The Jewish Nation Seeks a Home
In that warm and beautiful land, does evil reign and do calamities happen, too?
—Chaim Nachman Bialik, “To the Bird”
He would become the voice of a generation, a poet whose aching soul was a window into the pain of his entire people. Only nineteen years old when he published his poem “El Hatzippor” (“To the Bird”), Chaim Nachman Bialik would soon be recognized as one of the greatest Hebrew poets of all time, certainly the greatest of his era. Bialik’s poetry captured both the desperation and sadness that the Jewish people felt at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as their longing for a place they thought of as home even though they had never seen it.
“How my soul longed to hear your voice,” the poet says to a bird just returning from Zion, then known as Palestine. He asks the bird what life is like in the idyllic place that he imagines. “Does God have mercy on Zion?” “Does the dew fall like pearls upon Mount Hermon?” “In that warm and beautiful land, does evil reign and do calamities happen, too?” Not really questions, these musings were more wistful dreams of a place across the ocean that had once been home to the Jewish people, and that—Bialik and others of his generation thought—might be home once again.
WHEN BIALIK PUBLISHED “To the Bird” in 1892, Jewish life in eastern Europe was miserable in many ways. Russia’s Jews were largely allowed to live only in a specific region called the Pale of Settlement. Violence against Jews was rampant, either encouraged or ignored by the government and local authorities. Pogroms, as these attacks on Jews were called, had happened before, but toward the close of the nineteenth century, they took on a new intensity over a wider area. There were pogroms in Romania in the 1860s, in Odessa in 1871; the Jews knew that they were confronting an utterly irrational hatred that reason could not undo.
European anti-Jewishness was becoming more complex. In eastern Europe, much of it was fueled by theological claims or the accusation that the Jews had killed Jesus.* In central and western Europe, though, which was now infatuated with science, race theory developed. Now, said European racists, the problem with the Jews was their race, not their religion. Even conversion to Christianity could no longer “fix” the Jew. In 1879, a German by the name of Wilhelm Marr, who rejected the notion that Jews could assimilate into general society, even coined a term for the modern incarnation of Jew hatred, which he himself shared. He called it “anti-Semitism.”1
Violence was hardly the only expression of Europe’s disdain for Jews. In the 1880s, the Russian government placed strict limits on the numbers of Jews who could be admitted to schools and universities. The authorities sought—and found—almost endless ways to harass the Jews; in 1891–1892, Russian police expelled no less than twenty thousand Jews from Moscow.2 Everywhere they turned, Jews faced a continent that despised and harassed them.
Many Jews had expected that matters would be different, that modernity would herald a new era of reason and tolerance. But that hope was rapidly fading. Peretz (Peter) Smolenskin (1842–1885), a Russian Jewish novelist, warned the Jews that they ought to be realists. “Do not believe those who say that this is an age of wisdom and an age of love for mankind; do not turn to the words of those who praise this time as a time for human justice and honesty; it is a lie!”3
With time, it became clear to many that as bad as Jewish life in eastern Europe already was, it was going to become infinitely worse. A mass exodus began. Between 1882 and 1914, some 2.5 million Jews departed eastern Europe, primarily from Austria, Poland, and Romania. During the fifteen years that preceded World War I, approximately 1.3 million Jews left Russia.4 A huge portion of them went to America, where they created what would become the thriving American Jewish community of the twentieth century. A small fraction of them went to Palestine.
IT WAS INTO THIS ATMOSPHERE of despair that Chaim Nachman Bialik had been born in 1873. After his father died when he was six years old, he was raised by his strictly religious grandfather. He received a classic Jewish education, learning in heder (a traditional Jewish schoolhouse) until he was thirteen and then studying in the Zhitomir Yeshiva until he was seventeen. Like many young Jews of his era (and as would soon be the case with many of his fellow Zionist writers and leaders), however, Bialik was fascinated by the worlds of Western culture and the Jewish Enlightenment (the haskalah). A movement that began in the 1770s and lasted until the 1880s, the haskalah sought to reform the Jewish emphasis on tradition and collectivism and to import into Jewish society a more rational, analytical, intellectual, and individualistic way of life.
