Theodor Herzl’s Utopian Vision of a Jewish Homeland

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Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl is a pivotal case and is essential studying when it comes to comprehending and understanding the origins of the modern Zionist movement which saw to the establishment and formation of the modern State of Israel. Various periods in Herzl’s life shaped his ideology and political world outlook with regard to the Jewish question and Zionism.

From an early age Herzl was very secular minded and didn’t even adhere to Jewish ethics, essentially dismissing Judaism, along with all other religions, when he was 13 he had what was referred to as a ‘confirmation’ rather than the traditional Jewish ‘Bar Mitzvah’. He gradually became interested in poetry and accordingly pursued a career in journalism and play-writing. He studied law after the death of his sister saw the family move to Vienna. There he joined a German nationalist brotherhood but would later leave due to that organizations anti-Semitic nature. He went on to become a correspondent for a Paris-based newspaper whilst also taking up writing drama and comedy plays. When in Rome writing about the city he briefly referred to a visit he made to Jews languishing in the ghetto there. He lamented about the fact that “nowadays the Jew is despised only for having a crooked nose, or for being a plutocrat even when he happens to be a pauper.” Herzl would have much more to say about the matter of anti-Jewish bigotry and hatred when France became gripped by an incident that has gone down in history as the Dreyfus Affair. This affair concerned the issue of justice for a single Jewish French Army artillery officer named Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus had been sentenced to life imprisonment over the baseless allegation that he was supplying French military secrets to Germany via the German embassy in Paris.

As a journalist Herzl covered the affair. In doing so he saw the hateful and spiteful attitudes mass crowds in Paris exhibited towards the Jews, as these masses were openly and vigorously chanting slogans such as “Death to the Jews!” That unpleasant experience is often cited as a major catalyst for Herzl’s pursuit of and firm belief in the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people. Subsequently, it is worth noting that the Dreyfus Affair as it happens coincided with the rise to prominence of the deeply anti-Semitic Viennese mayor Karl Lueger. Lueger, a member of the Christian Social Party he preached and advocated vile anti-Semitism and is sometimes retrospectively seen as a role model for Hitler’s Nazi Party.

Writing on the affair Herzl angrily lamented that it, “embodies more than a judicial error, it embodies the desire of the vast majority of the French to condemn a Jew, and to condemn all Jews in this one Jew. ‘Death to the Jews!’ howled the mob, as the decorations were being ripped from the captains coat… Where? In France. In republican, modern, civilized France, a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The French people, does not want to extend the rights of man to Jews. The edict of the great Revolution had been revoked.” Herzl also wrote in his diary about the profound affect witnessing the bigoted masses had on him. It was clear these experiences defined and shaped Herzl’s political views and made him an ardent and heartfelt propagator of the Zionist cause. He stated that through such bigotry he “achieved a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism,” adding that he above all “recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ anti-Semitism.” This is a very salient example that aptly shows the fostering of Herzl’s heartfelt belief that anti-Semitism was essentially incurable. Also, witnessing such backwardness and bigotry in a European country that represented one of the most progressive societies of its age furthermore convinced him that all societies were essentially volatile when it came down to Jewish assimilation. This was because such strong and sometimes violent anti-Semitic tendencies were always lurking under the surface, threatening to erupt at any given time due to the customary irrationality and spontaneity of anti-Semitism. Herzl in accordance with such heartfelt beliefs felt that the Jews needed to do their utmost to avoid anti-Semitism. A Jewish homeland was therefore in his mind a necessity. As the only way to avoid anti-Semitism in Europe was to leave that region.

He would go on to pen a play called The New Ghetto which sets out to reject the idea that assimilation in a predominately Christian Europe would be a viable option, since, in Herzl’s view it would be inevitably futile. His stated conclusion in The New Ghetto was that the establishment of a Jewish state was the only way the Jews could feasibly eke out a meaningful existence without having to constantly live in fear of bigotry and petty discrimination. He hoped by making these views public he could start a debate about the issue and draw further attention to it.

