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Theodor Herzl – the Voice of Zionist Ideals

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) is a major collective voice for the ongoing project of sustaining a homeland for the Jewish people in the land of Israel. ZOA leaders and members engage in pro-Israel activism in the public sphere and regularly speak, write, and broadcast support for the state of Israel.

The essence of Zionism can be distilled to the statement that Jews, a continuous and distinctive people in the historical record and today, trace their origins to what is now Israel and deserve the right to inhabit this land as their individual and collective heritage. In this spirit, the ZOA advocates for the safety and security of the state of Israel, both as a right due to its inhabitants and as the most practical means of maintaining peace and prosperity across the Middle East.

Theodor Herzl believed that.

A new champion of Zionism

Revered today as the father of modern political Zionism, Herzl brought the ancient Jewish community project up to date. Although he died in 1904, almost half a century before his dream became a reality, Israel’s rebirth in 1948 gave the Jewish people their first safe haven after enduring 2,000 years of exile and exclusion.

The ideals Herzl shared with such passion and conviction helped achieve his dream of a free, independent Israel, the rebirth of the ancient Jewish state to receive beleaguered, persecuted, hated, and hunted Jews from every corner of the world, and knit them into the modern nation of Israel.

A journalist turned activist

Herzl was born in 1860 in Budapest, then part of the Austrian (only a few years later, the Austro-Hungarian) empire. He became a noted journalist and wrote an 1896 pamphlet that he entitled The Jewish State. In this work, he outlined his concept of a world council featuring representatives from Jewish communities of all nations.

He succeeded in forming such a council in 1897, becoming elected the first president of the newly born World Zionist Organization. Historians credit his skills in persuasive writing, speaking, organizing, and diplomacy with laying the groundwork for the founding of modern Israel in the wake of the Holocaust in Europe.

Learning to see the dangers

Herzl’s family was a prosperous middle-class one. He learned science as a secondary student, but the school was suffused with anti-Semitism, so he moved to a predominantly Jewish school. When he was 18, his family moved to Vienna after the death of Herzl’s older sister. He began to study law, but instead of working as a lawyer, he decided to become a writer. He wrote plays and began a career as a journalist.

Herzl covered the famous trial of Alfred Dreyfus, the military officer of Jewish heritage falsely accused of treason, convicted, and sent to Devil’s Island in 1895. While Herzl later stated that his conversion to the Zionist cause was born out of that trialin which the Jewish Dreyfus was not only railroaded, but subjected to horrific anti-Semitic abuse—historians trace his awakened consciousness to a number of interconnected instances.

The main influence on Herzl’s writing of The Jewish State appears to be the general collapse of the late 19th-century government of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the resulting reinvigoration of anti-Semitism at multiple levels of society.

Nationalistic politicians like Karl Lueger, who won election as Vienna’s mayor in 1897, stirred up the anti-Jewish sentiments inherent in European society for their own ends. Lueger, although responsible for turning Vienna into a modern, efficient city, lent his support to the dissemination of blood libel and other horrific anti-Semitic tropes. Running for municipal office in 1895, Lueger harangued the public about the “corrupt liberalism” he said was rampant, and accused Jews of secretly pulling the strings of Austria’s newspapers and financial system.

Seeking freedom, safety, and peace

In any case, once Herzl became committed to the Zionist project, his zeal and skill at oratory and organizing took it into the 20th century.

Herzl’s argument was that anti-Semitism was an endemic problem in all human cultures, and that assimilation would not solve it. He felt that the solution would be at the national level, rather than the individual level. In other words, one Jew’s assimilation would not solve such a structural problem, but a state—one that would allow Jews full legal, civil, and social rights and freedoms—would.

With the support of the “Great Powers,” the leading European nations at that time, he hoped to establish a Jewish state to act as a positive influence for enlightenment and peace in the world, one that would put the Jewish people on an equal footing with other nations and people.

Herzl was met with ridicule by many in the Jewish establishment, but with acclaim from many more ordinary Jews. He founded the Zionist Organization as a means of centralizing fund-raising to reach the goal of supporting a nation-state.

Herzl also composed a novel, Old New Land, in 1902, in which he outlined his model Jewish state according to the human-centered, science-and-reason-based liberal socialism of his era. The book, with its idealistic vision of a multicultural “light unto the nations,” captured the imagination of Jews throughout Europe who longed for the chance to find safety and freedom.

Threats intensify

Meanwhile, events on the ground proved just how necessary Zionism had become to the sheer survival of the Jewish people. The 1903 Kishinev pogrom in what is now Moldova (then in the Russian Empire) was marked by heart-rending violence on the part of the non-Jews who marched through the Jewish section armed with axes and knives. They murdered an estimated 49 Jews, sexually assaulted numerous Jewish women, and destroyed some 1,500 Jewish-owned properties.

Before the pogrom, the local Jewish and Christian populations in this very rural part of Russia had co-existed largely in mutual respect, until a malicious newspaper series attributed the murder of a local youth to the Jewish community. Herzl, and an increasing number of other European Jews, took these kinds of horrific events as more confirmation that Jews could never be sure they were completely safe outside their own state.

“If you will it”

The Zionist Congresses that Herzl led provided the intellectual and practical support for 20th century Zionism, leading to immigration to what was then British Mandate Palestine, and finally to the independent nation of Israel, born in part out of the flames of the Holocaust.

Today’s Israel continues as a haven from persecution, welcoming Jews of all backgrounds from Russia to Ethiopia and beyond. “If you will it,” Herzl once wrote of the Zionist ideal, “it is no dream.”


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