The haskalah, though, was more than an intellectual movement—it also had social and national agendas. To the exponents of the haskalah, the challenge facing the Jew was to transcend the narrowness of ghetto life, “to bolster the self-confidence of the Jewish people, restore its dignity, reawaken its emotional life, quicken its aesthetic sense and generally counteract the stultifying consequences of long isolation and confinement.”5
Bialik’s encounter with the haskalah came after he transferred to a new yeshiva. Seeking a more modern approach to the study of traditional Judaism, Bialik transferred to the world-renowned yeshiva in Volozhin, Lithuania. It was there that he encountered the haskalah and soon became involved with Netzach Israel (“The Eternity of Israel”), an underground Zionist student group committed to integrating Jewish nationalism, the Enlightenment, and Orthodox Judaism.
In 1891, Bialik left Volozhin for Odessa, which was at that time the center of modern Jewish culture in southern Russia.* It was then, largely under the influence of that intellectual circle, that he published “To the Bird,” in 1892.
Not long thereafter, Bialik returned to Zhitomir to make sure his grandfather did not learn of his “escape” to Odessa. When he arrived home, he discovered that his grandfather and older brother were both dying. The desperate atmosphere at home seemed to mirror the condition of the Jews around him. After their deaths, he found a job teaching Hebrew in Sosnowiec, a small village in southern Poland, but the job made him miserable. Yet the misery paid off. He wrote almost incessantly, and not long thereafter acquired a reputation as one of the world’s most gifted Jewish poets.
Not all of Bialik’s poetry dealt with Jewish anguish. In 1898, Bialik wrote a poem not about Jewish despair, but about Jewish hope. Entitled “Mikra’ei Zion” (“The Assemblies of Zion”), the poem was written in honor of the First Zionist Congress that had been held in Basel in 1897. “Even if salvation has not yet come, our Redeemer still lives; the great hour has arisen and is coming,” Bialik wrote in a poem brimming with hope and expectation.
Where had that hope suddenly come from? What was that “great hour” that Bialik saw growing ever closer? Why had what had happened in Basel been so important? And who was this Redeemer?
THE DELEGATES TO the First Zionist Congress had come to Basel from across the globe. From Britain and America, from Palestine and from Arab lands, from Russia, Germany, France, and more, the 197 delegates had gathered in Switzerland with the sense that they were making history.
It was August 1897, and for the first time in nearly two thousand years, since the Romans had destroyed the Second Temple and exiled a large portion of the Jews living in Judea, Jews from around the world gathered in one place to take history back into their own hands. No longer merely pods of disconnected Jews scattered around the globe, thanks to Herzl’s call they were now, for the first time in millennia, reasserting their ancient claim that they were a single people determined to make Jews agents rather than bystanders on the stage of world history.
Elegantly dressed, they entered the hall under a large sign with a Star of David and two simple words: ZIONISTEN-KONGRESS. They chatted in their native languages, mostly men but some women as well, some rich and others poor. The energy in the air was palpable. When they finally took their seats, the First Zionist Congress began with three bangs of the gavel. There were some pro forma compliments to the sultan, since the Ottoman Empire then controlled Palestine. Then, Dr. Karl Lippe of Jassy, Romania, a longtime member of the organization Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”),* and the most senior delegate of the congress, stood. He covered his head in accordance with Jewish tradition, and as many of those in attendance wept, uttered the traditional Jewish shehecheyahu prayer: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has kept us alive, preserved us, and enabled us to reach this moment.”
And then, Theodor Herzl, who had convened the congress, stood to speak. “We are here,” he opened in German, “to lay the foundation stone of the house which is to shelter the Jewish nation.”6
IN THE WESTERN EUROPEAN world in which Herzl lived and worked, the mere idea that the Jewish nation needed a house to shelter it was more controversial than it was in the east. Western European Jews, unlike the eastern Europeans of Bialik’s world, still held on to some hope that anti-Jewish movements were a relic of the past. After all, the walls of the old ghettos—neighborhoods in which Jews had been forced to live—had come down, and Jews had flocked to the continent’s urban centers. They had quickly become part of the very fabric of Europe’s elite. They had climbed the ladder of European society educationally, culturally, and economically. On the surface, life seemed much better for them than it had been a century earlier.
In 1800, the history of Central and Western European culture could have been written without reference to the Jews or any specific Jewish person . . . nor had there been a single Jewish figure in European politics, intellectual life, research or science. . . . As 1900 approached, the picture was entirely different. Jews, or people of Jewish origin, now played critical roles in economics, politics, science and the arts.7
Despite centuries of restrictions and anti-Semitism, what the Jews had accomplished in a relatively short period was astounding. They became professionals and intellectuals, leading scientists and leaders of significant intellectual and social movements.
