Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

Theodor Herzl - Charlatan or Genius (continued)

The novel was never written, because Herzl decided that he should be that hero in real life. It would be simple. A piece of land would be acquired. Jews would put up some money; governments around the world, eager to solve their Jewish problem, would put up more. Herzl would go down in history “counted among the greatest benefactors of mankind.” The project, he was convinced, would “gild [his] dear parents’ old age.” He speculated on the kind of statue that would be built in his honor. “I shall be the Parnell of the Jews,” he wrote.

The rest of the story is perhaps more familiar. Although Herzl continued to earn his living from the Neue Freie Presse — he became literary editor based in Vienna after 1895 — he gave the best part of himself for the rest of his life to his Zionist dream. He wrote a pamphlet, The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question, unaware that similar documents had been produced by others, including Leo Pinsker, thirteen years earlier. “Seldom,” says Elon, “has a movement owed more to the fact that its founder was totally ignorant of his predecessors.” But it was an idea whose time had come, and despite opposition, Herzl became a celebrity almost overnight. Some Jews proclamed him the Messiah. Kaiser Wilhelm declared, “I am all in favor of the kikes going to Palestine. The sooner they take off the better.”

Without money or even the promise of any, the self-appointed spokesman of the Jews bribed his way in to the Turkish sultan and offered to buy Palestine, oblivious of the fact that there were already people there; he suggested that the Jews of Europe would take over Turkey’s enormous national debt. But Jewish millionaires such as the Rothschilds, to whom he went for money, weren’t interested in his plan. Herzl therefore organized a grass roots Zionist movement and a political weekly, Die Welt. The first International Zionist Congress met in Basel in 1897; at the end of it, Herzl wrote in his diary: “In Basel I founded the Jewish state.... Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty years everyone will agree.”

A return to Palestine was not to be during Herzl’s lifetime. Attempts to establish a Jewish homeland in the Sinai or in Uganda were also unsuccessful. In 1904, after years of illness, Herzl died a broken and disappointed man at the age of forty-four. His wife died three years later. Two of his children committed suicide; a third died in a Nazi concentration camp. In 1946, his only grandchild committed suicide.

It’s foolish to be overly critical of a book as good as this. I wish there were more about Herzl’s relationship with his parents during his last years, and I wish we learned a little more about his children, given their terrible fate. Elon says that Herzl “walked a tightrope between charlatanism and genius,” but he doesn’t adequately explain that statement. He doesn’t really tell us to what extent he thinks Herzl’s ambitious parents, unhappy marriage, or whatever, were responsible for his monomania. To say, “Having failed in the theatre, he made the whole world his stage,” doesn’t seem quite enough. But these are minor reservations about an excellent book.

— Globe and Mail, 1975

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