This Day in Jewish History

1895: Herzl Touts Jewish Homeland Dream to Financier, Is Snubbed

Both believed in resettling persecuted Jews but Baron de Hirsch thought Theodor Herzl's idea delusional.

Central Zionist Archive/Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

On June 2, 1895, Theodor Herzl met with a man he hoped would finance his dream of creating a Jewish homeland. 

Just months earlier, Herzl had the epiphany that convinced him that the solution to the “Jewish Problem” was a state of their own, in the Jews’ ancestral home. On this day, he met with a man he hoped could be instrumental in helping him realize that dream – Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of the world’s wealthiest people, who was dedicated to spending his money in resettling the persecuted Jews of czarist Russia in other lands. 

Hirsch (1831-1896) was one of the first people Herzl thought of when he began to seek allies for his audacious ambition. Born to both a mother and father from Bavarian banking families, and married to the daughter of a Belgian financier, Hirsch had started with fortune and built it up, together with his reputation, through a number of business ventures, most notably organizing the funding for the Orient Express railway

As a philanthropist, Hirsch was one of the founders of the Alliance Israelite Universelle trade schools, and, in 1891, he created the Jewish Colonization Association, to buy land, principally in North and South America, where agricultural colonies could be established and Jews resettled.

Jew of money and Jew of spirit

Both Hirsch and Herzl perceived the hardships and existential danger that their Jewish brethren faced, and both had the imagination and energy to seek solutions. But they had very different styles. 

As Herzl, then 35, himself wrote to Hirsch in one of his letters, “You are the great Jew of the money, I am the Jew of the spirit.” Whereas Hirsch was interested in humanitarian solutions, piecemeal if necessary, Herzl was seeking a political refuge for the Jews – a national home, even if not an immediate state. 

As Shlomo Avineri wrote, in his 2013 biography of Herzl, “he was asking Hirsch to become king of the Jews, but that was the last thing Hirsch, an experienced man of the world with a lot of common sense, wanted.” 

The meeting between the two men took place at Baron de Hirsch’s Paris mansion, on the Rue de Elysee. Herzl described it in detail in his diary when he returned to his hotel. 

On entering, he announced to his host that he needed a minimum of an hour of his time. He began in on a critique of Hirsch’s resettlement program, before proposing to the man that they turn to the German Kaiser with the idea of cooperating on established a 1 billion-mark “Jewish national loan fund.” 

It was at that point that Hirsch told Herzl that he was delusional. As Herzl noted later I his diary, “I only got as far as page six – I had 22 pages!”

'For a flag, men will live and die'

Herzl had enough self-awareness to understand that people might find his ideas radical, if not shocking, and he was undeterred. He followed up his visit with Hirsch with three letters, hoping that another meeting with the baron might bring him around to his way of thinking, but also informing him, in his first letter, the next day, that, “My plan by no means depends on your good graces.”

Arguing that his youth should not be held against him – “At 35 Napoleon was emperor,” he wrote, though that was perhaps not the most persuasive argument  – Herzl used his follow-up letters to explain to Hirsch that a powerful idea could be more influential than mere money. 

Imagining Hirsch asking him if he had a flag to take his followers into battle, Herzl asked rhetorically, “A flag, what is that? A stick with a rag on it? No, sir, a flag is more than that. With a flag, one can lead men wherever one wants to, even to the Promised Land. For a flag, men will live and die; it is indeed the only thing for which they are ready to die in masses, if one trains them for it.”

Although Hirsch indicated a general willingness to meet Herzl again, he warned him that he hadn’t changed his mind about his proposal. In any event, a second meeting never took place, and Hirsch died less than a year later, on April 21, 1896.