Theodor Herzl was only 37 when he convened the first World Zionist Congress in Switzerland in late August 1897 and began his campaign to create a Jewish state. A Viennese journalist and playwright of middling repute, he somehow had the vision to recognize that he had changed history. “At Basel,” he wrote in his diary right afterward, “I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years and certainly in 50, everyone will know it.” As it happens, he was right — almost to the month.
When Herzl died at age 44 — one century ago today by the traditional Jewish calendar, on the 20th day of Tammuz in 1904 — his vision was still far from fulfilled. Parts of his vision are still far off. He foresaw a nation at peace with its neighbors, governed by the best principles of democracy, serving as a model of modern culture and intergroup harmony. He scarcely would have recognized the Israel that lives today under permanent siege. He would have been astounded by the political power of those who claim to be his Zionist heirs, yet abhor his modern, rationalist ideals.
Still, he might well have smiled in satisfaction at all that did come true. Thanks to his vision, the Jewish people did re-enter history as a free nation, committed at its core to his democratic principles and struggling to live up to its full promise. Few heroes ever have accomplished more.