REVIEW: How Theodor Herzl envisioned the Jewish State

Herzl’s work, which argued for the establishment of a modern state for the Jewish people, gave the Jews a 'leap of hope.'

The Great Books Podcast “discusses classic works within the Western literary canon.” Guests – mostly college professors – talk about the best books the West has to offer, why they are important, and why they should be read. Through its encouragement to read these great books, Miller’s podcast combats the left’s war on the West and its insistence that almost everything written or done before the last several years is a product of white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, and every other “phobia” and “-ism” that serves as the latest piñata of the left. 

On the May 28 episode of “The Great Books” podcast by National Review, Hillsdale College Professor John J. Miller asked McGill University professor and historian Gil Troy what makes Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State” a “great book.”  

The answer: when and why Herzl wrote it.  

“The Jewish State,” which is more of a “manifesto” than a full-length book, as Troy says, was published in 1896 at a time of despair and turbulence for Europe’s Jews. 1894 saw the beginning of the Dreyfus Affair, a political and social crisis in which a loyal Jewish officer in the French Army, Alfred Dreyfus, was falsely accused of handing over confidential military information to France’s mortal enemy, Germany. 

Herzl’s work, which argued for the establishment of a modern state for the Jewish people, gave the Jews a “leap of hope” in this time of darkness, showing them that they did not have to simply be victims cast around helplessly by the waves of history. 

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By waking this “slumbering idea,” as Troy styles it, Herzl offered Jews an alternative to the persecution they faced: Creating a society of their own in a homeland of their own. 

Many European Jews had believed that the era of Jew-hatred was over, that the Enlightenment had ushered Europe into a new, better age shorn of old bigotries—but Dreyfus’s trial destroyed that illusion. 

It quickly became apparent that the case against Dreyfus was motivated by anti-Semitism, with mobs yelling chants like “down with the Jews.” Dreyfus himself was convicted, and, though he was eventually pardoned, had to spend years in prison despite being a loyal French citizen who had done nothing wrong, being scapegoated because of his Jewish identity. 

Herzl offered an empowering message as a tonic against the despair that came after the Dreyfus Affair.  

Anti-Semitism was promoted even “in the most sophisticated centers of Europe,” a cosmopolitan cadence of hatred that eerily echoes today as Jew-hatred runs rampant on American campuses. 

Troy calls anti-Semitism the “plastic hatred” because of its malleability. To shield themselves from charges of Jew-hatred, anti-Semites today simply shift their wrath to the only existing Jewish state in the world: Israel.  

Israel’s opponents accuse it of “racism . . . white supremacy . . . colonialism,” and any other crime they can think of. And this slander is being promoted in “sophisticated” circles, including higher education and the media.  

[RELATED: MARSCHALL: Nazis forbade my Jewish grandfather from journalism. Now this prof wants to kill me for being a Jewish journalist.]

Anti-Israel activists frequently use the excuse: “I’m not anti-Jewish, I’m just anti-Israel.” But, Troy asks, why is it that Israel, the only Jewish state in the world today, the only nation that consistently has its right to exist called into question?  

Troy emphasizes the fact that the anti-Israel rallies proliferating on campuses are fervently anti-American, besides being disruptive and chaotic.  

It should not surprise us, then, when we read of anti-Israel activists at the University of Michigan handing out pamphlets stating that “Freedom for Palestine means Death to America.” 

In contrast to this yearning for destruction, the modern state of Israel was established on the model of “liberal democratic nationalism,” based on the core principles of individual freedom and “the notion that the people have a voice.” 

Troy rightly sees Herzl’s dream as an inspiration, not just for Jews and Israelis, but for people everywhere. The idea of a “free people returning to their land” and promoting ideals of freedom can appeal to everyone from every nation. 

Summarizing the importance of Herzl’s “The Jewish State,” Troy emphasizes the inspiration of seeing “someone who comes from despair and marches to hope.”