B’nai B’rith Heard Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
The year 2021 will mark the 125th anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s prophetic pamphlet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), which outlines, 52 years before its realization, the modern State of Israel.
A talented essayist and critic, and a secular Jew, Herzl was bewildered — some would say, tormented — by the anti-Semitism he witnessed and experienced in his birthplace, Budapest, in Vienna, where he lived and worked through most of his lifetime, and in other European cities he visited. While working as the Paris correspondent for Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, Herzl was deeply affected by the trial of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer wrongly charged with espionage in one of history’s most blatant demonstrations of anti-Semitism at the highest levels of government.
Beyond meeting his journalistic deadlines, Herzl spent many of his waking hours nudging important political and diplomatic figures and top Jewish community leaders about the need to find a home for the Jewish people where they could till the soil, establish manufacturing enterprises and run their own lives. At various times, frustrated and impatient with progress in implementing his vision, he even looked beyond Palestine — Argentina and Uganda were seen as possible options — but at his core he remained primarily drawn to Palestine, then under Ottoman rule.
Though it was seemingly just a business plan for a sovereign state, Der Judenstaat was so much more than that. It envisioned, for example, the establishment of a company to purchase land for settlement that would be the engine driving the Zionist enterprise.
Around the time the pamphlet was written, he was becoming more and more emotionally attracted to the ancient homeland of the Jewish people as the answer to their ongoing predicament. Indeed, stirrings of Jewish pride can be seen in the closing lines of the pamphlet:
“Therefore, I believe that a wonderful generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabean will rise again…
“Let me repeat once more my opening words: The Jews who wish for a state will have it…
“And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”
The following year, in 1897, he convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, beginning the process of creating not only an organization devoted to achieving a Jewish state but also a Zionist movement that would ultimately embrace nearly all elements on the Jewish spectrum, both secular and religious.
His vision for what lay ahead is captured in words he wrote at the conclusion of the three-day Congress:
“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 fifty years, everyone will perceive it.”
Herzl’s premature death in 1904 ended his personal role in the national liberation of the Jewish people, but it did not end his vision. What began, in the eyes of the many naysayers he encountered along the way, as a quixotic endeavor morphed into an existential imperative during the years leading up to World War II and the Holocaust. Led by Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion and so many other founding fathers of the State of Israel, the movement became a formidable, determined factor in bringing about statehood for the Jewish people.
B’nai B’rith bought into Herzl’s Zionist vision as early as September 1883, when one of the first Zionist conferences was convened by Katowice’s Concordia Lodge in Poland, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
B’nai B’rith leaders not only contributed greatly to the cultural life of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) but also assisted immigrants who arrived with little or no means of support. They remedied problems with modern solutions to city planning, care of the sick and mentally ill, and the schooling of children and adults. Answering the need for affordable housing, the Jerusalem Lodge founded and built the Motza and Garden City agricultural colonies during the first decades of the 20th century.
As they say, if it had only been those important efforts to establish a viable Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael, that would have been “dayenu.” But the ultimate demonstration of B’nai B’rith’s yearning for and support of the establishment of the Jewish State was the historic role played by then B’nai B’rith President Frank Goldman and Kansas City’s B’nai B’rith Leader A.J. Granoff in convincing Eddie Jacobson, Harry Truman’s close friend, to press the president to meet with Chaim Weizmann at the White House. That fateful meeting led to official American recognition of the new State of Israel on May 14, 1948.
Today, our lodges throughout Israel and the B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem are a living testament to our organization’s commitment to a vibrant, strong and secure Israel. That we were present at the creation — both in the important final decades of the 19th century and in 1948, the year of the modern state’s birth — is a permanent source of pride to each of us.
Herzl led a somewhat restless life, based in Paris and London for long stretches of time, away from his family. While his essays on culture and the arts were well received, his efforts at becoming equally well recognized as a playwright were often an exercise in frustration.
His singular passion — devising an answer to rid Europe of the discrimination and anti-Semitism directed toward Jews in every economic and social stratum — was as prescient as it could possibly get. “If you will it,” Herzl famously wrote, “it is no dream.”
The Jewish people are eternally indebted to Herzl. One hundred and twenty-five years after he put it all down on paper, we should, each of us, pause to think what our world would have been without him.