How can any Jew, any Zionist, any Israeli ever forget the historic words which Theodor Herzl, visionary father and founder of Zionism, wrote in his 1896 book “Der Judenstaat”. The Jewish State.
“If you will it, it is no dream”. In his writings and oral addresses to the Zionist Congress delegates, Herzl laid out the plans for the future of a Jewish state in Palestine. He emphasized that if the Jews worked to fulfill their ancient dream of a restored homeland in Zion, it would not be a legend. Rather it would be the factual historical fulfillment of the dream ending two thousand years in dispersion and exile.
Of the forty-four short years of his life, only the last eight were devoted to the cause of Zionism.
Today, July 3rd, marks the 114th anniversary of his tragic death in 1904. And equally tragic is the fact that we, citizens of the land he dreamed and worked for and for which he gave the last drop of his life’s blood, do not have a national day of remembrance for him. No parades. No ceremonies. Only vague memories.
Herzl was not an observant Jew in matters of religion. He did not observe the dietary laws, the laws of Shabbat or most of the commandments given to Moses at Sinai. He refused to circumcise his son Hans on the eighth day following his birth.
But somehow, in the depths of the “pintele Yid”, he discovered the spark of Judaism which grew into a fire that lit up the entire Jewish world.
It was born when he was in Paris as a correspondent for the large Vienna newspaper, Die Neue Freie Presse, covering the trial of a Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, on charges of espionage…of selling French military secrets to agents in the German embassy.
The trial rocked Paris and all of France. Anti-Semites crawled out of cracks in the wall like multitudes of cockroaches. Throughout France, the land of liberty, equality and brotherhood, the cries of millions were heard shouting “Dreyfus is a Jew, Dreyfus is a traitor, all Jews are traitors. Death to the Jews”.
Found guilty, stripped of his military uniform, his sword broken in two, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on the deserted island, Devil’s Island.
One voice, a prominent French voice, a respected French voice, was that of Emile Zola, the writer and novelist, whose headline in the French press shocked all of France.
“J’ACCUSE”…. I accuse the President of France, etc. With public opinion aroused, further military sources discovered that the real traitor was an army officer of Hungarian background, Count Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, who sold secrets to the German military in order to cover his gambling debts.
After further court trials, Dreyfus was declared innocent and was released from prison. The traitor, Esterhazy, escaped to England and later died there in 1923.
It was this one case which changed Herzl’s life. He wrote that if such an occurrence could happen in France, the most liberal and democratic nation in Europe, there was no solution to the Jewish problem in Europe other than the creating of a Jewish state on Israel’s ancestral land.
Had Herzl not witnessed the Dreyfus Affair, it is probable that the Zionist dream would not have been fulfilled.
There were other small groups of Jews, mainly in Russia and Rumania, who preceded Herzlian Zionism. The Bilu and the Hovevei Tziyon were most prominent among them. But no other group had the influential contacts with leaders of the nations as did Theodor Herzl.
It was Herzl’s passion which set fire in the hearts of the homeless Jewish nation and it was his tireless efforts which ultimately gave birth to an international recognition of the right of the Jews to their own land on the soil of their ancient homeland in Palestine.
Today we salute the dreamer of Zion. But sadly without parades or national ceremonies. Perhaps our flag, the blue and white flag of Zion, will be placed upon his grave at the cemetery which bears his name, Har Herzl, in Jerusalem.
Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory ever be for a lasting blessing.