Herzl Founds the Zionist Movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl wrote A Jewish State in 1896, in response to growing European anti-Semitism. Abandoning his former assimilationist ideas, Herzl helped create the World Zionist Organization, which paved the way for the creation of a Jewish state.

Summary of Event

During the nineteenth century, European Jews fell into three main groups based upon their attitude toward their homeland: traditional Orthodox, Reform, and Zionist. Orthodox Jews adhered to traditional beliefs and, at least in Russia, were restricted by law in their daily life. Symbolically, Jerusalem remained the center of Orthodox religious life, with the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” being repeated at each Passover Seder. Even the worst conditions seemed endurable by focusing on the promise of a Messiah who would someday lead his people back to Israel Israel , reversing the centuries of exile begun when the Romans burned the temple and expelled the Jews in 70 c.e. Zionism Jews;and Zionism[Zionism] Palestine;and Zionist movement[Zionist movement] Herzl, Theodor [kw]Herzl Founds the Zionist Movement (Feb., 1896-Aug., 1897) [kw]Founds the Zionist Movement, Herzl (Feb., 1896-Aug., 1897) [kw]Zionist Movement, Herzl Founds the (Feb., 1896-Aug., 1897) [kw]Movement, Herzl Founds the Zionist (Feb., 1896-Aug., 1897) Zionism Jews;and Zionism[Zionism] Palestine;and Zionist movement[Zionist movement] Herzl, Theodor [g]Middle East;Feb., 1896-Aug., 1897: Herzl Founds the Zionist Movement[6110] [g]Austria;Feb., 1896-Aug., 1897: Herzl Founds the Zionist Movement[6110] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb., 1896-Aug., 1897: Herzl Founds the Zionist Movement[6110] [c]Religion and theology;Feb., 1896-Aug., 1897: Herzl Founds the Zionist Movement[6110] [c]Immigration;Feb., 1896-Aug., 1897: Herzl Founds the Zionist Movement[6110] Nordau, Max Ha՚am, Aḥad Weizmann, Chaim

Other Jews, influenced by Enlightenment thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn, embraced Reform Judaism. For them, assimilation into European culture was the answer. The ancient longing for the Messiah and a return to Israel was abandoned. The Reform Jews’ only link to their ancestral home was through charity, as they assisted the handful of poor religious Jews then living in Jerusalem, praying and studying the Talmud.

A major turning point in Jewish history came with the French Revolution French Revolution (1789);and Jews[Jews] of 1789. The new French constitution granted Jews freedom, repealing their 1306 expulsion. Similar freedoms were soon granted throughout other western European nations. These developments were a boon to assimilationist Jews, who emerged into leadership positions in government, medicine, law, and finance.

During the nineteenth century, however, nationalism was on the rise as an ideology throughout Europe. The various Italian and German states, for example, united into two nations based upon the ethnic and linguistic ties of their people. This new nationalist ideology countered Reform Jews’ assimilationist ideas, resurrecting hopes of a Jewish homeland. Thus, a third Jewish movement arose that sought a return to Jerusalem by political means. Rather than assimilate or wait for the Messiah to lead them, this third group of Jews decided to bring about their own return home. Their movement became known as Zionism, named for an ancient Jerusalem hill.

Theodor Herzl.

(Library of Congress)

The Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl—a Jew who had thrived by assimilation—is often called the founder of Zionism. The critical dates in the foundation of the movement were February, 1896, when Herzl published Der Judenstaat (A Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question, 1896), and August, 1897, when the first Zionist Congress was held in Basle, Switzerland. While it is true that the term “Zionism” was popularized only under Herzl, however, the idea had been present throughout the nineteenth century. This was a time of renewed interest in the Middle East in general, with the building of the Suez Canal and with a new age of explorers and archaeologists who reported stories of their travels. By mid-century, every European nation and the United States had consulates in Jerusalem.

A succession of Jewish thinkers continued to visit the topic of Jewish nationalism. Among them were the Sarajevo-born Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai, the Polish Talmudic scholar Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, the German socialist Moses Hess, the Odessa physician Leo Pinsker, and the Russian agnostic Aḥad Ha՚am. Ha՚am, Aḥad The reason for a resurgence of nationalistic Jewish ideas was quite simple: The plague of anti-Semitism Anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism];and Zionism[Zionism] Zionism;and anti-Semitism[AntiSemitism] had not died, in spite of the Enlightenment and the rise of democratic ideas.

Alkalai, Kalischer, and Hess were affected deeply by news of the ritual murder of Jews in Damascus in 1840. It was in Germany in the 1870’s, however, that the situation turned drastic following a major financial crisis. The historian Heinrich Treitschke referred to the Jews as “our misfortune,” and Wilhelm Marr coined the term “anti-Semitism.” The hatred of Jews now moved from religious bigotry to racism, as the idea of the Aryan super-race emerged. In 1881, the Russian czar, Alexander II Alexander II [p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];assassination of , was assassinated. The event opened the door for the worst pogroms yet seen, which lasted through the turn of the century.

In 1881 in various Russian cities, Jews began organizing as “Lovers of Zion” to mobilize for emigration. At a time when one million Russian Jews emigrated to North America, twenty thousand made the first aliya (voyage of return to Israel Israel ), traveling to what was then Palestine. Some of them established agricultural settlements there with the financial support of wealthy European Jews such as Moses Montefiore and Baron Edmond Rothschild.