Yet despite the progress, even western European Jews could not escape the continent’s hatred. If Jews in eastern Europe were often scapegoated as disruptive revolutionaries, in western Europe, they were blamed for society’s financial ills. Though they constituted less than 1 percent of Germany’s population, Jews had quickly assumed high-profile and elite positions in all of society’s professions, particularly in finance and politics.
But many Germans grew resentful. Almost everywhere one turned, there was an air of anti-Jewish sentiment. Newspapers, books, and magazines railed against the stereotypical greedy, capitalist, and corrupt Jew, a motif that informed genocidal regimes that would follow in the mid-twentieth century. In the wake of a financial crisis in 1873, much of the German bourgeoisie blamed the Jews for its newfound financial woes. Although the “[a]ristocrats were . . . as greedy as anyone else . . . in the prevailing myth . . . aristocrats remained great statesmen, valiant soldiers, and devoted public servants. In the aftermath of the crash, popular fury was directed not at them and the government they dominated but at the Jews.”8
In western Europe, it was precisely the Jews’ embrace of modernity and their professional and intellectual achievements that reawakened Europe’s antipathy. The Jews hoped that they had put European resentments behind them, but Europe, it seemed, had an unlimited reservoir of Jew hatred that was on the verge of spilling over. There was nothing the Jews could do to change that.
IT WAS IN THIS promising, alluring, and yet increasingly despairing world that Theodor Herzl came of age. Born in Pest (one of the two cities that would eventually combine to create Budapest) in 1860, Herzl moved at eighteen with his family to Vienna. There, he was exposed to the intellectual and cultural riches of European society and—just as had happened with Bialik—he quickly became enamored. He read voraciously and aspired to attain the same level of fame of those authors he so avidly read. Like Bialik, he wrote almost constantly. Yet though the arts—and particularly the theater—were his real love, his parents and his other mentors worried about his ability to make a living and encouraged him to study law. So Herzl enrolled in the University of Vienna.
Early in his university career, Herzl picked up a book by Eugen Karl Dühring, one of the period’s leading intellectuals. Entitled The Jewish Problem as a Problem of Race, Morals and Culture (1882), the book argued that the emancipation of the Jews in Europe and their integration into European society had been detrimental to Europe. Dühring advocated reversing much of the emancipation; some of his followers began to speak of returning the Jews to ghettos.
What was as disturbing to Herzl as Dühring’s ideas was the fact that Dühring was hardly an uneducated thug. “If Dühring, who unites so much undeniable intelligence with so much universality of knowledge, can write like this,” Herzl wondered, “what are we to expect from the ignorant masses?”9
Ironically, it was Dühring—both a celebrated European intellectual and also a vicious anti-Semite—who played a significant role in Theodor Herzl’s dedication to the “Jewish question.” He later mused on the origins of his interest in the Jews and their future in Europe, writing in his diary, “certainly from the time that I read Dühring’s book.”10
In truth, though, the seeds had been planted much earlier. He would later recall that as a young boy, when one of his teachers had sought to explain what the word heathen meant, the teacher had said, “Idolaters, Mohammedans and Jews.”11 At the University of Vienna, Herzl had applied to join the Lesehalle, a student association devoted to intellectual conversation and debate. But in March 1881, the Lesehalle was dissolved when a “discussion” devolved into a viciously anti-Semitic event. Undeterred, Herzl joined one of Vienna’s German nationalist student fraternities, Albia, instead. Yet here, too, the university—the seat of Europe’s intellectual elite—proved fundamentally hostile to Jews. Two years after he joined, several of his fraternity brothers attended a Richard Wagner memorial, which, again, turned into an anti-Semitic rally.12 Herzl resigned from the fraternity in protest, but the members rejected his resignation, and then threw him out on their own terms.
Herzl’s first encounter with the central idea that would consume his life—the need for a Jewish state—may well have been in the Hungarian Parliament. Győző Istóczy, a Hungarian nationalist and founder of the National Anti-Semitic Party, is said to have proposed that to solve Hungary’s “Jewish problem,” Jews ought to establish a state of their own and go there.13 “Jew, Go to Palestine!” became a slogan of the Hungarian anti-Semitic movement. Ironically, Istóczy’s motto would eventually become Herzl’s, too.
