Late nineteenth century is a period of a history in which European continent went thru forming of national question that was followed by a wave of anti-Semitism directed against a specific target. In this case, this stream was directed against Jewish population thru the whole European continent France, Germany, Austria-Hungary Empire is just the leading figures of this complex action. During that uneasy time, there were many essential players and famous personalities that played an important role in that time. This paper will focus on Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) and his standpoint as a Jewish historical figure.1 Theodor Herzl was born in Budapest to the middle-class Jewish family. He and his family moved to Vienna when he was a teenager, and he started to study law at the University of Vienna. After graduation, he became a very popular journalist for Neue Freie Presse, one of the famous Viennese newspapers. In that time in Europe was rising wave of anti-Semitism and nationalism. Prejudice, discrimination, and hate against Jewish community were during that times common. Herzl as a member of the Jewish community was affected by this social attitude as well. Also, he was aware that the status of Jewish people was not entirely explained and that there had to find a place where Jews belong. Thru his lifetime experience of a Jew, he started to engage more and more in this problem and began to look for a solution. Herzl was convinced that the only way to solve the differences between Jews and “Others” is not the assimilation or closing Jews to ghettos. Herzl came up with the idea that the best way to solve these tensions is the foundation of the Jewish state and in other words that Jewish people will have own nation and national status.2
However, this paper will mainly focus on Herzl’s life before his engagement to that problem. Why did Theodor Herzl become a Zionist? What influence him so much that he becomes such an important figure in Zionism? This paper will go close to explain reasons and motivations that lead him to become active in the Zionist movement and became a convinced Zionist. Herzl’s way to the Zionism was slow development in which he had to go thru inner conflict to discovering and understanding of the Jewish problem.
Many books and articles present that the breaking point in Herzl’s life that made him become an active Zionist is so-called Dreyfus Affair. This affair happened when Herzl was in Paris as a rapporteur for the Viennese newspaper. Basically what happened is that 1894 Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guinea. The reason of his imprisonment was alleged cooperation with German Embassy in Paris, which in Dreyfus position was unacceptable. He alleged should tell French military secrets to the enemy in this case Germany.3
This case can look like an ordinary case where an accused is convicted. However, this case was from begging very controversial and influenced by media and by the public. Especially public opinion during that time was full of anti-Jewish mood, which did not help to Dreyfus nor whole Jewish community. People of France were divided into anti-Dreyfus and Dreyfus groups Also, this case started to write a new history of France so-called Third Republic, full of political changes and antisemitism movement.4 Also, there is printed evidence of French newspapers how do they presented this process and how thru images ironically and even vulgarly presented Dreyfus and his Jewish descent. Jewish people that time was known in the society with specific and significant biological features that other people did not have as much visible. The description of ordinary Jew during that time was huge nose, big and full lips and the most evident thing was excessive Yiddish accent. The 1880s and 1890s were the time where illustration ironically presented Jews were pretty normal and accepted by the mass public.5
Action like that it just shows how the mass media played a big role in the negative portraying Dreyfus and Jews, which helped to anti-Semitism spread over France even faster. Also, it helped to spread stereotypes easily, because that time the newspaper industry was growing. During the 1890s Vienna and Paris were experiencing how media can be powerful and influential. Herzl was a witness of that too. Also, he was part of this system as an influential journalist. The mid- 1890s is the point when Herzl is in Paris seeing that French media are easily spreading the anti-Semitism over the country and Herzl’s Zionism engagement was starting to wake it up inside him.6
Herzl believed in Dreyfus innocence and which was later on proved. 1899 was a year when one of the colleagues of Dreyfus changes his statement which led to the opening the case and the new trial. This court liberated Dreyfus from the prison.7 Even though, this affair finished with happy end Herzl was shocked by the anti-Jewish propaganda and the wave of anti-Semitism in Europe. He could not believe that something like that could happen in France, place that was presented as a place of freedom and equal opportunity. The Dreyfus Affair is a historical example of a failure of a court and judicial system because the result of French court was that it sent in the conviction an innocent person. In Jewish perception, this case is an example of unfair treating of Jewish people in the European continent during the late nineteenth century.