Herzl wrote another book called Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews) the following year. In it he argued that:

“the Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. Wherever it does not exist, it is brought in together with Jewish immigrants. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilised countries―see, for instance, France―so long as the Jewish question is not solved on the political level. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.”

In the book Herzl strongly recommended Palestine as the location for such a state as it represented the historic homeland of the Jews. The Jewish establishment across Europe however saw Herzl’s outlooks and views regarding the formation of a Jewish state as a major threat to their delicate efforts in gaining acceptance and achieving integration into wider European society. Various Orthodox Jews also saw his idea as one that was at its core rebellious against the will of God. This theological debate continues to this day with regard to the existence of the modern State of Israel.

Herzl strongly dispelled in Der Judenstaat the notion of assimilation noting that the Jewish people “are a people – one people.” He elaborated by stressing that the Jewish people:

“have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted to us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes super loyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands where we have lived for centuries we are still decried as aliens, often by men whose ancestors had not yet come at a time when Jewish sighs had long been heard in the country.”

The year after the publication of Der Judenstaat Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. This saw a conglomeration of many different Zionists interested in unifying and disseminating their cause. After this conference he proclaimed that “in Basle I founded the Jewish state . . . maybe in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will realize it.”

Herzl proceeded to pursue this cause with great enthusiasm. He met with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II who dismissed his idea. Herzl knew that the possibility of success for his endeavour in establishing a Jewish state in Palestine (which he mistakenly thought to be for the most part merely sparsely populated) would be for a large part decided on whether or not the powers of the day would oppose him or aid him in that lofty endeavour. He proceeded to travel to the United Kingdom where he made some progress after he met the British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain offered Herzl a potential Jewish autonomous region in Uganda, that idea became known as the ‘Uganda Program’. Although it was a far cry from the intended establishment of a Jewish entity in the Holy Land, Herzl would soon find a necessary use for the proposed autonomous region.

In 1903 Kishinev, the then-capital of the Bessarabia province of the Russian Empire, was the site of a very violent and bloody anti-Semitic pogrom. Following Easter Mass 47 Jews were murdered by the Christian population during three days of intense rioting. Herzl, alarmed at this violence against Jews, suggested that the Uganda Program be temporarily utilized as a sanctuary for Jews whose lives were danger. His suggestion nearly split the movement. He did not live to see the Ugandan Program’s inevitable rejection by the Zionist movement.

Theodor Herzl died on the 3rd of July 1904 as a result of cardiac sclerosis. The day beforehand he famously told Reverend William H. Hechler (a Restorationist Anglican clergyman friend of Herzl’s, who himself was a staunch opponent to anti-Semitism as well as a strong advocate of the Zionist cause) to “greet Palestine for me. I gave my heart’s blood for my people.” The legacy of his works and ideas are evident with over a hundred years of retrospective analysis. The most obvious legacy is the fact that his utopian idea did come through with the creation of the modern Jewish State of Israel on May 15 1948. Herzl had rightly predicted fifty years beforehand that there would have certainly been a Jewish state at this time. Zionism in the years and decades following his death however had remained a political movement that existed only at the seams of mainstream politics. Herzl’s friend Reverand Hechler notably warned in 1918 that a ‘calamity’ would befall the Jews in Europe if they remained on the continent. He did not live to see that calamity unfold. Less than three years after his death — which took place in relative obscurity — in 1931 the Nazis came to power in Germany and by the end of the Second World War their anti-Jewish laws and policies resulted in the mass murder of at least six million Jews. It was after this that Zionism was taken more seriously by the Jews that had survived, and immigration to Palestine dramatically increased.

