He was 31 years old in 1891 when he moved to Paris as the correspondent for the Vienna Neue Freie Presse. Encountering anti-Semitism, he assumed that the solution was for Jews to totally assimilate. He believed that anti-Semitism occurred because Jews looked and acted differently.
Herzl was covering the Dreyfus trial as a correspondent when he witnessed the vitriolic anti-Semitism of the French. When he observed the humiliation of Alfred Dreyfus and heard the mobs screaming "Death to the Jews," he was stunned. Dreyfus was a totally assimilated Jew, high-ranking in the French army, a man of culture and French idealism.
Moreover, the French were the most sophisticated, cultured people in the world. Their anti-Semitic responses couldn't spring from ignorance. Herzl concluded that the only solution for anti-Semitism was resettlement of Jews onto their own land. Anti-Semitism would cease, he believed, only when Jews had their own country. Herzl founded the Zionist political movement.
Zionism was not a new idea.
- In 1860, Moses Hess had written a book called Rome and Jerusalem, in which he noted that the world consisted of two races: Aryans and Semites. The Aryans described the world and tried to make it beautiful. The Semites tried to make the world moral. Since these two groups were really separate, rather than living in conflict within the same borders, the Semites should fulfill their destiny and create their own nation.
- In 1882, Leon Pinsker, a Russian Enlightenment writer, wrote a book called Auto-Emancipation, in which he said anti-Semitism existed because Jews were a minority without their own land. So long as they tried living among non-Jews, they would be persecuted. Jews needed to return to the Land of Israel and become independent. Pinsker was a major leader in a group called Lovers of Zion.
After two years of being turned down by major Jewish philanthropists who viewed him as a zealous madman, Herzl presented his plan to the Jewish people. In 1896 he wrote a pamphlet, "The Jewish State," which described his goal of creating a separate nation for the Jews. The pamphlet succeeded to excite some thoughtful European Jews.
In 1897, the First World Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland. It was the first time that Jews from different nations had ever met with a political agenda. The official language of the Congress was German. Although the philosophical differences among the representatives were tremendous, all agreed that the purpose of the World Zionist Congress would be to represent the needs of all Jews in their goal of establishing an independent Jewish nation. It was understood that their major function was to create the political organizations needed to found a new country. They elected Herzl president of the organization, set the dues rate, approved the design of the Jewish national flag (now the flag of Israel), and agreed to meet once a year. It was at that first meeting that Herzl triumphantly declared, "If you will it, then it's not a fantasy."
Herzl believed that the movement to create a Jewish homeland could not accomplish its goals through illegal immigration. He tried to convince the Turkish sultan, who controlled Palestine at that time, to convince him to allow Jews to migrate en masse to Palestine, but the sultan was unenthusiastic about the idea.
Herzl spent the last years of his life struggling to amass the capital needed for establishing a nation and trying to convince the heads of European states to help the Jews. England refused to give the Jews permission to settle on Cyprus. However, Foreign Minister Lord Chamberlain did offer Herzl the option of settling in Uganda. Herzl excitedly brought this proposal back to the World Zionist Congress. While many Western European Jews seriously considered the offer, the representatives of Russian Jewry, dedicated to the dream of a return to Zion, threatened to leave the Congress. The proposal was defeated.
Herzl died in 1904, and was buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. He is credited with being the father of political Zionism.
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