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Theodor Herzl was heralded as “the king of the Jews” on several occasions during his lifetime − and even more often following his death at the age of 44. But this title fails to take into account the divisive figure he cut in the Jewish communities he visited throughout Europe.

And none more so than Britain, which he first ventured to in 1895. It was the scene of one of his greatest diplomatic successes, resulting in Her Majesty’s government’s proposal of the East Africa project. But it was also the setting of his most resounding failure with any national Jewish leadership, where he received an almost blanket rejection from the Anglo-Jewish establishment. This history, some scholars say, is still difficult for the community to swallow.

“In the immediate post-Holocaust period and for a quarter of a century afterward, the myth developed that Anglo-Jewry had always been supportive of Zionism,” says Anglo-Jewish historian Prof. Geoffrey Alderman. “But up until World War II it was a minority movement.”

Anglo-Jewish hostility toward Herzl was typified by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler, whom King Edward VII referred to as “my chief rabbi” and who aimed to be the Jewish equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Adler, who famously denounced the First Zionist Congress as an “egregious blunder,” was nonetheless one of a number of prominent British Jews and philanthropists who were more than happy to fund Jewish life in the Holy Land.

“Adler was a leading member of Hovevei Zion and had no problem giving charity to support impoverished Jews in Palestine or to establish new communities to live under Ottoman rule,” says Alderman, but opposed a political movement that might undermine the percieved loyalty of Jews in Western Europe.

Political Zionism was anathema to the Anglo-Jewish community. The Zionism Herzl represented was viewed with deep suspicion by most of the ruling, moneyed Jewish families of the time. They viewed civil equality as a hard-won and only recent victory which they were not willing to have compromised by the upstart ideas of an arrogant Viennese journalist.

One of the few exceptions was Dr. Moses Gaster, the chacham of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, who hosted Herzl on his first night in London and continued to be one of Herzl’s strongest supporters in the United Kingdom.

Gaster, a Romanian-born genius who spoke many languages, had experienced for himself the insidious anti-Semitism of central Europe and concluded that emancipation had failed and that Jews could not be assimilated into European society. But the majority of the “Cousinhood” of closely-related Anglo-Jewish families took the opposite view.

“Herzl was rejected by all layers of Anglo-Jewry from the ultra-Orthodox to the Reform to the chief rabbi,” says Prof. Colin Shindler, an author and academic who specializes in Israel studies. “The ultra-Orthodox in England thought he was a false messiah. Claude Montefiore, who founded Liberal Judaism, wanted Jews to be more Anglicized.”

Lord Rothschild, a key figure whom Herzl considered an essential funder for the Zionist project, initially refused to even meet him. As a great ally of Adler, Rothschild would not give legitimacy to someone the chief rabbi had condemned.

Samuel Montagu, the founder of the Orthodox Federation of Synagogues, did agree to meet Herzl, despite his view that Zionism would only serve to increase domestic anti-Semitism. But relations between them soon cooled.

Alderman attributes this partly to Herzl’s irreligious behavior. “In the days when one could post a letter and have it arrive the same day,” he explains, “Herzl sent a postcard from Hampstead on a Saturday morning which reached Montagu in Park Lane in the evening. That was the last straw.”

Historians agree that Herzl’s relative failure in London with both the religious and the secular establishment of Jewish philanthropists and lay leaders can be attributed to reasons both ideological and personal.

One of the few arenas where he did receive a rapturous reception was from the impoverished Jews of the East End. “In 1896 there was a massive gathering on Mile End Waste to welcome Herzl,” he recounts. “Tens of thousands of East End Jews lined the route calling him the New Moses and the New Columbus,” says Clive Bettington, who runs the Jewish East End Celebration Society.” Herzl wrote of his encounter: “I saw and listened as my legend grew. The people are sentimental; the masses do not see clearly.”

He was adulated even though he shared no joint language with his Jewish audiences. Herzl spoke very little English or Yiddish, having to communicate instead in French and German.
 

A divisive figure

His main achievement in London, however, was not with a Jewish audience. His meetings with Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary and others were much more successful. They entered into serious discussions about a range of possibilities for Jewish settlement, including Cyprus and Al Arish in Egypt, until the British proposed a Jewish autonomous region in Uganda.

Shindler notes an added component to the division over Herzl: the very British element of class. “The middle class Jews were opposed to Herzl but the working class Jews welcomed him,” he points out.

“Herzl admired England because there was no organized anti-Semitic movement and he was savvy − he was aware that London was at the heart of a great empire with interests in the Middle East,” says Shindler.

At the Fourth Zionist Congress, held in London in 1900, Herzl spoke of England as the place where “God’s old people” was not faced with native anti-Semitism, going on to declare: “England the great, England the free, England with her eyes fixed on the seven seas, will understand us!”

Ultimately, Britain held only heartbreak for Herzl. His much vaunted rapport with Chamberlain would lead to the Uganda proposal, which Herzl then put to the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903. The storm and split the proposal caused in the movement is said to have contributed to his early death, less than a year later. The Anglo-Jewish establishment’s acceptance of his dreams was not to come until many decades later.