Binyamin Zeev (Theodore) Herzl (1860-1904)

Binyamin Zeev Herzl (1860-1904) was a jurist, playwright, author and journalist, and, above all – the visionary of the Jewish State. Herzl conceived and organized the first Zionist Congress in Basel, and thus created, for the first time, a national framework for the Jews of the world. He was one of the principal founders of the Zionist movement, which led, almost 50 years later, to the establishment of the State of Israel.


Herzl on the deck of the boat, on his way to the port of Jaffa in Palestine (Eretz Israel).
Herzl on the deck of the boat, on his way to the port of Jaffa in Palestine (Eretz Israel). From the Herzl Museum, Jerusalem (Wikimedia Commons).

He was one of the principal founders of the Zionist movement, which led, almost 50 years later, to the establishment of the State of Israel. He was the first to raise the issue of a national aspect of the Jewish Problem, and proposed political activity as the sole means of realizing the aims of Zionism. His public and Zionist activity bore fruit, and within a short time he had become the foremost representative of world Jewry. Herzl presented his vision of the Jewish State in his books Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State,” 1896) and Altneuland (“Old-New Land,” 1902).

Herzl died of heart failure at the age of 44. Thousands attended his funeral, and tens of thousands wept over the death of “one of those creators of ideas, who appear like a comet over one land, for one people, at enormous intervals.”[1]

[1] Translated from the words of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer of Jewish origin, quoted in Amos Eilon, Herzl, p. 440 (Hebrew)

Life Story

Herzl as a child. From the Herzl Museum, Jerusalem (Wikimedia Commons).

Binyamin Zeev (Theodore) Herzl was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1860, the second son of Jeanette (née Diamant) and Jakob Herzl. His father was a rich merchant and banker. Pauline, his older sister, was a year older than him, and in their youth she was his closest friend. In Herzl’s home Jewish traditions were observed and the festivals were celebrated, but the home was permeated with German culture, and Herzl received an education in the spirit of the Jewish-German Enlightenment of that period. Initially Herzl studied at the Jewish community’s elementary school in Budapest, but his parents, who wanted him to have a superior education, hired private tutors for him from an early age, and from them he learned languages and music. At the age of ten, Herzl transferred to the Reali School in Budapest.

Theodor Herzl's childhood with his family at home in Budapest.. From the Herzl Museum, Jerusalem (Wikimedia Commons).

When he was 18 years old, his sister Pauline died, and following her death the family moved to Vienna, Austria. Herzl studied at Vienna University’s Faculty of Law, and six years later was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws. However, during his studies, Herzl seemed less interested in Law and more in music, literature and theatre, and even wrote a number of plays. He hoped to become involved in Vienna’s cultural and theatre life, but most of his plays were unsuccessful. During his studies Herzl was an active member in a Student Union but retired after he experienced anti-semitic revelations.

In 1889, Herzl married Julie Naschauer, the daughter of a rich Jewish industrialist, and they had three children – Paulina (named for his sister), Hans and Trude.

Herzl as a young journalist in Vienna.
Herzl as a young journalist in Vienna. From the Herzl Museum, Jerusalem (Wikimedia Commons).

In 1891 he was appointed as the Paris correspondent of the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse (New Free Press), and reported for his Austrian readers on life in France. The quality of his reports led to him being appointed as the newspaper’s permanent correspondent in Paris. In this role he covered the Dreyfus trial (the trial of a senior Jewish officer in the French army accused of espionage and treason; however, during the trial the impression was already building that he was innocent and that the accusations against him were false). Herzl witnessed anti-Semitic feeling in France both during and after the trial.

Herzl’s life in the Vienna of those days, and the various things that he experienced (such as the Dreyfus Trial), led Herzl to the conclusion that the only solution to the Jewish Problem was a separate territory in which they would have political autonomy. His conclusion also seems to have been influenced by the general national awakenings in Europe at that time.

