zionist movement to matter. But they were powerful enough that a religious point of view was always heard.

Herzl and Uganda

Herzl had a short and tragic life. He died in 1904 at the age of 44. He evidently had a weak heart and suffered from rheumatic fever.

In 1903, the year before he died, he met the Kaiser in Palestine in hopes of obtaining his help. When Herzl could not secure from the Kaiser the aid he hoped for, he spent about $50,000 in bribes to get an appointment with the Sultan of Turkey. However, he quickly saw that he wasn’t going to succeed with the Sultan either. Therefore, he turned to England. From then on, almost all the efforts of the Zionist movement would focus on England.

In 1903, the British foreign office proposed to give Herzl the territory of Uganda for a Jewish state. Herzl accepted and brought it to the Zionist Congress that year, the last congress he would attend. A very bitter battle ensued. Herzl wanted a Jewish state; whether it was in Palestine or not was secondary. The Eastern European Zionists wanted Palestine and nothing else.

Herzl said that he would resign if it was turned down. The Eastern European Jews opposed it to the end. Herzl won by a few votes and then died shortly thereafter. With his death the option of Uganda also died.

Despite his death, and conflicts from within his movement, political Zionism continued to gain momentum. It changed the face of Jewry. Its birth is really the beginning of the story of the Jews in the 20th century.

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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