What is Zionism, and why is it so controversial? And how (and why) did Theodor Herzl, a secular writer, who didn’t know anything about Judaism, transform an ancient longing into a modern political movement that resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel?
Short answer – antisemitism.
Herzl was present at one of the most explosive trials of the day, which came to be known as the Dreyfus Affair. In the case, Alfred Dreyfus, a high ranking Jewish officer in the French army, was falsely accused of espionage and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island (he was later exonerated).
It wasn’t just the trial that got Herzl started on his journey towards Zionism. The cries of “Death for the Jew” that were casually hurled around on the streets of Paris made him understand that a Jewish state was necessary to remove the problem of anti-semitism entirely.
Herzl was seen as a crazy man in his time, and he certainly had some offbeat ideas, such as the idea for a mass conversion to Christianity (which was swiftly despatched), but his vision for a Jewish state became reality.
A modern day Moses, Herzl never saw the country he envisaged, but due to his actions, and the actions of the Zionist leaders that followed, in 1948 the State of Israel came into being.