O Jerusalem: the one man who has been present all this while, the lovable dreamer of Nazareth, has done nothing but increase the hate.

Theodore Herzl, Diary

The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape, and plunder than any other place on this earth.

Arthur Koestler

If a land can have a soul, Jerusalem is the soul of the land of Israel.

David Ben-Gurion, press interview

No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem.

Winston Churchill, The Second World War, vol 6: Triumph and Tragedy

It’s not easy to be a Jerusalemite. A thorny path runs alongside its joys. The great are small inside the Old City. Popes, patriarchs, kings all remove their crowns. It is the city of the King of Kings; and earthly kings and lords are not its masters. No human can ever possess Jerusalem.

John Tleel, ‘I am Jerusalem’, Jerusalem Quarterly

And burthened Gentiles
o’er the main

Must bear the weight
of Israel’s hate

Because he is not
brought again

In triumph to Jerusalem.

Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Burden of Jerusalem’




Theodor Herzl, a literary critic in Vienna, was said to be ‘extraordinarily handsome’, his eyes were ‘almond-shaped with heavy, black melancholy lashes’, his profile that of ‘an Assyrian Emperor’. An unhappily married father of three, he was a thoroughly assimilated Jew who wore winged collars and frock-coats; ‘he was not of the people’, and had little connection to the shabby, ringletted Jews of the shtetls. He was a lawyer by training, spoke no Hebrew or Yiddish, put up Christmas trees at home and did not bother to circumcise his son. But the Russian pogroms of 1881 fundamentally shocked him. When, in 1895, Vienna elected the anti-Semitic rabble-rouser Karl Lueger as mayor, Herzl wrote: ‘The mood among the Jews is one of despair.’ Two years later, he was in Paris covering the Dreyfus Affair, in which an innocent Jewish army officer was framed as a German spy, and he watched Parisian mobs shrieking ‘Mort aux Juifs’ in the country that had emancipated Jews. This reinforced his conviction that assimilation had not only failed but was provoking more anti-Semitism. He even predicted that anti-Semitism would one day be legalized in Germany.

Herzl concluded that Jews could never be safe without their own homeland. At first, this half-pragmatist, half-utopian dreamed of a Germanic aristocratic republic, a Jewish Venice ruled by a senate with a Rothschild as princely doge and himself as chancellor. His vision was secular: the high priests ‘will wear impressive robes’; the Herzl army would boast cuirassiers with silver breastplates; his modern Jewish citizens would play cricket and tennis in a modern Jerusalem. The Rothschilds, initially sceptical of any Jewish state, rejected Herzl’s approaches, but these early notes soon matured into something more practical. ‘Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home,’ he proclaimed in The Jewish State in February 1896. ‘The Maccabees will rise again. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil and die peacefully in our own homes.’

There was nothing new about Zionism – even the word had already been coined in 1890 – but Herzl gave political expression and organization to a very ancient sentiment. Jews had envisaged their very existence in terms of their relationship to Jerusalem since King David and particularly since the Babylonian Exile. Jews prayed towards Jerusalem, wished each other ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ each year at Passover, and commemorated the fallen Temple by smashing a glass at their weddings and keeping a corner of their houses undecorated. They went on pilgrimage there, wished to be buried there and prayed whenever possible around the Temple walls. Even when they were grievously persecuted, Jews continued to live in Jerusalem and were absent only when they were banned on pain of death.

