This week in Jewish history | Theodor Herzl passes away - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | Theodor Herzl passes away

This week in Jewish history | Theodor Herzl passes away

Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism passed away of a heart ailment in Edlach, Austria on 3 July 1904 at the age of 44 

Born to a middle-class family on 2 May 1860 in Budapest, Herzl and his family moved to Vienna shortly after. Following his studies in law at the University of Vienna and receiving his license to practice law in 1884, Herzl chose a different path, instead, becoming a journalist. 

When Herzl moved to Paris in 1891 with his wife Julie Naschauer, he was surprised to find that antisemitism was just as rampant as he experienced in Austria. He concluded that to end antisemitism, Jews must assimilate. However, when Alfred Dreyfus, a high-ranking secular-Jewish French official, was wrongly arrested on trumped up charges of espionage, Herzl realized he was wrong: assimilation would not end antisemitism. 

On 14 February 1896, Herzl published the pamphlet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), outlining his vision for the founding of an independent Jewish state. In it, Herzl encouraged Jews to purchase land in the historic Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), then Palestine, and called for the creation of a Jewish state with international acceptance. He argued that the “Jewish problem”, as such, was not an individual issue, but one of a national importance, and declared that Jews could gain acceptance in the world only if they ceased being a nation without a homeland.      

While many Jews embraced the idea of a Jewish state, others rejected the idea as nonsensical messianic fantasies and were concerned that Zionism would fuel claims of dual loyalties and intensify antisemitism.    

Despite the divide, Herzl’s writing galvanized the Zionist movement, leading to the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel the following year. At this Congress, around 200 delegates from across the political and religious spectrum adopted the Basel Program outlining Zionism’s aspiration as seeking “to secure for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally assured homeland in Palestine.”  

“We want to lay the foundation stone,” Herzl declared at the conference.  “For the house which will become the refuge of the Jewish nation. Zionism is the return to Judaism even before the return to the land of Israel.” 

Following the First Zionist Congress, Herzl wrote in his diary: “If I had to sum up the Basel Congress in one word—which I shall not do openly—it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I were to say this today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50, everyone will see it.”  

Almost fifty years to the day, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 1947 Partition Plan, thereby recognizing “the Jewish State” that Herzl had foreseen so many years earlier.  

After the creation of the State of Israel, in accordance with his wish, Herzl’s remains were moved to Jerusalem in 1949. Herzl is the only person mentioned by name in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which refers to him as the “author of the vision of the Jewish state.”