In This Review

Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader
Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader
By Derek Penslar
Yale University Press, 2020, 256 pp

This pocket biography demystifies—then re-mystifies—Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. At 35, despite possessing neither deep knowledge of Jewish culture nor any known religious beliefs, he penned a classic pamphlet, The Jewish State, asserting a demand on behalf of European Jews for their own nation-state—on the model of the demands of Czechs, Serbs, and other groups within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For the next nine years, before dying quite young, he organized continent-wide conferences, harangued national leaders, visited Palestine, and churned out speeches and articles. Although historians dismiss Herzl’s intellectual achievements, this book seeks to reinterpret him as a brilliant organizer and activist. Yet it is hard to see why. At the time, most people viewed him as a crackpot. Upper-class Jews (including his wife) disparaged Zionism as an unsavory mass ideology. Orthodox groups criticized it as unholy. Herzl’s own vague and inconsistent plans for governing a Jewish state were fashioned with remarkable ignorance of Palestine—when he wasn’t weighing Argentina or Mozambique as an alternative. This book reminds readers that intellectuals are sometimes remembered simply for stating an ideal goal that, much later and for reasons unforeseeable by them, becomes reality.