The new European nationalism inevitably provoked racial hostility towards this supranational and cosmopolitan people – but simultaneously the same nationalism, along with the liberty won by the French Revolution, was bound to inspire the Jews too. Prince Potemkin, Emperor Napoleon and US President John Adams all believed in the return of the Jews to Jerusalem as had Polish and Italian nationalists, and of course the Christian Zionists in America and Britain. Yet the Zionist pioneers were Orthodox rabbis who saw the Return in the light of messianic expectation. In 1836, an Ashkenazi rabbi in Prussia, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, approached the Rothschilds and Montefiores to fund a Jewish nation, and later wrote his book Seeking Zion. After the Damascus ‘blood-libel’, Rabbi Yehuda Hai Alchelai, a Sephardic rabbi in Sarajevo, suggested Jews in the Islamic world should elect leaders and buy land in Palestine. In 1862, Moses Hess, a comrade of Karl Marx, predicted that nationalism would lead to racial anti-Semitism, in Rome and Jerusalem: the Last National Question, which proposed a socialist Jewish society in Palestine. Yet it was the Russian pogroms that were decisive.

‘We must re-establish ourselves as a living nation,’ wrote Leo Pinsker, an Odessan physician, in his book, Auto-Emancipation, writing at the same time as Herzl. He inspired a new movement of Russian Jews, ‘The Lovers of Zion’, Hovevei Zion, to develop agricultural settlements in Palestine. Even though many of them were secular, ‘our Jewishness and our Zionism,’ explained a young believer, Chaim Weizmann, ‘were interchangeable’. In 1878, Palestinian Jews had founded Petah Tikvah (Gateway of Hope) on the coast but now even the Rothschilds, in the person of the French Baron Edmond, started to fund agricultural villages such as Rishon-le-Zion (First in Zion) for Russian immigrants – altogether he would donate the princely sum of £6.6 million. Like Montefiore, he tried to buy the Wall in Jerusalem. In 1887, the mufti, Mustafa al-Husseini, agreed a deal but it fell through. When Rothschild tried again in 1897, the Husseini Sheikh al-Haram blocked it.

In 1883, long before Herzl’s book, 25,000 Jews started to arrive in Palestine in the first wave – Aliyah – of immigration. Most but not all were from Russia. But Jerusalem also attracted Persians in the 1870s, Yemenites in the 1880s. They tended to live together in their own communities: Jews from Bokhara, including the Moussaieff family of jewellers who had cut diamonds for Genghis Khan, settled their own Bokharan Quarter that was carefully laid out in a grid, its grand often neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, sometimes Moorish mansions designed to resemble those of Central Asian cities.*

In August 1897, Herzl presided over the first Zionist Congress in Basle and afterwards he boasted to his diary: ‘L’état c’est moi. At Basle, I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years and certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.’ They did – and he was only five years out. Herzl became a new species of politician and publicist, riding the new railways of Europe to canvass kings, ministers and press barons. His relentless energy aggravated, and defied, a weak heart, liable to kill him at any moment.

Herzl believed in a Zionism, not built from the bottom by settlers, but granted by emperors and financed by plutocrats. The Rothschilds and Montefiores initially disdained Zionism but the earliest Zionist Congresses were ornamented by Sir Francis Montefiore, Moses’ nephew, ‘a rather footling English gentleman’ who ‘wore white gloves in the heat of the Swiss summer because he had to shake so many hands’. However, Herzl needed a potentate to intervene with the sultan. He decided that his Jewish state should be German-speaking – and so he turned to the very model of a modern monarch, the German Kaiser.

Wilhelm II was planning an Oriental tour to meet the sultan and then proceed to Jerusalem for the dedication of a new church built close to the Sepulchre on the land granted to his father, Kaiser Frederick. But there was more to the Kaiser’s plan: he prided himself on his diplomacy with the sultan and saw himself as a Protestant pilgrim to the Holy Places. Above all he hoped to offer German protection to the Ottomans, promote his new Germany and counter British influence.

‘I shall go to the German Kaiser [to say] “Let our people go”’, decided Herzl, and resolved to base his state on ‘this great, strong, moral, splendidly governed, tightly organized Germany. Through Zionism, it will again become possible for Jews to love this Germany.’


