The Man Whose Dream Became Israel
History tries correcting the tricks memory plays on us—while respecting memory’s power. Thomas Jefferson is famous for writing the Declaration of Independence during the Revolution—although he served as Virginia’s governor during the war too. Paul Revere is best known for his Midnight Ride in 1775—although the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow coined the phrase “One if by land, two if by sea” … 85 years later.
Similarly, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, is mostly famous for launching his movement in reaction to the anti-Semitism of the Alfred Dreyfus trial. As with all great historical tales, Israel’s foundation story conveys one essential truth—reactions to European Jew hatred did inspire Zionism. But this too-simplistic story risks eclipsing other nuanced truths, making Zionism seem too defensive and a critique of French liberalism rather than a more affirmative nationalism that also feared Austro-Hungary’s blood-and-soil anti-Semitic right.
But first, Herzl’s Zionist Aha Moment. It’s December 1894 in Paris. Theodor Herzl, a 34-year-old assimilated Austrian-Hungarian Jew, is covering the Dreyfus Affair. This lawyer, playwright, and journalist, with piercing eyes and a beautiful black beard, embodies the Enlightened rationalism and liberalism that freed Europe from the Middle Ages and Jews from their ghettoes. Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer, stands trial for treason. On December 22, 1894, when the court convicts Dreyfus—on trumped up charges, leading later to Emile Zola’s famous J’accuse—the crowd, inflamed by nationalism, doesn’t shout “Down with Dreyfus.” Instead, they yell—in Enlightened Paris—“Down with the Jews"...
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