A Self-Made Prophet

A new biography of Theodor Herzl tells the story of the thinker who laid the foundations of the first Jewish state, and of how his radicalism was mixed with a fateful support for colonialism.

When Theodor Herzl arrived, recovering from sickness, at the Zionist congress in London in 1900, an observer wrote: “Everyone turned towards the entrance at the lowermost part of the hall, whence the noise came. Herzl is coming! His glorious head towers over the throng, like Saul, with his head and shoulders above the rest. Reality exceeds all images of him from portraits. So majestic and at the same time so primal-Jewish.” It was not just Zionists who saw something ancient and exceptional in Herzl. Phillip zu Eulenberg, German ambassador to Vienna and Kaiser Wilhelm’s closest friend, wrote that Herzl was “undeniably one of the most interesting personalities I have ever met…the prototype of a militant Jewish leader from the age of the Jewish kings, without a particle of the type we call ‘trading Jew.’” These comments, with their emphasis on virility and ancient masculinity, are exactly how the founder of political Zionism would have wanted to be perceived.

Herzl, who wrote school essays on Muhammad, Luther and Napoleon, wanted to take his place among them. He wanted to save the Jewish people, and he felt that this could only happen through his own transformation into an old testament prophet, before his plans would in turn transform world Jewry. It is remarkable, then, that Derek Penslar’s biography of Herzl avoids falling into the traps of Great Man History.

Penslar is not intimidated by his subject, but subtly deconstructs Herzl’s storied self-aggrandisement. He quotes adroitly from the extensive material that  Herzl offers to the biographer – as a playwright, feuilletonist and diarist, Herzl narrated his own life, almost with an eye to those who would try to add cohesion to his own chaos. But Penslar quotes too from the contemporaries who were just as often at odds with him. And Penslar’s refusal to look away from the contradictory, the unpleasant, and, in great part, the eccentric, helps us understand Herzl’s trajectory as statesman and self-built prophet.

Herzl was born in Pest, across the Danube from Buda, in 1860. His early life contained nothing too extraordinary, as Penslar observes: “for the first thirty years of his life, Herzl was a rather ordinary and typical representative of the central European Jewish upper-middle class.” An unsatisfying career as a lawyer was followed by a career as a playwright and journalist. Herzl then dedicated his life to the cause that would define him: the political organisation of the effort to construct a Jewish State. Penslar situates Herzl’s finding of this calling in the political and social world of fin de siecle Paris and Vienna, where no idea was too madcap. Herzl at one time or the other showed interest in electric cars, telephone newspapers, and a united federated Europe. In this context the creation of a Jewish state seems humdrum.

Herzl’s shift to becoming a propagandist and politician came from encountering worrying social developments in Paris and Vienna. In the former, Herzl was confronted by the growth of the urban working class, which worried his cautious reformism. The growth of anti-Semitic political movements, often making an appeal to the working class, embodied in figures such Karl Lueger in Vienna (who was eventually elected as the Hapsburg capital’s Mayor), pushed Herzl to devise a solution to both the ‘Social’ and the ‘Jewish problem’. Penslar convincingly demonstrates that the primacy of the Dreyfus case as stimulation for Zionism was at least partially a post-hoc invention of Herzl’s. His solution, once he had dropped the unlikely idea of a mass conversion of world Jewry to Christianity overseen by the Pope, was to create a Jewish state where Jews could live without anti-Semitism, thus reducing the alleged burden of Jews on European powers. But this would be a social state: it would have state monopolies on liquor and tobacco, workers cooperatives, and most importantly a seven hour working day. The Jewish state’s flag was meant to have seven stars to symbolise this.

Herzl’s idea was not new – Leon Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation (1882) significantly precedes his work – but he was almost entirely ignorant of these proto-Zionisms. His contribution was twofold. First it was to provide an organisational framework for the movement: he organised a congress, strictly choreographed with delegates instructed to wear evening dress, which he wanted to become a national Jewish parliament. In addition he established a bank and a national fund for the movement. It is this institutional foundation that enabled the movement to prosper, even if, especially towards the end of his life, Herzl’s domination of it began to fade. But secondly he also acted as a diplomat on behalf of the movement, and in winning audiences with Kaiser Wilhelm, the King of Italy, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the Pope, he succeeded in legitimising Zionism as an international diplomatic force.

Herzl encountered consistent opposition from many in the Jewish community to his plan. Some criticised his lack of interest in Jewish culture and heritage; others resented a movement that looked like it might undermine the rights of Jews within Europe. Herzl, especially when he began to stray from suggesting Palestine as a national home to other possible colonial destinations (El Arish in Egypt, East Africa), also encountered resistance within the Zionist community. But opposition was not limited to Jewish communities. The Palestinian former mayor of Jerusalem, Youssuf Zia al-Khalidi, briefly corresponded with Herzl to warn him that Palestine was already occupied and did not need or want to fall under Jewish control. Herzl’s response was to argue that Jewish immigration would bring benefits to the local Arab population. But Herzl could write at the same time that of the land that was bought by the movement in Palestine, “nothing will be sold back to (the Arabs).” In 1895 he wrote in his diary that the Palestinian population might be “spirited across the border” – this evasive use of euphemism has ever since characterised Zionism’s attitude to the population it has variously displaced, ethnically cleansed or denied human rights.

Penslar’s book does not turn away from the more difficult elements of Herzl’s life. Herzl’s strange obsession with young girls receives the necessary attention; so too does his racist fascination with the indigenous peoples who were presented as a zoo exhibit in the Viennese Prater Park (as Karl Kraus, who comes out very well from the exchange, commented: “His [Herzl’s] interest in the Prater colony is easily explained: he is determined in the near future to place Europeans at the foot of Mount Lebanon.”) But the book is written with a lightness of touch, with Penslar’s understated prose a useful foil to Herzl’s melodrama.

Herzl was at once an egotist and a devout organiser, with an immense capacity for self sacrifice. He was committed to Jewish liberation and egalitarian social reform, but indifferent to the consequences it might have for Palestinians. He died young at 44, convinced his tireless work and the opposition he had received had hastened his death. Herzl did not live to see the state of Israel’s foundation, nor his own (now increasingly waning) memorialisation within it. Penslar’s Herzl is the historically rooted self-invented product of turn of the Century Paris and Vienna, but the biography as a whole gestures to the larger limits of men who make themselves prophets, and the consequences of their actions.