The Dreyfus trial was not the only occasion in which Herzl was exposed to anti-Semitism – he had already suffered from it as a student, and even left the Student Union he was active in as a result. We may assume that Herzl encountered anti-Semitism on other occasions. In your opinion, why did the Dreyfus trial influence him so much?

And so, beginning in 1895, Herzl decided to give up his journalistic career and life in Paris, and devote all his time to political Zionist activity.

“You are shocked that I am showing such interest in ‘our’ matter. You are still unaware just how great this interest is. It is true that in the past it was not my lot. Let us say that it was lying in my subconscious. […] How did I come up with this idea? I don’t know; probably I studied the issue with great perseverance and because I was so troubled by anti-Semitism. I believe that this idea has been growing inside me for thirteen years. My first entries are from 1882, when I read Dihering’s book. Now that everything is so clear to me, I am amazed how close I was and how many times I walked right past the redeeming formula. The fact that I found it brings me great joy. It will lighten my parents’ lot in their old age, and will always be a source of great honor for my descendants. I am willing to confess to you that as I am writing my eyes are brimming with tears, but I will realize this issue with great determination"

From Herzl’s letter to Nathan Gidman (the spiritual leader of Viennese Jewry)

He did not “invent” Zionism; others, principally the Hovevei Zion movement, preceded him, but it was Herzl who suggested the practical, political approaches that ultimately led to realization of the Zionist vision and the establishment of the State.

Herzl’s heart condition deteriorated, and he passed away on July 3, 1904. In his will, Herzl asked to be buried alongside his father in Vienna, until the Jewish people would be able to transfer his remains to Eretz Israel. In August 1949, Herzl’s remains were brought to Israel, and he was buried at Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem. The remains of his parents and of his sister Pauline were also brought to Mount Herzl.

“I request the humblest of funerals, without speeches or flowers. To be buried in a metal casket, in the vault beside my father, and to lie there till the Jewish people shall take my remains to Palestine, to which will be transferred the caskets of my father, of my sister Paulina, and those of my closest relatives (my mother and my children) who may die before the time at which my own casket shall be transferred to Eretz Israel.”

(From Herzl’s Will)

Herzl with his Children (Wikimedia Commons)

Herzl’s marriage to his wife was miserable and crisis-ridden; the fate of his children was also unhappy. His eldest daughter, Paulina, died at the age of 40 in Bordeaux, France, from an overdose of painkillers. Her brother, Hans, heard of her death, came to Bordeaux, and there, in a fit of emotion, shot himself. The youngest daughter, Trude, died in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Herzl’s only grandson, Trude’s son, Stefan Theodore Norman, also committed suicide in 1946, after learning of his parents’ deaths in the Shoah.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook said of him:

“The reality and the organization of our lives all start with Herzl. Some people called him a heretic. His writings do not reflect heresy, but rather they show that he did have faith. He wrote in his diary: ‘Our people cannot be a nation without its faith in God.’ He who thinks and writes this way is a man of faith.”

Political Zionism

Within a short time Herzl had become the leader of the Zionist movement. Herzl, like Hovevei Zion and many other Jews, recognized that it was only Eretz Israel that had the necessary drawing power for the establishment of a Jewish State. Although he had initially supported the idea of setting up a Jewish State wherever that could be done, for example in Argentina, he later became a Zionist in the fullest sense of the word.

“I once called Zionism an eternal ideal; and I really believe that even after acquiring our land, the land of Israel, it will not cease from being an ideal. For Zionism, as I understand it, consists not only of an aspiration for a legally affirmed piece of land for our unfortunate people, but also includes a striving for moral and spiritual fulfillment.”