Herzl’s last novel Altneuland (The Old New Land) was devoted entirely to the Zionist idea. Israel as it became known is depicted in the novel as coming into fruition in the year 1923 (interestingly the city of Herzliya in Israel that is named in his honour was founded in 1924). Unlike Der Judenstaat, Atneuland focused more on the utopian vision of what the establishment of a Jewish state would have been like in Herzl’s mind. Whereby Der Judenstaat was as stated in its subtitle a ‘Proposal of a modern solution for the Jewish question.’ Neither novel however in a technical sense represent a blueprint for the Israel we know today. Atneuland is in essence a fictional story of a Viennese intellectual who visits Palestine whilst en-route to a Pacific island to find it sparsely populated and under developed – just as Herzl saw it and believed it to be when he visited it in 1898. On his return trip to Europe twenty years later Herzl’s character once again visits Palestine to find that, in stark contrast to his previous visit, it had evolved into a highly developed cosmopolitan society after the Jews had returned in the intervening time and completely modernized and revamped the territory.

Herzl’s utopian vision of the great potentiality for the Jewish people to make a well developed progressive society in essence came into tangible fruition with the formation of the kibbutzim egalitarian, agricultural system that was developed on some of the more run down – and in a lot of cases malaria infested – swamplands that existed in Palestine in the early 20th century. Herzl also envisioned that the Arab populace in Palestine would welcome the returning Jews, as they would bring into being a highly modern, liberal and emancipated society that would have seen to the modernization of Arab villages and the increase in value of their property and land. A peculiar aspect of Herzl’s Altneuland is the manner in which Palestine isn’t described as a state in any sense of the word. It is implied that it is a society on the land, not a national state with an army. Implied in this is the society of emancipated Jews Herzl envisioned was actually a leased part of the Ottoman Empire – in which the then ill-defined Palestine was essentially a backwater territory of. Palestine is also the name Herzl continually uses in Altneuland, not ‘Eretz Yisrael’ or the State of Israel.

Israel itself was born of war. Its neighbours refused to recognize the United Nations implemented partition and proceeded to launch a war against the nascent Jewish state mere hours after its declaration of independence. The Palestinians who were displaced during that war commemorate Israel’s Independence Day each year as their sombre ‘nakbah’ (catastrophe). Israel nevertheless has some two million Palestinian Arabs residents, – descendants of the Palestinians who remained in the territory that became Israel in 1948 — who have equal rights to their Jewish Israeli counterparts. The Palestinians who were displaced from the areas they resided in the territory that became Israel do not for the most part recognize the State of Israel and demand a right of return, and, in a lot of cases, the complete dismantlement of Israel. It is important to note and remember that 1948 also saw to the exodus of some 700,000 Oriental Jews who lived in the Arab countries and the Maghreb as second class citizens for several generations. Many of these refuges would go on to make Israel their new home, essentially nipping what could have been a serious refuge problem in the bud.

So in essence, whilst Herzl had previously advocated the formation of a Jewish state as a solution to the problems Jews faced in assimilating in their respective societies, his romanticized utopian novel propagated the idea that through the combination of Jewish peoples many skills, talents and abilities they could develop in Palestine a progressive society free of the hampering and regressive effects that bigoted and conspiratorial anti-Semitism tend to have on society. Herzl never envisioned these Jewish inhabitants of Palestine holding any kind of privileged or favourable social status over their fellow Arabs. As he saw it, this society would not have an official religious outlook, it was merely a place for Jews to live as equals and in harmony with their fellow citizens without having to live in fear of being discriminated. He envisioned a land where the Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, its practices and outlooks being highly liberal and progressive. Furthermore, such a progressive society would also strive to erect a ‘Palace of Peace’ that would help diplomatically arbitrate international disputes between the nations of the world. The utopian society that would blossom in Palestine, as he saw it, would be a place where the Jews could reach their full potential under emancipation and set an example worthy of mass admiration and emulation.

He made such contentions about the great things the Jews would do in Der Judenstaat when he wrote the following:

“We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind.”

