Reading a biography of Theodor Herzl—the cosmopolitan and assimilated Jew who abandoned a successful career as a journalist when he was seized with a vision of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel—Matti Friedman sees many parallels to the present day. Herzl began his journey to Zionism in the 1890s, when he was confronted by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Vienna, a city where he spent much of his life. Soon everyone was discussing a “Jewish question,” or perhaps a “Jewish problem.”
The prosperous Jews of Vienna, who assumed that this problem was on its way to being solved, are surprised to find themselves the focus for the anxieties of the age. They’re caught off guard in their colleges, law firms, and factories, mid-step on their journeys toward assimilation.
The correct attitude among Jewish intellectuals, Herzl’s social circles, was to cringe at both rich and poor, affecting a very Viennese attitude of wry fatigue with the foibles of humanity. [He is working] for the Neue Freie Presse, the New York Times of the [Hapsburg] empire, a newspaper of careful Jews who are celebrated for their brilliance, hampered by their social aspirations, and wrong, in retrospect, about everything. We don’t know that yet. Herzl’s plays are produced in Berlin and at the best theater in the city. Progress might not be smooth, but it is inevitable.
And yet society becomes increasingly preoccupied with the “bad manners” of the Jews. There are many people with bad manners, but the Jews stand out, “because of the obsessive interest in their lives and the general belief in the existence of a ‘problem,’ which even Jews paranoically began to share themselves.”
Books appear seeking to analyze the Jews’ warped character and physiognomy. This isn’t primitive hatred of Jews like in the days of the church and the ghetto. This is science. . . . One of the most toxic tracts would eventually be written by a Jew by the name of Otto Weininger. Like all Jews willing to attack other Jews, Weininger was borne upward on a strange, grateful tide of popularity, before taking his critique to its logical conclusion and killing himself.
While today there is no shortage of Jews who wish to ignore or endorse anti-Semitism, fortunately Herzl’s dream of a sovereign Jewish state is, to use his famous formulation, no fairy tale—but a reality.