Theodor Herzl

Political Zionism's Founder 1860 - 1904

If you will it, it is no dream.

Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl was the architect of modern political Zionism, the visionary who—harking back to the biblical and historic covenant of the Jewish people concerning the land of Israel—developed a blueprint for reestablishing the Jewish commonwealth. Elegant and aristocratic in demeanor, Herzl became the founding diplomat and chief statesman of the Zionist movement who tirelessly lobbied presidents, kings and popes to secure support for the idea of a Jewish homeland.


Developed a blueprint for re-establishing the Jewish commonwealth

Herzl was born in 1860 into a comfortable, acculturated, German-speaking Jewish family in Budapest. In the milieu of the Austro-Hungarian Empire he moved to Vienna, the Empire’s second capital, when he was about 18. In 1884, at the age of 24, he graduated with a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna.
Herzl was drawn to writing and soon established a name for himself as a “feuilletonist” (pamphleteer) or literary essayist. He was also a playwright and a journalist. Beginning in 1891, he worked for the Viennese Neue Freie Presse as its Paris correspondent.

Throughout the immense Czarist Empire—which included Russia’s vast expanse, Ukraine, most of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland—hatred and persecution of the Jews was institutionalized and regime-fuelled. Elsewhere in Europe Jews had ostensibly been emancipated—given all the rights of citizenship. Yet even in enlightened Vienna Herzl himself had encountered anti-Semitism in the university student union. He quit the union in protest, but the experience started him thinking about how to solve “the Jewish problem.”
What if the Jews converted to Christianity en masse, he wondered? Would that put an end to the Jew as “the other?” In 1894, Herzl wrote a play, The New Ghetto, which showed he had come to accept that neither conversion nor assimilation would be a solution.

Turning Point

Herzl’s defining moment came around January 1895 while he was covering the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an assimilated French Jew, who was facing court-martial on trumped-up charges of espionage. Dreyfus was about as un-Jewish and ostentatiously French as one could imagine; yet, as Herzl had come to understand, that did not stop the crowds outside the courtroom from baying “Down with the Jews!”

Consequently, Herzl explored an array of options for solving the Jewish problem. He secured a meeting with Baron Maurice de Hirsch (1831-1896), a leading German Jewish philanthropist, to talk about his inchoate idea of Zionism. While that discussion, on June 2 1895, came to nothing, it prompted Herzl to refine his Zionist idea in notes and in the diary he kept.

“I have been occupied for some time past with a work which is of immeasurable greatness,” he wrote in 1895. That work was a seminal pamphlet of Zionism, entitled Der Judenstaat or The Jewish State.  Its target was affluent Western European Jewish benefactors who, Herzl hoped, would bankroll a Jewish exodus from inhospitable Eastern Europe. But those who read the draft told Herzl that the scheme was mad—literally. So he put the idea aside and returned to Vienna to become his newspaper’s literary editor.
Nevertheless, Herzl showed his pamphlet to Jewish notables in Vienna and during his trips to Paris and London. He managed to win over one crucial acolyte, Max Nordau (1849-1923), a physician and social activist. “If you are insane,” Nordau wrote to Herzl, “we are insane together. Count me in!”

Encouraged, Herzl redrafted his pamphlet for a popular audience and had it published in Vienna on February 14, 1896. It was soon translated into half a dozen European languages.
Having dismissed both assimilation and conversion as solutions to “the Jewish problem,” Herzl proposed in his pamphlet the creation of an independent state sponsored by one or more of the major world powers.

“Let sovereignty be granted to us over a portion of the globe adequate to meet our rightful national requirements; we will attend to the rest,” he wrote. A Jewish company would be established to handle financing and logistics. Emigration would be voluntary and incremental.  Having laid out his idea of a Jewish homeland, Herzl would spend the rest of his remaining years promoting the scheme to anyone who could positively influence events—Jewish philanthropists, the Muslim Sultan of Turkey, the Italian king, the German Kaiser, the Russian Czarist interior minister and the Catholic pope. He piqued the interest of some, though most thought his ideas fanciful. Others rejected the notion of Jewish sovereignty as sacrilegious.

Political Zionism: A post-Emancipation phenomenon

Zionism is as old as Judaism itself, whose abiding motif has been the Jewish people’s yearning for its ancient homeland. Moreover, to define Herzl as the founder of modern political Zionism—as a movement—does not mean that he was the first Zionist of the 19th century.

An important catalyst for Herzl’s political Zionism was the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the subsequent Emancipation of the Jews (1814) in that country. This led to Jews being permitted to move to urban areas and thus towards secularization. Jewish identity could now be national, not solely religious: One could be a French Jew, not only a Jew who lived in France. Secularism and tolerance opened up opportunities, including citizenship. Yet it also created dilemmas. Did Jews have to sacrifice their identity to gain acceptance? And what about those who did sublimate their heritage and were nonetheless met with rejection?

In 1881, 15 years before Herzl’s The Jewish State, grassroots groups called Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) had begun to organize in the Russian Empire. The intellectual groundwork had been laid by philosophers such as Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai (1843); Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1862); the socialist Moses Hess (1862), who recognized that Emancipation was not solving the Jewish problem; Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1880), who took it upon himself to transform biblical Hebrew into a living language; and Leo Pinsker (1882).

