I saw a post about Theodor Herzl in Chardal’s blog and decided that a few words of praise need to be said about this man. Praise... you ask with incredulity? Yes, praise. Because from time to time I am reminded just how much he is vilified by the Charedi world.
True, Herzl was not a Tzadik but neither was he a Rasha. He was an assimilated Jew, son of assimilated Jews with absolutely no training about his religion or his heritage. He was the classic Tinok Shenishba... but, one who did something amazing. It is true that he was not motivated by a fear of Heaven. But he was motivated by a sense of being a part of Am Yisroel and the idea that his people... our people... had been victimized enough by the world’s hatred of us.
As a thoroughly assimilated Tinok Shenishba, Herzl did not have the basic understanding of what a return to Zion really means. His motivation was not religious. It was altruistic. He was basically a good person who, as a reporter saw an anti-Semitic injustice perpetrated against a completely assimilated French Jew and had an epiphany. He realized that no matter how assimilated one gets, anti-Semitism will still prevail and he realized that the only way Jews are going to get justice in this world is if they get their own state. The fact that he was willing to consider Uganda as an alternative to Israel does not make him a Rasha, just an Am Ha-Aretz. That epiphany led him to action. He was relentless. It is impossible to believe that The State of Israel could have been established without him. For this he deserves credit and the Hakaras HaTov of all of Klal Yisroel. The state would not be the Makom Torah it is today if not for the physical development of the secular Zionists who only existed because of Herzl. How many Bnei Torah would come to learn in an undeveloped primitive country that would likely have been Israel today if not for the physical development by Herzl’s secular Zionists? Certainly no where near the numbers we have today.
Are there major problems with the modern State of Israel that can be traced directly to the secular Zionism of Herzl? Yes. But one cannot get away from the fact that without Herzl and his secular Zionists, Torah learning in Israel would be miniscule. Israel would likely be in primitive condition run by Bedouin Arabs many of whose descendants now call themselves Palestinians.
I could never understand the complete animosity and almost vitriolic hatred that many Charedim have for Herzl. It’s almost as if he has become the repository of every evil in Israel. He is cursed at every opportunity by some.
I know that the Gedolim of his generation did not go along with his ideas fearing that Klal Israel will abandon observance if they follow an irreligious leader. Herzl did in fact turn to them at first thinking that they would support his idea of a return to Zion as a religious imperative. But, they spurned him and as a result, he turned against them. But in the end he got his way because he was able to do what no one else before him had done since the days of Ezra. He motivated secular Jews and some religious Jews, the fledgling Chovevei Zion, precursor to what became Religious Zionism... to return to Israel, develop the land physically, and the result is the modern State of Israel.
Herzl was a great man. He was not a Tzadik. And he was ignorant of Torah. But his goals were to create a state that would be a safe haven for his people and where Jews could “do their thing” and become the great nation that its people had the ability to create. They have done so. We need to recognize that without him, there would not be a Ponevezh, Mir, Brisk, or many, many other Yeshivos... over 20,000 students learning full time. We need to acknowledge that, recognize his achievements, how we’ve all benefited and continue to benefit from him and his philosophical heirs, and most of all, we have to stop vilifying him.