Theodor (Binyamin Ze'ev) Herzl, the visionary of Zionism, was born in Budapest in 1860. He was educated in the spirit of the German-Jewish Enlightenment of the period, learning to appreciate secular culture. In 1878 the family moved to Vienna, and in 1884 Herzl was awarded a doctorate of law from the University of Vienna. He became a writer, a playwright and a journalist. The Paris correspondent of the influential liberal Vienna newspaper Neue Freie Presse was none other than Theodor Herzl.
Herzl first encountered the anti-Semitism that would shape his life and the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century while studying at the University of Vienna (1882). Later, during his stay in Paris as a journalist, he was brought face-to-face with the problem. At the time, he regarded the Jewish problem as a social issue and wrote a drama, The Ghetto (1894), in which assimilation and conversion are rejected as solutions. He hoped that The Ghetto would lead to debate and ultimately to a solution, based on mutual tolerance and respect between Christians and Jews.
In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was unjustly accused of treason, mainly because of the prevailing anti-Semitic atmosphere. Herzl witnessed mobs shouting "Death to the Jews" in France, the home of the French Revolution, and resolved that there was only one solution: the mass immigration of Jews to a land that they could call their own. Thus the Dreyfus Case became one of the determinants in the genesis of Political Zionism.
Herzl concluded that anti-Semitism was a stable and immutable factor in human society, which assimilation did not solve. He mulled over the idea of Jewish sovereignty, and, despite ridicule from Jewish leaders, published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896). Herzl argued that the essence of the Jewish problem was not individual but national. He declared that the Jews could gain acceptance in the world only if they ceased being a national anomaly. The Jews are one people, he said, and their plight could be transformed into a positive force by the establishment of a Jewish state with the consent of the great powers. He saw the Jewish question as an international political question to be dealt with in the arena of international politics.
Herzl proposed a practical program for collecting funds from Jews around the world by a company to be owned by stockholders, which would work towards the practical realization of this goal. (This organization, when it was eventually formed, was called the Zionist Organization.) He saw the future state as a model social state, basing his ideas on the European model of the time, of a modern enlightened society. It would be neutral and peace-seeking, and of a secular nature.
Hibbat Zion was a pre-Zionist movement, beginning in the 1880s, advocating revival of Jewish life in the Land. Its adherents worked towards the physical development of the Land, and founded agricultural settlements in Palestine. By the time the First Zionist Congress met in 1897, they had already begun to transform the face of the Land.
Herzl, though, saw the aim of the Zionist movement as a charter for a Jewish national entity in the Land of Israel rather than its development through piecemeal settlement.
In his Zionist novel, Altneuland (Old New Land, 1902), Herzl pictured the future Jewish state as a socialist utopia. He envisioned a new society that was to rise in the Land of Israel on a cooperative basis utilizing science and technology in the development of the Land.
He included detailed ideas about how he saw the future state's political structure, immigration, fund-raising, diplomatic relations, social laws and relations between religion and the state. In Altneuland, the Jewish state was foreseen as a pluralist, advanced society, a "light unto the nations."
This book had a great impact on the Jews of the time and became a symbol of the Zionist vision in the Land of Israel.
Herzl's ideas were met with enthusiasm by the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, although Jewish leaders were less ardent. Still, Herzl convened and chaired the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, on August 29-31, 1897, the first interterritorial gathering of Jews on a national and secular basis. Here the delegates adopted the Basle Program, the program of the Zionist movement, and declared "Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law." At the Congress the Zionist Organization was established as the political arm of the Jewish people, and Herzl was elected its first president. In the same year, Herzl founded the Zionist weekly Die Welt and began activities to obtain a charter for Jewish settlement in the land. After the First Zionist Congress, the movement met yearly at an international Zionist Congress. In 1936 the center of the Zionist movement was transferred to Jerusalem.
Herzl saw the need for encouragement by the great powers of the aims of the Jewish people in the Land. Thus, he traveled to the Land of Israel and Istanbul in 1898 to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. When these efforts proved fruitless, he turned to Great Britain, and met with Joseph Chamberlain, the British colonial secretary and others. The only concrete offer he received from the British was the proposal of a Jewish autonomous region in east Africa, in Uganda.
The 1903 Kishinev pogrom and the difficult state of Russian Jewry, witnessed firsthand by Herzl during a visit to Russia, had a profound effect on him. He proposed the British Uganda Program to the Sixth Zionist Congress (1903) as a temporary refuge for Jews in Russia in immediate danger. While Herzl made it clear that this program would not affect the ultimate aim of Zionism, a Jewish entity in the Land of Israel, the proposal aroused a storm at the Congress and nearly led to a split in the Zionist movement.
The Uganda Program was finally rejected by the Zionist movement at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905.
Herzl died in 1904, of pneumonia and a weak heart overworked by his incessant efforts on behalf of Zionism, but by then the movement had found its place on the world political map. In 1949 Herzl's remains were brought to Israel and reinterred on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
Herzl coined the phrase "If you will, it is no fairytale," which became the motto of the Zionist movement. Although at the time no one could have imagined it, Zionism led, only fifty years later, to the establishment of the independent State of Israel.