The Impact of the Dreyfus case on Theodor Herzl

    May 2009            
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The Dreyfus case and the Zionist Movement

By Harry Finer

Colonel Alfred Dreyfus was a French staff officer and a Jew who in the fall of 1894 was accused of treason on behalf of the German government. It was a sensational trial which brought out a tremendous anti-Semitic reaction in France. The French Government was convinced of his guilt and succeeded in arousing the French popular opinion not only against Dreyfus, but against the Jews in general. Amongst those on Dreyfus' side were the great Émile Zola, the great French writer, Georges Clemenceau, a renowned French statesman, physician, and journalist Jean Jaurès, a leading French Socialist leader. The trial was the sensation of its time.

Journalists from the leading newspapers of Europe were sent to France to cover this remarkable case. Amongst the special journalists sent there was Theodor Herzl, who in his late thirties came from Vienna to represent the Neue Rreie Presse. He was well connected and occupied a high position on the editorial staff. He was a Jew of impressive appearance but of the most assimilated type having had no interest in the Viennese Jewish community.

As the case proceeded and the injustice of the methods used by the government unfolded, it became more apparent to impartial outsider observers as well as Herzl of the unfairness of this case. Here was a solitary Jew who was innocent yet was being opposed by all the power of the French government who were determined to prove him guilty. It was at this point that Herzl began to see Dreyfus more as a symbol of the entire Jewish people who are surrounded by hatred and anti-Semitism than as an isolated mistrial. It was here that he began contemplating a solution to the ancient 'Jewish problem'.

He became obsessed with a vision of a liberated people living in their own land. He saw that as the only means by which the Jews could gain the respect of the nations of the world. He began to write in this vein and shortly came into contact with other Zionist leaders and joined with them. From this point Herzl became enthused with the Zionist causes and subsequently abandoned most of the other life pursuits that most men seek.

Through friendships and acquaintances he brought his case before the leading members of the Royal House of Baden and obtained their support. With this foundation he continued to speak to leading members of various governments. He held long conversations wit the Pope, the Sultan of Turkey, the British Colonial Secretary, Chamberlain, and many other notables. He put all of his energy, his intellectual abilities, and selfless passion to the cause of Zionism and rapidly became the acknowledged leader of the Zionist movement.

He realized that the acquisition of the then barren territory of Palestine from the Turks would be required to fulfil this dream. For this purpose he approached the wealthy and leading members of the various Jewish communities. He felt that the liberal governments that were so popular in Europe would not last long and would eventually be replace by tyrannical leaders who would be worse than the aristocratic royal rulers and parliamentary governments that were popular at this time.

Herzl began to realize that only one country would do something practical in regard to the Jewish question and that was England. He made contact with Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary in Mr Balfour's administration. Chamberlain was so impressed with Herzl that he took up the question with the Cabinet and began to consider the various political aspects of the question.

It was in 1897 that Theodor Herzl summoned the first Zionist Congress. It was held in Basle and was the first time that Jewish leaders met collectively to decide on a common political program to solve the 'Jewish problem'. Here they repeated the aloud the Hebrew verse, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." The congress drew up a public declaration of its aims and ideals which became known as the Basle Program. It states that the object of Zionism is to establish for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law. A constitution was made and it was decided to hold congresses at regular intervals. Unfortunately the wealthy and prominent Jewish political leaders from various countries were absent from this congress.

The second Zionist Congress met in Basle in 1898 and the third in 1899. With each meeting the movement grew in popular support. Even distinguished non-Jews became supporters of the ideal of the return of Jews to Zion.

The fourth Zionist Congress was held in London in 1900. Herzl said in his speech there that "...there is no necessity for justifying the holding the Congress in London. England is one of the last remaining places on earth where there is freedom from Jewish hatred." It was from this conference, the British Government began to recognize the importance and validity of the Zionist movement. The British Cabinet was willing to further Zionist goals and in 1902.considered granting the Sinai Peninsula to the Jews. Owing to difficulties with Egypt, the negotiations failed.

After this the British Government proposed to grant a large area of land to the Zionists in what is now known a Uganda. Uganda was not Palestine, but Palestine was under the Turkish Government rule. The Turks had neither understanding nor desire to understand the Zionist aspiration. The British government offer presented a real solution; Herzl gratefully accepted and submitted it for ratification at the 1903 Congress.

The Uganda proposal was the main item on the agenda of this Congress and also the following congress of 1905. In the 1903 Congress, the delegates from Russia formed an important section and were meeting at a time that the Tsarist Government was beginning an intensified policy of anti-Semitism. This started with the Kishinoff Easter pogrom in 1903 which lasted three days. From then on it the Russian Government increased its anti-Semitic fervour. It was in this atmosphere in which the Russian Zionists were offered a place of refuge in Uganda. It is easy against this background of governmental racism to see them accept such an easy and desirable escape venue. Yet such was their attachment to the ideal of the Jewish homeland being in Palestine that the proposal did not pass. It was due to the Russian Zionist that Uganda was not accepted. Chaim Weitzmann was one of these delegates who had the strength of mind to stand up for a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel.

Instead of outright rejecting Uganda, a commission of inquiry was sent to Uganda. Their report was not enthusiastic and it was left to the next congress after intense debate to reject Uganda. After the rejection of Uganda theoretical Zionism continued but it was practical Zionism that began to develop.

Baron Edmond de Rothschild who was not accustomed to dealing with democratic bodies, proceeded as an individual to colonize Palestine. He sent his agents to acquire small pieces of territory and to set up an organization to train and select settlers. He financed the early development and although he was independent he made himself accessible to the Zionist leaders.

Herzl himself was worn out by all of his super human efforts that he had put into securing a homeland and was disappointed at the failure of his proposal and rejection by the Zionist Congress. He died of a broken heart in 1904 never to see that the seeds that he planted would later grow and produce fruit beyond his imagination.


from the May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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