Childhood & Early Life
Born on May 2, 1860, in Pest, Kingdom of Hungary, Austrian Empire, Herzl was the second child of Jeanette and Jakob Herzl. Originally from Zimony (today Zemun, Serbia), his parents could speak fluent German and completely embraced their adopted land’s culture.
Many scholars believe that he belonged to both Ashkenazi and Sephardic lineage primarily through his father and to a lesser degree through his mother. He also proclaimed himself to be a descendant of the renowned Greek Kabbalist, Joseph Taitazak.
His father ran a highly successful business. Herzl was brought up with one older sister, Pauline, who passed away when he was about 18 years old. The family subsequently relocated to Vienna.
He pursued a law degree at the University of Vienna, where he joined the German nationalist Burschenschaft (fraternity) Albia. However, he later quit showing his objection against the group’s anti-Semitism.
Following a short legal career in the University of Vienna and Salzburg, he became a journalist, writer, and playwright. He was employed at a Viennese newspaper and served as a correspondent for ‘Neue Freie Presse’ in Paris.
He would often visit London and Istanbul for work. Later, he was promoted as the literary editor of ‘Neue Freie Presse.’ During this period, he began writing comedies and dramas for the Viennese stage.
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Herzl cited the Dreyfus affair, a political controversy that split the Third French Republic from 1894 until its settlement in 1906, as the reason for his conversion to Zionism.
The scandal was a notorious example of a complex miscarriage of justice and anti-Semitism, in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully accused of communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. According to Herzl, the case had a deep impact on him, especially the crowds’ chanting "Death to the Jews!" This was a commonly held view about him for a long time.
In recent years, some scholars have come to believe that Herzl may have made some exaggerated statements on the effects the scandal had on him. He may have, like most contemporary observers, initially thought that Dreyfus was guilty. It was not until the case had turned into an international cause célèbre that he got involved in the movement.
The real reason for his adoption of Zionism was likely the alarming rise of the anti-Semite demagogue Karl Lueger in Vienna in 1895.
Herzl initially thought that emancipation and assimilation was the best course for action for the Jewish people. However, he later completely rejected that notion and advocated for the Jewish removal from the continent of Europe. During this period, he started publishing pamphlets about a Jewish state.
In February 1896, he put out the book ‘Der Judenstaat’ (The State of the Jews, alternative translation: The Jewish State), which garnered immediate acclaim and controversy after its publication. In the book, he promoted the concept of the immigration of the European Jewish people to Palestine or Aliyah.
He argued that the Jewish people always had a nationality but not did have a nation or a state of their own. The best place to build this state, he wrote, would be Palestine, their historic homeland.
‘Der Judenstaat’ is widely regarded as one of the most influential texts of early Zionism. In 1898, he published the four-act play ‘Das Neue Ghetto’ (The New Ghetto), his only play that revolves around Jewish characters.
The play highlights the living condition of emancipated, well-to-do Jews in Vienna and underscores the improbability of success of someone wanting to rise above the social ghetto enforced on western Jews through its lead protagonist.
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It was originally Nathan Birnbaum who came up with the term Zionism, and Herzl was the one who made it popular. The nationalist movement eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. However, Zionism is still used in reference to the political support of Israel.
Herzl realised quite early that both he and Zionism needed political legitimization, which could only be granted by a head of state. On March 10, 1896, he met Reverend William Hechler, the Anglican minister serving in the British Embassy in Vienna. That eventually led to his meeting with the German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898.
On July 12, 1896, he delivered a memorable speech in London in front of thousands of Jewish immigrants. This effectively made him the leader of Zionism.
He approached the Ottoman Empire, which had control over Palestine at the time, promising them that the Jewish people would pay the empire’s foreign debt if Palestine was given to them. Sultan Abdulhamid II, during their meeting in 1901, declined the offer.
Herzl had also reached out to Pope Pius X for support but was told until the Jews accepted the divinity of Christ, the Catholic Church could not back their claim.
In 1902-03, the British Empire offered to negotiate on behalf of the Zionists with the Egyptian government for the charter that would allow the Jewish people to settle in Al 'Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, adjoining southern Palestine. This offer was ultimately rejected after his death.
World Zionist Organization
In 1897, Herzl launched the Zionist newspaper ‘Die Welt’ with his own money. That year, he also set up the Zionist Congress, the first meeting of which was hosted in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. During the meeting, he also established the Zionist Organization. Elected as the first President of Congress, he served in that position until his death in 1904.
Death & Interment
On July 3, 1904, Herzl passed away in Edlach, Lower Austria, after suffering cardiac sclerosis. During his conversation with the Reverend Hechler a day before his death, he stated the following, “Greet Palestine for me. I gave my heart's blood for my people."
As per his wishes, he was interred in the vault beside his father in Vienna. In 1949, the Israeli authorities brought his remains to Jerusalem, where he was reinterred on the top of Mount Herzl, named in his honour. In the ensuing years, the remains of Paulina and Hans and his only grandchild, Stephan Theodor Neumann (through Trude), were brought back to Israel and reburied near Mount Herzl. Trude died in 1943 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and was cremated.