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Theodore Herzl (1860-1904)

Viennese journalist founder of modern political Zionism.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, on May 2, 1860, Herzl was educated in the spirit of the German-Jewish "Enlightenment." The family moved to Vienna in 1878 after the death of his sister. He received a doctorate in law in 1884 and worked for a short while in courts in Vienna and Salzburg. Within a year, he left law and devoted himself to writing, for which he had demonstrated ability from an early age.

As a movement, Zionism was not the brainchild of Herzl. It came in outline form to European Jewry during his early years. Zionism was given its name in 1885 by Nathan Birbaum, a Viennese Jewish writer. Its aim was a national revival of the Jewish people in its ancestral home and Zion was one of the biblical names for Jerusalem.

In 1891 he became Paris correspondent for the New Free Press (Vienna), the influential liberal newspaper of the time. Herzl was in Paris to witness the rise of anti-Semitism which resulted from the court martial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, who was divested of his rank in a humiliating public ceremony in January 1895, as a mob shouted "Death to the Jews." (The accusation was serious enough selling secrets to the enemy. But the charges were trumped up, and he was eventually pardoned. Anti-Semitism was institutionalized in the army. The Dreyfus Affair united the French left and eventually led to the separation of church and state in France.)

After considering a number of possibilities, Herzl concluded that the only solution to the Jewish problem was the mass exodus of Jews from their places of residence. Originally he wrote that it didn't matter where Jews went. He eventually came to believe that a national home in Palestine was the answer.

He published a pamphlet, The Jewish State in 1896. Although others had suggested solutions to anti-Semitism, Herzl was the first to call for immediate political action. Jewish reaction to his plan was mixed. Many Jews rejected it as too extreme, although there were those who responded with enthusiasm and asked him to head what was to become the Zionist movement. He succeeded in convening the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, August 29-31, 1897. The congress adopted the Basle Program and established the World Zionist Organization to help create the economic foundation for the proposed Jewish state. Herzl was elected president of the organization and chaired the first six Zionist congresses. He spent much of his time in his remaining years meeting with world leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish, trying to enlist financial and political support for his dream of a Jewish state. He died in 1904 before his dream could become reality.

Nevertheless, Herzl left an enduring legacy in that he established two guiding principles of policy that persist in Zionism to this day: nonrecognition of a Palestinian national entity and forming alliances with great powers external to the Middle East. Initially, that meant The British Empire.

In 625 CE, two Jewish tribes were expelled from Medina for collaborating with Mecca. Two years later, another Jewish tribe was massacred, again for supporting Mecca against the Muslims. Some 1300 years later, the Crusades provided the groundwork for an eventual reversal of fortunes with the founding of Israel. Wars in between, whoever the foes, begat more wars while never really solving anything.


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