HERZL by Amos Elon
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A quite astonishing portrait written, quite astonishingly, by an Israeli journalist. Herzl grew up in fin-de-Siecle Vienna, a ""hotbed of messianic nationalisms""; the only one he identified with as a student and playwright was German nationalism, including fraternity duels and close acquaintances with anti-Semites. Desmond Stewart's Theodore Herzl (1973) has already revealed Herzl's fantasy life, from his erotic attraction to little girls to his plans for an ""aristocratic"" Jewish homeland where he could crown his son Hans king. Elon has an excellent sense of the period and the Central European crisis as a whole; certainly Herzl's disdain for ""commercial"" Jews and his identification with Bismarckian Deutschtum were common among artistic, upper-middle-class Jews in his milieu. Elon shows that Herzl's conversion to Zionism was more than a fit of megalomania or a response to the Dreyfus case per se; the young Herzl had become a competent journalist in Paris and, for all his chronic theatricality and his frequent ineptitude as a negotiator, he certainly had a sense of practical politics. When the Rothschilds and Baron Hirsch declined to back him, Herzl turned to an array of anti-Semites and imperial ministers, including Kaiser Wilhelm and the Czar who had just completed the Kishinev pogrom, promising to solve ""the Jewish question"" and relieve them of their troublesome Jewish revolutionaires. As is well know, it was the Eastern Jews who provided Herzl's mass following (among the Austrian Jews the joke was, ""I'm all in favor of a Jewish state provided they appoint me ambassador to Vienna""). At the time of his death the Russian Zionists were about to give him the boot for proposing Uganda instead of Palestine as a preliminary homeland. Unlike Stewart, who says Herzl was bloody-minded toward the Palestinian natives, Elon portrays him as oblivious or vaguely well-intentioned. And Herzl -- himself so secular that he had to get a crash course in the Hebrew prayer texts -- always wanted an ""open commonwealth,"" as opposed to a religious state, though this is also the man who thought democracy ""political nonsense."" The book, which because of Elon's name is bound to draw greater attention than the Stewart biography, is not merely unsettling but positively rewarding.

Pub Date: Feb. 24th, 1974
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston