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Published Monday, June 23, 2014, 4:14 pm

Theodor Herzl on the Brink

By Herbert Belkin

Theodor Herzl was the most unlikely person to lead Jews to a desperately needed homeland. A very assimilated Jew and one of the leading journalists of his day (think Thomas Friedman of the New York Times), Herzl gave little attention to the suffering of his fellow Jews in Eastern Europe. That was before his newspaper gave him the assignment to report on the trial of Alfred Dreyfus.

In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French army, was accused of treason and put on trial. The charge and trial were infested with anti-Semitism then prevalent in the French army. Despite contrary evidence that proved him innocent, Dreyfus was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment on Devil’s Island. It was during the ceremony when Dreyfus was cashiered out of the French army that Herzl heard the call that changed his life.

As Dreyfus was stripped of his rank, the French crowd watching the ceremony yelled, “Mort aux Juifs?” (Death to the Jews). This was from so-called enlightened France where the Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued over 100 years ago. This was from a country that was supposedly the most liberal and emancipated nation in Europe, but was still infected with virulent anti-Semitism. The cry of the French crowd made Herzl realize that all of the attempts of Jews to fit into their host societies could not work. Despite Jewish assimilation and even conversion, the virus of anti-Semitism was too embedded in the soil of Europe to allow the acceptance of Jews on equal terms with their Christian neighbors. Herzl’s epiphany was that for Jews to live in freedom and control their own lives they had to have their own homeland.

While the Dreyfus trial ringing with the cry “Morte aux Juifs?” was the springboard that propelled Herzl to form Political Zionism, his childhood experiences of anti-Semitism in late nineteenth century Vienna prepared him for his epic struggle. All through his school years Herzl was subject to an anti-Semitism that varied from subtle to blatant. A case in point was the university fencing clubs that were in fashion in Herzl’s Vienna. Jews were excluded from many of these Christian clubs and formed their own. When competing against Christian clubs, Jewish fencers proved so adept that they defeated many of them in competition. Somewhat embarrassed, the Christian clubs ducked out of competition against Jews, labeling them “unworthy”. Even though Jews in the Austro-Hapsburg Empire at the end of the nineteenth century found considerable success in the fields of law, medicine (Sigmund Freud), music (Gustav Mahler) and literature (Franz Kafka), anti-Semitism was ever-present in their lives.

Added to the background that brought Herzl to Zionism was a politician of his day. Karl Leuger was a founder of the Viennese Christian-Socialist Party whose platform was anti-Semitism. Leuger built his political career by defaming Jews with the slogan, “The Jews are to blame”. At the turn of the century, Leuger was elected Mayor of Vienna four times on his anti-Semitic platform. Three times Emperor Franz Joseph refused to let Leuger take office recognizing that Jews would not receive fair treatment during a Leuger administration. After the fourth election, Emperor Josephs conceded and Leuger became Mayor of Herzl’s hometown of Vienna. As tragic fate would have it, attending Leuger’s political talks and drinking in his poisonous anti-Semitism was a young man named Adolf Hitler.

It may have been the French crowd at the Dreyfus trial that pushed Herzl off the brink of inaction and into the cause of Zionism, but it was the anti-Semitism of his Viennese childhood that prepared him for the role.

Herb Belkin is a Jewish historian who writes and lectures on Zionism and the struggle for a Jewish homeland. He can be reached at

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