The Kaiser was an unlikely Jewish champion. When he heard that Jews were settling in Argentina, he said, ‘Oh if only we could send ours there too,’ and hearing about Herzl’s Zionism, he wrote, ‘I’m very much in favour of the Mauschels going to Palestine. The sooner they clear off the better!’ Although he regularly met Jewish industrialists in Germany, and became friends with the Jewish shipowner Albert Ballin, he was at heart an anti-Semite who ranted against the poisonous hydra of Jewish capitalism. Jews were the ‘parasites of my empire’ who he believed were ‘twisting and corrupting’ Germany. Years later, as a deposed monarch, he would propose mass extermination of the Jews using gas. Yet Herzl sensed that ‘the anti-Semites are becoming our most reliable friends’.

Herzl had to penetrate the Kaiser’s court. First he managed to meet the Kaiser’s influential uncle, Grand Duke Friedrich of Baden, who was interested in a scheme to find the Ark of the Covenant. Baden wrote to his nephew, who in turn asked Philipp, Prince of Eulenburg, to report on the Zionist plan. Eulenburg, the Kaiser’s best friend, ambassador to Vienna and political mastermind, was ‘fascinated’ by Herzl’s pitch: Zionism was a way to extend German power. The Kaiser agreed that ‘the energy, creativity and efficiency of the tribe of Shem would be diverted to worthier goals than the sucking dry of Christians’. Wilhelm, like most of the ruling class of that time, believed that the Jews possessed a mystical power over the workings of the world:

Our dear God knows even better than we do that the Jews killed Our Saviour and he punished them accordingly. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, considering the immense and extremely dangerous power which International Jewish capital represents, it would be a huge advantage to Germany if the Hebrews looked up to it in gratitude.

Here was the good news for Herzl: ‘Everywhere the hydra of the ghastliest anti-Semitism is raising its dreadful head and the terrified Jews are looking around for a protector. Well then, I shall intercede with the Sultan.’ Herzl was ecstatic: ‘Wonderful, wonderful.’

On 11 October 1898, the Kaiser and Kaiserin embarked on the imperial train with a retinue including his foreign minister, twenty courtiers, two doctors and eighty maids, servants and bodyguards. Anxious to impress the world, he had personally designed a special white-grey uniform with a full-length white Crusader-style veil. On 13 October, Herzl, with four Zionist colleagues, set out from Vienna on the Orient Express, packing a wardrobe that included white tie and tails as well as pith-helmet and safari suit.

In Istanbul, Wilhelm finally received the Zionist, whom he judged to be ‘an idealist with an aristocratic mentality, clever, very intelligent with expressive eyes’. The Kaiser said he supported Herzl because ‘there are usurers at work. If these people went to settle in the colonies, they could be more useful.’ Herzl protested at this calumny. The Kaiser inquired what he should ask the sultan for. ‘A chartered company under German protection,’ replied Herzl. The Kaiser invited Herzl to meet him in Jerusalem.

Herzl was impressed. The Hohenzollern personified imperial power with ‘his great sea blue eyes, his fine serious face, frank, genial and yet bold’, but the reality was different. Wilhelm was certainly intelligent, knowledgeable and energetic, but he was also so restless and inconsistent that even Eulenburg feared he was mentally ill. After sacking Prince Bismarck as chancellor, he took control of German politics, but he was too unstable to sustain it. His personal diplomacy was disastrous; his written notes to his ministers were so outrageous that they had to be locked in a safe; his alarmingly articulate speeches, in which he encouraged his troops to shoot German workers or to massacre enemies like Huns, were embarrassing.* Already by 1898, Wilhelm was regarded as half-buffoon, half-warmonger.

Nonetheless he proposed the Zionist plan to Abdul-Hamid. The sultan rejected it firmly, telling his daughter, ‘The Jews may spare their millions. When my empire is divided, perhaps they will get Palestine for nothing. But only our corpse can be divided.’ Meanwhile Wilhelm, dazzled by the vigour of Islam, lost interest in Herzl.1

At 3 p.m. on 29 October 1898, the Kaiser rode through a breach specially opened in the wall next to the Jaffa Gate and entered Jerusalem on a white charger.