Thus, the ideas of Zionism were well under way when Herzl appeared on the scene. As had been true of the other Zionist intellectuals, the catalyst for Herzl’s conversion to Zionism was a confrontation with anti-Semitism. An assimilated Jew, he had prospered in western Europe. However, while in Paris as a correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse (new free press), he was personally affected by the so-called Dreyfus Dreyfus, Alfred affair, the 1894 trial of Alfred Dreyfus. A Jewish captain in the French army, Dreyfus was convicted of spying for Germany and imprisoned. Even when evidence surfaced that he was innocent, the government refused for years to exonerate him. Herzl became convinced that European Jews would never be completely free.

At first, Herzl sought financial assistance for Jewish emigration to places such as Argentina. In a period of five days during the summer of 1895, he sketched out his ideas in a sixty-five-page pamphlet that he originally intended as an address to the Rothschild family. In February, 1896, he published it as A Jewish State. Later, Herzl acknowledged that he wrote independently, unaware of the writings of Pinkser, Hess, and the other early Zionists.

Herzl then called for like-minded Jews to organize at a series of congresses. The First Zionist Congress was held in Basle, Switzerland, in August, 1897. While Herzl addressed the two hundred delegates with his rallying call, it was Max Nordau Nordau, Max , another Austrian writer, who served as Herzl’s right-hand man, articulating the precarious status of European Jewry. Herzl was elected as president of the World Zionist Organization, whose single goal was the creation of a home for Jews in Palestine. By 1899, the World Zionist Organization had created its own bank. By 1901, it had created the Jewish National Fund for the purpose of purchasing land.

Herzl worked tirelessly to complete the work of six congresses before his death at the age of forty-four on July 3, 1904. He was not without opposition within the Jewish ranks. Aḥad Ha՚am Ha՚am, Aḥad spoke against him and quit the movement after the first congress. Aḥad Ha՚am’s disciple, Chaim Weizmann, Weizmann, Chaim and Martin Buber formed their own “democratic” faction within the organization.

Herzl’s method was diplomacy, and he was not afraid to compromise. Since Palestine was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, he met with the sultan, offering him financial assistance to help pay off the debts of the already crumbling empire. The sultan welcomed Jews to settle within the empire—but not in Palestine, not in massive settlements, and not organized as a Jewish state. Herzl turned to the British for an alternative location for a Jewish homeland. Already, Argentina and several North American sites had been suggested. The British discussed the possibility of Cyprus or Sinai. Finally, they offered the Jews a section of Uganda Uganda;and Zionist movement[Zionist movement] and Kenya in East Africa East Africa;and Zionist movement[Zionist movement] . At the sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, Herzl’s proposal to accept Uganda was accepted by a vote of 295 to 178. Herzl had not abandoned the idea of a state in Palestine, however. Eventually, he thought, the Ottoman Empire would collapse or at least agree to accept a Jewish state within it. In the meantime, the Jews of Europe could not wait. Uganda would serve as a temporary refuge.


On May 14, 1948, when David Ben Gurion read the proclamation establishing the State of Israel Israel , Herzl’s photo was prominently displayed above his head. Herzl, more than any other individual, had created the irreversible momentum that had brought about the Jewish state. However, things did not develop as Herzl might have expected. By the time of his death in 1904, he had failed in his effort to unite European Jews. Assimilated Jews of western Europe were afraid that the Zionist movement would jeopardize their standing in society. Many of the eager Russian Jews had already rejected Herzl’s long-term approach. The mantle of leadership fell upon the Russian chemist Chaim Weizmann, Weizmann, Chaim who reversed the vote on Uganda. Other Russian Jews, such as David Ben Gurion, ignored Herzl’s cautious approach and took part in the second aliya in the early decades of the twentieth century.

It was Herzl’s lobbying efforts among the British, however, that helped pave the way for success, especially when Weizmann moved to London and contributed significantly to the British war effort. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Great Britain was the first government to express support for the establishment of a Jewish state. When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled after World War I, the British Mandate was established for control of Palestine Palestine from 1920 to 1948, leading to increased Jewish immigration, as European anti-Semitism too continued to grow. Although Herzl was intent on direct negotiation with Ottoman leaders, he seemed less aware of the role of the one-half million Arab inhabitants of Palestine and their growing anxiety over Zionism. This anxiety would lead to a century of conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Avineri, Shlomo. The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State. 1970. Reprint. New York: Basic Books, 1990. An analysis of the role of seventeen contributors to Zionism, emphasizing the philosophical underpinnings of the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dowty, Alan. The Jewish State: A Century Later. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. An analysis of contemporary Israel in view of its roots in the Zionist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hertzberg, Arthur. The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader. Reprint. New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1997. A collection of selections from thirty-seven writers who influenced the development of Zionism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herzl, Theodor. The Jew’s State. Translated by Henk Overberg. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1997. Herzl’s landmark statement of Zionist philosophy; one of the founding texts of the movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laqueur, Walter. A History of Zionism. Reprint. New York: Schocken Books, 2003. The classic scholarly study of Zionism, first published in 1972.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lownthal, Marvin, ed. and trans. Diaries of Theodor Herzl. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1990. Herzl’s own reflections upon his life and work are recorded in these personal diaries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pawel, Ernest. The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992. Places Herzl in his historical and cultural setting.

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