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Notes from Limmud 2015

Herzl's secret—how did a 35 year old reporter manage to change the course of history in less than nine years?

Mordechai Friedman

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

[Zionism has become a much abused term; in an attempt to forestall unwarranted reactions, I will take the opportunity to define it myself here: It means the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral land, the Land of Israel. This right was granted by the United Nations in a vote in November 1947 and is not to be revoked. It should not be conflated with approval of the policies of the current or any Israeli government.]

At the time when Theodor Herzl first came and presented the idea of a Jewish state, no one was interested in having a Jewish state. After emancipation in Europe, Jews were unusual in not wanting a state of their own, unlike, say, the Greeks or the Polish. The Jews of England declined to join Herzl's bandwagon, though there were a few exceptions, such as Max Nordau and Israel Zangwill.

Benzion Netanyahu (the father of Bibi and Yoni) says he mi [lacuna; presumably: missed the window of opportunity]: From the Treaty of Paris in 1815 to the Vienna Congress in ?1887 [I've obviously garbled the date or place there; googling is no help!], the world was ready for the idea of nationalism, but by the end of the century, as an ideology, colonialism was tops.

European Jews wanted to be part of their own national societies: to be German Jews, English Jews, etc. The chareidim were against it because it was not timely. Redemption should come miraculously, and if you hasten the process, you are doing wrong. Even the Ostjuden largely went to the Bund [on which I will be posting notes presently]. In 1897, at the crossroads, with signs pointing to the Bund and baptism (e.g. Mahler [who had himself baptised because he felt he couldn't make it as a professional composer as a Jew]), Karl Lueger was elected as an antisemitic mayor of Vienna [lacuna ] and Zionism.

Chovevei Tzion loved Zion, but they didn't do much vis-à-vis nationality, because it was against the Ottoman law. Their attitude was: Remember what happened to ???Ramilies [no idea what I've misheard there] and others; let's not make a big fuss; eventually something will happen.

Herzl came out loud and said the answer to the Jewish Problem is the Jewish state. [Did he? His seminal work Der Judenstaat is often translated "The Jewish State", but it actually means "The state for the Jews"; the difference is significant. Hus utopian novel Altneuland paints a picture of Jews living alongside Arabs in an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire (the failure to predict the disintegration of which following WW1 we can scarcely blame Herzl for).]

Herzl was at the height of any Jewish person's career. He was literary editor for the Neue Freie Presse, the most prestigious newspaper in the German language. From there he could only lose—and when he started Zionism he was subject to laughter all over Vienna: "The king of the Jews has arrived!" Karl Krause, a baptised Jew, said "Dr Herzl, would you accept me as an ambassador of the Jews?"

Herzl financed the movement with his own money: he married a millionnaire heiress who brought a lot of money with her dowry.

So if nothing else helped him, how did he do it?

The answer starts with his book Der Judenstaat. Was this the first book on the [establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel]? No, the speaker knows at least fourteen books beforehand, for example Max Bodenheimer's The Jews of Russia Where to? in 1881, and The Cure of my People by R. Riv from Memel. Why did Herzl's book succeed so much more then? Answer: because it does not just say what to do but also how to do it.

Many people knew Herzl because he was famous, being the literary editor of the Neue Freie Presse. Now they were saying: Is he a Jew, is he one of us? He lived all his life as a secular Jew, a cultural one not a religious one.

His impact brought him a lot of grief. Nachum Sokolov was editor of Hatsefira, the biggest Hebrew newspaper. He wrote: This is like a child playing with fire. He doesn't understand the damage he can do. He is raising hopes, can he fulfil them? He is telling Diaspora Jews they don't belong. And he is risking expulsion from Palestine from the Ottomans.

Rosh Pinnah and Petach Tikvah had been built by the old yishuv, the chareidim; and the Chovevei Tsion, who had built Zichron Ya`akov (this is still before the First Aliyah)—who had come from Germany (the first people to come to Palestine were from Germany; it only switched to eastern Europe later)— had an interesting reaction. They were astonished: something nice is going to happen. OTOH, their ego came along: Who is this person, what does he know? We're struggling, we're working to build the land, and along comes this highfaluting yekke.

Herzl's other trick was [to court politicians]. No politician refused to meet a journalist. And Herzl used this, using chutzpah to go to Constantinople and try and persuade the Sultan to let the Jews build a state in Palestine.