This case proves Herzl that the key is not in the assimilation of Jews or whatever change in their living habits because the anti-Semitism will more likely stay in Europe. Herzl believed that the only thing that can help to fix these tensions is that Jewish people will get recognition as a nation. He thought that thanks to land that will belong just and only to Jews other nations would fully recognize Jewish identity. He was pointing to the fact that Jewish people do not fit to the European culture and customs neither to the Muslim culture and customs.8 That is why Jewish people cannot get along with these groups of people, and that is why other cultures react negatively to Jews. Even though, this affair affected Herzl in his development of the Zionist beliefs. This affair was not the reason why he became a Zionist, even though it is often wrongly presented as a reason for his Zionist engagement. More likely, this case is one of the pieces of the puzzle that in the sum made him Zionist. Dreyfus’s story just proved to Herzl that attitudes against Jews in Europe are rising and that soon or later this system will collapse this bring the real reason why Herzl became a Zionist. The reason was the rising anti-Semitism thru Europe, especially in his homeland Austria-Hungary. It is essential to understand that Herzl path to the Zionism was long way thru which he experienced many attacks that made him convert to the Zionism if it was a personal attack on his person when he was a student at University of Vienna or attacks on people from his close community.9
It is important to understand that Herzl thru his life went thru development where he was a Jew after he was assimilated, Jew. In college he was German nationalist and later in his life when he started to work as a journalist during the era of anti-Semitism was rising it was the time when he converts to Zionism. In another word, Herzl from his young age had a personal conflict in which he was finding himself; he was ambivalence in his personal opinions. His conflict was among his Judaism and the process of assimilation. Also, Herzl was not a person who from his young age wanted to solve the Jewish question. For supporting this fact can be used as evidence is his previous work where the Jewish question was missing. He got to that topic later in his life. He became a Zionist because he believed that this is the way from the crisis.10
Anti-Semitism and negative attitudes against Jewish people was the main engine of Herzl’s transformation. Even though, assimilation of Jews was looking pretty successful anti-Semitism find a place in Austria. However, the anti-Semitism wave was not politically motivated in Austria at all. Mostly these attitudes were coming from the neighbor country Germany, where during that time nationalism was rising. Also, Austria had a large number of the German population in the country, which just helped to spread the hate.
On the one hand, the government tried to integrate Jews, and it went pretty well. It took some time, but it somehow worked. Jews in Habsburg Austria 1850s received the right to buy state land or attend the trial when the defendant was a Christian belief. Shortly, Jews got the right to build a religious community in the capital city Vienna. This government gesture was conditional on taxation. It is evident that for Habsburg letting Jews in their society was the highly economical reason. However, Jews used that chance as a boost their status in society, and middle-class Jews started to attend prestigious Universities in Austria and build their status and capital. Jews slowly were getting rights, and 1867 Jews in Austria obtained the status of full-fledged citizens.
On the other hand, the negative attitudes against Jews were rising, mostly because they started to be influential members of society. Another factor that helped to increase anti-Jewish attitudes were collapsed of Vienna stock market in 1873. Many factories bankrupted, and people started to point on Jewish bourgeoisie and their capital. 1882 a group of artisans, lawyers, and small business owners started to call for Jewish restriction of ownership, and they wanted to break apart Jewish monopoly and influence. Even though society was on anti-Jewish sentiment Habsburg were strictly against anti-Semitism movement. Habsburgs believed that Jewish population could be beneficial for the whole nation, despite the fact that the integration to the Austria society will take some time. Unfortunately, for Jews and Habsburgs, over the next ten years, Austria went thru the change of electoral system that leads to the rewriting of the political map. Big parties started to cooperate which created a political power that was powerful than was untouchable by the government and that helped to anti-Semitism to rise.11
He contributed to the Jewish question with two major works. One is a play The Ghetto and second is a piece called Der Judenstaat (The Jews’ State). Even today there are many discussions which from these work was more influential. However, one thing these works has common it is the Herzl’s view on the current situation that was in Europe and his solution to it. Herzl’s work can be viewed as the last stage of his development of Herzl as a Zionist because by these two pieces of work he wanted to the point of the problem, and he tried to present awareness and his solution. Herzl as a well-known journalist knew that media could bring him the necessary attention to the point of his work and the issue that he was addressing.12 He still remembered how influential media were during the Dreyfus affair and how did influence whole society in France. By writing The New Ghetto and The Jewish State Herzl wanted to spread the awareness and his solution over society across Europe. Also, by this, he introduced himself as someone who is committed Zionist, especially after publishing The Jewish state.13