The Kaiser sported the white uniform with the full-length gold-threaded burnous veil sparkling in the sunlight, flowing from a spiked helmet surmounted with a burnished golden eagle, escorted by a cavalcade of giant Prussian hussars in steel helmets waving Crusader-style banners and the Sultan’s lancers in red waistcoats, blue pantaloons and green turbans and armed with lances. The Kaiserin, in a patterned silk dress with a sash and a straw hat, followed on behind him in a carriage with her two ladies-in-waiting.

Herzl watched the Kaiser’s performance from a hotel filled with German officers. The Kaiser had grasped that Jerusalem was the ideal stage on which to advertise his newly minted empire, but not everyone was impressed: the Dowager Russian Empress thought his performance ‘revolting, perfectly ridiculous, disgusting!’ The Kaiser was the first head of state to appoint an official photographer for a state visit. The Crusader uniform and the pack of photographers revealed what Eulenburg called the Kaiser’s ‘two totally different natures – the knightly, reminiscent of the finest days of the Middle Ages, and the modern’.

The crowds, reported the New York Times, were ‘dressed in holiday clothes, the city men in white turbans, gaily striped tunics, the wives of Turkish army officers in gorgeous silken milayes, the well-to-do peasants in flowing kaftans of flaming red’, while Bedouin on fine steeds ‘wore large clumsy red boots, a leather girdle over a tunic filled with an arsenal of small arms’ and a keffiyeh. Their sheikhs carried spears with a burst of ostrich feathers around the blade.

At the Jewish triumphal arch, the chief Sephardic rabbi, a bearded nonagenarian in white kaftan and blue turban, and his Ashkenazi counterpart presented Wilhelm with a copy of the Torah, and he was welcomed by the mayor, Yasin al-Khalidi, in a royal purple cloak and a gold-encircled turban. Wilhelm dismounted at David’s Tower, and from there he and the empress walked into the city, the crowds cleared for fear of anarchist assassins (Empress Elisabeth of Austria had recently been assassinated). As the patriarchs in the effulgence of their jewel-encrusted regalia showed him the Sepulchre, the Kaiser’s heart was beating ‘faster and more fervently’ as he trod in Jesus’ footsteps.

While Herzl waited for his summons and explored the city, the Kaiser dedicated the Church of the Redeemer with its Romanesque tower, a structure that he had personally designed ‘with particular care and love’. When he visited the Temple Mount, the Kaiser, another enthusiastic archaeologist, asked the mufti to allow excavations, but the latter politely demurred.

On 2 November, Herzl was finally summoned for his imperial audience – the five Zionists were so nervous that one of them suggested taking bromide. Dressing appropriately in white tie, tails and top hats, they arrived north of the Damascus Gate at the Kaiser’s encampment. This was a luxury Thomas Cook village with 230 tents, which had been transported in 120 carriages, borne by 1,300 horses, served by 100 coachmen, 600 drivers, twelve cooks and sixty waiters, all guarded by an Ottoman regiment. It was, said the tour maestro John Mason Cook, ‘the largest party gone to Jerusalem since the Crusades. We swept the country of horses and carriages and almost of food.’ Punch mocked Wilhelm as ‘Cook’s Crusader’.

Herzl found the Kaiser posing ‘in a grey colonial uniform, veiled helmet, brown gloves and holding – oddly enough – a riding crop’. The Zionist approached, ‘halted and bowed. Wilhelm held out his hand very affably’ and then lectured him, declaring, ‘The land needs water and shade. There is room for all. The idea behind your movement is a healthy one.’ When Herzl explained that laying on a water supply was feasible but expensive, the Kaiser replied, ‘Well, you have plenty of money, more money than all of us.’ Herzl proposed a modern Jerusalem, but the Kaiser then ended the meeting, saying ‘neither yes nor no’.

