Theodor Her­zl: The Charis­mat­ic Leader

  • Review
By – May 29, 2020

Theodor Her­zl (18601904) was an improb­a­ble leader of the Zion­ist move­ment. Son of a bour­geois fam­i­ly, at ease in the world of Euro­pean cul­ture, a promi­nent jour­nal­ist and writer, Her­zl could have com­fort­ably fit into a life of lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture. But he unex­pect­ed­ly turned to a dif­fer­ent direc­tion, gal­va­niz­ing the nascent move­ment that led, decades after his death, to the cre­ation of the state of Israel. In this com­pact, engross­ing biog­ra­phy, Derek Penslar, pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish his­to­ry at Har­vard, seeks to explain how Her­zl embod­ied these con­trast­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics to become the inspi­ra­tional leader of Zionism.

Penslar attrib­ut­es Herzl’s suc­cess to his charis­ma — how he saw him­self and how oth­ers expe­ri­enced him. In the unset­tled con­di­tions of Jew­ish life in late nine­teenth- and ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Europe, Her­zl offered hope, ener­gy, and orga­ni­za­tion to the sev­er­al small and scat­tered exist­ing Zion­ist move­ments. Through his com­mand­ing pres­ence and state­ly bear­ing — hand­some, elo­quent, with large and far-see­ing dark eyes — he appeared to many as a prophet­ic fig­ure. Against the oppo­si­tion of assim­i­lat­ed Jews, social­ists, and the Ortho­dox, Her­zl man­aged to con­vene the first Zion­ist Con­gress in 1897 and was elect­ed its pres­i­dent. Out of the con­gress came a struc­ture con­sol­i­dat­ing the var­i­ous Zion­ist groups into the Zion­ist Orga­ni­za­tion, and a pro­gram to estab­lish a Jew­ish home­land in Palestine.

What caused an assim­i­lat­ed, accom­plished jour­nal­ist with lit­tle or no Jew­ish back­ground to devote the last six years of his short life to the estab­lish­ment of a Jew­ish home­land in Pales­tine? A deeply trou­bled man in an unhap­py mar­riage, Her­zl suf­fered marked mood swings through­out his life. As Penslar sees him, Her­zl, racked by bouts of depres­sion and inse­cu­ri­ty, des­per­ate­ly need­ed a project to give his life mean­ing and into which he could throw his con­sid­er­able ener­gies. Through the knowl­edge Her­zl gained as Paris cor­re­spon­dent for Die Neue Freie Presse, a pres­ti­gious Euro­pean news­pa­per, dur­ing French polit­i­cal tur­moil and finan­cial scan­dals of the 1890s, and his read­ing in social the­o­ry, Her­zl devel­oped a vision of a mod­el soci­ety that would alle­vi­ate the mis­eries of the work­ing class, a vision he lat­er incor­po­rat­ed into Zion­ism. With his geopo­lit­i­cal knowl­edge and stand­ing as a jour­nal­ist, Her­zl posi­tioned him­self as the cham­pi­on of a Jew­ish home­land and thrust­ed him­self onto the world stage, nego­ti­at­ing meet­ings with Euro­pean and Ottoman lead­ers and major financiers.

With exten­sive cita­tions from Herzl’s diaries, cor­re­spon­dence, and jour­nal­is­tic and lit­er­ary writ­ing, Penslar con­veys the com­plex­i­ties and ambi­tion that made Her­zl the voice of the inchoate long­ings of the Zion­ist move­ment. Although he died with­out achiev­ing real­iza­tion of his goals, Her­zl is enshrined in Israeli his­to­ry, his name on streets in almost every city and town and on Har Her­zl, home to Yad Vashem and the rest­ing place of many of Israel’s most cel­e­brat­ed lead­ers. Penslar gives life to Herzl’s ded­i­ca­tion and last­ing impact on Jew­ish history.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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