A Man of Action

Herzl's misgivings, achievements and mistakes are all examined in Shlomo Avineri's new 'intellectual biography' of the founder of political Zionism.

"Herzl" by Shlomo Avineri, Zalman Shazar Center Press (Hebrew), 221 pages, NIS 55

Just before Yom Kippur, I received this new book by Prof. Shlomo Avineri, the Hebrew University's Israel Prize-winning political scientist. It?s a volume I intend to keep nearby, as I expect to come back to it in the future, for both its analysis and its wisdom.

Ostensibly, Avineri has written another biography of Theodor Herzl. The founder of political Zionism has already been the subject of not a small number of worthy books, including notably those by Pinhas Blumenthal ("It Is No Dream"), Alex Bein and Amos Elon. But Avineri's book, which was published by the Zalman Shazar Center Press, as part of its "Giants of Jewish Spirit and Creativity" series (edited by Aviezer Ravitzky), is an "intellectual biography," an investigation of the ideological roots of Herzl's philosophy. Its concern is not the details of his life, but rather his mistakes and misgivings, his questions, quotes and achievements - how was a young man, all of 35, with no support structure and no political power, able to "give organizational and institutional content to the idea of the return to Zion, and to turn it into a real presence on the international political stage" - and all that in less than nine years?

Each of the book's nine chapters is interesting, particularly the one that describes Herzl's stay in Paris as the correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, a prestigious Viennese publication whose owners and editors were all Jewish. We have been taught that the Dreyfus Affair, in 1894, planted the seed of Zionism in Herzl; that the humiliating public ceremony, by which the French captain was stripped of his rank in the French army, left the Austrian journalist shocked, pained and angry, and suddenly removed the scales from his eyes; that through the hatred directed at Dreyfus, Herzl came to understand the meaning of the situation of European Jews in general.

Dreyfus' guilt

Now Avineri comes along and changes the picture: It turns out that initially, Herzl was convinced of Dreyfus' guilt: "It is now clear that Captain Dreyfus sold his country's defensive secrets to the Germans," the correspondent calmly reported to his journal, without even noting his subject's Jewish identity. In a later dispatch, he reports, without qualification, the comment of the French war minister, General Mercier, that "the guilt of Captain Dreyfus is indisputable." Even in his piece describing the cashiering ceremony, and the breaking of his sword, there is no clear echo of the cries of "Death to the Jews" that we all read about in our textbooks.

Herzl heard the crowd, which watched the ceremony from outside the gates, shout "Death to the traitor," and he also reported hearing Dreyfus called "Traitor Judas." That's what he heard, and that's what he reported before he and others who also were there decided to rewrite history, and the cry of "Death to the Jews" took on a canonical status. On December 30, 1894, a day before the rejection of Dreyfus' appeal of his conviction, Herzl published a long and detailed article in the Neue Freie Presse summing up the major events of the preceding year in France: The Dreyfus trial is not even mentioned in it. Herzl left Paris the following summer. When he returned to Vienna, the Dreyfus trial was still an unremarkable event, which hadn't yet turned into an "affair" that rang of anti-Semitism. The Dreyfus affair came to its conclusion only a decade later, in 1906, two years after Herzl's death. Emile Zola's "J'accuse," in January 1898, a half year after the convening of the First Zionist Congress, in Basel, by which time Herzl's attention was fully focused on his movement.

Hence, it was not the Dreyfus Affair, as an event in and of itself, that wakened in Herzl the impulse to go along the ways of Zion that mourn, which he tried to pave the way anew after a period of two millennia of neglect, having become finally convinced that all roads must lead to the Land of Israel, and not to Argentina or El-Arish, nor to Uganda, that there's no point looking for shortcuts. Herzl adopted that road map after trials and errors that almost succeeded in derailing him, and leaving him in the margins of history.

A journalist's instinct

It wasn't a personal experience that deflected Herzl from the daily pattern of a successful journalist and mediocre playwright. It was, rather, a comprehensive and penetrating analysis of Europe - Western, Central and Eastern - at the the end of the 19th century that pushed him into urgent action. Perhaps it was his honed journalist's instinct that made him perceive what others didn't see, or didn't want to see.

On the face of it, the Jews never had it so good as they did toward the end of the 19th century. Europe was at peace, sophisticated diplomacy set the tone, the economy was thriving, and the revolution and Napoleon's conquest led to the spread of the gospel of equality and human rights. The unification of Germany led to Jews being awarded rights equal to those of all other citizens, and the winds of tolerance blowing through the Austro-Hungarian empire gradually penetrated into Russia and Congressional Poland. Franz-Joseph became known as the "glorified and benevolent emperor," and Stefan Zweig wrote in "The World of Yesterday" that everything that came into being in Vienna in the fields of literature, art, culture and society was created by Jews - and he was only giving voice to something felt by many, both Jews and non-Jews.

Herzl wasn't party to the growing optimism. It was precisely in those seemingly bright days that he looked ahead, and, seeing the dark clouds beginning to gather on the horizon, he identified destructive undercurrents of anti-Semitism waiting to burst to the surface. The Austro-Hungarian empire may have been celebrating a liberal period, but its days were numbered, and when it was to fall apart, the pieces spreading in every direction, it was the Jews who would find themselves at the eye of the storm, in the center of the whirlpool. This was Herzl's astute prediction, walking around as if he were possessed while others were rejoicing. There wasn't much time left, the pogroms loomed ahead, and international political action was required if the Jews were to be afforded a shelter for the night, as Max Nordau had it, and night was indeed about to fall.

Avineri's Herzl is less of a visionary, and more a man of action, he of all people. Not a man detached from reality, but one very much in touch with it, able to decode it, and insistent on changing the direction of its flow - not to be swept away or torn apart by it. Avineri chose Herzl to write about. And Herzl, I estimate, would have chosen Avineri to write about him.