Whether or not Istóczy’s hate-filled calls for Jews to go to Palestine really influenced Herzl very much, we do not know. What is certain is that as his career progressed, Herzl encountered anti-Semitism at every turn. When he departed Vienna, he moved to Paris, working as a writer for the Neue Freie Presse, a leading European newspaper based in Vienna. Herzl was becoming a writer of note. While in Paris, he covered a scandal involving the financing of the Panama Canal, a project in which several Jewish financiers were accused of bribery and corruption. More than the scandal itself, though, what struck Herzl was how the Jews who were involved, whose families were all prominent figures in France’s political and military circles, were characterized as archetypal cosmopolitan Jews who had speculated with the hard-earned money of simple, loyal French citizens.14
In Austria, he had seen the rise of an intellectually based anti-Semitism, which even leading minds at Europe’s great universities did not reject. And now, in France, Herzl saw that even democracy and republican government were no solution.
Like Bialik, Herzl poured his heart into his writing. In the fall of 1894, in the space of just over two intense weeks, Herzl developed his play The New Ghetto, the first of his scripts to have distinctly Jewish characters and to deal openly with the “Jewish question.” The point of the play, made rather transparently and not terribly artistically, was that though Europe had emancipated the Jew, Jews still effectively lived in a social and economic ghetto, under relentless pressure to prove themselves.15 Even in ostensibly emancipated western Europe, Jews were presumed guilty until proven innocent.
But matters would soon grow worse. As Herzl was occupied with The New Ghetto, a new scandal erupted in France. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish descent, was charged with sharing French secrets with the Germans. France was still in the midst of a period of never-ending revolutions, and the trial was actually a foil for battles between the still competing parties. So obvious was the miscarriage of justice that when Dreyfus was found guilty and unceremoniously stripped of his rank, Émile Zola (the famed French novelist, journalist, and public intellectual) wrote his now classic letter, J’Accuse, accusing the government of both flagrant anti-Semitism and of unfairly jailing Dreyfus.
Though it is commonly said that it was the Dreyfus trial that spurred Herzl’s engagement with the “Jewish question” in Europe, historians now believe that that was not the case. Herzl had, indeed, mentioned in one of his columns Dreyfus’s comment to a prison guard, “You see, I am a victim of a personal vendetta. I am being persecuted because I am a Jew,”16 but Dreyfus’s Jewishness was not a central focus of his writing.
IRONICALLY, IT WAS HERZL’S utter failure in a meeting that led to his greatest success. He had gone to Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a financier and philanthropist, to ask for support for his radical idea of creating a Jewish state. But Hirsch, who feared for the Jews’ future in eastern Europe, had an alternate solution to the “Jewish problem” in mind. The baron, who had earlier written off Palestine as an impractical option, had already helped finance the relocation of some of Russia’s Jews to Argentina. Herzl tried to push back, but his response to Hirsch was amateurish and he left the meeting empty-handed. Determined to do better the next time, he decided to put his thoughts into writing to clarify precisely what he wanted to communicate to Hirsch.
Not easily dissuaded, and with his improved argument in hand, Herzl turned to another Jewish philanthropic family, the well-known Rothschilds. For them, he composed a much more detailed and well-organized exposition of the plan he had already begun writing. It was this version that would become the foundation of his best-known book, The Jewish State.
His case was quite straightforward. A Jewish state—in a location yet to be determined, either Argentina or Palestine—would solve the “Jewish problem.” In contrast to what Hirsch believed, Herzl was convinced that the goal was eminently attainable. In fact, he argued, it was in everyone’s best interest that the Jews should secure themselves a state.
Not only would Jews in a Jewish state not suffer from anti-Semitism, he believed, but the existence of a Jewish state would usher in an end to anti-Semitism everywhere. “The withdrawal of the Jews would not lead to any economic disruption, crises or persecutions,” argued Herzl. “The countries they abandon would enter into a period of prosperity,” he said. As for the creation of a Jewish state, “its very beginning means the end of anti-Semitism.”17 Nor was the task a mere flight of fancy. The Jews, he said unabashedly, were far more educated than many other peoples who had created sovereign states for themselves. If those other peoples had successfully undertaken revolutions, the Jews could certainly do so as well.
