Theodor Herzl, myth, reality, and the First Zionist Congress 125 years later

Bonnie K. Goodman
18 min readAug 29, 2022

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Sketch of Theodor Herzl, Bonnie K. Goodman, 2022, graphite and charcoal on paper 9 x 12.

On this day in history… August 29–31, 1897, Theodor Herzl convenes the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the first secular meeting about creating a Jewish state. [1]

In 1894 France, Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Austrian journalist and playwright with a doctorate in law covered Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s trial for treason for the Viennese paper the Neue Freie Presse. The French captain’s case was more about antisemitism than treason, with calls by the public to kill Frances’ Jews despite them being emancipated for over 90 years. In the same year, Herzl wrote the play “The Ghetto” (1894), outlining that he no longer believed assimilation would end antisemitism; the only solution was a homeland for Jews. In 1896, Herzl wrote “Der Judenstaat” (The Jewish State, 1896), his grand manifesto outlining his plans for political Zionism to create a socialist and secular state. Herzl has spent his life and career hiding from his Judaism. However, with his belief in Zionism and leadership role, he began to embrace his Jewish identity and name Binyamin Ze’ev. In June 1897, Herzl created the Zionist newspaper, “Die Welt,” and after the Congress in September 1897, Herzl declared, “no true Jew can be an anti-Zionist.” (Penslar, 114)

To move forward, Herzl wanted to create an organization that would work to realize a Jewish state, and he wanted to convene a Zionist Congress. According to historian Derek Penslar in Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader, the Congress would serve as a “national parliament that would meet regularly and would authorize the creation of a council to manage the diplomatic enterprise.” (Penslar, 107) Herzl faced opposition after opposition to his Congress from many within the Jewish community. Especially the Orthodox rabbinate, which thought Herzl’s vision of a Jewish, violated the tenets of Judaism, which placed the Torah and commandments at the center of the religion.

Additionally, Herzl wanted the Congress held in Munich, Germany, because of its centrality and access to kosher food. Still, the Orthodox and Reform rabbinate opposed the idea because they opposed Zionism, believing it countered religion and devotion to their nation. Herzl decided on having the Congress in Basal, Switzerland because the small town had no conflicts with hosting the Congress. There was a small Jewish community, and the Chief Rabbi did not oppose Congress. However, there was no kosher slaughtering allowed in the country, but they could bring meat from Germany. They rented the City Casino, which had a concert hall.

At the Congress, the 250 delegates present created and adopted the Basel Program. The delegates were not elected but did represent different elements within the Jewish community, including seventeen countries. Derek Penslar recounted, “About seventy represented Jewish communities or organizations, and the rest, including ten non-Jewish sympathizers, were invited by Herzl himself. About one-third of the attendees were from eastern Europe. In terms of the overall strength of the Zionist movement, Germany, with forty-two attendees; Switzerland, with twenty-three; and France and Britain, with eleven each, were strongly overrepresented. Twenty-two attendees were women.” (Penslar, 115, 116) In the first year of the Congress, women did not have voting rights, only obtaining them at the second Congress, held the following year in 1898.

Herzl was strict about hearing about his program, schedule, and formal coat and tails dress code. The three-day event started on Sunday, and Herzl embraced Judaism for the event. On Shabbat, he attended a synagogue and had a Torah aliyah, where he said the blessing. He allowed Aron Marcus, a Hasidic Jews, to address the opening session and wear his traditional garb rather than Herzl’s prescribed dress code. Herzl wanted a balanced agenda allowing both his supporters and detractors to speak.

Herzl gave the opening address. Penslar explains, “Herzl coolly noted that whereas Jews’ first responses to modern antisemitism were astonishment, pain, and anger, now it was possible to view the situation with utter calm and to devote the Congress’s energies entirely to developing the most effective means to enabling mass Jewish settlement in Palestine.” (Penslar, 116) Herzl was relaxed in his tone, but the mention of settling in Palestine led to loud applause in the hall; the raucous lasted a quarter of an hour. Not everyone was impressed with Herzl; Ahad Ha-am called Herzl a false prophet.