(Our Hope, Greetings in a youth monthly, 1904)

Unlike Zionist activists who came before him, who focused on encouraging aliya to Eretz Israel, Herzl took a different direction: diplomatic activity among politicians and the representatives of the Great Powers, with the aim of enlisting their support for the Zionist idea and their agreement for Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel through a formal charter. Herzl believed that Eretz Israel should not be settled through theft, but rather openly, in line with international law and with appropriate guarantees. He began working resolutely through diplomatic channels and met, among others, with the Turkish Sultan, the King of Italy, the Pope and the German Kaiser.

Herzl during the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel. Photographer: Ephraim Moses Lilien (Wikimedia Commons).

In 1897 Herzl conceived the organization and assembly of a First Zionist Congress, composed of representatives of Diaspora Jewry. The First Zionist Congress met in Basel on 29-31 August, 1897. The congress approved the program of the Zionist movement and establishment the World Zionist Organization. Herzl was elected the Organization’s president, a position that he filled till his death. Although he suffered from heart disease, and in spite of harsh attacks from his opponents, Herzl worked untiringly to achieve two principal goals. The first was “the establishment of a Home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel,” with the consent of the Great Powers and of Turkey*, such consent to be obtained through political negotiations; and the second was to strengthen and develop the Zionist Organization, to the point at which it could be a serious participant in the political and financial negotiations with governments, and could implement the settlement enterprise in Eretz Israel.


 In September 1897 Herzl wrote in his diary:

“If I were to summarize the Basel Congress in one sentence –which I will be careful not to state in public – it is this: In Basel I founded the Jewish state! If I were to say this in public today, I would be greeted with general laughter. But perhaps in five years, at the most fifty, everyone will see it."

In October 1898 Herzl came to Eretz Israel at the head of a Zionist delegation, to meet the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, for a second time, and to obtain the agreement of the Turkish sultan for the political program being drawn up: the granting of a charter for Jewish settlement in the land, under German patronage. Herzl attempted to keep his visit secret, so as not to attract attention or resentment on the part of the Turkish authorities, who were following his journey with suspicion. Although the Kaiser was cordial toward Herzl and the members of his delegation, the meeting did not have any real impact; the Kaiser issued no statement in support of the program that had been presented to him. Following this disappointing meeting, Herzl left Jerusalem and Palestine.

As part of Herzl’s diplomatic efforts to obtain a Charter for Jewish settlement, he conducted lengthy negotiations with the British government, with the assistance of Leopold Greenberg, an Anglo-Jewish journalist who served as Herzl’s representative. The negotiations were actually aimed at obtaining for the Jews a charter for an area near Palestine which was under the control of the British Empire – either Cyprus or Wadi El-Arish in Sinai. The idea behind this request was that these areas could serve as a jumping-off point for the Jews to settle in Eretz Israel, and a means of putting pressure on the Ottoman Turkish sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who at that time had refused to grant the Jews a charter to settle in Palestine.

In April 1903, Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, announced that, although it was not possible for him to offer El-Arish or Cyprus, since he wished to be of assistance, he could offer a territory in East Africa, which was also under British rule. According to this proposal, the British government would lease to the Zionists an area in East Africa (now located in Kenya) in which the Jews could set up a Jewish colony and rule themselves.

Herzl met with Kaiser Wilhelm II at Mikve Israel, 1898. The meeting aroused a great deal of enthusiasm among the Jews. This picture (left, from Wikipedia) is a photomontage, made up of parts of two photographs. The pictures were taken by a member of the delegation, David Wolffsohn, who was appointed as President of the Zionist Organization following Herzl’s death.

On August 4, 1903, the British government informed Herzl that, if a commission of inquiry sent by the Zionist Organization should find an area in Uganda suitable for the settlement of Jews, the British government would permit the establishment of an autonomous Jewish colony there. Herzl submitted the “Uganda Plan” to the Sixth Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland. Herzl argued that the proposal did not contradict the ultimate goal of Zionism, and that he only wanted the proposal to be considered. Nonetheless, the plan aroused enormous opposition at the Congress, particularly among the Russian delegates, who saw it as an abandonment of Eretz Israel. Ultimately it was decided to send a commission of inquiry to East Africa, but Herzl closed the Congress with the declaration, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” (Psalm 137:5)

Suggest arguments for and against the Uganda Plan.

