Tag Archives: Herzliya

Jew of the Week: Theodor Herzl

Israel’s “Spiritual” Founding Father

Theodor Herzl

Theodor Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl (1860-1904) was born in what is now Budapest, Hungary to Ashkenazi Jewish parents with mixed Sephardic heritage. He was a descendant of the great Spanish rabbi and kabbalist Yosef Taitazak. Herzl first wished to be a scientist and engineer, then switched to law and journalism. In his youth, he was ashamed of the many impoverished and uneducated Jews in Hungary, and was inspired by the Germans whom he felt were the most civilized and cultured of peoples. During his time at the University of Vienna, he was a member of a German nationalist club, but left because of their rampant anti-Semitism. After a brief law career, Herzl became a journalist for a Viennese paper. In 1894, he was sent to cover the Dreyfus Affair where a French-Jewish military officer was falsely accused of treason by anti-Semites, and heard the masses chant “Death to the Jews”. While this is often cited as the moment that awoke him to the plight of the Jews, a more likely factor was what happened at the same time back home in Vienna. The virulently anti-Semitic Kart Lueger was elected mayor – this was the man whom Hitler would later credit as being his major inspiration. Although Herzl once believed that Jews should assimilate and become Germans, he soon realized that the Germans were not as civilized as he thought, and that the Jew would never be accepted in European society. Immersing himself in Jewish and early Zionist literature (especially the work of the great Sephardic rabbi and mystic Yehuda Alkali), he came to understand that the only solution for the Jews was not to abandon their heritage, but to embrace it forcefully and return to their Promised Land (or some other land if that didn’t work). He wrote: “Zionism is first and foremost a return to Judaism.”

Herzl got to work and drafted Der Judenstaat, his manual for “The Jewish State”. It was published in early 1896 and quickly became a bestseller. Meanwhile, Herzl succeeded in arranging a meeting with the German emperor, injecting a huge boost of credibility to his campaign. The following month, Der Judenstaat was published in English, and a month after that Herzl met with the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, who awarded him a medal. Herzl continued traveling, speaking, and meeting with dignitaries and Jewish communities. In 1897 he spent much of his own savings to found a Zionist newspaper and to organize the First Zionist Congress, where he was elected its president. It should be noted that Herzl had many opponents, including assimilated Western European Jews, those that had entered the European nobility, most of the wealthy Jews and bankers who lived in Europe comfortably, as well as the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who distrusted his secular leadership. Nonetheless, he charged onwards, believing that “The Jews who wish for a State will have it.” Herzl continued negotiating with the British, the Turks, and the Russians. He traveled to Israel for the first time in 1898, and once more met the German emperor there for discussions. He also traveled to Russia to try to ease the plight of the Jews and end the pogroms. Meanwhile, he worked on a novel to describe his vision more romantically, and published Altneuland in 1902, which also became a bestseller. When translated into Hebrew by Nahum Sokolow, he chose to title the book Tel Aviv, based on a verse from the Tanakh (Ezekiel 3:15). The name would, of course, later be adopted for Israel’s largest city. Herzl met with the Pope in early 1904, famously refusing to kneel before him or kiss his hand as was required. The Pope refused to help the Jews unless they all converted to Christianity, which Herzl quickly rejected. The meeting lasted less than a half hour. (The next Pope would reverse the Church’s position in 1917 and support the Zionist cause.) Herzl had been battling a heart condition for quite a while, and unfortunately succumbed to it in the summer of 1904. He didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled, but on the 5th of Iyar in 1948, the State of Israel became a reality, with David Ben-Gurion proclaiming the rebirth of an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land, with a portrait of Herzl behind him. The city of Herzliya in Israel is named after him, and the 10th of Iyar (next Wednesday), is a minor holiday in Israel called Herzl Day. Happy Yom Ha’Atzmaut!

A Secret History of Zionism

Words of the Week

…I believe that a wondrous generation of Jews will spring into existence. The Maccabees will rise again… We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.
– Theodor HerzlDer Judenstaat

Jew of the Week: Sivan Rahav-Meir

Israel’s Favourite News Anchor – and Rebbetzin

Sivan Rahav (b. 1981) was born in Herzliya to a secular family. She knew she wanted to be a journalist from childhood, and would already interview her friends in second grade. By 8, she earned herself a “children’s press” card, and by 14 was interviewing the likes of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Meanwhile, Rahav used her journalistic skills to dig into her roots, and soon returned to Orthodox observance. After finishing high school early, she completed her degree in political science from Tel-Aviv University in just two years, then served in the IDF as a military reporter. During this time, she met her future husband, a fellow Orthodox IDF reporter, Yedidya Meir. The two still work on their biggest stories together – Yedidya hosting a show on Radio Kol Chai and writing for the B’Sheva newspaper, and Sivan hosting a show on Galei Tzahal (Army Radio), writing for Yediot Ahronot (Israel’s largest newspaper), and hosting Channel 2’s prime-time television news hour. During her last maternity leave (after giving birth to her fifth child), she realized she was tired of the negativity and politics of news, and decided to devote more time to spreading positive, spiritual Jewish wisdom. She started giving weekly Torah classes in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, which now draw over 1000 people in packed venues. A master of social media, her Torah thoughts regularly reach over a million listeners through Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube. Rahav-Meir also published a bestselling book on the weekly parasha, translated into English last year. In addition to recently being voted Israel’s favourite female news personality, she has become one of Israel’s most successful kiruv speakers, and a tremendous role model for all baalei teshuva. Rahav-Meir is making waves in the world of Israeli journalism, too, and helping to stem the long-standing anti-religious bias of the secular Israeli media. “For secular reporters,” she says, “Judaism was always a problem. But I wanted to talk about it as a solution.”

Words of the Week

The media is seeking instances where religion is excessive, extreme… I think the media doesn’t cover the real things that are happening. Take selichot, for example: Every year 100,000 people come to the Kotel for the last night of selichot. The Kotel plaza is full [but it’s not covered in the news], yet when an old band comes to sing in Ramat Gan’s park and draws 1,000 or 10,000 people, the media will livestream the event and the reporters will be there…
– Sivan Rahav-Meir