If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Theodor Herzl and the birth of political Zionism

Created by Sal Khan.

Video transcript

The history of the Jewish people goes back roughly 4,000 years. In order to understand the desire by Jewish people in the late 1800s and early 1900s for a Jewish homeland, we have to go back roughly 17 or 1800 years to the year 135 in the Common Era. It was then that Judea was a province of the Roman Empire. Judea is the biblical home of the Jewish people. It's the location of Jerusalem. In 135 of the Common Era the Roman emperor, Hadrian, is able to suppress a rebellion by the Jews in Judea and after suppressing that rebellion, he expels the Jews from Judea. Hadrian expels the Jews from Judea. Not only did he expel them from Judea, but he actually renamed the province. This province up here in red was Roman Syria. He merges these two provinces and calls them Syria Palaestina. Let me write that down. He renames it Syria Palaestina, which is essentially why for the next 1700 years or so and even parts of it today are referred to as Palestine. Now, we will fast forward over the next more than 1700 years. Over this period most of the Jewish people are not now living in what was then Judea. They have settled in groups in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa. There were even groups of Jews who had settled in India. For the most part they thrived in their various communities, but unfortunately their history had a fairly large amount of persecution, of discrimination, of kind of using them as a scapegoat. This was particularly the case in Europe where you have the Christian church often kind of blamed the Jews on religious grounds. They were an easy scapegoat any time things went hard. You had ethnic cleansing. You had pogroms. This was the Russian empire, especially as we get into the 1800s, was especially infamous in its treatment of the Jews. You have this long history of Jewish persecution. In fact, much of Jewish tradition today is around remembrances of these various tragedies, these various persecutions. With that as the context, we then get into the late 1800s. Let's go to 1860. 1860. You have the birth of Theodor Herzl. 1860. You have the birth of this gentleman right over here. Theodor Herzl born. He's born to a German-speaking Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The family he's born into isn't particularly religious. As a young man, he remains fairly secular. He's not a particularly religious person. As he grows and he becomes a journalist, he is able to observe the anti-Semitism, especially that's occurring especially in the late 1800s in Russia, but throughout much of Europe. In 1894, so at this point he's 34 years old, still a fairly young man, in 1894 in Paris he directly observes the Dreyfus affair. The Dreyfus affair, in which a French Jewish officer in the military is accused of treason, accused of spying for the Germans. This leads to all sorts of kind of public anti-Semitism. It later is shown that it was false claims on Dreyfus. Some people would debate whether this directly led to Theodor Herzl's articulation of a need for a Jewish homeland, but it was something that he directly observed, so it must have influenced him in some way. It was this and all the other anti-Semitism that he observed either directly or indirectly his entire life, or even that he was able to read in the history books. Taking all of that in, and this is coming from a fairly secular individual, in 1896 at the age of 36, he writes Der Judenstaat, which literally translates as the Jewish State. Der Judenstaat. This was a very articulate description or desire, or articulation I guess I should say, of the need for a Jewish homeland and a Jewish State. It's really the birth of political Zionism. Political Zionism. Now, where does the word Zionism come from? The root is Zion from Mount Zion. Mount Zion is essentially a hill in modern-day Jerusalem, but the word Zion is often equated with Jerusalem, with the Holy Land, with kind of the home of the Jews. That would be roughly right over here, Jerusalem is roughly right over here. I stress the modifier "political," political Zionism, because there was already a movement to bring the Jewish people back to their ancient homeland in Judea, which could be referred to as Zionism. It was really Herzl who articulated a need to set up a political state and start to organize around trying to create a political state. Over here I quote some of what he wrote in Der Judenstaat. "We are a people, one people. We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. In vain we are loyal patriots, sometimes super loyal. In vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens. In vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands, where we have lived for centuries, we are still decried as aliens often by men whose ancestors had not yet come at a time when Jewish sighs had long been heard in the country. Oppression and persecution cannot exterminate us. No nation on earth has endured such struggles and sufferings as we have. Palestine is our unforgettable homeland." This ends up getting huge traction, resonates with the Jewish diaspora, gives him the power to essentially, the next year, organize in 1897 the first Zionist Congress, first Zionist Congress where he's able to bring together likeminded, or at least people who are looking to organize a way to eventually establish a Jewish State, preferably in Palestine. I say preferably in Palestine, and it's clear that this was the first choice, to go back to the historical homeland of Judea, but even Herzl himself had considered Argentina, which at the time was very open-minded, very open towards immigration. There was some talk of East Africa, British East Africa. In fact, the British offered Uganda in 1903 to the what would later be called the Zionist Organization. It was considered and I believe it was the sixth Zionist Congress. These were things that were actually considered. But Palestine was always, because of historical reasons, the hopeful home of the Zionist Movement. I fully realize this is an incredibly touchy issue regardless of where people stand on their views of Zionism or of Theodor Herzl. Some would view him as a visionary, view him as a hero, some would view him as starting the seed that led to the eventual occupation of Palastine and the settlements that are going on there. I will try my best to stay out of picking sides there. Regardless of where you are in that argument, it's pretty amazing how much foresight he actually had and his ability to get this thing going. Even from the get-go, he had some conversations with the Ottomans and other folks about being able to get land in Palestine and all the rest. He wasn't successful in his own lifetime. But even after that first Zionist Congress, which was held in Basel, he understood what he was doing and he was looking beyond his own lifetime. This is a quote here from his journal and it's pretty telling. "Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word, which I shall guard against pronouncing publically, it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it." This is an amazing impresison because the state of Israel would come into a reality in roughly 50 years. With that said, and once again I know this is an incredibly touchy issue, the one thing that is probably surprising to many people is that he was not an extreme individual. It comes out from some of his other writing that even though he wanted this Jewish State, he was a fairly tolerant individual and he did not view this only for the Jews and he didn't feel that it should be taken by force or in any other way. It comes out in his writing right over here. This is from his diary. "It goes without saying that we shall respectfully tolerate persons of other faiths and protect their property, their honor and their freedom with the harshest means of coercion." So protect their property, honor and ... using the harshest means of coercion to protect their property, their honor and their freedom. This is a tolerant thing to do. "This is another area in which we shall set the entire world a wonderful example. Should there be many such immovable owners in individual areas who will not sell their property to us." So, hey, if we want to go there and properly buy land but people don't want to sell it to us, "we shall simply leave them there and develop our commerce in the direction of other areas which belong to us." He wasn't in the mood to really get into a confrontation or to antagonize anyone. And he recognized that there were other people there that might not want to sell their land to those that might settle this new State. Later on his life, actually shortly before his death, he actually writes a novel about this potential State that might be created. He writes, and this is written in Altneuland, it literally translates to The Old New Land, "It is founded on the ideas which are a common product of all civilized nations. It would be immoral if we would exclude anyone whatever his origin, his decent, or his religion, from participating in our achievements, for we stand on the shoulders of other civilized peoples. What we own we owe to the preparatory work of other peoples. Therefore, we have to repay our debt. There's only one way to do it. The highest tolerance. Our motto must therefore be, now and ever: Man, you are my brother."