For similar reasons, Herzl argued, the Jews would not encounter much opposition to their movement; the international community would support the idea since those countries, too, “suffered” from the “Jewish problem.” He wrote:
The creation of a new State is neither ridiculous nor impossible. We have in our day witnessed the process in connection with nations which were not largely members of the middle class, but poorer, less educated, and consequently weaker than ourselves. The Governments of all countries scourged by Anti-Semitism will be keenly interested in assisting us to obtain the sovereignty we want.18
The problem that the world had with the Jews, he argued, was neither social nor religious; it was political, and therefore, it required a political solution that the international community would accept.
I believe that I understand Anti-Semitism, which is a highly complex movement. I consider it from a Jewish standpoint, yet without fear or hatred. . . . I think the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.19
But what about the fact that the Jews were spread across Europe and around the world and seemingly fragmented? That dispersion, Herzl said, should not mislead anyone. “We are a people—one people.”20 Since other peoples had states, he insisted, so, too, should the Jews.
Herzl wrote his book in a state of feverish excitement. “For some time past,” he said when describing his writing the book, “I have been occupied with a work of infinite grandeur. At the moment I do not know whether I shall carry it through. It looks like a mighty dream. But for days and weeks it has possessed me.”21
It possessed those who read it no less. A short book of approximately one hundred pages, The Jewish State made Herzl a household name across the Jewish world. Published in February 1896, it caused a stir worldwide. It was printed, translated, and read more quickly and more widely than any other Jewish work of the modern era. “In 1896 alone, it appeared in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian and French. Students, in particular, were enthused by his proposal; almost overnight, the appearance of The Jewish State transformed Herzl from a lone voice into the leader of an international movement.”22
The movement’s central idea—though it now sounds commonplace—was then a stunning proposal. And now, much of the Jewish world had been convinced: the Jewish people needed a state, and they could create one.
ALTHOUGH IT WAS THEODOR HERZL who launched Zionism as a political movement, others had begun to express similar ideas long before him. In 1853, some forty years before Herzl’s Jewish State appeared, Avraham Mapu had published the first modern Hebrew novel. Like Bialik, Mapu had been born into a traditional family but grew enthralled with European culture. Mapu’s novel, The Love of Zion, was set in ancient biblical Israel, during the period of the prophet Isaiah. The novel was more than a mere story; it breathed new life into memories of the Jews in their ancestral homeland, and “gave open expression to the mute longings . . . of a whole people [for] a fuller and richer life.”23 The book touched a nerve with the Jewish people and sold extremely well. With Mapu, the first stirrings of modern Zionism emerged.
Even more dramatic, though, was the work of Moses Hess (1812–1875). Born in Germany, raised in part (again like Bialik) by his traditional rabbi grandfather, Hess was a devotee of the renegade pantheist Dutch Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. Later, his radical inclinations led him to socialism. Distancing himself even further from traditional Judaism, he married a working-class Catholic woman.24
But Hess soon learned that even abandoning Judaism, embracing socialism, and marrying a Catholic woman could not protect him from Europe’s anti-Semitism. “Even an act of conversion cannot relieve the Jew of the enormous pressure of German anti-Semitism,” he wrote. “The Germans hate the religion of the Jews less than they hate their race—they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews less than their peculiar noses.”25
So in 1862, Hess wrote Rome and Jerusalem,26 in which he argued that for Jews, Europe’s welcome would forever be tenuous. “We shall always remain strangers among the nations. They may tolerate us and even grant us emancipation, but they will never respect us as long as we place the principle ubi bene ibi patria [wherever things go well, there is one’s homeland] above our own great national memories,” he wrote.27 Jews should return to Palestine, he said—the ancestral homeland of which they had dreamed and spoken for millennia—where they should work the land and create a socialist society.
Though now considered a critical text in the history of political Zionism, Rome and Jerusalem was virtually ignored while Hess was alive; Jews then were not concerned enough about the future of Jewish life in Europe to take him seriously.28 When Herzl finally did read Rome and Jerusalem—only after he had written The Jewish State—he wrote, “Everything we tried is already there in his book.”29 Zionism was, as one of the great historians of the movement notes, a “twice-born movement.”30
Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem was hardly the only Zionist work that preceded Herzl’s that was destined to become a classic. Yet another was written by Leon Pinsker, born in 1821 to a Russian family deeply informed by the haskalah. One of the first Jews to attend university in Odessa, Pinsker studied law but soon realized that quotas on Jews meant he would never get a job, so he became a physician.
