Theodor Herzl Dreamed Not Just of Jewish Safety, but of Jewish Flourishing

August 25, 2022 | Gil Troy
About the author: Gil Troy is distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of  nine books on the American presidency and three books on Zionism, including, most recently, The Zionist Ideas.

Having recently edited a three-volume English-language edition of Theodor Herzl’s writings, Gil Troy considers the common myths about the founder of the modern Zionist movement. The most misleading of these is that Herzl was motivated solely by his reaction to European anti-Semitism, which suggests that he saw the Jewish state as nothing more than a refuge for a persecuted people, and possessed no positive vision. But this is not so:

Herzl himself rocked the Jewish world in February 1896, with his Zionist manifesto—Der Judenstaat, “The Jewish State.” And, perhaps most important, we see that Herzl’s Zionism entailed more than anti-anti-Semitism. This romantic liberal nationalist ends his pamphlet with a sweeping, idealistic, constructive vision that not only proves he was not the Zionist most people believe him to have been, [who saw the Jewish state as merely a protective fortress against Gentile hostility], but demonstrates the power of liberal nationalism to redeem a people and the world. “The Jews who want a state of their own will have one,” Herzl writes, democratically acknowledging those who wish to stay in the Diaspora. “We are to live at last as free men on our own soil and die peacefully in our own homeland.”

Then he soars, as every liberal nationalist should, building up universal hopes and values, not putting up walls and barriers to idealism: “The world will be freed by our freedom, enriched by our riches, and made greater by our greatness.”

How lucky we are—to be his heirs, to inherit a state that he helped create, rather than being born into the much harsher, more insecure world he inherited from his ancestors.

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