June 13, 2024
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The Diary of Theodor Herzl

This is a very interesting work. Herzl made entries from June 1895 until May 1904. He died a few months later at 44. These entries cover the years of his critical activities. He wrote about his Jewish state in 1896 and arranged for the first ever Zionist Congress in 1897. After that, Herzl spent 1897 through 1904 placing the need of the Jewish people for a homeland on the world’s agenda. His first goal was to try to convince the Sultan to sell Palestine to the Jews. Next best would be for them to lease it to the Jews (“a charter”), while it remained technically under Turkey’s sovereignty. In this way, Zionism would help solve Turkey’s severe financial problems.

His successes and failures—over these years—are all described. His goal can be described as “political Zionism” to obtain a legally secure place for the Jews to live, not agricultural settlements that could be eliminated at whim by a non-Jewish government. His original manuscript—in German—is preserved in the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. Marvin Lowenthal published an English edition in 1956: “The Diaries of Theodor Herzl (494 pages).” It has only about 25% of the entries, e.g., extensive detailed financial discussions are left out.

Here are some passages from Lowenthal’s introduction:

“Herzl was ‘a journalist, playwright … and short-story writer …’ Then in 1895, while serving as Paris correspondent of the Vienna ‘Neue Freie Presse,’ he conceived the plan of a Jewish state—not merely as the reaffirmation of a traditional ideal and not only as the solution to a world-vexing problem—but as something to be created forthwith through the collaboration of the leading European powers. Virtually overnight, he found that his idea had catapulted him into statesmanship on an international scale.”

“From the moment the idea of a Jewish state took form … he felt the writer’s compulsion to put his thoughts and feelings on paper … The diaries recount how starting from scratch, Herzl forged the tools for converting his idea into a reality: a world-wide organization to express the Jewish people’s will, a Congress to serve as its national assembly and the financial institutions to implement the decisions.”

“The diaries capture the story … of how with little or no backing, he negotiated single-handedly with the rulers, statesmen and financiers who controlled the destinies of Europe and the Near East … Every episode … presents a living, breathing portrait of the participants.”

“The diaries … have the singular quality of being written by an unpremeditated statesman who didn’t wait until … his career was fairly over to compose his memoirs … He gives us statesmanship in the raw … history on the spot and caught in the act.”

——

Herzl was not the first to write in the modern period with a vision for the Jews returning to Israel. For example, Moses Hess (in France) wrote such a work in 1862, and Leo Pinsker (in Russia) wrote such a work in 1882. Herzl did not know of these works. He wrote that it was fortunate that he did not know of them. If he had, he may not have written his work.

The reason Herzl’s Jewish state was unique is that he understood how to go from a mere vision to achieve the end result. He had gone to law school and understood the corporate entities that needed to be set up. In his Jewish state, he wrote about all the details of what needed to be done and exactly how the Jews who wanted to go to Israel would exit their countries and travel there (e.g., each congregation will travel with its rabbi). Although Herzl died in 1904, his activities and the institutions that he created enabled Chaim Weizmann to successfully negotiate with England and obtain the Balfour Declaration in 1917 (ratified by the League of Nations in 1922).

——

First Entry: Pentecost 1895:

“I have been pounding away for some time at a work of tremendous magnitude. I don’t know even now if I will be able to carry it through. It bears the aspects of a mighty dream. For days and weeks, it has saturated me to the limits of my consciousness; it goes with me everywhere, hovers behind my ordinary talk … overwhelms me and intoxicates me. What will come of it is still too early to say. However, I have had enough experience to tell me that even as a dream it is remarkable and should be written down—if not as a memorial for mankind, then for my own pleasure and meditation in years to come. Or, perhaps, as something between these two possibilities, that is, as something for literature… Title: ‘The Promised Land!’” …

“When did I actually begin to concern myself with the Jewish question? … Certainly, upon reading Dühring’s book (Mitchell First: This was an extremely antisemitic work written in 1881). … In the course of the succeeding years, the question gnawed and tugged at me, it tormented me and rendered me profoundly unhappy.”

June 19, 1896: Message from the Sultan to Herzl via an intermediary:

“The Turkish people own the Turkish Empire, not I. I can dispose of no part of it. 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. I will never consent to vivisection.”

Herzl: “There is a tragic beauty in this fatalism which foresees death and dismemberment, yet fights to the last breath …”

Sept. 3, 1897: After the first Zionist Congress:

“If I were to sum up the Congress in a word—which I shall take care not to publish—it would be this: At Basel, I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps—and certainly 50 years—everyone will perceive it. The essence of a state lies in the will of the people for a state … I gradually worked the people up into the atmosphere of a state and made them feel that they were its National Assembly.”

“One of my first ideas, months ago … was to have swallow-tails and white tie obligatory at the opening session. It worked out admirably … The stiffness induces a measured, deliberate tone … I spared nothing to heighten this tone to the pitch of solemnity. Nordau (Mitchell First: Max Nordau, Herzl’s main partner here and a famous author) turned up that first day in a frock coat … I told him … people must be brought to expect only the finest things from the Congress and the utmost solemnity. He allowed himself to be persuaded, and I hugged him in gratitude. After a quarter of an hour, he returned in formal attire.”

Herzl had to balance many conflicting needs at the Congress, i.e., what to say without offending different groups. Here is a selection of his entry from Aug. 24, 1897, just prior to the Congress:

“An egg dance, with the eggs invisible:

1. Egg of the ‘Neue Freie Presse,’ which I must not compromise or furnish a pretext for giving me the sack. (Mitchell First: His newspaper in Austria did not approve of his Zionist activities.)

2. Egg of the Orthodox.

3. Egg of the Modernists.

4. Egg of Austrian patriotism.

5. Egg of Turkey and the Sultan. (Mitchell First: Herzl did not want to do anything that would antagonize the Sultan and jeopardize the Jewish settlements in Israel already.)

6. Egg of the Russian government, against whom nothing disagreeable may be said, although the deplorable situation of the Russian Jews will have to be mentioned.”

Herzl mentions many more “eggs” and concludes: “It is a Herculean labor.”

Perhaps, I will write more columns with some of the other fascinating entries.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. There was a time when that first Zionist Congress was supposed to meet in Munich. If it had, Herzl’s famous diary entry would have sounded very odd to us today: “At Munich, I founded the Jewish state.”

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