Herzl himself was that rare combination of visionary, public relations mastermind, intellectual and community organizer. But generating support for political Zionism within the Jewish world was not easy. Wealthy Jews, for the most part, had little sympathy for political Zionism as opposed to providing philanthropic support for Jewish life in Palestine.
Well, if the elite would not get on board, then Herzl would push his idea from the bottom up. It helped that the Hovevei Zion associations came under his leadership and were incorporated into the Zionist movement.

In June 1897, Herzl founded a weekly Zionist newspaper called Die Welt (The World).

The First Zionist Congress

Next came the most momentous step. On August 29, 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Delegates wore formal dress befitting the occasion. The Congress issued this mission statement: “Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured home in Palestine.”

And this is what Herzl wrote in his diary on September 3, 1897: “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word—which I shall carefully refrain from uttering in public—it would be this: in Basel I founded the Jewish state. Were I to say this out loud today, everybody would laugh at me. In five years, perhaps, but certainly in 50, everybody will agree.”

The Congress established the World Zionist Organization and elected Herzl as its president. It paved the way for the institutions that were required to raise both funds and consciousness for the return of the Jewish people to Palestine.

In 1898, the Second Congress set up a bank incorporated in London (established Jewish bankers had distanced themselves from the Zionist enterprise.) In 1901 the Jewish National Fund was set up, also in London. And in June 1902, Herzl testified before the Royal Commission for Alien Immigration to lobby Britain to allow Jews from Czarist Russia to find haven in England.

In late 1898, Herzl made his first trip to Eretz Israel, then under Ottoman rule. On the way, in Turkey, he met with the German Kaiser Wilhelm II on October 18 and received a promise that the German leader would lobby for the Zionist idea with the Sultan. Herzl met with the Kaiser again at Mikveh Israel, the first Jewish agricultural school in what would later become Holon (today part of metropolitan Tel Aviv). They met a third time, outside Jerusalem on November 2.

Adoration and disappointment

Zionism had few friends within the Jewish leadership. The wealthy thought it impractical; Liberals opposed it because they favored assimilation. The Orthodox were against it because they believed only God Himself could end the Exile and bring the Jews home; the Reform were equally opposed because they wanted Judaism to be exclusively a religious denomination wherever Jews happened to live.

Nonetheless, Herzl persevered in his meetings with world leaders and in organizing the Jewish masses. In 1903, on a visit to Vilna, Poland, he was celebrated as “Herzl the King.” This is how he described his trip to Vilna in his diary: “In the numerous addresses, I was enormously over-praised. But the unhappiness of these sorely oppressed people was genuine. Afterwards all kinds of delegations laden with gifts called on me at the hotel, in front of which crowds kept re-gathering as the police dispersed them.”
Herzl met the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II on May 17, 1901. Back in Constantinople in February 1902, he learned that the financially strapped Ottoman administration was willing to consider creating a safe haven for the Jews in what is today Iraq—on condition that Herzl mobilized Jewish bankers to lend the Ottomans money. Palestine was expressly excluded from the offer.

All the while, the situation of the Jews of Eastern Europe was becoming increasingly untenable. Waves of murderous pogroms, or regime-instigated anti-Jewish rioting, erupted in the vast Russian Empire; including, notoriously, at Kishinev. Between 1902 and 1906, the mayhem resulted in over 2,000 Jewish dead and many, many, more terrorized.

Vision for the future Jewish state

Plainly, if a haven could not be achieved immediately in Ottoman-controlled Palestine, a solution of sorts needed to be found elsewhere. There was talk of Argentina— where Baron Maurice de Hirsch had been funding Jewish agricultural settlements in rural areas— though as a refuge for Jews, and not for a Jewish state.

In October 1902 sympathetic British officials, among them the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, put forth El Arish in the Sinai Peninsula as a possible haven for persecuted Jews. Despite the area’s proximity to Palestine, the idea was unappealing and proved impractical.  That same year Herzl published Altneuland (Old New Land), a novel in which he depicted a future Jewish state: tolerant, always ready to help less well-off countries, scientifically advanced, cooperative—and a place where Arabs and Jews would enjoy good relations.
In 1903, the British government offered to establish a sanctuary for persecuted Jews in Uganda, East Africa (now part of Kenya). Herzl was inclined to say yes as an interim measure, feeling that the first imperative was rescue. But the delegates of the Sixth Zionist Congress, led by Chaim Weizmann—who would become a key player in the Balfour Declaration story— rejected the idea out of hand. Only Zion would do.

Herzl died outside Vienna on July 3, 1904, from heart disease and pneumonia. He was 44. His wife, Julia Naschauer Herzl, survived him by three years. Herzl’s eldest daughter, Pauline, lived until 1930; his son, Hans, died soon after. Trude, Herzl’s youngest daughter, perished in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. His only grandchild, Stephen, committed suicide in 1946.

After the War of Independence, one of the new State of Israel’s first decisions was to move Herzl’s remains to Jerusalem and reinter the country’s founding father in the Mount Herzl national cemetery.

Learn More About Herzl


The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl by Ernst Pawel
Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State by Shlomo Avineri
Theodore Herzl: A biography by Alex Bein


Herzl: A Short Biography by The World Zionist Organization


The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Theodor Herzl, Father of the Jewish State
Herzl Museum in Jerusalem