A journey through Herzl’s Zionist response to European opposition to Judaism, and lessons to today

BY GOL KALEV,  April 16, 2021
This article first appeard in Hungarian in Új Kelet
Herzl as a child with his mother Janet and sister Pauline. SOURCE: WIKIPEDIA

When and where did Herzl receive the idea of Zionism?  While the answer remains a mystery, it might have something to do to do with the streets of 19th Century Budapest.  Born in Pest in 1860, Theodor Herzl was raised in a secular Jewish family with strong Jewish consciousness. Herzl was shaped through tragedy. When he was 17 he lost his sister Paulina to typhus. Within weeks, Herzl and his parents moved from Budapest to Vienna to escape the grief.  Yet, young Herzl would go back to Budapest to take his matriculation exams, and it is possible that during those months of the spring and summer of 1878, early seeds of his Zionist thinking was beginning to ferment – through both internal and external triggers.

Herzl possibly spent time during those months with his grandfather, who seemed to have come from Zemun (today part of Belgrade) to Budapest around this time. Herzl’s grandfather was an associate of Rabbi Judah Alkalai, an early Zionist prototype who  advocated for the return of the Jews to their ancestral land through a political-diplomatic process. Did Herzl get a download of Zionism from his grandfather during this time?  But it was not just organic Jewish thinking that might have stimulated Herzl’s early thinking in those months in Budapest. Hungarian historian Attila Novák points to a potential external development: “On April 8 of the same year, Győző Istóczy delivered his anti-Semitic speech in the Budapest Parliament. The two events [Herzl spending time in Budapest and the speech] seem to have nothing to do with each other, but it is certain that a new phase in Theodor Herzl’s life began and the chances of him becoming a Hungarian writer disappeared. The Jewish Tivadar of Budapest became Vienna’s Theodor Herzl.”

From there, the cosmopolitan Theodor Herzl of Vienna burst into a journey that will bestow him with unique hands-on insight into European political philosophy and eventually lead him to establish the Zionist Congress in Basel and to charter the road back to Jerusalem.  

Herzl’s path from Budapest to Basel was not linear – it first took him into the epicenter of German nationalism. Herzl was a fan of Otto von Bismarck, the father of a United Germany and its first chancellor. He studied  his state-building endeavor meticulously. As a university student in Vienna, he joined the nationalist Albia fraternity, proudly wore its uniform, engaged in its rituals, and sang songs of German patriotism. “The German spirit awoke,” Herzl wrote as he became an adamant German nationalist. In doing so he rejected both the rising the Austrian model, which became a super-national empire, as well as the Hungarian nationalist movement. 

Herzl’s insider’s insight of the German nationalist movement exposed him to its nuances and indeed its dangers. He recognized that German nationalism’s relationship to the Jews is shifting away from attempts at “improving” the Jews and Germanizing them, to negating the Jews and denying them a place amongst the nations – both as a collective and as individuals. 

This was manifested in Albia’s celebration of Richard Wagner’s extreme Jew-hatred philosophy, and Herzl’s subsequent resignation from the fraternity.

A decade later, Herzl got front-row access to the opposite model of European political theory – French liberal democracy. Herzl spent four years in Palais Bourbon, the French parliament, as the Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse. Herzl inserted himself in the Mecca of European liberalism, interacting with fellow journalists, intellectuals and politicians of various factions, such as with Georges Clémenceau.

Herzl observed French politics at its best and its worst. He analyzed the interplay between democracy and populism, studying the system of give-and-take which is at the core democratic governance, and observed the power struggle between democracy’s various branches. Herzl internalized the imperfections of the liberal democracy and applied the lessons to his vision of the Jewish state. Indeed, Herzl planted the seeds for a more perfect version of European liberalism in today’s Israel.  

Core to Herzl’s understanding of Europe was its permanent and incurable opposition to Judaism. 

Europe’s chronic opposition to Judaism mutates

At Herzl’s times there were those who believed that as Europe turned secular, its age-old opposition to Judaism would end. But Herzl was able to see in his years that the hate did not fade, but rather evolved to accommodate changing European and Jewish circumstances. He saw how it rapidly morphed from religious-based hatred towards insular Jews living in Ghettos, into secular-based hatred towards emancipated Jews climbing up European society. This form of European Jew-hatred was given a new name towards the end of the 19th century: anti-Semitism. 

Herzl shadowed the anti-Semitism movement’s growth – in  Budapest, in Albia fraternity, in his travels, and in Paris – and was able to place this new form of opposition to Judaism in the context of age-old European Jew-hatred: “I believe that I understand anti-Semitism, which is really a highly complex movement,” he wrote in his manifesto the Jewish State.  

Indeed, Herzl understood that just like other iterations of European chronic opposition to Judaism, anti-Semitism too was nuanced. “I believe that I can see what elements there are in it of vulgar sport, of common trade jealousy, of inherited prejudice, of religious intolerance, and also of pretended self-defense,” he explained. Mostly, Herzl understood that European attitudes towards Judaism are not about the Jewish religion. The Jewish question is a national question, he concluded, and hence the response to the chronic age-old European opposition to Judaism must be on the national level.

A thriving Jewish state would not only mitigate opposition over the long-term, but it would also provide a construct for Jews to defend themselves against such chronic European opposition. It would radically redraw the European-Jewish equation. 

