Theodor Herzl through the Eyes of a Non-Zionist Contemporary

January 14, 2022 | Neil Rogachevsky
About the author: Neil Rogachevsky teaches at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and is the author of Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The History and Political Theory of the Nation’s Founding Moment, published in 2023 by Cambridge University Press.

In his own day, the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was one of Europe’s most popular authors, famous for his historical biographies and short stories—which often revolved around the cosmopolitan and urbane world of pre-World War I Vienna. In 1901, the young Zweig met Theodor Herzl—then at the height of his career as a Zionist leader—who hired him to write feuilletons (long-form columns) for the Die Neue Freie Presse, a prestigious Viennese newspaper where Herzl worked as an editor. Neil Rogachevsky comments on Zweig’s description of Herzl in his memoir, The World of Yesterday:

Vienna, and especially Jewish Vienna, was put off by [Herzl’s] Zionism, but probably mostly thought it was comical and ridiculous. Perhaps it flattered [Viennese Jews’] pride that they were immune from a messianic contagion that had affected their brethren—former brethren?—in the East. . . . [I]t’s worth trying to reconstruct the perspective of a well-meaning but rather skeptical observer that day.

“This powerful man,” [writes Zweig], “clearly struck a nerve in the oppressed Jewish masses of the East. He promised them that the hour of redemption was a possibility, and that it could be brought forth through a political rather than a spiritual awakening combined with a single-minded and practical devotion to the cause. But is this not merely Jewish history repeating itself in tragic rhymes? Is not Jewish history replete with examples of leaders who promise the people redemption and lead them only to their ruin? How different really is this Herzl from Shabtai Zvi? Why would this time be any different? The only difference between this failed messiah and the last is that now we have reasonable hopes that the situation of the Jews will improve rather than deteriorate.”

This perspective was not at all crazy and in fact wasn’t unreasonable. But Herzl saw that the age to come was not to be reasonable. . . . Jewish history, like all of history but perhaps more so, is full of ironies. Though he died thinking himself a failure, Herzl’s dream would ultimately be realized—though only in part and at tremendous cost. The comfortable and brilliant world of Jewish Vienna was utterly destroyed, never to return. But few could see this, and even among those who “see” the boundary between delusion and true political insight may be quite thin. Most ordinary people just have to judge by the results, at a later historical time, when comfortably in the grip of a new set of illusions.

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