Today in History: Herzl's 'Der Judenstaat'

Theodor Herzl's pamphlet, The Jewish State, was published today in 1896.  It reflected both sides of his personality, his approach to the “Jewish Question,” his reason and planning, and his passion and dreams of a homeland and safe haven for the Jewish people.  The pamphlet laid out his idea of Jewish nationalism and various plans for the process of making the dream a reality.

The Jewish State tells us little about the content of Jewish life in particularist ways.  It is the literal state of the Jews, a national project, which begs the question of what would be Jewish about it.  This emphasis and deemphasis remind us that Zionism rebelled against much of Jewish traditional life and sought to normalize Jewish life, which would enable Jews to live more healthy lives in the larger world.  For much of his life, Herzl, a secular cosmopolitan Jew, took relatively little interest in Jewish tradition, and he left the question of the relation of Judaism to Zionism to others.

The pamphlet also provides insight into Herzl’s life story up to that point and the way that he understood what it meant to be a modern Jew.  Like virtually every facet of Zionist thought, Herzl focused on what struck him as the problem of Jewish life and how to solve that problem.  He believed that Antisemitism ranked as the greatest problem that afflicted Jewish life, even as a cosmopolitan.  As a middle-class, bourgeois, well-educated, professional Jew (a lawyer, journalist, and artist), he experienced Antisemitism as a student at university and later, in his professional life.  He viewed competition between Jews and non-Jews as a consequence of the structural reality of urban Jewish life that would intensify as more Jews entered the middle class.

He considered, tested (some), and rejected other solutions to the problem: assimilation, conversion, liberalism, and socialism.  He came to see the importance of Jewish pride and honor which led him to reject these approaches that tended to diminish Jewishness, or as in the case of socialism, remained Antisemitic in spite of their doctrinal commitment to equality.

Written in German, Der Judenstaat focuses more on the process of nationalism than on particular outcomes that we today assume as central, namely where the Jewish nation should live and what political form it should take.  It is easy to forget the numerous Zionist leaders, waves of immigration, persecution, wars, loss, and hard work that led to the State of Israel as we know it.  We assume that Zionism always faced toward the land of Israel and that the political goal was an independent sovereign state. 

But Herzl’s thinking at this point in his life made neither of these a precondition or an unconditional goal.  Instead, he viewed with favor any territory that might sustain some sort of Jewish national home, like Argentina for example, which already featured Jewish colonies.  Similarly, and in relation to the issue of location, he also imagined that such a national home might take root more easily within a preexisting state or empire, such as Ottoman Palestine or Tsarist Russia, and later British East Africa.  For him, it was about having an internationally recognized home, whether it be some sort of protectorate or some other less than fully sovereign entity, rather than necessarily returning to and reclaiming Palestine/Israel as the rightful homeland. 

Herzl died eight years later, in 1904.  In some ways, Zionism remained a minor marginal movement in Jewish life: the Zionist Organization he created numbered 100,000 members out of a world Jewish population of some 15,000,000.  Yet at the time of his death, the institutions existed because of his planning, all of which paved the way for the building of a Zionist community.  His vision birthed a membership organization, a fundraising apparatus that raised money to be dispersed for land purchase and settlement, and a political leadership structure that both internally governed the emerging Jewish Zionist community and conducted diplomacy on behalf of that community with the external world.  All of that he not only dreamed but planned and wrote about in The Jewish State.

P.S. For a great interview of Derek Penslar's on Herzl, including The Jewish State, see here.