The impact in the newspapers was huge.

The company Geulah, set up to redeem land in Israel, bought land in Hadera, and sent a 14-year old named Hermoni to an agricultural school, Mikveh Israel. In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm II came to Palestine, to celebrate the finishing of a building in his wife's name in Jerusalem. En route he stopped in Mikveh Israel. Herzl was there at the time. The two had met before in Constantinople, and this meeting was prearranged. When the papers said they are about to meet, Yehuda Appel, secretary of the Chovevei Tzion in Vilna, said to R. Vozhinsky [?], "Rabbi! Herzl is meeting the Kaiser!" The rabbi said, "Forget that, it's naarishkeit." Two years later, when Hermoni [eh? something wrong there] heard the parents of this boy were coming to visit Appel, and describing the visit of the Kaiser. R. Vozhinsky said "Wow! Rebbetzin, fetch a lechaim!"

Herzl would later on meet the Pope, kings and Russian authorities. The ball began to roll. People saw that something was going to change, but it was not yet a process. What made it a process?

Those who met Herzl always talked about his physical beauty. Menachem Mendel Ussishkin, head of the JNF, came to visit Vienna. Nathan Birnbaum, a Zionist before Herzl, who, indeed, coined the term, said "Please come and meet Herzl." Ussishkin said, "I don't need him, I've read books." Birnbaum talked him into it anyway. He wrote in his memoirs: "The first thing I was astonished with his looks."

Herman Struck, who engraved the most famous picture of Herzl, writes a lot about his looks. Even rabbis wrote about his beauty. Until Herzl, every house [in Israel] had Montefiore's picture; now they had Herzl's.

Avraham Luvitful was correspondent for Hashiluach, edited then by Ahad Ha'am. Ha'am hated Herzl. Until Herzl, he was the rabbi/intellectual leader of the yishuv. When Herzl came, despite Herzl not being a scholar in Jewish studies, his magnet pulled them all to him. Ha'am spoke against political Zionism. He said he was like a mourner at a wedding. He wrote in Hashiluach, "Even though I am not enthused by him, I can't not pay attention to this magnetism which draws thousands of people to him." What was his secret in making this stiffnecked people bend to his power?

Chazanovich, the thinker behind and builder of the National Library in Israel, was a follower of Herzl. Litman Rosenthal says Herzl was looking for Chazanovich at one of the [World Zionist] Congresses. When they found him and told him Herzl was looking for him, he said: You know how much I love Herzl, but I can't be near him, it makes my body ache. I really suffer.

When he came to Rishon leTsion, pregnant women came close to him so their babies would come out beautiful.

He also had charisma: Charisma from a distance. Herzl knew of the effect he had on people, and milked it for what it was worth.

The Baron Rothschild had directors directing what was done with his money. If not for him, the yishuv would not exist. But their patrons hated Zionism, because the Rothschilds were against political Zionism. Zionism, yes, but nationalism no.

When they started to sell the Zionist shekels—Wolfson said "Who can come and be a delegate at the Congress? The person who pays his shekel." Those in charge of the Rothschild estates didn't permit selling the shekels in Palestine.... but when Herzl came, those who were against him suddenly changed their mind and ran after him.

Herzl also [lacuna; sc. met?] Bertha von Suttner (winner of the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize) in 1899. Herzl wrote that von Suttner should persuade the Neue Freie Presse to send him to the Peace convention in the Hague. He offered her 1000 guilden so she should go to the Hague and interview the delegates of the peace conference to see what they thought of political Zionism: A brilliant coup of public relations.

And Herzl kept doing this.

But all of this was just preliminaries. The real process started in the [World Zionist] Congress. Herzl had wanted to be a playwright. In the first Congress, he was the playwright, director and key player. He came to Zurich and found the locals had hired a place that was not as nice as he wanted it. For him it was not just another convention, it was a historical milestone. so he hired the Casino Hall in Basel (a concert hall, not a casino!) and paid for it from his own money.

He was afraid the Ostjuden would create a balagan in the Congress; that's what they were like. He wanted it to be distinguished. How to do that?

Max Nordau, who was at the time much more famous than Herzl, had married a non-Jew; their daughter wrote that Nordau spent three days talking [with Herzl] about the Jewish Problem. Nordau kept saying, "You are insane! You are insane! You are insane, but I'm going to join you." They went to London and got [Israel] Zangwill on board. These two people gave a big push to the Zionist cause.

