Theodor Herzl 2 May 1860 – 3 July 1904) or Hebrew name given at his brit milah Binyamin Ze’ev, was an Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist, playwright, political activist, and writer who was the father of modern political Zionism. Herzl formed the Zionist Organization and promoted Jewish immigration to Palestine in an effort to form a Jewish state.
Although he died before Israel‘s establishment, he is known in Hebrew as “Visionary of the State”. Herzl is specifically mentioned in the Israeli Declaration of Independence and is officially referred to as “the spiritual father of the Jewish State”, i.e. the visionary who gave a concrete, practicable platform and framework to political Zionism. However, he was not the first Zionist theoretician or activist; scholars, many of them religious such as rabbis Yehuda Bibas, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Judah Alkalai, promoted a range of proto-Zionist ideas before him.
He was raised in an assimilated community, so it was due to one particular act that helped to bring him closer to the main stream world of Judaism, and that was related to one man’s suffering. As the Paris correspondent for Neue Freie Presse, Herzl followed the Dreyfus affair, a political scandal that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. It was a notorious antisemitic incident in France in which a Jewish French army captain was falsely convicted of spying for Germany. Herzl was witness to mass rallies in Paris following the Dreyfus trial. There has been some controversy surrounding the impact that this event had on Herzl and his conversion to Zionism. Herzl himself stated that the Dreyfus case turned him into a Zionist and that he was particularly affected by chants of “Death to the Jews!” from the crowds.
Motivated by the Dreyfus case, Hertzl went on to bring his dreams of a better world for jews into reality. Beginning in late 1895, Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews), which was published February 1896 to immediate acclaim and controversy. The book argued that the Jewish people should leave Europe for Palestine, their historic homeland. The Jews possessed a nationality; all they were missing was a nation and a state of their own. Only through a Jewish state could they avoid antisemitism, express their culture freely and practice their religion without hindrance. Herzl’s ideas spread rapidly throughout the Jewish world and attracted international attention.Supporters of existing Zionist movements, such as the Hovevei Zion, immediately allied themselves with him, but he also encountered bitter opposition from members of the Orthodox community and those seeking to integrate in non-Jewish society.
In 1897, at considerable personal expense, he founded the Zionist newspaper Die Welt in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, and planned the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. He was elected president of the Congress (a position he held until his death in 1904), and in 1898 he began a series of diplomatic initiatives to build support for a Jewish country. Although he never lived to see the fulfillment of his dream of a reborn Jewish state, the birth of the State of Israel owes much to his lifetime dedication to that goal.