Theodor Herzl, father of modern political Zionism. (Photo/JTA-GPO via Getty Images)
Theodor Herzl, father of modern political Zionism. (Photo/JTA-GPO via Getty Images)

What did Bay Area Jews make of Theodor Herzl in the 1890s?

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“It is asserted that the Herzl-Nordau crowd of visionaries will meet at Basle [sic] instead of Munich. We doubt whether the meeting will be held.”

We wrote that in 1897. We were wrong.

The First Zionist Congress would in fact be held that year in Basel, Switzerland, paving the way for the eventual founding of the state of Israel.

Herzl (1860-1904) is now a revered figure. He has a hill named after him in Jerusalem, the site of the National Cemetery, and a museum in the city. In 2004, the Israeli parliament established “Herzl Day” to honor him and his ideas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers Herzl a model of statesmanship.

But how did the man and his theories appear in our pages, back when organized Zionism was first growing as a vital political force, almost half a century before the founding of Israel?

Unsurprisingly, our coverage of Herzl’s movement was not particularly supportive. As a paper founded by a Reform rabbi, The Emanu-El (as this paper was called in those days) was characteristically anti-Zionist. It was thought that a Jewish homeland was unnecessary and divisive, not to mention a pipe dream (“active interest in this Zionist business is a dangerous meddling with nonsense”).

But founding editor Jacob Voorsanger had a healthy respect for Herzl’s energy and altruism and for the motivations of the early Zionists — he thought they had admirable ideals but a bad plan — and coverage was never disrespectful.

In 1896, less than a year after the newspaper began, The Emanu-El carried an early description of Herzl written by the English novelist Israel Zangwill, who would go on to become a supporter of Herzl (although he later broke with his ideas). It was the first time Zangwill had met Herzl, and he was impressed, if a little bemused.

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“He was an enthusiast in a hurry,” Zangwill wrote of Herzl, “for he wanted to be back in Vienna in three days’ time, and yet expected me to enable him to address a meeting of leading London Jews. To anyone who knows the difficulties of getting men together in London, where men will not eat the best dinners without weeks of forewarning, this expectation seemed enough of itself to stamp the man and his projects as unpractical.

“Dr. Herzl greatly impressed his hearers, not so much with his project as with his personality. Tall, black-bearded, handsome, a fine figure of a man, a brilliant orator, infinitely dexterous in debate, and able to address his audience (like Cosmopolis) in three languages, he proved an extraordinary combination of idealist and man of affairs.”

Concerning the Basel conference itself, a year later in 1897, we carried a report paraphrasing an account also written by Zangwill.

“Beneath the ‘statesmanlike prose’ of Dr. Herzl’s address, Mr. Zangwill sees ‘the romance of the poet and the purposeful vagueness of the modern evolutionist, the fantasy of the Hungarian, the dramatic self-consciousness of the literary artist;’ and beneath the apparent unanimity of the Congress, he sees signs of ‘the sordid squabbles of the Kahal.’ And yet, though the movement be hopeless, though the Zionists be self-deceivers, their enthusiasm of the moment commands the admiration of the onlooker.”

Enthusiasm, vigor, energy — these descriptions of Herzl come up again and again in the paper. As a prominent thinker and speaker, Herzl was often mentioned in the foreign news briefs, with one rather florid episode in an unattributed 1899 piece concerning the Jews of Vienna, the city where Herzl, a Hungarian, lived and worked.

“About nine o’clock in the evening I entered the most elegant of the Jewish restaurants. The room, part of a big building in which all kinds of Jewish gatherings are held, was electric lighted, the sofas plush covered, the walls decorated in white and gold — elegant and not bizarre,” it read.

“The polite waiter had taken my outer coat and wraps, when in a nook I espied the well-known features of the Zionist leader, Dr. Th. Herzl, deep in conversation with a young friend. His wonderful lustrous eyes glanced hither and thither.”

Herzl died young, at the age of 44. In 1904, Voorsanger penned this tribute for the paper:

“Dr. Herzl was an honest enthusiast who sincerely believed in the possibility of nationalizing the Jewish people and concentrate at least the poorer ones on the old Palestinian soil, which he hoped to make a centre for all Jewish national and spiritual energy. History may be compelled to record the defeat of Dr. Herzl’s aspirations, but it will do full justice to his sincerity and honesty of intentions.”

He went on to add: “This great movement, known as Zionism, owes its inception to the marvelous eloquence and romantic faith of its dead leader, who will hereafter rank among the great Messianists of history, with an added distinction that his motives were pure even if his judgment was imperfect.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.