Nordau said no one can come to this congress unless wearing a זיג [by which he seems to mean formal attire; Wikipedia says the dress code was tails and white tie] with a top hat. And it worked: People said the atmosphere there was like being in shul on Yom Kippur.

Ben-Ami wrote: "Here comes Herzl. I looked into his eyes. Is this the Herzl I saw yesterday? This is a magnificent prince with a beautiful look. This is not the dandy from Vienna, this is one of the sons of David. For a few minutes the entire hall was shaking from the applause."

Chaim Weizmann [the future first president of Israel] came to the Second Congress. (At the time of the First Congress he was busy selling one of his inventions.) [He later wrote:] To see him was an unforgettable thing. At that time radium was not yet known, but the Zionists provided the radioactivity. He had every of those qualities which made him admired.

At the Third Congress: Rabbi Reinitz wrote that what he saw was how the priests officiated in the Temple.

At the Fourth Congress: ?Shmeier Levine wrote, "Anyone who looked at Herzl would see a king. And it was like seeing the Sanhedrin. For a minute I had forgotten our situation among the nations."

At the Fifth Congress: Sammy Gronemann (Memories of a Yekke): "I stood there in the end of the hall and my heart was pumping. I couldn't understand. Is this a Jewish parliament? Is this [lacuna]"

At the Sixth Congress: Ze'ev Jabotinsky was twenty-three years old, but delegates could only be twenty-four, so the people of Odessa, seeing him as a rising star, faked his age so he could be there. [The speaker then skipped ahead for lack of time]

In those Congresses, the JNF was created; the [predecessor to] Bank Leumi was set up; the negotiations with the Powers were created. In 1902, when Herzl was invited to speak at the committee for refugees, the UK Jewish community created a committee with the government. The barrister of the lawyers who created the agreement was the future Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Herzl made three major mistakes, for which he had to pay and from which his early death resulted.

First was the issue of culture. The religious said if the culture of the Land of Israel is to be Jewish, it has to be the Torah. But eastern European Jews weren't interested in that. Herzl, however, knew that would make the chareidim leave. So he kept postponing a decision on the subject, and that was a mistake. Eventually a compromise was offered and accepted, that left culture to be settled on a local basis.

Secondly, he couldn't bear any more Ahad Ha'ams, who wasted no opportunity to attack Herzl. Ha'am criticised Altneuland nastily. Herzl was good at taking criticism, but he could only take it so far. He asked Nordau to answer. But this was a bad thing.

Third: Uganda. [Joseph Chamberlain, then the UK's Secretary of State for the Colonies, offered Uganda to the Zionists in place of the Land of Israel.] For Herzl, Uganda was fine as a stepping stone en route to Eretz Yisrael, but the sentiment of the Ostjuden and indeed the Westjuden is that if you agree to Uganda, you are giving up on the idea of Zion.

The resemblance of Herzl and Moshe Rabbeinu: When he proposed the Zionist idea to R. Moshe ?Gitman, he said he was like Moses. Herzl himself talked about his dream at the age of twelve of being taken by the Moshiach up to a cloud to meet Moses. (How did he know who he was? From Michelangelo's picture!) Moses said this is the person I have been waiting for, who will bring redemption.

(Did anyone ever consider Herzl as the Moshiach? Rav Kook in his obituary called him Moshiach ben Yosef. But Herzl was careful when he came to Palestine not to ride a white donkey or anything!)

Leon Kellner, professor of English studies in Vienna, proosed a play about Herzl. [lacuna]

Why would a person give up so much, be so dedicated? Herzl saw the excodus from Europe to be like the exodus from Egypt. He told ?Levin "Let my people go" [Moses' words to Pharaoh].

אחרי מות קדושים ואמר: When someone dies, you say only good stuff about him. [Non-Jewish readers will know that sentiment in Latin, but I'm leaving this here as I like the wordplay, though can't be bothered to explain it.]

What is Herzl's legacy? Was Herzl's death timely, or did he die much too young?

R. Binyamin, writing in 1949: No doubt if Herzl had lived, things would have been different. He would have persuaded the British to behave differently in Palestine.

Herzl is relevant today as an example of clean leadership, someone who had no doubt about himself, and had the power to lead towards a better Jewish life.

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