1896-The Jewish State

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1896-The Jewish State

Theodore Herzl's pamphlet Der Judenstaat, The Jewish State, was published in 1896. It heralded the coming of age of Zionism. Several articles and books advocating the Zionist idea had appeared beginning in the 1840s, and small Zionist groups such as Hovevei Tsion (Lovers of Zion) had begun recruiting immigrants to Palestine, but no group had a coherent plan or modern ideology.

Herzl's plan for creating a Jewish State, arrived at after contemplating other solutions as well, provided the practical program of Zionism, and led to the first Zionist congress in Basle, Switzerland, in August, 1897. Born in Budapest, Hungary, on May 2, 1860, Herzl was educated in the spirit of the German-Jewish "Enlightenment." His family moved to Vienna in 1878 after the death of his sister. He became a doctor of law in 1884 and worked for a short while in courts in Vienna and Salzburg. However, he soon left law and devoted himself to writing.

In 1891 Herzl became Paris correspondent for the liberal Vienna newspaper New Free Press. Herzl was in Paris when a wave of anti-Semitism broke out over the court martial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer. Dreyfus, falsely accused of espionage and banished to an island prison, was divested of his rank in a humiliating public ceremony in January 1895, as a mob shouted "Death to theJews.

The Dreyfus case motivated Herzl to devote thought and effort to the Jewish problem. He formalized the concept of emergence from the Diaspora (the dispersion of the Jews) and return to Zion in The Jewish State. In The Jewish State, he proposed, for the first time, a program for immediate political action. Herzl appealed in vain to wealthy Jews such as Baron Hirsch and Baron Rothschild, to join the national Zionist movement. He found allies however, in impoverished Eastern European socialists and Zionists who had already formed Zionist groups. The result was the First Zionist Congress in Basle, which established the World Zionist Organization and adopted the program of attaining a Jewish State to be provided by "public law." Herzl convened six Zionist Congresses between 1897 and 1902.


The Congresses created the instruments of Zionist action for implementing the settlement plan, including The Jewish Colonial Trust, the Jewish National Fund and the movement's newspaper Die Welt. After the first Basle Congress, Herzl wrote in his diary, “Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word- which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly- it would be this: ‘At Basle, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.’”


Herzl attempted to gain a Charter from the Sultan of Turkey for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire. To this end he met in 1898 with the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, in Istanbul and Palestine, as well as the Sultan, but these meetings did not bear fruit.

In 1902, he published a utopian novel about the Jewish state, Altneuland (old-new land) a vision complete with monorails and modern industry. The novel concludes, "If you will, it is no legend."

Herzl then negotiated with the British regarding the possibility of settling the Jews on the island of Cyprus, the Sinai Peninsula, the El Arish region and Uganda. After the Kishinev pogroms, Herzl visited Russia in July 1903. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Russian government to help the Zionist Movement transfer Jews from Russia to Palestine. At the Sixth Zionist Congress
Herzl proposed settlement in Uganda, on offer from the British, as a temporary "night refuge." The idea met with sharp opposition, especially from the same Russian Jews that Herzl had thought to help. Though the Congress passed the plan as a gesture of esteem for Herzl, it was not pursued seriously, and the initiative died after the plan was withdrawn. Herzl met with the king of Italy, who was encouraging, and with the Pope, who expressed opposition. +

Herzl died in 1904 and was buried in Vienna. After the establishment of the State of Israel his remains were reburied on Mt. Herzl, Jerusalem in the summer of 1949.

The title "Der Judenstaat" was probably meant as an ironic play on words, since it literally means "The Jews'-State," a derogatory construction like the "Judenstrasse" (Jews' Street) of the medieval ghetto. In The Jewish State, Herzl proposed a modern solution to the Jewish question. He believed that attempts at assimilation of Jews into European society were in vain, as the majority in each country decided who was a native and who an alien. The persistence of anti-Semitism determined that the Jew would always be an outsider and only the creation of a Jewish state, a matter of interest to both Jews and non-Jews would put an end to the Jewish problem.

The Jewish State proposed that diplomacy would be the primary way of attaining the Jewish State. Herzl called for the organized transfer of Jewish communities to the new state. Of the location of the state, Herzl said, "We shall take what is given us, and what is selected by public opinion." Herzl's The Jewish State included social innovations such as the seven-hour working day. He was interested in an economy where free enterprise and state involvement went hand-in-hand. It was to be a modern, sophisticated and technologically advanced and Europeanized society.

The Jewish State established Herzl as the leader of Zionism, and the "father of the Zionist Idea." Zionist also provoked considerable opposition, in particular from the assimilationist Jews of Central and Western Europe. The book became required reading for all Zionists and was taken as the basic platform of political Zionism.

In the Jewish State, Herzl anticipated some of the antagonism that the Zionist idea would provoke: " To the first class of objections belongs the remark that the Jews are not the only
people in the world who are in a condition of distress. Here I would reply that we may as well begin by removing a little of this misery, even if it should at first be no more than our own.
It might further be said that we ought not to create new distinctions between people; we ought not to raise fresh barriers, we should rather make the old disappear. But men who think in this way are amiable visionaries; and the idea of a native land will still flourish when the dust of their bones will have vanished tracelessly in the winds. Universal brotherhood is not even a beautiful dream."

In conclusion, he wrote: " And what glory awaits those who fight unselfishly for the cause! Therefore I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabeans will rise again. Let me repeat once more my opening words: The Jews who wish for a State will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity. "

(The Jewish State, Chapter 6).
Herzl largely ignored the presence of Arabs or other minorities in the prospective Jewish State. He wrote in his diary however, that the natives of whatever land was allotted to the Jews would be gently persuaded to move to other countries. Der Judenstaat and Altneuland were visions of a Jewish state to be populated by European Jewry, who in 1900 were far more numerous than the tiny remnant of oriental and Sephardic Jews in Muslim lands and the Balkans. However, the Jewish State of Israel was only established after the Holocaust had resulted in the murder of about 40% of European Jewry, For most of the first fifty years of its existence, Israel had an oriental, Sephardic majority. Nonetheless, Herzl's vision dominated many aspects of the Zionist program for better or worse. Like Herzl, Zionists ignored the presence of Arabs in Palestine. Like Herzl, they became committed to the premise that Jews must return to performing productive work. As in Herzl's utopian vision, Israel evolved, through conscious effort to an advanced technological society. Herzl's vision of a secular, liberal democracy inspired the Israeli Declaration of Independence, but the more enlightened aspects of his program have not as yet found full expression in Israeli society. Israel continues to discriminate against Arab citizens, and is increasingly dominated by religious and chauvinistic tendencies.

Ami Isseroff