The 2,300 year-old Europe-Jewish conflict, dating back to the European invasions of the Judea by the Greeks and Romans, was never one of co-equals. Jews were invaded by Europe, forced by Europe to “Europeanized” or die, deported from their land by Europeans and lived as refugees in Europe under various forms European persecution and deportations (the vast majority of Jews lived in Europe during those centuries of exile).

The existence of a thriving Jewish State would force the European to look at the Jew through a different lense.

Herzl understood the risks of the process he was undertaking, and provided a word of advice that is relevant to our days. Radical processes like this take a long time. It would be unreasonable for Europeans to change their attitudes towards Jews after centuries of indoctrination. Herzl wrote to Bismarck and warned him about the dangers associated with emancipation of the Jews, which happened swiftly and without preparation of the European hearts and minds: “There is no use in suddenly announcing in the newspaper that starting tomorrow all people are equal,” he proclaimed. Herzl’s warning turned out to be correct: Europeans did not come to terms with the newly liberated Jews, suddenly their equals. That was evident in France during the Dreyfus affair and a few decades later in the genocide of European Jewry.

Herzl understood that European Jew-hatred is a European problem and not a Jewish problem – it would mutate as European and Jewish circumstances evolve.

European opposition expressed in contemporary contexts

This indeed is the case today. Europe evolved – now suddenly secular, post-ideological, and human-rights conscious, and Judaism evolved as the Jewish state was reestablished. As a result Europe has funneled the entirety of its chronic opposition to Judaism through Israel, and is using currencies and and languages that are relevant to contemporary European trends.

This is reflected in the rapid expansion and mainstreaming of Europe’s “Israel-bashing” epidemic. It includes Europe’s intense criticism of Israel’s right to self-defense, and the industry of contemporary blood libels, such as “the genocide in Palestine” and “the massacre in Gaza”. Indeed, Israel-bashing is the current evolution of centuries-old European Jew-hatred. Israel-bashing has turned into a culture, fashion and code of conduct. It is arguably, much stronger, well-financed, and integral to contemporary European culture than the early days of previous iterations of Jew-hatred, including 19th Century anti-Semitism.

This came to bare for example, in the recent International Criminal Court investigation of potential Israeli “war crimes”, which forced the simple question: Does the Jewish state have a right to self-defense in the same way other nations do? Or should Jews be held to different standards, as they always been since the beginning of European history? Needless to say, there is no war crime investigation of French, British, German police shooting terrorists during terrorist attacks in Europe, nor of European armies’ conduct. Like previous episodes of actionable Jew-hatred, this round as well is masked in seemingly legal packaging, which gives the hate the illusion of credibility.  

Righteous Europeans understandably try to put distance between themselves and the actions of the ICC – possibly in part because they understand that just like the court has targeted Israel and the United States, it can also target them, perhaps as a way to demonstrate that the ICC is not singling-out Israel. But Europe can not escape its responsibility for the deplorable actions of the ICC, which after-all is housed in Europe and supported by Europeans. Nor can Europe disclaim its responsibility for other fronts of Israel-bashing epidemic, such as its sponsorship of organizations that incite Palestinians against Israel and place insurmountable hurdles to peace.

Conflict-management and hope

Understanding that European hostility to the Jewish nation is nuanced, Herzl rejected a “zero tolerance approach” to anti-Semitism. He wrote: “In Paris, I gained a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism which I now began to understand historically and make allowances for”. Indeed, Herzl had anti-Semitic acquaintances and engaged with them – one of them even gave him the valuable advise to present his ideas through a novel (later to become AltNeuLand).

We should apply Herzl’s approach to the current iteration of European opposition to Judaism – Israel-Bashing. Indeed, not only there are friendships, business cooperation and camaraderie between Israelis and Europeans, but one must not forget that European countries and the European Union are important allies and strategic partners of the Jewish state.

Herzl also understood that European attitudes towards Jews is a byproduct of internal European struggles. At his time he observed how France was divided between the anti-Dreyfus camp, who viewed the Dreyfus trial as a referendum on “Jewish France” as Edouard Drumont, one of the leaders of the French anti-Semitism movement, called it, and the “Dreyfusards” who believed that the French principles of Liberté, égalité, fraternité should apply to the Jews as well – in practice, and not just on paper.

Today as well there are those in Europe who advocate for actions that would continue and even escalate the 2,300 year old European-Israeli conflict, but there are also those who believe it is time to part with old European dogmatic opposition to Judaism.

Herzl was optimistic that Europe and the world will pivot: “The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness,”. As the Jewish State he envisioned has turned into a great success – in technological innovations, medical breakthroughs, social experiments and sanctification of human right – let us hope that Europe can soon free itself from its chronic opposition to Judaism, and join Israel’s Arab neighbors and so many around the world in benefiting from the crisp light that is emanating from Zion.

More from the writer: Europe & Jerusalem

THIS ARTICLE WAS TRANSLATED BACK FROM HUNGARIAN. IT FIRST APPEARED IN HUNGARIAN MAGAZINE ÚJ KELET AND IN IZRAELINFO.COM ON APRIL 16, 2021. CLICK FOR THE PDF:

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