Russian Zionist journalist Mordechai Ben-Ami recounted, “That is no longer the elegant Dr. Herzl of Vienna; it is a royal descendant of David risen from the grave which appears before us in the grandeur and beauty with which legend surrounded him. Everyone is gripped as if a historical miracle had occurred . . . it was as if the Messiah, the son of David, stood before us.” Ben-Ami could not prevent himself from shouting ‘yehi hamelekh [long live the king]!’” (Penslar, 117) Reuben Asher Braudes of the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Maggid assessed, “The Congress was like a wonderful dream, a fabulous, divine spectacle. . . . It was an extraordinary event, not because it arrived at any great decisions, witnessed any great debates, or produced any great insights, but in and of itself. . . . It is enough for our people to know that it now has something to hope for, that it still has the will to live, that it has taken its future into its hands.” (Penslar, 118)

The Basal program delineated the basic structure to create the State of Israel, including the World Zionist Organization, known then as the Zionist Organization. Herzl was elected the president of the Congress and the Zionist Organization, with Max Nordau elected as one of the organization’s three vice presidents; Nordau spoke at the opening session after Herzl. Nordau was instrumental in helping Herzl with founding the Zionist Organization and the Basal Program. Anglo-American Zionist Jacob de Haas called Nordau “a radical Parisian writer, debonair, square-shouldered, with an imperial beard, one of the most modern of the intellectuals, who a year before was not even known to be a Jew.” In “throbbing accents, [he] intone[d] Jeremiah, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children.’” (Penslar, 117)

The Basel Program defined Zionism as derived from the Biblical word Zion for Jerusalem, “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.” Herzl did not want to declare statehood as their goal to allow the maximum amount of ability to negotiate; he also wanted to compromise and please all factions in attendance and homeland satisfy them.

The Basal Program outlined:

“For the attainment of this purpose, the Congress considers the following means serviceable:

(1) the promotion of the settlement of Jewish agriculturists, artisans, and tradesmen in Palestine;

(2) the federation of all Jews into local or general groups, according to the laws of the various countries;

(3) the strengthening of Jewish feeling and consciousness;

(4) preparatory steps for the attainment of those governmental grants which are necessary to the achievement of the Zionist purpose.” (Penslar, 119)

In his biography, Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader, historian Derek Penslar discusses Herzl’s emergence as a Zionist leader. Penslar recounts, “Herzl emerged from outside the traditional centers of Jewish power: the rabbinate and the Jewish financial elite. He claimed authority to act as an agent on behalf of the entire Jewish people and created the Zionist Organization with himself as its self-appointed head, not subject to recall. He captured and represented Jews’ longings through the convening of annual Zionist Congresses, which Herzl’s lieutenant, the celebrated writer Max Nordau, passionately depicted as “the autonomous parliament of the Jewish Risorgimento” and ‘the authorized, legitimate, representative of the Jewish people.’” (Penslar, 5)

The Congress was the first significant step in Herzl’s vision to create a Jewish state. After the Congress, Herzl wrote, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly, in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.” Shlomo Avineri, in his book “Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State,” notes, “Few readers have paid much attention to the passage in his diary that followed his famous declaration, but it displays far more profound historical and political insight than the memorable and grandiose statement that preceded it.” (Avineri, 141) Herzl wrote: “The foundation of a state lies in the will of the people for a state… Territory is only the material basis; the State, even when it possesses territory, is always something abstract… It was at Basel that I created this abstract entity which, as such, is invisible to the vast majority of people into the mood of the State and made them feel that they were in its National Assembly.” (Avineri, 141)

Until 1901, Herzl and the Zionist Organization held the Congress every year, and from 1903–1913, 1921–1939, they were held every second year, with the two World Wars interrupting the congresses. True to his word, less than 51 years later, on May 14, 1948, the Provisional Government of Israel created the modern State of with a formal declaration of Independence. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Congress, and the WZO is convening an anniversary Congress with thousands attending, including Jewish leaders from around. The WZO calls it “the most significant Zionist gathering this decade.” Yaacov Hagoel, the chairman of the World Zionist Organization, expressed in a statement, “Many of us were born into the reality of the State of Israel existing as a sovereign, powerful, Jewish and value-based entity. But just five generations before, it was a distant dream.” The conference with speeches and panels is being held over two days, August 28 and 29. [2]

