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Theodor Herzl Diaries Republished in Ambitious New Undertaking

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“He’s our George Washington and our Thomas Jefferson all wrapped in one,” says historian and author Gil Troy of Zionism’s founding father.

By: David Isaac

“Today, Theodor Herzl is best known for his beard, not his books,” laments Gil Troy, editor of “The Zionist Writings of Theodor Herzl,” in his introductory essay to a new edition of Herzl’s diaries.

Troy, a professor of history at Canada’s McGill University now living in Israel, wants to make Zionism’s founders come alive for the next generation. His latest effort is a three-volume collection of Herzl’s writings.

The brainchild behind the series is Matthew Miller, owner of Koren Publishers, a Jerusalem publishing house producing mainly religious texts. Drawing inspiration from the Library of America, a publisher of notable American classics and historical works, Miller decided to create a Library of the Jewish People to bring together the best writings from Jewish history in the fields of religion, the arts and politics.

“The Zionist Writings” are the first titles in that ambitious effort. They include a fairly comprehensive collection of Herzl’s diaries and other works, including his play “The New Ghetto” (1894), of which Herzl biographer Alex Bein said, “Herzl completed his inner return to his people”; Herzl’s 1896 manifesto “The Jewish State“; and important essays, like “The Menorah“ (1897), showing how, through Zionism, Herzl reconnected with his Judaism.

The series uses translations from the original German made by historian Harry Zohn in the 1960s. Other works, like “The New Ghetto,” are newly translated by Uri Bollag.

Troy, who spoke to JNS the day after the book launch at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, said the Herzl series is his fourteenth book project and the first where he stood before an audience and said “Shehecheyanu”—a Jewish prayer to give thanks for special occasions—both to mark the 75th anniversary of the date the U.N. General Assembly voted in favor of a Jewish state (Nov. 29, 1947) and to celebrate the launch of Library of the Jewish People.

“It’s an attempt to invite the Jewish people to build a bookshelf, because we’ve been building a bookshelf for thousands of years, but most of us don’t know the Jewish texts, the Jewish canon,” he said.

Troy sees no better place to start than Herzl. “He’s our George Washington and our Thomas Jefferson all wrapped in one,” said Troy. “Washington’s diaries are interesting, but they’re not ideological. That’s why, when talking about Herzl in American terms, we say he’s a cross between Washington and Jefferson, because he’s also a conceptualizer.”

Troy, who pored through 2,700 pages of Herzl’s diaries, described them as “a political-science version of an artist’s sketchbook.”

“Herzl draws in the contours of the Jewish state. He plans different dimensions from a flag to the architectural aesthetic, from labor-capital relations to the dynamics between rabbis and politicians,” Troy writes in one essay.

The series is organized chronologically. Troy wrote 11 introductions, one for each year Herzl was active as a Zionist (he died at 44 having suffered for years from a weak heart). Dividing by years can be artificial, but not in Herzl’s case, Troy said, noting important yearly milestones in Herzl’s development as a thinker and a leader.

Herzl, an assimilated European Jew, concluded through experience and observation that the only solution to the Jewish problem was a Jewish state. “Let them give us sovereignty over a portion of the globe that is large enough for our just national needs, and we will take care of everything else,” he said.

The process to reach that conclusion was gradual—13 years by Herzl’s own estimate. “Just as the Jew-haters started seeing various unappealing traits as endemic to the Jewish character, Herzl started seeing Jew-hatred as endemic to the European character,” Troy wrote.

When the idea of a Jewish state finally did spring upon him, it was like a thunderbolt. “I have the solution to the Jewish question,” Herzl wrote while working on his manifesto. “I know it sounds mad; and at the beginning I shall be called mad more than once—until the truth of what I am saying is recognized in all its shattering force.”

A talented journalist and playwright, he possessed a unique set of gifts—showman, statesman, prophet and political thinker—that propelled him to the head of the Zionist movement, which existed prior to Herzl but in scattered form. Herzl termed Zionism “the Jewish people on the march.”

Herzl not only wrote the manifesto for a Jewish state but started the Jews on the path to building one, meeting world leaders and creating key institutions, including a Zionist congress, a newspaper—Die Welt, or “The World”—for disseminating Zionist ideas, and a Jewish Colonial Bank to raise the funds necessary for settling the Land of Israel.

While Herzl endured enormous obstacles and setbacks in pursuing his course, he maintained a remarkable surety of eventual success. The diaries are a testament to that certainty, which he begins in 1895 to chronicle his Zionist activities. “What dreams, thoughts, letters, meetings, actions I shall have to live through—disappointments if nothing comes of it, terrible struggles if things work out. All that must be recorded.”

Herzl believed that a Jewish state was “a world necessity—and that is why it will come into being.” When Herzl passed away on July 3, 1904, his will directed that he be buried in Vienna next to his father “until the Jewish people will carry my remains to Palestine.”


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