"If you will, it is no legend," Herzl entreated his people, the European Jews. He was calling on them to found a state of their own. “It looks like a mighty dream,” he admitted. But
nothing could shatter his faith in the project succeeding.
A pamphlet that charted the way has only 86 pages. It’s “Der Judenstaat,” or “The Jewish State.” Herzl wrote in it that in its basic form the plan was infinitely simple, and had to be for everyone to understand it.
Give us sovereignty over a piece of the earth’s surface adequate to our people’s needs and we’ll take care of everything else ourselves, he wrote in 1896. A year later the first Zionist congress convened in Basle, Switzerland.
The Zionist Organization formed there declared the aim of founding a homeland for the Jewish nation in Palestine. It was a breakthrough success for the then 36-year-old journalist from Vienna, born into a well-to-do family.
What made Herzl stand out was that he wasn’t just a theoretical thinker, and tried to put into practice immediately the program he had designed," said Michael Brenner, a professor of Jewish history and culture in Munich.
A slow beginning
He met with the powerful of his day – in Germany, France, Britain and Turkey – to persuade them of the urgency of his cause -- in vein at first.
In his pamphlet, Herzl addressed primarily the political and technical issues of his plan to start a Jewish state. He was quite down to earth and pragmatic. First the poor would go, he wrote, and make the land cultivatable. According to a fixed plan they would build roads, bridges and railways, erect telegraphs, regulate streams and build their homes.
Two years before the pamphlet came out, Herzl was no more than the successful Paris correspondent of a Vienna newspaper. As an assimilated Jew he wanted to be recognized as an Austrian citizen and be accepted as German by his surroundings. He wasn’t, and was acutely aware that other Jews weren’t, either.
"At first he suggested that they could get themselves baptized, a mass baptism of all Jews," Brenner said. "That didn’t work, either, because anti-Semitism was already racist-motivated."
Dreyfus affair formative for Herzl
Herzl’s key experience was the Dreyfus affair in France. In 1895 he was a spectator of the humiliation and degradation of the Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of espionage and sentenced to lifelong imprisonment with hard labor. "Judas! Traitor! Death! Death to Jews," roared the mob. Screams Herzl could never forget.
"The conclusion he drew from that situation was that Jews had no future in Europe, but needed a state of their own - their own territory," Brenner said.
And so he wrote that he considered the Jewish issue neither a social one nor a religious one, but a national one. We are one people, he emphasized. He argued that neither their religious isolationism had saved the Jews from persecution, nor had their assimilation which began in the 19th century.
To Herzl anti-Semitism was no healable illness, as many Jews then thought, but a direct consequence of emancipation. This, he said, had been brought plainly out into the open by the Dreyfus affair. Yet by far the greater part of the Jews then in Europe – especially the ghettoized ones in eastern Poland, Ukraine and Russia – were nowhere near emancipation. Periodic massacres of them were the order of the day.
A Jewish state within 50 years
So Herzl’s vision was especially appealing to the young rebellious generation of eastern Jews.
"This was someone from a world completely different to their own – a prominent journalist and writer of plays performed in Vienna, someone with a big name," Brenner said. "And that probably was more impressive than someone from their own east European societies or even the religious leaders saying the same things."
At the first Zionist congress in Basle in 1897, Herzl predicted that there would be a Jewish state 50 years on. He was right. In 1947 the United Nations recommended creating two states in Palestine, a Jewish one and an Arab one. One thing the Zionist pioneer didn’t see coming though: the conflict between Jews and Arabs.
"He couldn’t imagine that the Arab population wouldn’t welcome this civilization now being brought in by the immigrants from Europe," Brenner said.