Herzl loomed large over the Congress, not just his presiding over the Congress as its president but also his physical presence. Although only five foot five, those at the Congress and afterward, including historians, have attributed a Biblical mythic and grandiose to Herzl, the Founder of modern political Zionism and a new King of Israel. Penslar described that “Herzl’s charisma manifested itself in his stately carriage, his baritone voice and elegant German, and, most important, his beauty.” In 1937, Samuel Bettelheim wrote an essay, “What Did Herzl Look Like?” Penslar recounts that Bettelheim described “Herzl’s visage as combining aspects of an English lord and east European rabbi ‘in his Jerusalemite glory.’”

Herzl’s physical presence was partly attributed to the success of the First Zionist Congress. Bettelheim described Herzl as the Congress’ president as “a miracle . . . as if King Solomon had arisen from his grave, because he could no longer bear the suffering of his people and its humiliation.’” (Penslar, 7) Herzl’s presence entranced those reporting about the Congress equally; Reuven Brainin said in the Ha-Melitz that Herzl was “The Hebrew type at its purest, with a rare charm, an Oriental grace, and two dark eyes, burning like coals.”

Even those that were “skeptical” of Herzl, like Nahum Sokolow, were converted after seeing and meeting Herzl in action. Sokolow later recounted, “And I saw before me a man tall in stature . . . the first impression he made upon me was that of a man of a handsome, serious, and thoughtful visage. . . . It was his way to stare directly into the face of his conversation partner, in his piercing, hawk-like gaze, in his most beautiful eyes and in the strength of their authority. . . . From the first moment there was the impression of an extraordinary personality, there was an element of suffering in his exterior form. His head was large and somewhat oval, wonderfully symmetrical, a blend of strength and grace.” (Penslar, 119)

In addition to this short essay, I also sketched this portrait of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl in honor of the 125th anniversary of the First World Zionist Congress. In his time, Herzl was mythic and larger than life, but now 118 years after his death and 125 after the first Congress, his stature is more caricature. There are only a few photographs of Herzl, and we have become desensitized by them; they seem more like iconography than a photo of a real person, the image of the mythic Zionist leader and creator of modern Political Zionism. Any artwork or painting seems to affirm that notion; Herzl does not seem real but a caricature.

In my sketch, I wanted to humanize him; I approached the drawing using one of the available photos as if I would someone living; I looked at the source material as a real, living, breathing person. Here is Herzl as he was in 1896, a 36-year-old man on the verge of becoming the leader of modern political Zionism. While Herzl, in action and all his glory, was viewed as a modern king, sketching him, one can see the features that people revered and deep sadness. Despite his being on the verge of greatness, his vision was still a dream with skeptics; his personal life also conflicted over his political aspirations for world Jewry and a wife questioning his dream’s realism.

When we look at Herzl, we must look at both sides of this persona. As one of my professors at McGill University, Gil Troy, the Zionist thinker, historian, and author of the new edition of Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, said there is a public and private persona. In the introduction to the volumes, Troy writes Herzl “remains Israel’s iconic Founder, with George Washington’s mythic status, Thomas Jefferson’s ideological impact, and Winston Churchill’s memorable bon mots. One hundred and eighteen years after his tragic death at the age of forty-four, and 125 years after he convened the first Zionist Congress in August, 1897, Theodor Herzl remains influential. His outsized shadow — and the true, complicated, multi-dimensional person behind the myth — are precisely why it is so important to read his Zionist writings.” [3]

Over thirty years earlier, historian Ernst Pawel wrote in the book, The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl, “Yet in the end, Herzl himself remains the most important source and witness. Though barely forty-four years old at the time of his death, he left behind a truly staggering volume of writings, which, in ways both deliberate and unwitting, provide vital clues to the enigma of his personality. The literary fame to which he aspired eluded him, but he nonetheless a writer by vocation, avocation, and compulsion — playwright, journalist, essayist and novelist, pamphleteer, diarist, and indefatigable correspondent. The bulk of this prolific output has been lovingly preserved, a tribute to the politician rather than the artist, but an inexhaustible challenge to those trying to discover the human encapsulated in the legend.” (Pawel, 4) We must remember with the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress that Herzl was also human, not just a legend or icon. Israel is the reality of human hopes and dreams; as Herzl said, “Im Tirzu, Ein Zo Agadah” “If you will it, it is no dream,” and it is that humanity we have to remember when we study and celebrate Theodor Herzl.