As with others, it was violence against Jews that drew Pinsker into public life. In his case, the pogroms in Odessa in 1871 and wider attacks in 1881 shook him to his core. He eventually came to the conclusion that Jews would never be accepted in host countries. “For the living, the Jew is a dead man; for the natives, an alien and a vagrant; for property holders, a beggar; for the poor, an exploiter and a millionaire; for patriots, a man without a country; for all classes, a hated rival,” he wrote.31 A year after the 1881 pogroms he wrote Auto-Emancipation, which he subtitled “A Warning to His Fellow People, from a Russian Jew” and in which he urged Jews to seek a national rebirth and independence.
Unlike Hess’s work, which languished in relative obscurity, Pinsker’s received some attention; and two years after it appeared, he was involved in the establishment of Hovevei Zion, one of the first European organizations created to foster Jewish immigration to Palestine. Yet he sensed that the organization alone would not suffice; the Jews needed a leader. “We probably lack a leader of the genius of Moses—history does not grant a people such guides repeatedly,” he wrote. “But a clear recognition of what we need most, a recognition of the absolute necessity of a home of our own, would arouse among us a number of energetic, honorable, and distinguished friends of the people, who would undertake the leadership, and would, perhaps, be no less able than that one man to deliver us from disgrace and persecution.”32
It was as if Pinsker were imagining a Herzl.
AGAINST THIS SLOWLY UNFOLDING background of early Zionist stirrings, Herzl’s book, unlike those that had been written earlier, took the world by storm. So profound was the excitement generated by The Jewish State that by early March 1896, just weeks after the book was published, someone proposed to Herzl the idea of a Zionist congress, and he seized on it. In fact, it consumed him. As one person who helped in the early stages of the planning reported, “The whole world outside of the Congress had actually ceased to exist for him. He gave his attention to all the minutiae of the work. He let nothing slip past him. He issued the instructions, and supervised the carrying out of the instructions. And all this in a gentle voice, with a friendly smile, and yet so categorically that it simply occurred to no one to disobey or contradict.”33
After almost eighteen months of planning, Herzl had made sure that the congress would be a stately affair. He wanted the congress’s magnificence to announce the launch of a grand new political movement when it opened on August 29, 1897. He insisted that all the men in attendance (there were women delegates, as well) wear suits and white ties. When Max Nordau, possibly Herzl’s closest ally and the only one of the early Zionists who had an international intellectual reputation even before his Zionist involvements, dressed in ordinary clothes, Herzl demanded that he go back to the hotel and dress as he had been instructed.
Some observers found his tendency to the theatrical excessive and even amusing, but Herzl was motivated by much more than a flair for the dramatic. “Something was needed to symbolize both to the delegates and to the world the break with the ordinary, the proclamation of the something great and beautiful [about] the dream which had brought them together.”34
The First Zionist Congress, with all its pomp and circumstance, disparate ideologies, and unpolished ideas, was a resounding success. The audience was so enthralled—and so committed to an intellectually serious project—that they would sit for speeches that went on for hours.35
One of the crowning achievements of the congress was a clear definition of the goals of the newly organized movement. The Zionist program, which was drafted after days of impassioned debate about its exact wording, eventually read as follows:
Zionism seeks to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured homeland in Palestine. . . .
To achieve this goal, the Congress envisages the following methods:
1. By fostering the settlement of Palestine with farmers, laborers, and artisans.
2. By organizing the whole of Jewry in suitable local and general bodies, in accordance with the laws of their respective countries.
3. By strengthening the national Jewish feeling and national consciousness.
4. By taking preparatory steps to attain any Governmental consent which may be necessary to reach the aim of Zionism.36
Given the degree to which Europe’s emancipated Jews had availed themselves of Europe’s educational opportunities, it is not surprising that one of the delegates present, Professor Zvi Hermann Shapira, urged that integral to the launching of political Zionism should be the creation of a “Hebrew University” in Palestine. Zionism was, from its very outset, a lettered movement—born of the encounter between traditional Judaism and European Enlightenment, Jewish desperation coupled with a Jewish sense of eternity—as committed to education and writing as it was to political goals.
