BOOK REVIEW — THEODOR HERZL: PROPHET OF SELF-DETERMINATION
‘Theodor Herzl’ Review: Prophet of Self-Determination
Admirers thought him a latter-day Moses. For others, his dream of a homeland was delusional, even blasphemous.
By Benjamin Balint
Feb. 28, 2020 10:27 am ET
• On Theodor Herzl’s untimely death in Austria in 1904, a 17-year-old in a Polish village wrote: “The sun is gone, but its light will shine again, the seeds of renaissance which he sowed in our hearts will not remain frozen forever!” The teenager’s name was David Ben-Gurion; 44 years later, he would stand beneath Herzl’s portrait and read out Israel’s declaration of independence. Soon after, as prime minister, he would reinter Herzl’s remains atop one of Jerusalem’s hills.
As Derek Penslar observes in his biography of the father of Zionism, Herzl’s astonishing transformation from journalist, obscure playwright and political neophyte to visionary statesman was no foregone fate. Mr. Penslar, a professor of Jewish history at Harvard, sets out to show “how Herzl’s psychological anguish nourished his political passion.” Drawing from Herzl’s 6,000 letters and extensive diaries, Mr. Penslar presents a vivid portrait. But what sets this book apart from the shelf of previous studies of Herzl is its emphasis on its subject’s psyche. “Herzl desperately needed a project to fill his life with meaning,” Mr. Penslar writes, “and keep the blackness of depression at bay.” Mr. Penslar portrays a man capable of “electrifying charisma” and “mesmerizing oratory” but also “plagued by bursts of melancholy.”
Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland, during the first Zionist Congress in 1897.
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
THEODOR HERZL: THE CHARISMATIC LEADER
By Derek Penslar
Yale, 239 pages, $26
As a young man in Vienna, the Budapest-born Herzl studied law, embarked on a miserable marriage and penned lighthearted cultural observations known as feuilletons. Only during his four years as Paris correspondent for the prestigious newspaper Neue Freie Presse did Herzl acquire weightier concerns. He covered the show trial and public degradation of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew wrongly convicted of treason, and came to understand that, despite Europe’s emancipation project, Jews were still regarded as strangers in countries in which they had lived for centuries.
Catalyzed by the 1895 election of Karl Lueger, an anti-Semitic demagogue, as mayor of Vienna, and by the virulence of new strains of Jew-hatred in Germany, the highly assimilated Herzl grasped that assimilation could not stanch anti-Semitism. Over the course of several frenzied weeks, Herzl, then 35, experienced an epiphany: Resurgent anti-Semitism would be stemmed only by ending the Jews’ homelessness and establishing a sovereign state. “During these days I have more than once been afraid I was losing my mind,” he wrote. “This is how tempestuously the trains of thought have raced through my soul.”
From now on, Mr. Penslar writes, Zionism would nourish “his identity, creative drive, and will to live.” Torn between vision and Realpolitik, however, Herzl didn’t know whether to convey his urgent message in the form of a political program or a utopian novel. Nor was he much clearer on the question of exactly where to establish a Jewish homeland, variously proposing Argentina, an area of British East Africa near Lake Victoria, and the northern coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Only later, Mr. Penslar observes, when Herzl had experienced “a gradual but steady process of intensified Judaic identity,” did he arrive at “greater awareness of, and attraction to, Palestine.”
Nor did Herzl know how to win approval for his fantastic scheme. He tried without success to enlist Jewish magnates like the Rothschilds. He then brought his cause into the courts and chancelleries of the great European powers. He secured audiences with the Ottoman sultan (Herzl would visit Constantinople five times); the British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain (father of Neville); the Russian interior minister; King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy; Pope Pius X; and the German emperor, Wilhelm II.
It was at Kaiser Wilhelm’s invitation that in 1898 Herzl made his one fleeting visit to Palestine, where he remarked on Jerusalem’s “musty deposits of two-thousand years of inhumanity, intolerance, and uncleanliness.”
When his diplomatic endeavors came to naught, Herzl called into being a political mass movement by sheer force of personality—and by attunement to the Zeitgeist. With theatrical flair, he crystallized Jewish political will by convening an annual congress. In his diary, Herzl assesses the First Zionist Congress, which gathered in Switzerland in August 1897: “At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.”
His literary efforts meanwhile gained new force. He founded the Zionist newspaper Die Welt and staged a play called “The New Ghetto” (which caused Sigmund Freud, having attended a performance, to worry “about the future of one’s children to whom one cannot give a country of their own”). He wrote the epoch-making manifesto “The Jewish State” (1896), with its terse step-by-step plan for a mass exodus to the homeland. Most remarkably, he gave his vision fictional form in the popular and widely translated novel “Old-New Land” (1902).
One can dislike what Mr. Penslar calls the novel’s “contrived plot, flat characters, and wooden dialogue.” Even though there was no Arab national movement at the time, one can deplore with hindsight how seldom native Arabs—and the likelihood of their antagonism—figure in its narrative.
But looking past the kitsch, one cannot fail to admire Herzl’s free play of imagination in the service of a national mission, one called to higher values than a mere scramble for territory. He maps not just a country of modern technological marvels but also a tolerant society that affords its citizens both freedom and a sense of belonging, its laborers a seven-hour workday and ample leisure, its women and Arabs equal rights, its retirees generous pensions, and its children a free education. “If you will it,” the novel’s motto advises, “it is no dream.”
Mr. Penslar writes that admirers venerated Herzl “as a latter-day Moses, a prince raised in the court of the Pharaoh who was called to return to his people and lead them out of bondage.” Like Moses, Herzl led a fractious and often thankless tribe of naysayers.
Many a detractor thought their untiring prophet of self-determination misguided or mad. His wife worried about his reputation as a crackpot. The Zionist ideologue Nahum Sokolow called Herzl a “Viennese feuilletonist who is playing at diplomacy.” Orthodox pietists regarded as blasphemous Herzl’s attempt to hasten the divinely promised return to the Promised Land. The high-minded Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am, who saw cultural renewal as a far more pressing matter than political machinations, faulted Herzl as tone-deaf to the spiritual distinctiveness of the Hebrew language and its literature. In a caustic attack on “Old-New Land,” he insisted that there was nothing particularly Jewish about Herzl’s Jewish state. One Hebrew newspaper, though ultimately praising him as a “penitent,” lamented that Herzl was uneducated in his own religion, “with scarcely a sign of Jewish spirit, like a dry bone.”
But even dry bones, as in the biblical prophet Ezekiel’s vision, can be restored to life. Indeed, a sense of the miraculous informed how Herzl saw himself. “Perhaps a fair-minded historian,” he wrote, “will find that it was something, after all, if an impecunious Jewish journalist, in the midst of the deepest degradation of the Jewish people and at a time of the most disgusting anti-Semitism, made a flag out of a rag and a people out of a decadent rabble, a people that rallies erect around that flag.”
In bringing Herzl’s tragedies and triumphs to life, Mr. Penslar is that fair-minded historian. He renders an engrossing account of a leader who, by converting despair into strength, gave an exiled people both political purpose and the means to attain it.
—Mr. Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author most recently of “Kafka’s Last Trial”
Allen Gorin of Idaho sent this. Jerry