READ MORE

Shlomo Avineri and Haim Watzman. Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State. Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2013.

Jacques Kornberg. Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism. Indiana University Press 1993.

Ernst Pawel. The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl. 1st ed. Farrar Straus & Giroux 1989.

Derek Jonathan Penslar. Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader. Yale University Press 2020.

Ritchie Robertson and Edward Timms. Theodor Herzl and the Origins of Zionism. Edinburgh University Press 1997.

Gil Troy. Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings. Library of the Jewish People, 2022.

Theodor Herzl First Zionist Congress Address

Honored delegates to the congress! As one of those who initiated the congress, it has fallen upon me to welcome you. I would like to do this with few words, as each of us will best serve the cause if he will behave thriftily with the precious minutes of the congress. In three days time we must attend to many important matters. We want to lay the foundation stone for the home, that is destined to be a safe haven for the Jewish people. This undertaking is so great, that we must speak of it only in the simplest words. As best as it is possible to judge now, these three days will be given over to a general review of the current status of the Jewish question. The huge body of material is divided into numerous sections by our lecturers.

We shall hear news of the situation of the Jews in different countries. All of you know, if only vaguely, that this situation, except for a few exceptional cases, is not a cause for joy. It is doubtful if we would be assembled here if the situation was otherwise. The uniformity of our destiny was interrupted by a long hiatus, though the scattered parts of the Jewish nation were condemned to share similar suffering in different places. Only in our times do we have the possibility, thanks to the modern miracle of transportation, to exchange information and create contact between the separated [communities]. And in this period, which is generally so uplifting, we see and sense ourselves everywhere surrounded by the ancient enmity. Anti-Semitism is the modern name, known to you so well, of this movement. The first impression it gave to modern Judaism was surprise, which quickly turned to pain and rage. Our opponents do not perhaps realize at all how deeply they especially hurt the souls of those of us of the vanguard. The modern and enlightened Judaism, which left the ghetto, which was weaned of the mercantile dealing, was stabbed in the core of its heart. We can say that today in complete assurance, without raising the suspicion that we are trying to influence the tear ducts of our opponents. We know our soul reckoning.

Information about us in the world has always been defective due to distortion and obscuration. The feeling of [Jewish] belonging and cooperation, with which were were accused so often and so stormily, was in the process of complete disintegration when we were assaulted by anti-Semitism, which awakened and amplified it once again. It can be said that we have returned home. Zionism is the return to Judaism even before the return to the land of the Jews. We prodigal sons who are returning home find in our home several matters requiring urgent correction, especially as some of our brothers are condemned to the lowest depths of poverty. But in the ancient home we are welcomes heartily, because it is known and understood that we have no impudent thoughts of undermining sacred foundations. This will become clear when the Zionist program is put before us.

Zionism has already managed to accomplish a wondrous thing, previously thought to be impossible: the firm bond between the most modern elements of of Judaism with the most conservative. Since this has occurred without the need for either side to make undignified concessions or to make mental sacrifices, it is additional proof, if such proof was needed, that the Jews are a nation. This union could only be possible against a national background.

…It is impossible that we should consider clandestine organizations or secret interventions in hidden ways, but only free and open discussion, which is subject to the constant and complete monitoring by world public opinion. One of the first upcoming successes of our movement, which can already be seen in general outline today, is that we shall turn the Jewish question into the question of Zion.

… Our movement will not be based on wise foundations, until it aims to obtain guarantees in general [i.e. international] law. The settlement activity that took place until now attained what could be obtained based on its character. It proved in practice that Jews are capable of agricultural work, a fact which many doubted. It determined the fact as permanent evidence, in legal terms. But the solution of the Jewish question is not, and cannot be in its present form, even though it did not find, let us admit to ourselves, significant support among the people. Why? Because Jews know how to reckon, and there are those who claim they know how to do it only too well. If assume then that there are nine million Jews, and that the settlement endeavor will manage to settle 10,000 of them in the land of Israel every year — then the solution to the Jewish question would require nine hundred years. This matter appears to be impractical.

