Theodor Herzl’s Unbounded Simple Faith in the Rightness of His Cause

August 24, 2020 | Joseph Epstein
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In an essay on the life and career of Theodor Herzl—the man who founded the organized Zionist movement that would pave the way to the creation of a Jewish state—Joseph Epstein writes:

As a future nation, the Jews needed a land, a flag, a leader. Herzl came eventually to believe that only Palestine would satisfy the hunger of the Jews for a homeland. A flag was also needed: “If you want to lead a crowd you have to raise a symbol above their heads. I am thinking of a white flag with gold stars.” As for a leader, he of course was it. [About Herzl] the word charismatic [can be] used with precision. The charismatic leader, we know from Max Weber, has “a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Herzl qualified.

Psychological interpretations of the extraordinary character that was Theodor Herzl are perhaps irresistible. [His biographer] Ernst Pawel thought him manic depressive, but he wrote before that term was replaced by bipolar disease, a more serious affair in every way. [In his more recent biography], Derek Penslar, who disavows any attempt “to diagnose Herzl from beyond the grave,” nonetheless does precisely that, and holds that “Herzl’s psychological anguish nourished his political passion” and that “Herzl desperately needed a project to fill his life with meaning and keep the blackness of depression at bay. Zionism was that project, which contained, sustained, and inspired him.” Eschewing personal psychology, Amos Elon believed, as do I, that Herzl’s “courage derived from an unbounded, simple faith in the rightness and urgency of his cause.”

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