Theodor Herzl: On the Anniversary of His Death 100 Years Ago

Roundup: Talking About History

CenterAustria, University of New Orleans

Press Release

Herzl Symposium (Oct. 3rd/4th in New Orleans)

CenterAustria of the University of New Orleans and the Program for Jewish Studies at Tulane University, with the support of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, jointly organized a small symposium on Theodor Herzl on the occasion of the anniversary of his death 100 years ago (3 July 1904). The symposium suggested that Herzl as a founding father of Zionism still exerts enormous influence on today's world. When his dream was realized with the formation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, he could not have foreseen the nature of the subsequent Israeli - Arab conflict bred by the formation of a Jewish national state.The origins, the nature and the varieties of Zionism as a response to growing wave of rabid anti-Semitism in late 19th century Europe were the focus of the symposium's discussions.

Noted British scholar and Herzl-biographer Steven Beller concentrated on Herzl's conflicted Jewish/Austrian/Central European identity. Beller stressed that Herzl "conversion" to his Jewish identity was not sparked suddenly by the infamous "Dreyfus affair" (1895), which he reported on as the correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse from Paris. It rather was a response to the growing anti-Semitism in Vienna in the 1880s, which he personally experienced on a daily basis.

Anita Shapira, professor of history and authority on Zionism at Tel Aviv University, dwelt on the many ironies of Herzl's mission in life and in the Zionist movement. She stressed that Herzl's political Zionism was predated by a much stronger Russian cultural Zionism by at least twenty years. His death in 1904 was mourned by Russian Jews much more than by Central Europe's (assimilated) Jews. In Russia young David Ben-Gurion lauded him in an obituary as "a wondrous man like that is only born once in thousand years," whereas his old friend Max Nordau derisively spoke of Herzl ten years after his death as "a bluffer" and a man of "make believe." Herzl, the assimilated Viennese Jew, was a very unlikely apostle of Zionism. His transformation to Zionism came in response to the realization that "the more Jews succeed, the more they are resented." His conversion to Zionism meant the end of his hiding of his Jewish identity. His message was above all a message to the Jews of Russia, persecuted by new waves or pogroms and for whom assimilation was no alternative. "Herzl kindled their imagination," said Shapira, "and forced the doors open to a greater world." Here lays the irony of Herzl's great distance from the Russian center of Jewish culture in Europe. Herzl cut the Gordian knot of Jewish identity. The assimilated Herzl envisioning a Jewish paradise for European Jews in Palestine: "he wanted the Jews out of Europe, but not Europe out of the Jews", concluded Shapira. The ultimate irony came as a result of Herzl's naivité that anti-Semites would embrace Zionism, as it would get rid of European Jews in their midst. Herzl thought he would build Israel for the European Jews, but in
reality it was above all the Arab and Middle Eastern Jews who settled there. Herzl's hope that the exodus of Jews from Europe would undermine anti-Semitism, could not anticipate new forms of contemporary anti-Semitism by Arabs and by anti-Israeli Europeans.

Istvan Deak, the noted scholar of Eastern Europe at Columbia University, compared Hungarian and Austrian anti-Semitism in the late 19th century - the social environment that shaped Herzl. Whereas Hungary (particularly the capital Budapest) fully integrated its assimilated Jews into society (once they spoke Hungarian they became Hungarians), the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire and Vienna did not. After Herzl's family moved from Budapest to Vienna in 1878, they encountered a much sharper anti-semitism than they had experienced in Hungary. Political parties such as von Sch?nerer's German Nationals and Lueger's Christian Socials spouted ever more rabid anti-Semitic attacks, particularly in Parliament. In Austria also Jews had to choose their ethnicity between German and Jewish, society did not bestow quasi "Germanness" on them merely for speaking German. Unlike in Hungary, Jews were treated as a minority and were ever more on the defensive. In this adverse context in which Herzl's scheme of Zionism was bread.

It might be concluded, then, that the climate of ever more pronounced anti-Semitism fuelled by von Sch?nerer's and Lueger's populist politics, led Herzl to hatch his solution of a Zionist homeland for the Jews in Palestine to save them from this mushrooming Central European hatred.

(Günter Bischof, CenterAustria, Unviersity of New Orleans, October 6, 2004)

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