And you know, that the number of ten thousand settlers a year in the present circumstances is absolutely imaginary in present circumstances. If there was settlement in those numbers, the Turkish government would immediately renew the prohibition on immigration — and this would be directed at us. For whoever believes that the Jews could as it were return as thieves in the night to the land of our forefathers, is deluding himself or deluding others. In no place does the appearance of new Jews awaken alarm signals so quickly as it does in the historic homeland of the nation. Precisely because it is the historic homeland. Nor are we interested in arriving there before the time is ripe. The entrance of Jews means an increase of manpower of inestimable magnitude for this poor country today, and even for the entire Ottoman empire. Indeed, his majesty the Sultan knows from experience, that the Jewish subjects brought him great benefit, just as he is a good ruler to them. The conditions exist, therefore, which with proper and successful care, could lead to the goal. The financial aid, which the Jews can offer to Turkey is not negligible, and can be used to eliminate some internal evils which this country suffers. If a section of the problem of the near east question is solved along with the Jewish question, that is certainly beneficial to all cultured nations. The settlement of Jews will also certainly cause in improvement in the situation of Christians in the near east.

But not only for these reasons is Zionism entitled to hope for the support of the nations. You know that in several countries, the controversy over the Jewish issue has become a major problem for the government. If it supports the Jews, it is opposed by the incited masses. If it is against the Jews, the position frequently has severe economic consequences, given the influence of Jews on world trade. There are examples of this from Russia. And finally, if the government is neutral, the Jews see themselves as abandoned and resort to revolutionary activity. Zionism, self-help of the Jews, thus provides a way out of these various difficulties. Zionist is simply the factor that makes for peace. Indeed, its luck is also like the luck of other peace makers: it will have to fight harder than others. But if amongst the more or less just criticisms of our movement we shall be accused of lack of patriotism, this suspicious claim is prima-facie false. Nobody is considering a complete and total exodus of the Jews from anywhere. Those who wish to stay and are capable of staying and assimilating will stay where they are and assimilate. If, after the agreement is made with the authorized political powers, the exit of the Jews will begin with all due order, it will continue in each country only to the extent that that country wishes to be rid of the Jews. What will cause the exodus to stop? Quite simply by the gradual waning, and eventual disappearance of anti-Semitism. This is our understanding and this how we anticipate the solution to the Jewish question.

All of this has been said by my colleagues and myself quite often. We shall never tire or slack off at repeating and repeating these words, until we are understood. On this cordial occasion, when Jews from so many lands are assembled together, to hear the clarion call, the ancient call of the people, we must again cordially repeat this our belief… [Zionism] is a legal and civilized movement full of love of the masses, with the ancient and coveted goal of our people. What the Jews among us said or wrote hitherto, could be passed over and ignored — but this will no longer be done to the product of this congress. Therefore, we hope that the congress, which shall be sovereign over its deliberations, will govern its proceedings as a wise sovereign.

Our congress shall be serious and mighty, a blessing to the miserable, an injury to no many, an honor to all Jews, and worthy of the past, whose glory is indeed distant, but shall never be dimmed. [4]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South,” “We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism,” and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History, and Art History and a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused on Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman has been an artist since she was 13 years old; she sketches in graphite, pastels, and paints in acrylics, oils, and watercolors. She has a Diploma in Collegial Studies (DCS, DEC) from Vanier College in Communications: Art, Media, and Theater specializing in the Fine Arts. She also majored in Jewish Studies and was awarded the Kleinman Family Foundation Scholarship at graduation.

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over fifteen years of experience in education and political journalism.

[1] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/first-zionist-congress-and-basel-program-1897

[2] https://www.jta.org/2022/08/29/israel/world-zionist-organization-convenes-hundreds-in-basel-to-mark-125th-anniversary-of-first-zionist-congress

[3] https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/opinion/350884/theodor-herzl-and-the-jews-leap-of-hope/

[4] https://zionism-israel.com/hdoc/Theodor_Herzl_Zionist_Congress_Speech_1897.htm

--

--

Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a historian, librarian, and journalist. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.