Idealistic yes, pragmatic, to an extent he was that too. In retrospect many of the things that Herzl could see in his romanticized vision of the potential of the Zionist idea weren’t overly ridiculous. Not long after his death Zionist immigrants in Palestine had already devised and put in place highly innovative and sophisticated agricultural practices and techniques that essentially made the barren swamplands and desert prosper. His ideas were henceforth became, to an extent, tangible realities. It is therefore fitting that the phrase, “If you will it, it is no dream” that he coined in Altneuland became a slogan and outlook of the Zionist movement.

Herzl even drew up a charter for a Jewish-Ottoman Land Company that would have worked with Ottoman authorities to buy land in Palestine off the Ottomans and provide the previous occupants of that land other land within the Ottoman Empire of similar quality. Nevertheless the Zionists and the Arabs of Palestine did end up clashing over land, sectarian violence in the form of the Hebron massacre in 1929 and the Arab uprisings and collusions with the Nazis in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s strongly soured relations between the two peoples in Palestine. The end of World War II would see a mass influx of Jewish refugees land on the shores of Palestine and act as the driving force to bring into being a physical and tangible Jewish state. Had the nascent Jewish state not been attacked by five of its neighbours upon its inception one doubts that any Arabs residing in their homes in Palestine would have been forced out. They may have been given incentives by newcomers wishing to build new homes on their property (similar to Herzl’s aforementioned plan to ensure that the people whose land he bought off the Ottoman Empire would be relocated to reasonably comparable lands elsewhere in the Arab world), but one sincerely doubts they would have been forced out. It is quite evident in retrospective analysis that there wasn’t a campaign by the Israelis in 1948 to systematically drive out the Arab populace in its entirety after Israel was attacked by its neighbours.

Argentina was suggested as an alternative for a Jewish state by Herzl in Der Judenstaat. Whilst discussing that alternative in his diary he also discussed the manner in which he believed the Zionist movement should legally and fairly procure land for their people when he wrote the following:

“When we occupy the land, we shall bring immediate benefits to the state that receives us. We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly … It goes without saying that we shall respectfully tolerate persons of other faiths and protect their property, their honor, and their freedom with the harshest means of coercion. This is another area in which we shall set the entire world a wonderful example … Should there be many such immovable owners in individual areas, who would not sell their property to us], we shall simply leave them there and develop our commerce in the direction of other areas which belong to us.”

Had there been no war in 1948 one believes without a doubt that would have been the case in Israel after its inception. Israel as a modern state would under the UN’s proposed 1947 borders actually sit on less of what the ardent Palestinian Arab nationalists see as land that solely belongs to them than internationally pre-1967 borders Israel does today. Furthermore, the founders of Israel were predominately secular and liberal minded (as evident from the lack of any mention of a God in Israel’s Declaration of Independence) and like Herzl were tolerant of others peoples beliefs, and didn’t see them as something that would encroach on their society, since, as they saw it, religious beliefs were something that was ones own business and wasn’t something that should define someone living in the society they envisioned. Nevertheless the nationalist aspirations of the Arabs within Israel’s borders caused tensions between the two communities. Large segments of the Arab Palestinian population who were openly opposed to the proclamation of the State of Israel and supported the attempted invasion of Israel in 1948 were seen by the Israelis as little more than fifth columnists. This doubtlessly added to the ill-feelings both people felt and feel towards each other. Even today there is animosity between Israelis and the Arab-Israelis as the latter are perceived by many of the former not to be true citizens who pull their weight when they are required to do so – vis-a-vie military conscription and other responsibilities bestowed upon the Israeli people.

Herzl’s ideas had a lot of pragmatism, although they were laced with utopian ideals, the fruits of which were never completely borne. Nevertheless his idea of a Jewish state is a very tangible reality today, a utopian idea that, albeit with its flaws, has come to life. Although this tangible state physically occupies what amounts to a tiny geographical corner of the Middle East it mentally occupies a large part of our minds and imaginations, and is bound to continue to do so for generations to come.