Zionism and Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl
Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl is considered the father of modern Zionism, or Jewish nationalism. Born in Budapest, Hungary, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Herzl attended university in Vienna. As a young journalist, he covered the Dreyfus affair in Paris.

This noted case of anti-Semitism in liberal France, coupled with the periodic violent pogroms against Jews in eastern Europe and Russia, convinced Herzl that anti-Semitism was an inherent evil in Western civilization.

He concluded that the only solution to the so-called Jewish question was the establishment of a Jewish state that would be as much Jewish as France was French or Italy was Italian. He expanded on the need for a Jewish state in his books Der Judenstaat (Jewish State, 1896) and Altneuland (Old New Land, 1902).

The first Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, and Herzl was elected president of World Zionist Organization (WZO). Within the WZO there was considerable debate over the question of where the Jewish state should be. Herzl was initially in favor of accepting offers by the British for territory in Argentina and present-day Uganda for a Jewish state.

Other Zionists were convinced that for religious, historic, and cultural reasons only the territory of ancient Israel was a realistic location upon which to establish a modern Jewish state, and the establishment of a modern state of Israel in Palestine became the official Zionist policy.

Zionists dreamt of the renaissance of Jewish life through their physical labor on the land. With financial support from the Rothschild family, the WZO bought land in Palestine, often from absentee landowners. Some early Zionists were socialists who established communes, or kibbutzim, or cooperatives, moshavim. Ber Borochov sought to fuse Marxism and Zionism and was one of the founders of the Zionist left.

Zionists encouraged Jews throughout the world to make aliyah, or to move to Palestine. The Zionist state was to grant automatic citizenship to all Jews who sought to live there. The first Zionist settlement in Palestine, Patah Tikva, was established north of Jaffa in 1878; although it was soon abandoned because of malarial marshes.

Once the marshes were drained, settlers returned in 1878. Other Zionist settlements were created during the 1880s. From 1881 to 1903 the first wave of Jewish settlers to Palestine was mostly from Russia. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914 there were about 59 Jewish colonies with some 12,000 people in Palestine.

Zionists also debated what language should be adopted by the Jewish state. Some favored Yiddish, which was spoken by many Jews in eastern Europe where Zionism was most prevalent. Others successfully argued that Hebrew, the language of ancient Israel, should be the language of the state. Like Latin, Hebrew had been used for religious rites or for reading of sacred texts, but it had not been in common use for hundreds of years.

It therefore needed to be modernized for contemporary usage; for his work in revitalizing Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda (Eierzer Perlmann) was considered the father of modern Hebrew. Like Ben Yehuda, many Zionists adopted Hebrew names rather than those commonly used in Europe.

Initially the Zionist movement had little support from Jews in Western nations such as France or the United States, where anti-Semitism, while by no means nonexistent, was not as virulent as in eastern Europe.

Similarly, Orthodox Jews, who formed the small percentage of the Jewish population in Palestine at the time, opposed the creation of a modern Jewish state for religious reasons; they argued that they should not interfere in the divine plan by entering the political field.

Zionists also met with mounting opposition from the indigenous Palestinian Arab population. The struggle of two separate nationalisms—Zionism and Palestinian Arabism—for control over the same territory laid the foundation for the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To fulfill the dream of a Jewish state, Herzl and others recognized the need for outside support. He approached Germany, Italy, the pope, and Great Britain to secure their approval, but met with little success. Herzl even traveled to meet with the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul.

Although it is not clear that Herzl ever met face to face with the sultan, it is known that the sultan responded to Zionist requests, saying that “he was not in the business of selling his right arm,” but that Jews were welcome to live in Palestine like other minorities within the Ottoman Empire. Herzl died in 1904, and Chaim Weizmann was selected as the new president of the WZO. Following in Herzl’s footsteps, Weizmann worked tirelessly to secure outside support for the Zionist cause.