The congress also adopted an anthem. Written in 1878, “Hatikvah” (in a version much briefer than the original) is a simple anthem, composed of but one sentence:
As long as deep in the heart,
the soul of a Jew yearns,
and onwards, towards the end of the East,
an eye still gazes towards Zion,
our hope is not yet lost;
the hope of two thousand years,
to be a free nation in our land,
the land of Zion and Jerusalem.*
The congress took on many additional issues. It was at the First Zionist Congress that the idea of the Jewish National Fund (whose original mission was to purchase and develop land in Ottoman Palestine) was first raised. The congress also put into place many of the committees and administrative bodies that later made the movement so effective.
Herzl, who had so meticulously planned every detail, and who had dedicated so much of his energy to ensuring its realization, left the congress euphoric. Weeks later, he wrote in his diary: “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word—which I shall be very careful not to do publicly—it would be this: ‘At Basel I founded the Jewish state.’ If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will admit it.”37
Newly invigorated, Herzl was now even more determined than he had been before. He traveled to Palestine for the first time. Fittingly, he traveled not to see the Jewish people’s ancestral land (and one of the places in which he thought a Jewish state might eventually be created*), but to play to the politics of the hour. Kaiser Wilhelm II and a number of the sultan’s representatives were visiting the Holy Land during that period, and Herzl felt that the easiest way for him to curry their favor would be by meeting them there.38
The kaiser was hardly a natural ally. One of the German participants at the First Zionist Congress had written to the kaiser after the congress, detailing its aims. Upon receiving the note, the kaiser wrote in the margins: “Let the kikes go to Palestine, the sooner the better. I am not about to put obstacles in their way.”39 But the kaiser’s antipathy for the Jews did not dissuade Herzl from trying to see him. If anti-Semites shared his goals, Herzl was willing to collaborate even with them, as long as he was advancing the goal of establishing a Jewish state.
Many of his impressions of the barren country, in which he saw virtually limitless potential, made their way into Herzl’s most well-known work of fiction, a utopian novel entitled Altneuland, or “Old-New Land.” Published in 1902, Altneuland envisions the future Jewish state in a style similar to other utopian novels of Herzl’s day. At the center of the book’s plot are an assimilated Jew and his non-Jewish traveling companion who, after having been isolated on a remote island for a number of years, discover the newly reconstituted Jewish state in Palestine. The society Herzl describes is idyllic. The desert land has been made to bloom, modern cities have replaced the ramshackle neighborhoods Herzl had seen when he got there. People of all faiths live in harmony, all worshipping in their own way, without even a hint of tension in the air. Palestine is filled with intellectuals and inventors, writers and noble politicians.
It was an utterly utopian vision of a future Palestine, but perhaps precisely because life in Europe was becoming so desperate, it was also a vision that many of his readers found deeply compelling:
The spell of the Sabbath was over the Holy City, now freed from the filth, noise and vile odors that had so often revolted devout pilgrims of all creeds, when after long and trying journeys, they reach their goal. In the old days they had had to endure many disgusting sights before they could reach their shrines. All was different now. . . . The lands and the streets were beautifully paved and cared for. . . . Moslem, Jewish and Christian welfare institutions, hospitals and clinics stood side by side. In the middle of a great square was the splendid Peace Palace, where international congresses of peace-lovers and scientists were held, for Jerusalem was now a home for all the best strivings of the human spirit: for Faith, Love, Knowledge.40
Nor was it only Jerusalem that had been repaired. The creation of a Jewish homeland had solved the problem of Jews in Europe, no less:
Dr. Walter . . . launched on a description of the effects of Jewish mass migration upon the Jews who had remained in Europe. He was bound to say for himself, it had always been clear to him that Zionism was bound to be as salutary for the Jews who remained in Europe as for those who emigrated.41
IT WAS A BOLD DREAM, and a fanciful one in many ways. But it quickly became exceedingly practical, as well. The more desperate the Jews in Europe became, the more amenable they grew to imagining a very different world. Hess had. Pinsker had. Then Bialik did. Theodor Herzl transformed all that passion into a political movement. He was under no illusion that it was going to be easy, but neither did he doubt that it could happen. His message to his readers, as he pithily stated it in the epigraph to Altneuland, was simple: “If you will it, it is no dream.”42