How Herzl Sold Out the Armenians

He supported the brutal Ottoman sultan against them, believing this would get the sultan to sell Palestine to the Jews.

Theodor Herzl in Basel.
Theodor Herzl in Basel, site of First Zionist Congress. Central Zionist Archive/Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

This article was originally published May 1, 2015

The Armenian question has occupied the Zionist movement since a mass killing of Armenians was carried out by the Turks in the mid 1890s – prior even to the First Zionist Congress. Herzl’s strategy was based on the idea of an exchange: The Jews would pay off the Ottoman Empire’s huge debt, in return for the acquisition of Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state there, with the major powers’ consent. Herzl had been working hard to persuade Sultan Abdul Hamid II to accept the proposal, but to no avail.

“Instead of offering the Sultan money,” Herzl’s diplomatic agent Philip Michael Nevlinski (who also advised the Sultan) told him, “give him political support on the Armenian issue, and he’ll be grateful and accept your proposal, in part at least.” The Christian European countries had been critical of the murder of Armenian Christians at the hands of Muslims, and committees supporting the Armenians had been founded in various places, and Europe also offered refuge to leaders of the Armenian revolt. This situation made it very difficult for Turkey to obtain loans from European banks.

Herzl eagerly took the advice. He felt that it was appropriate to try any means possible to hasten the establishment of a Jewish state. And so he agreed to serve as a tool of the Sultan, by trying to convince the leaders of the Armenian revolt that if they surrendered to the Sultan, he would comply with some of their demands. Herzl also tried to show the West that Turkey was in fact more humane, that it had no choice but to deal with the Armenian revolt this way, and that it aspired to a ceasefire and a political arrangement. After much effort, he also met with the Sultan on May 17, 1901.

The Sultan hoped that Herzl, a well-known journalist, would be able to alter the Ottoman Empire’s negative image. And so Herzl launched an intensive campaign to fulfill the Sultan’s wish, casting himself as a mediator for peace. He established ties with and held secret meetings with the Armenian rebels, in an attempt to get them to stop the violence, but they were not convinced of his sincerity, and did not trust the Sultan’s promises. Herzl also made energetic attempts to this effect in diplomatic channels in Europe, which he was very familiar with.

As was his way, he did not consult with other Zionist movement leaders, and kept his activities secret. But in need of some assistance, he wrote to Max Nordau to try to recruit him for the mission as well. Nordau responded with a one-word telegram: “No.” In his eagerness to obtain the charter for Palestine from the Turks, Herzl publicly declared – after the start of the yearly Zionist Congresses – that the Zionist movement expresses its admiration and gratitude to the Sultan, despite opposition from some representatives.

Herzl’s chief opponent on this was Bernard Lazare, a French Jewish intellectual, leftist, well-known journalist and literary critic, who had fought prominently against the Dreyfus trial, and was a supporter of the Armenian cause. He was so incensed by Herzl’s activity that he resigned from the Zionist Committee and abandoned the movement altogether in 1899. Lazare published an open letter to Herzl in which he asked: How can those who purport to represent the ancient people whose history is written in blood extend a welcoming hand to murderers, and no delegate to the Zionist Congress rises up in protest?

This drama involving Herzl – a leader who subordinated humanitarian considerations and served the Turkish authorities for the sake of the ideal of the Jewish state – is just one illustration of the frequent clash between political goals and moral principles. Israel has repeatedly been faced with such tragic dilemmas, as evidenced in its long-standing position of not officially recognizing the Armenian genocide, as well as in other more recent decisions that reflect the tension between humanitarian values and realpolitik considerations.

The writer is professor emeritus of history of education and culture at Hebrew University.