Zionism's hated hero

Theodor Herzl had many opponents in his struggle to found a Jewish state — some of the fiercest were British Jews


By Colin Shindler, April 28, 2010
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Theodor Herzl addresses the Second Zionist Congress in 1898. In Britain, his support came from poor immigrants rather than the elite of Anglo-Jewry

Theodor Herzl addresses the Second Zionist Congress in 1898. In Britain, his support came from poor immigrants rather than the elite of Anglo-Jewry

Theodor Herzl was born, 150 years ago this week, in Hungary, moved to Austria as a teenager, embraced German nationalism at university and found salvation in Zionism during the last decade of his short life. In part he was trying to solve his own Jewish problem of who he really was. A few years before the publication of his pamphlet, The Jewish State, he had offered to lead a mass conversion of Jews to Christianity.
Herzl was a Viennese liberal who admired Britain and was inspired by the utopian writers of his day. In his diary he wrote that once he had achieved the redemption of the Jews, he wished to participate in the liberation of black Africans. He had borne witness to the rise of antisemitism in Vienna, Berlin and Paris and believed that Britain was "one of the last remaining places on Earth where there is freedom from Jew-hatred". London was the heart of a great empire and had in effect ruled Egypt since 1882. If the Ottoman empire crumbled - as it did during World War I - then, he reasoned, the British could fill the vacuum in neighbouring Palestine.

Herzl's conversion to Zionism did not come overnight, but was a gradual process mainly during his Paris years as the correspondent for a liberal Vienna newspaper. He wrote The Jewish State in June 1895 and was subsequently rebuffed by the Jewish great and good throughout Europe. Invited by the writer, Israel Zangwill, he addressed the Maccabean Club - to which the Anglo-Jewish elite belonged - in London in November 1895. Smoothing the way, he spoke in English and appealed to their philanthropic sense of duty to help the poor and the young. It cut no ice.

The Chief Rabbi, Hermann Adler, opposed Herzl's political Zionism yet supported Jewish settlement in Palestine. The Sephardi Haham, Moses Gaster, however, was an enthusiastic advocate of Zionism long before the arrival of Herzl. Sir Francis Montefiore was also a supporter, but his cousin Claude Montefiore, later a founder of Liberal Judaism, argued that "a man cannot live in two houses" as it would cause "discomfort". Herzl noted that Montefiore was an Italian name. Montefiore retorted that he was "nearer and had more sympathy with his British gardener than with Polish Jews".

Although Herzl regarded it as "one of the leading anti-Zionist newspapers", it was the Jewish Chronicle in January 1896 which first gave him a platform for his views. A month later, it published his article on The Jewish State - a week before the German original.

Herzl: he died at the age  of 44

Herzl: he died at the age of 44

In July 1896, Herzl once more spoke to the Maccabean Club and again received a lukewarm reception. A week later, he received a rapturous welcome by mainly Jewish immigrants at the Jewish Working Mens' Club in the East End. As he famously described them, it was "an army of schnorrers possessing a dream".

It was this kind of response that convinced Herzl to abandon a top-down approach whereby a solution would be imposed by the Anglo-Jewish "Cousinhood" and their European relatives. With democracy effectively forced upon him, he established the Zionist Organisation in 1897. The first meeting of the English branch took place at Clerkenwell town hall in March 1898. Over 130 delegates represented 10,000 British Zionists from locations as far afield as Limerick and South Shields.

At the end of 1898, Herzl visited London once more and spoke to a crowd of 10,000 people at the Great Assembly Hall in Mile End Road. He told them that "the East End is ours!" This was a recognition that Zionism was embedded in the hearts of the immigrant masses and not in the pockets of the anglicised elite. By then, he was no longer pulling his punches and launched a scathing attack on the "protest bankers".

He also returned to his assault on the "protestrabbiner", a group of German rabbis who considered Zionism as "counter to the messianic prophecies of Judaism". Two Reform rabbis, Sigmund Maybaum and Heinemann Vogelstein, were concerned that Zionism would undermine the rights of Jews as citizens of the German Reich. The communal leadership in Munich was successful in opposing the staging of the first Zionist Congress in their city, and ensuring that it took place in Basel instead.

Orthodoxy also had little time for Zionism. The Kamenitzer Maggid, a brilliant speaker for the Federation of Synagogues, regarded Herzl as a second Shabtai Zevi, the false messiah of the 17th century. Even the Lubavitcher Rebbe of the time announced that religion had been substituted by nationalism. "The Zionists," he argued, "had cast off the yoke of the Torah and mitzvot."

In Tsarist Russia, Orthodox families split over the issue of Zionism. Yet at the 4th Zionist Congress in London in August 1900, over 200 people came from Russia. If it was in eastern Europe where Herzl found his supporters, his assimilated background and dearth of Jewish understanding distanced him. After all, he listened to Wagner in between writing sections of The Jewish State. Chaim Weizmann, who became the first president of Israel, recognised Herzl as a brilliant organiser and inspiring personality, "but he was not of the people and did not grasp the nature of the forces which Zionism harboured".

Yet when Herzl died in 1904 at the pitifully young age of 44, thousands in eastern Europe mourned his passing. Over 30 years ago, I interviewed a very old man in Israel who told me that his family had formally sat shivah for Herzl in their shtetl. "Why?" I asked.

"Why?" he replied. "Because he was the King of the Jews."

Colin Shindler is professor of Israeli studies at SOAS. His book 'The Triumph of Military Zionism' has just been published in paperback by I B Tauris

    Last updated: 5:44pm, April 28 2010