In January 1904 Herzl met with the Pope and with Victor Emmanuel II, King of Italy. The king received him enthusiastically, but the Pope had reservations about the Zionist idea, and suggested that the Jews should convert to Christianity first.

In that year Herzl also negotiated with political figures in Russia and Britain, but with no success.

“What it is that I have achieved, will only be appreciated when another leader has come in my place. I stood firm during the hardest days, calm in the best of times. Other qualities are also necessary: to remain silent at the very moment that a single word could enthuse. To maintain the courage of the people, even when your own heart has almost lost hope. To constantly maintain an outward good cheer, even when the situation is difficult, to associate with scoundrels, to be exposed to beggars and to be pushed aside by the arrogant. The beggars would be arrogant, had they any money, and vice versa. And for all of this – envy, deceit, malicious attacks and no reward – for it is only because I am pursuing honor that I have done this, is it not so?"

From "Herzl History" (Hebrew).

Binyamin Zeev Herzl. From Wikimedia Commons

“Trains run now to Damascus, Jerusalem and Bagdad. Since the railroad bridge over the Bosporus was finished, it is possible to travel directly, without change of cars, from Saint Petersburg or Odessa, from Berlin or Vienna, from Amsterdam, Calais, Paris, Madrid or Lisbon to Jerusalem. The great European express lines all connect with the Jerusalem line, just as the Palestinian railways in turn link up with Egypt and Northern Africa.”

(Binyamin Zeev Herzl, Altneuland)

Sounds fictional? But this is how Binyamin Zeev Herzl imagined the Jewish State and its relations with Europe and the countries surrounding it.

Binyamin Zeev Herzl’s novel, Altneuland (German for “Old-New Land”) was published in 1902, only two years before Herzl’s death. It is a utopian novel that describes the realization of Zionism, as Herzl imagined it. The book was written following Herzl’s visit to Eretz Israel.

The main characters of the book are Dr. Friedrich Loewenberg and Mr. Kingscourt. Loewenberg is a young Viennese Jewish intellectual, while Kingscourt is a German aristocrat. The two go on a lone journey to a lonely isle in the Pacific. On their way there they visit Palestine, described as a miserable, undeveloped, thinly populated place.

Read about Eretz Israel (or Palestine, as it was known in Herzl’s day). Was it really miserable and poorly populated? Why do you think Eretz Israel is described that way in Herzl’s book?


The title page of the first edition. Below right appears the book’s motto: Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen (If you will it – it is no dream). From Wikimedia Commons.

After 20 years of isolation on that island, they again come to Palestine. But this time they discover a modern, industrialized Jewish state, a country that had developed beyond recognition with the help of science and technology, a flourishing social-democratic state, in which all the inhabitants, Jewish and Arab, are equal and have the right to vote, and live in peace with one another.

At the beginning of the book, Herzl wrote, “If you will it – it is no dream.” This statement emphasizes that the realization of this utopia depends solely on the Jews themselves. This statement became the Zionist slogan, and the statement most identified with the figure of Herzl.

The book was translated to a number of languages within less than a year. When it was translated to Hebrew, the translator – Nahum Sokolov – found it difficult to translate the title of the book. In the end, he chose the name “Tel Aviv,” since a tel is a place that contains antiquities, while aviv – Spring – implies renewal, rebirth, flowering.

It was the Hebrew translation of the book that provided the inspiration for the name of the first Hebrew city. In 1910, a general meeting of the residents of the new Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood decided to change its name to “Tel Aviv,” since “it was with this name that our leader Herzl expressed the hope for our future in Eretz Israel. The name Tel Aviv has a local, Arabic flavor, and all the inhabitants of the country will quickly become used to it.”