As we celebrate Thanksgiving in America this year, many of us thank God for the blessing of living in a land where we enjoy many freedoms. We are free to follow the Lord God and live without fear of practicing our faith. That’s a privilege we largely take for granted throughout the year.
Jewish Israelis likely realize more than Americans how valuable it is to live in a land where they can enjoy freedoms. This way of life is relatively new in the Holy Land. After thousands of years of being strangers in their own land, the Jewish people saw the fulfillment of their hopes when Israel was established once again as a nation in 1948. Today we’ll take a look at one man who was instrumental in setting in motion the stunning revitalization of Israel: Theodor Herzl.
Herzl was born into a German-speaking Jewish family and spent his early years in Vienna, Austria in the back half of the 19th century. His early philosophy included the belief that Jewish people should assimilate into European culture and shed their ethnic identity. But his view was challenged by an unjust yet common example of anti-Semitism in France.
The Dreyfus Affair
Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was accused of treason in 1894—specifically, selling French military secrets to the Germans. The evidence against him was flimsy at best: a slip of paper with handwriting that experts could not link to Dreyfus. But being rich and Jewish, he was an easy scapegoat. On the surface it seemed as though his birthplace (French land that became German territory) was a reason he could sell out to Germany, but beneath the surface, rumors of Dreyfus’s involvement in an “international Jewish conspiracy” pushed the public to call for his condemnation. A French military intelligence agent claimed he had proof against Dreyfus but could not present it because it contained classified military secrets. This was enough for the court to sentence Dreyfus to life in prison.
The handwriting, along with another sample of treasonous notes to the enemy while Dreyfus was imprisoned, was eventually traced to a corrupt officer with a penchant for gambling. Yet this officer was exonerated, as the army protected him, unlike their treatment of Dreyfus. A public outcry at least got his sentence reduced, yet he still faced 10 years in prison. Further proving his innocence, the “classified evidence” that led to Dreyfus’s imprisonment was exposed as a forgery. French novelist Emile Zola’s open letter J’accuse, which accused France of its conspiracy to convict Dreyfus, sold 200,000 copies, but it landed Zola a conviction for libel.
During Herzl’s time as a correspondent for a Viennese newspaper, he was tasked with covering the Dreyfus affair. This scandal forever changed Herzl’s philosophy and set in motion his determination to ensure a homeland for the Jewish people. He reasoned that if an assimilated Jewish person who served his country faithfully could still be conspired against and sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime he did not commit, then Jewish people were not safe in any country. They needed their own nation where they could live in freedom without fear of anti-Semitism.
The Birth of Zionism
As he developed his viewpoint, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat, translated “The Jewish State.” He believed if the Jewish people could have a national identity with the consent of international powers, their place in this world would be better accepted. But it was his novel Altneuland, translated “Old New Land,” that was used as the rallying cry for Zionism.
Zionism is everything that Herzl taught: the movement for the creation of the State of Israel and Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land.
Zionism is everything that Herzl taught: the movement for the creation of the State of Israel and Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land. His writing became so well known and loved that he became the face of Zionism. In it he envisioned a Jewish state that would be a “light unto the nations.” He pictured an advanced society through socialist methods. While Israel certainly did become advanced—becoming one of the most successful Middle Eastern nations in the modern world socially, medically, and technologically, to name a few—it wasn’t through socialism but democracy that it flourished. Its standing as the only democratic nation in the Middle East is a testament to its wisdom and virtue, key components of their success.
Interestingly, Herzl’s ideas were not popular with wealthy and influential Jewish leaders. But they resonated strongly with the people. Their support led him to organize the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897. In that same year he also spent much of his money to create the Zionist newspaper Die Welt, a great resource to the Zionist cause. A total of six Zionist Congresses took place from 1897 to 1902, gaining steam quickly for the Zionist cause.
A failure to convince high-ranking leaders became something of a theme for Herzl. He endured fruitless meetings with Kaiser Wilhem II of Germany and Sultan Abdulhamid II of the Ottoman Empire. He was met only with anti-Semitic remarks. A meeting with British politician Joseph Chamberlain resulted in some progress: a proposal for Jewish autonomy in a piece of Uganda in east Africa. But the Zionist dream could not be compromised. The home of the Jewish people was meant to be Eretz Yisrael: the Land of Israel. The Uganda plan was rejected by the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905.
Herzl’s life was cut short by heart issues in 1904, and he never saw the full fruit of his labor. But his development of Zionism was responsible for modern Israel’s rebirth on May 14, 1948. Without his writings and rallying to the cause of bringing the Jewish people back to the land, Israel may never have come back to life as it has over the past eight decades.
Perhaps his determination is best summed up by this optimistic, powerful quote of his: “If you will it, it is no dream.” He helped the dream of millions of Jewish people become a reality when the nation of Israel rose again. That legacy has solidified him as an immovable pillar in Jewish history.