Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl (1860-1904)
Herzl was born in Budapest, Hungary on May 2, 1860, to Jeanette and Jacob. He was raised in a well-to-do home, received a basic Jewish education, and was educated in the spirit of the German-Jewish Enlightenment of the period, which was characteristic of Jews living in Central Europe at that time.
Following the untimely death of his sister, Pauline, in 1878, Herzl moved to Vienna, Austria with his family. Herzl attended the University of Vienna, and in 1884 Herzl was awarded a doctorate of law. He worked in this profession for a short time in Vienna and Saltzburg, but after a year he decided to devote himself to his first love – writing.
In 1891, Herzl had become the Paris correspondent for the influential Vienna newspaper Neue Freie Presse. During his work he came fact-to-face with the growing anti-Semitic atmosphere in France; he became more and more concerned with the Jewish question, and sought various ways to cope with the issue. At a certain point, he considered working towards the idea of mass conversion of young Jews to Christianity, in the hope that this would solve the Jewish problem once and for all. But he quickly disabused himself of this notion.
In 1894 Herzl attended the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, an assimilated Jewish officer in the French army who was unjustly accused of treason. Herzl was appalled when he witnessed the Parisian mobs shouting “Death to the Jews.” This anti-Semitic atmosphere led Herzl towards a new conceptual horizon. He began to understand that the Jewish problem demanded a national and political solution. He believed that only by establishing a state for the Jewish people could the Jews resolve their distress and bring an end to anti-Semitism. His new Zionist vision was presented in its entirety in his book entitled, Der Judenstaat, which was published in February, 1896. The appearance of Herzl’s book unleashed violent disagreement. The enlightened elite rejected Herzl’s plan, for both ideological and practical reasons. On the other hand, his ideas were met with enthusiasm by the Jewish masses, who considered him to be a modern Moses.
Herzl was enthralled with the Zionist idea. He conducted diplomatic ties to disseminate his plans and to gain a Charter (the right of Jews to settle in Eretz Israel, granted by the Turkish Sultan). In contrast with others in the Zionist movement, Herzl believed it was very important to gain international and legal recognition of the rights of the Jewish people in Eretz Israel before beginning actual settlement there. This perspective was the basis of the Political Zionism Movement, of which Herzl was the leader.
In 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Here, the World Zionist Organization was founded and Herzl was made its first president. During this year he also founded his Zionist newspaper, Die Welt, in Vienna.
At the Sixth Zionist Congress held in 1903, Herzl proposed his “Uganda Program” proposing that Jews settle in the British territory of Uganda. The proposal aroused a storm at the Congress and in order to prevent a split in the Zionist movement, he quickly announced that this was merely a temporary solution.
To a large extent, the entire Uganda Episode was responsible for breaking Herzl’s spirit. However, he continued his Zionist activity: meeting with leaders all over the world and working to promote the Zionist Movement, but his health began to fail.
Herzl did not live to see the realization of his vision; he died in Edlach near Vienna on July 3, 1904 (20th of Tammuz 5664), and his funeral was attended by many.
In light of his final request, following the establishment of the State of Israel, his body was brought for reinterment in August 1949, on Mt. Herzl, which was named in his memory.