120th Anniversary

The 29th of August this year will mark the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist conference in Basle Switzerland.

It is perhaps timely then to review the history of events leading up to and subsequent to the first Zionist Conference with the help of the book, Herzl’s Vision, written by Shlomo Avineri (Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University) and based on Theodor Herzl’s extensive personal diaries.


When we examine the life of Theodor Herzl we observe the providence of God and see that here was one of the fishers of Jeremiah 16:16 who was to help bring back the children of Israel to their land. Yet what an unlikely person, humanly speaking, he was for the task.

Herzl was a man that had no political or lead­ership experience. He was a successful journalist working for the newspaper the Neue Freie Presse and a less successful playwright. He was a non­religious person and yet, when asked to define a Jew, he said, “We recognise ourselves as a nation through our faith”. At one time he recorded in his diaries that one solution to the alienation of Jews from European society would be for all Jews to be baptised. This view was never expressed publicly and it seems Herzl later realised it was a ludicrous idea.


Many historians claim that it was the Dreyfus affair that stimulated Herzl’s interest in finding a place of refuge for the Jewish people and prompted him to write The Jewish State but according to Avineri, Herzl’s diaries reveal that at first he thought that Dreyfus was guilty. Only when the trial of Dreyfus began did he begin focussing on the affair. Herzl began writing his book, The Jewish State, on 21st October 1895; before Dreyfus’s arrest. He finished writing on the 8th November, a few days after first reporting Captain Dreyfus’s arrest and before he had mentioned the man was a Jew.

Avineri suggests that Herzl’s interest in the Jewish question was prompted by a popular and growing racial anti-Semitism aimed at the Jews’ economic success and their integration into European culture. A number of German authors, including Eugen Duhring,Wilhelm Marr and Heinrich von Treitschke had published openly anti–Semitic writings, beginning in the late 1870s. Racial anti-Semitism was, from the start, an intel­lectual movement; its claims according to its advo­cates, grounded in the discoveries of biological and anthropological sciences in the wake of Darwin’s doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Anti-Semitism was a legitimate point of view in educated European society.

The Vision

In The Jewish State, Herzl called for a political-ter­ritorial solution to the Jewish question. Perhaps no other Jewish work of the modern age was so quickly disseminated and as widely read. Within a few months of its publication, in February 1896, the book had been reviewed in dozens of Jewish news­papers and translated into many languages. An English translation was sent that May to the former Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who voiced his support for the Zionist idea.

The interest generated by the publication of The Jewish State enabled Herzl to proceed with the First Zionist conference held in Basel the following year. In summing up the outcomes of the confer­ence in his diary he noted, “At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will admit it”. These words, of course, are well known to us as Christadelphians and we see them almost as prophetic. For on the 29th November 1947, just over 50 years since Herzl’s words, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine to provide a nation for the Jewish people. Surely this is evidence that God had been working through Theodor Herzl to fulfil His purpose with Israel.

Vision to Reality

Herzl transformed himself from a writer and editor to the leader of an international political move­ment. He learned about politics and diplomacy as he went. In his efforts to gain broad support for his vision Herzl met with the Ottoman sultan, the German emperor, the king of Italy, the pope, British, Russian and German ministers, as well as a large number of other government and public opin­ion leaders of many European countries. By the time of his death in 1904, at the age of forty four, Herzl had transformed Jewish public discourse and had made the vision of a return to Zion into a real­ity, albeit still a weak one, in international politics.

Avineri tells the story of how Herzl, combining a visionary idea with practical action, fashioned the policies and institutions that paved the way for the Jewish state.

With anti-Semitism once more on the rise throughout the world, we know that the refuge for the Jews that Herzl dreamed of, even their own homeland, is no guarantee of safety and they will be overwhelmed by the Gogian confederacy. We pray then for the time when they shall live in security under the reign of their Messiah.

The book, Herzl’s Vision, is an easy read and provides plenty of relevant historical information for the Biblical scholar. It is available from online bookstores and larger retail outlets.