Ironically, both the Kaiser and Herzl loathed Jerusalem: ‘a dismal arid heap of stones,’ wrote Wilhelm, ‘spoilt by large quite modern suburbs formed by Jewish colonies. 60,000 of these people are there, greasy and squalid, cringing and abject, doing nothing but trying to fleece their neighbours for every farthing – Shylocks by the score.’* But he wrote to his cousin, Russian Emperor Nicholas II, that he despised the ‘fetish adoration’ of the Christians even more – ‘in leaving the Holy City I felt profoundly ashamed before the Muslims’. Herzl almost agreed: ‘When I remember you in days to come, O Jerusalem, it won’t be with delight. The musty deposits of 2,000 years of inhumanity, intolerance and foulness lie in your reeking alleys.’ The Western Wall, he thought, was pervaded by ‘hideous, miserable, scrambling beggary’.

Instead Herzl dreamed that ‘if Jerusalem is ever ours, I’d clear up everything not sacred, tear down the filthy ratholes,’ preserving the Old City as a heritage site like Lourdes or Mecca. ‘I’d build an airy comfortable properly sewered, brand new city around the Holy Places.’ Herzl later decided that Jerusalem should be shared: ‘We shall extra-territorialize Jerusalem so that it will belong to nobody and everybody, its Holy Places the joint possession of all Believers.’

As the Kaiser departed down the road to Damascus, where he declared himself the protector of Islam and endowed Saladin with a new tomb, Herzl saw the future in three burly Jewish porters in kaftans: ‘If we can bring here 300,000 Jews like them, all of Israel will be ours.’

Yet Jerusalem was already very much the Jewish centre in Palestine: out of 45,300 inhabitants, 28,000 were now Jewish, a rise that was already worrying the Arab leadership. ‘Who can contest the rights of the Jews to Palestine?’ old Yusuf Khalidi told his friend Zadok Kahn, Chief Rabbi of France, in 1899. ‘God knows, historically it is indeed your country’ but ‘the brute force of reality,’ was that ‘Palestine is now an integral part of the Ottoman Empire and, what is more serious, it is inhabited by other than Israelites.’ While the letter predates the idea of a Palestinian nation – Khalidi was a Jerusalemite, an Arab, an Ottoman and ultimately a citizen of the world – and the necessity to deny the Jewish claim to Zion, he foresaw that Jewish return, ancient and legitimate as it was, would clash with the ancient and legitimate presence of the Arabs.

In April 1903, the Kishinev pogrom, backed by the tsar’s interior minister Viacheslav von Plehve, launched a spree of anti-Semitic slaughter and terror across Russia.* In panic, Herzl travelled to St Petersburg to negotiate with Plehve himself, the ultimate anti-Semite, but, getting nowhere with the Kaiser and the sultan, he started to look for a provisional territory outside the Holy Land.

Herzl needed a new backer: he proposed a Jewish homeland either in Cyprus or around El Arish in Sinai, part of British Egypt, both of them locations close to Palestine. In 1903, Natty, the first Lord Rothschild, who had finally come round to Zionism, introduced Herzl to Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary, who ruled out Cyprus but agreed to consider El Arish. Herzl hired a lawyer to draft a charter for the Jewish settlement. The lawyer was the forty-year-old Liberal politician David Lloyd George, whose decisions would later alter Jerusalem’s fate more than those of anyone since Saladin. The application was turned down, much to Herzl’s disappointment. Chamberlain and Prime Minister Arthur Balfour came up with another territory – they offered Uganda or rather part of Kenya as a Jewish homeland. Herzl, who was short of alternatives, provisionally accepted.2

Regardless of his failed attempts to win over emperors and sultans, Herzl’s Zionism had inspired the persecuted Jews of Russia, particularly a boy in a well-off lawyer’s family in images. The eleven-year-old David Grün thought Herzl was the Messiah who would lead the Jews back to Israel.

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