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Why Theodor Herzl still matters

Theodor Herzl did not live to see Israel realized, but he is arguably the country’s most enduring visionary.

In less than a decade, before his early death in 1904, at the age of 44, Herzl lifted the Zionist movement from obscurity to a palpable political force through his magnetism and dedication. Many Israelis and Zionists regard Herzl’s writings, speeches and even his fiction as founding tracts. And yet, his ideas about the future of his people shifted radically over the years — from imagining their proposed state as a source of military might to a largely pacifist endeavor, to, infamously, entertaining the idea of statehood in Uganda. Throughout his evolution, it was Herzl’s personal foibles, as much as his concern for Jewish welfare, that informed his thinking.

In “Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader,” Derek Penslar, the William Lee Frost professor of Jewish History at Harvard University, tracks Herzl’s rise from popular journalist and failed playwright to the amateur diplomat who diagrammed the Jewish State and made considerable inroads toward making it a reality. Using his position as a respected journalist, Herzl made overtures to such unlikely partners as the German kaiser, the pope and the retinue of the Russian czar — he himself was an unlikely ambassador for the cause.

In the book, the latest in Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, Penslar presents a man whose shortcomings and personal frustration fueled his crusade for a Jewish homeland. Insecurity about his own place in society, his writing ability and his cool relationship with his wife elevated the secular and assimilated man to seek a raison d’etre as the founder of the Zionist Congress and an orator and writer with the power to advance a bold vision of Jewish autonomy.

The Forward spoke with Penslar over the phone about why Herzl continues to matter to Jews, to Israel and to the world. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

PJ GRISAR: Writing a biography of Herzl is a big task — not least because many others exist. What did you hope to accomplish with your own telling?

Derek Penslar

Derek Penslar Image by University of Toronto Faculty of Arts and Sciences

DEREK PENSLAR: One thing I wanted to do was to write a biography that’s suited to our own era. I think we live in an era now where we think of people as being much more fluid. Herzl’s a good example of this — he’s a man who underwent so many changes and he means so many different things to so many different people, and he himself could think about himself in very different situations from one situation to another.

The other thing is I wanted to transcend the cycle in previous writing about Herzl that saw him as a saint or reveled in criticisms of him, because he was a very flawed man. I think the time has now also come where we can understand how complicated people are. Yes, he was a great man, yes he was a flawed man — in a way the flaws are what accounted for his greatness.

It’s startling to see that among Herzl’s earliest ideas for protecting Jews was mass conversion to Catholicism in Austria and loss of Jewish collective identity. How do you square this with his later Zionism?

Part of it was a concern about anti-Semitism and how it affects Jews throughout Europe, and of course a lot of it is about him and his own personal crisis of identity. [In his mid-30s] he doesn’t really know who he is or what his purpose in life is. He is frustrated as a journalist, he knows he’s not as good as he wants to be as a writer, he has family troubles. He’s thinking ‘What can I do? How can I be this leader who can solve this problem of anti-Semitism?’ And so he goes from one admittedly wild scheme to another and then he settles into the idea of mass emigration. Ultimately he realizes that’s the only thing that might possibly work. He wrote “Judenstaat,” “The Jewish State,” which is basically a handbook for mass migration.

He was very assimilated and his own experiences with anti-Semitism don’t, in this account, appear to have been excessive. Why do you think the cause called to him?

For him, anti-Semitism had all sorts of layers of personal meaning. I’m not saying he didn’t care about suffering Jews — he did care about them — but the reason why he cares so much about them is because he’s coming from an attempt to deal with his own crisis. The same kind of anti-Semitic insult, which someone else might brush off, really hurts him deeply, because he is someone who, very much a product of his time, was deeply concerned with issues of masculine honor.

What were some surprises you found researching his life and work?

The last thing I came away from was the effect he had on other people. Partly the effect he had on Jews, that he could wow them, but the effect he had on non-Jews. Non-Jews could look at him and see a kind of a Moses figure, which would reflect their own Christian upbringing, and he could also appeal to anti-Semites, ‘cause they could say “Here’s a good Jew. He’s honest, there’s nothing about him that suggests he’s trying to trick us.” Part of [his effect] was his appearance, he was a good-looking guy and he had the beard and he had those soulful deep eyes. The effect that a human being can have on a person is quite startling, and it’s not something you can learn, it’s something some people have. They’re just born with it.

What do you think Herzl would make of the Jewish State today?

I think for the mature Herzl — Herzl 1900 and later, the Herzl who publishes “Altneuland” [Herzl’s novel that imagined a Jewish State] — there are things about Israel he’d be thrilled by. He’d be thrilled by the technical accomplishments of the state, the infrastructure, the in-gathering of Jews the world over. But I think he would be discouraged and in despair about the country’s political situation. He couldn’t have imagined the wars, he couldn’t have imagined the occupation, he couldn’t have imagined the treatment of Arabs within the land of Israel. And whether we accuse him of being naive or not, I don’t think he could have ever imagined this kind of hatred. And also, he would have been very unhappy about the role of religion in the state of Israel. He wasn’t anti-religious, but as he writes in “The Jewish State,” he wants to keep the rabbis in their synagogues and the army officers in their barracks.

He’s brandished by both sides of the political spectrum in Israel to make arguments about the country — what do you think people get wrong about him and his ideas? And how much do you think that should matter now that the reality of the state exists?

There’s something weird in that Herzl is this very late-19th Century guy, who lived in a world that is totally different from our own, and yet people are still reaching back to him as symbolizing what is good or not good about the Zionist project. What is it about him that makes people cling to him in a way that they don’t cling to other late-19th Century leaders of other national movements throughout the world? Part of it has to do with Israel’s own existential insecurity and the fact that Herzl was seen as this tragic martyr figure who saw how powerful anti-Semitism would be. Part of it is this need to see in Herzl a kind of secularized prophetic figure, another Moses. I think this comes out of the Jewish tradition and Jewish need to have a kind of a distant martyr figure who didn’t live to see the Promised Land.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].

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