«Herzl appeared on the scene at a moment when many Jews yearned for a charismatic, inspiring leader.»

Five questions for Derek Penslar

This year marks the 125th anni­ver­sa­ry of the First Zio­nist Con­gress held in Basel. The man who initia­ted and led the con­gress was Theo­dor Herzl, and bes­i­des his talent for orga­ni­zing, his cha­ris­ma and ener­gy made it a suc­cess. Who was the man? Pro­fes­sor Derek J. Penslar of Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty wro­te a new bio­gra­phy of Theo­dor Herzl, which appeared this year as «Staats­man ohne Staat» in Ger­man. Nao­mi Lubrich asked Pro­fes­sor Penslar about his research.

Nao­mi Lubrich:  Your book on Theo­dor Herzl, «Staats­mann ohne Staat,» appeared in Ger­man this year as the most recent bio­gra­phy of man who has been stu­di­ed from many angles. What does your book address that the pre­vious bio­gra­phies ignored?

Derek Penslar: Pre­vious bio­gra­phies focu­sed on the con­s­truc­tion or decon­s­truc­tion of myth – pre­sen­ting Herzl as a lar­ger than life, heroic figu­re or a trou­bled, fin de siè­cle Jewish intellec­tu­al strugg­ling to find his place in the world. My bio­gra­phy con­siders the­se two approa­ches to be inter­de­pen­dent:  Herzl’s trou­bled per­so­na­li­ty, com­bi­ned with his bril­li­ance, cha­ris­ma, and orga­niza­tio­nal abili­ty, made him a gre­at lea­der. My bio­gra­phy of Herzl also dif­fers from its pre­de­ces­sors by pre­sen­ting lea­der­ship as dia­lo­gic, con­stant­ly sha­ping and being shaped by the leader’s fol­lo­wers. Herzl appeared on the sce­ne at a moment when many Jews year­ned for a cha­ris­ma­tic, inspi­ring lea­der untain­ted by pre-exis­ting and fai­ling Jewish institutions.

NL: You list a num­ber of reasons for Herzl’s suc­cess, among them psy­cho­lo­gi­cal. Herzl was depres­sed, ego­cen­tric, and a work­aho­lic. But the Zio­nist pro­ject hel­ped him find sta­bi­li­ty. How?

DP: Herzl lon­ged for great­ness. At first, he sought it in the thea­ter, but alt­hough he was a good play­w­right, his work was not memo­rable. Herzl was a  gifted jour­na­list, but he did not respect his craft. And during his time as a jour­na­list in Paris Herzl had come to see how cor­rupt the world of poli­tics could be. Herzl saw Zio­nism, in con­trast, as a pure and noble ide­al, to which he could devo­te his life and upon which he con­cen­tra­ted his psy­chic energy.

NL: Among the cir­cum­stan­ti­al reasons for Herzl’s suc­cess was the decre­asing influence of rab­bi­nic aut­ho­ri­ties of his time. Herzl didn’t know much about Juda­ism. What role did Jewish cul­tu­re play in his visi­on of a new state?

DP: Herzl did not sepa­ra­te Jewish from Euro­pean cul­tu­re. Herzl was not hosti­le to Hebrew or Yid­dish cul­tu­re, but his Jewish­ness was that of a cos­mo­po­li­tan, fin de siè­cle Euro­pean, and that cos­mo­po­li­tan spi­rit infu­ses his visi­on for a future Jewish home­land. In his novel «Alt­neu­land,» he depicts a new Jewish home­land whe­re the Temp­le has been rebuilt, but in its aes­the­tic gran­deur it resem­bles a Vien­nese cathe­dral. «Alt­neu­land» has Euro­pean-style ope­ra and thea­ter, but in the novel the ope­ra being per­for­med is based on the life of the 17th-cen­tu­ry Jewish fal­se mes­siah Sab­ba­tai Zevi.

NL: You wri­te that Herzl’s recep­ti­on during his life­time was mixed. Which groups oppo­sed him?

DP: Zio­nism was a mino­ri­ty move­ment – at the time of Herzl’s death, only about 100,000 Jews – one per cent of world Jewry – had for­mal Zio­nist affi­lia­ti­ons.  Most ortho­dox Jews con­side­red Zio­nism blas­phe­mous; many secu­lar Jews in eas­tern Euro­pe and North Ame­ri­ca pre­fer­red revo­lu­tio­na­ry socia­list move­ments over Zio­nism, and assi­mi­la­tio­nist Jews found Zio­nism to be at best an embar­rass­ment and at worst a thre­at to their incre­asing­ly com­for­ta­ble posi­ti­ons in their homelands.

NL:  Today, Jewish com­mu­ni­ties look much dif­fe­rent from tho­se of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Would it be con­ceiva­ble for any one per­son to be able to uni­fy Jews from ultra-ortho­dox to ega­li­ta­ri­an, the way Herzl uni­fied the diver­se groups in his day?

DP: Timing is ever­y­thing. When Herzl appeared on the sce­ne, a cri­ti­cal mass of Jews nee­ded a lea­der just like him. Twen­ty years later, during World War I, Jews despera­te­ly nee­ded a con­sum­ma­te diplo­mat who could imbed Zio­nism within the post-war order – and Cha­im Weiz­mann rose to great­ness. Twen­ty years after that, Zio­nism nee­ded a lea­der who could build a sta­te and army, and Ben-Guri­on ful­fil­led that task.  Today, the needs and desi­res of Zio­nists throug­hout the world and Israe­lis in the Jewish sta­te are so dif­fu­se, so con­tra­dic­to­ry, that it’s hard to image a sin­gle per­son uniting and ful­fil­ling them.

NL: Thank you very much, Pro­fes­sor Penslar.

verfasst am 09.08.2022