In The New Ghetto (1894) play, Herzl wanted to open the question of Jewish population and point on the uneasy integration of these people in Vienna’s society. Herzl tried to show in this play ambivalence of Vienna’s culture and that Jews hardly receive equal opportunity and security in the society, even though the assimilation of Jews were occurring that time he wanted to the point that this is not the way how it can in the future work with the rising anti-Semitism. Also, his point was that it did not work already. By this play, Herzl wanted to open the debate about this problem. It is not surprising he wrote this play after the experiencing the demagogy during the Dreyfus affair.14
In the book, The Jewish’ State, published in 1896 Herzl presented himself already as a Zionist, and he introduced his idea how to solve the problem and how to solve the Jewish question. In this piece, he talks about growing anti-Semitism movement and fear from it. He also discusses the reason why so many Jews that time migrated because they live in fear and without freedom of practice their religion and values. Even though, many Jews assimilated he was pointing on the intolerance from the rest of the society and putting vulgar and negative labels on Jews. Herzl presents his point of view on that issue. He suggests that it is not about social settings in the society it is a more religious problem, and that is linked to national identity.15 According to Herzl Jewish people had to go thru so many obstacles for centuries and still they do not have own land and own nation. That is why during that time Jewish had to faceted the negative stereotypes and extreme oppression from the rest of the society. Herzl also presented specific examples from the business when people of not Jewish belief, were spreading around do not buy from Jews do not support their business. Or he cited the classical phrase from Berlin: “Out with the Jews” (33).16 Lastly, Herzl said that this situation has to be solved by giving Jewish people land and their nation where Jewish finally and liberally can live and practice their religion without any restriction and moreover live without fear from anti-Semitism. Herzl believed that with national status Jewish people would achieve the fully-fledged status and other nations and their citizens will take Jewish people seriously and without prejudices.17
In conclusion, Theodor Herzl lived in the rush time when the wave of anti-Semitism in Europe was forming and rising. As an assimilated Jew he experienced that during his studying in Vienna where he moved with his family in his university-age from Hungary. Later on, he suffered unfair treatment of Jews in France where he was reporting for an Austrian newspaper. Especially during the Dreyfus Affair, his ambivalence of a member of Jewish community stopped, and Zionist woke up in Herzl. It is not the Dreyfus Affair that made him and engages Zionist this was just the piece of the puzzle. In Herzl personality is critical to understand that he did not become Zionist overnight, but this belief developed in him over the years and his personal experiences. The last stage of his Zionist development is when he wrote play The New Ghetto, where he wanted to point on the problem of Jews in Vienna’s society, and he tried to open the debate about this issue. Another and maybe even more important work from Herzl is the Jew’s State. First of all, in this work, he presents himself as a fully committed Zionist and secondly in this piece of work Herzl wanted to bring a solution for the Jewish question. Herzl was convinced that the assimilation of Jews to the society does not work and that Jews need to achieve own nation and own Jewish nationality. The one thing from this is evident Theodor Herzl was an essential figure in the history as well as he was influential Zionist during his lifetime. As a Jew, he experiences on his own how the situation for Jews was inadequate, and he came up with a solution that was later on used. His idea helped Jewish people to gain nation and Jewish nationality as well. Theodor Herzl is rightfully called the father of Jewish state Israel.
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2 Kornberg, Jacques. Theodor Herzl: from assimilation to Zionism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
3 “Dreyfus Affair Definition.” Dreyfus Affair. Accessed January 17, 2018. http://www.zionism-israel.com/dic/Dreyfus_Affair.htm.
4 Britannica School, s.v. “Dreyfus affair,” accessed January 17, 2018, http://school.eb.com/levels/high/article/Dreyfus-affair/101097.
5 Hyman, Paula. “The Dreyfus Affair: The Visual and the Historical.” The Journal of Modern History 61, no. 1 (1989): 88-109. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1880968.
6 Shamis,”The journalist, 484.
7 “Dreyfus Affair Definition.” Dreyfus Affair. Accessed January 17, 2018. http://www.zionism-israel.com/dic/Dreyfus_Affair.htm.
8 Heller, Daniel Kupfert. “Herzls Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State.” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs 9, no. 3 (2015): 555-57. doi:10.1080/23739770.2015.1087634.
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15 Laqueur, Walter, and Barry Rubin, eds., The Israel-Arab reader: a documentary history of the Middle East conflict, 4th ed.(New York: Penguin Books, 1984): 6-11.
16 Bickerton, Ian J., and Carla L. Klausner. A concise history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
17 Laqueur, Walter, and Barry Rubin, eds., The Israel-Arab reader: a documentary history of the Middle East conflict, 4th ed.(New York: Penguin Books, 1984): 6-11.