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The enigma of Theodor Herzl

The Zionist founder’s photographs may tell us more about him than any of his writings or accomplishments.

Theodor Herzl, 1897. Credit: Public Domain Photo.
Theodor Herzl, 1897. Credit: Public Domain Photo.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

The ceremonies marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress have recently concluded in Basel, Switzerland, and thus it seems an appropriate moment to contemplate the legacy of the organizer of that Congress: The founder of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who said, “At Basel, I founded the Jewish state.” It took some time, and he was not there to see it, but he was right.

Herzl was, without question, the most important Zionist leader who ever lived. But he is also the most inscrutable. He was an effective and inspirational leader, but also an impenetrable enigma, possessed of mercurial and mysterious moods and given to flights of fancy that baffled and frustrated many of those closest to him.

This enigmatic nature was epitomized by his greatest accomplishment, which was a very simple one: He, and in some ways he alone, refused to look away. When Herzl encountered the rise of modern anti-Semitism, rearing up out of an ostensibly liberal and enlightened world, he did not do what almost everyone else did, which was to pretend it wasn’t happening. He refused to lie to himself. He understood its terrible implications for the Jewish people and decided that he would resist it.

Like all great men, Herzl was wrong about many things, but in that moment, he was right when almost everyone else was wrong. And this was the essential thing. It was the only thing, in fact, that really mattered.

But does this bring us any closer to the real Herzl? Does it tell us who this strange and remarkable man really was?

The truth is that it does not. It does not explain how or why he was able to face what everyone else refused to face. How he had his great insight, and was willing to suffer opprobrium and ridicule for it. Why he gave himself over to a cause that almost everyone else at the time considered foolhardy and even insane.

In some ways, we will never penetrate this enigma. But if we want to understand the man himself, I believe we can come closest to it, ironically, not through his writings or his activism, but through his photographs.

I do not mean only the famous photograph of him on the balcony of his Basel hotel, leaning upon the railing, his hands clasped, staring off into the distance across the Rhine, like a man in another place, possessed by what may be waiting on the opposite bank, the other side. I mean all of his photographs, because he appears largely the same in all of them, and one does sense that—every single time—something like the essence of the man has been captured.

Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern-day Zionism, leans over the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois (Three King’s Hotel/Hotel drei Könige) in Basel, Switzerland, possibly during the sixth Zionist conference there. Credit: The Bettman Archive.

I will tell you what I see in those photographs. I see, first and foremost, his eyes. They are quite strikingly large, and always open wide with a stare that seems to pierce and unnerve the viewer. One can only imagine the extraordinary effect they must have had on those who fell under his uncanny gaze. There is no doubt as to the origin of his charisma.

But those eyes are also obscure and distant, giving above all a sense of rumination, of a relentless mind working slowly but steadily through other and abstract worlds. This, along with his enormous beard, gives him, despite his secularism, a distinctly rabbinical cast.

I also see a man of considerable melancholy, who is not only lost in thought but also looking back through time into what he called his people’s “struggles and sufferings.” They are sad eyes because they are the eyes of a man who wishes, above all, to be free—free of history, free of suffering, free of the depredations of an unjust world.

Yet they are not despairing eyes. In all of his photographs, especially the one on the Basel balcony, Herzl appears resolute. He has the countenance of a man who believes with perfect faith that he has a destiny, though he doubts whether he will have the fortitude, skill and length of days to fulfill it—as he both did and did not. He looks like a man who knows that he will probably die young with his dreams unfulfilled (as he did) but is nonetheless determined to do what he can, and leave it to younger and healthier men to complete the task. He appears to know, as the sage put it, that it is not for him to finish the work, but nor is he free to desist from it.

It may be that this conviction came from the fact that while Herzl wished to be free from many things, he did not wish to be free of his people. In all his photographs, there is a distinct, trunk-like quality to Herzl’s physicality. He has the look of a great tree firmly planted in the ground. And that ground may have been the stark reality, which he did not, in the end, despise or neglect, that he was a Jew—and a different kind of Jew. He was no wanderer. The land beneath his feet was solid. Yet it was also, at that moment, incorporeal. So, he was determined to give it flesh and sinew, to struggle to bring it back to life like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert.

And that is what I see above all: a man of the struggle. A man who is contending mightily with an evil world. A man who knew that he would lose that struggle, but others after him might win it, and thus he was not free to desist from it. And if those staring eyes seek to tell us anything, it is that we, too, are not free to desist from it. For this, and this alone, the Jewish people owe him everything.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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