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Film about Theodor Herzl is an instructive biopic

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Theodor Herzl in Basel in 1897

The notion that a compelling idea and a committed individual can alter the course of history is not, as some might contend, so far-fetched. Proof of this thesis is found in the career of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), an assimilated Viennese journalist who once called for the mass conversion of Jews as a means by which to defuse antisemitism and thereby solve the “Jewish problem” in Europe. 

But having painfully realized that antisemitism was an endemic and permanent phenomenon that could not be ameliorated, he “converted” to Zionism and paved the way for the creation of Israel, just 51 years after the first Zionist congress took place in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897.

 This, in essence, is the theme of It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl, a well-crafted and thorough documentary which received its Canadian première on Sept. 20 in Toronto under the auspices of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.

Produced by Moriah Films, the cinematic arm of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, directed by Richard Trank and narrated by the British actor Ben Kingsley, It Is No Dream is an instructive biopic about a man whose realization of the depths of European antisemitism led him to become the founder of modern political Zionism and the father of the state of Israel.

The film starts with a quotation about antisemitism from Herzl’s path-breaking book, The Jewish State, published in 1896 to acclaim and controversy, and proceeds to the Alfred Dreyfus affair, which galvanized Herzl, the Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, an Austrian daily newspaper. It Is No Dream then segues to his birth in Budapest, his adolescence and manhood in Vienna and his championing of and involvement in Zionism.

The second child of well-off, acculturated German-speaking Jews, Herzl was secular and assimilationist, like many Jews in the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied law and joined a duelling fraternity, only to resign in protest over its crass antisemitism.

Not really interested in devoting himself to law, Herzl turned to his first love, literature, and wrote plays, some of which would eventually be staged in New York City and Vienna.

Contributing observational pieces, or feuilletons, to local newspapers, Herzl was hired by the Neue Freie Presse, which was owned by a Jewish family. Impressed by his work, the editors sent him to Paris as bureau chief.

In the City of Lights, Herzl reported on the turbulent Dreyfus affair, which rocked France to its foundations. At first, he believed that Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer, was guilty of treason. But he soon came to the conclusion that Dreyfus had been framed and was the victim of a malevolent and cynical antisemitic plot to force Jewish officers out of the armed forces.

Dreyfus’ fate shocked Herzl, who could hardly come to grips with the reality that France, the nation that had emancipated Jews in the late 18th century, had embarked on an anti-Jewish crusade. But as It Is No Dream suggests, Herzl’s embrace of Zionism was prompted not only by Dreyfus’ tribulations, but also by the antisemitic rantings of Vienna’s populist mayor, Karl Lueger.

Herzl set down his ideas in a diary and subsequently in The Jewish State. “The Jewish question still exists,” he wrote. “It would be foolish to deny it.” Calling for a Jewish republic in Palestine – a backwater of the Ottoman Empire – he observed, “We’re strong enough to form a model Jewish state.” Herzl was convinced that the Jews of Europe faced an apocalypse and had to leave the European continent.

In an era when most European Jews sought acceptance and integration, even as the fires of antisemitism raged, Herzl’s prescription seemed like an utter  fantasy. While the majority of Jews, particularly its communal and rabbinic leaders, belittled Herzl as a dreamer and vilified him as pernicious threat to their comfortable existence, working-class Jews, especially in eastern Europe, rallied to his cause. So did Sigmund Freud, who described him as “a fighter of the Jewish people.”

Herzl embodied faith, says Shimon Peres, Israel’s current president, in a succinct summation.

In an attempt to win supporters in high places, Herzl lobbied self-styled Jewish aristocrats such as Baron Maurice de Hirsch and the Rothschilds, as well as Germany’s antisemitic kaiser, but he made no real headway.

Herzl devised an audacious, if ill-conceived, plan to pay off the Ottoman Empire’s foreign debt in exchange for a Jewish homeland under Turkish rule. He went to Constantinople in 1896 in the hope of obtaining an audience with Sultan Abdulhamid II, but was spurned. When he finally met the sultan, five years later, the Ottoman ruler showed no interest in his proposal.

The 1897 Zionist congress in Basel, which attracted some 200 delegates from 17 countries, was a landmark in the annals of the Zionist movement. “In Basel, I founded the Jewish state,” Herzl declared in a prescient proclamation. Tellingly enough, his own newspaper did not even bother covering the event. After Basel, however, Herzl no longer celebrated Christmas at home.

Herzl visited Palestine, for the first and only time, in 1898. He was appalled by the squalor and misery of Jerusalem, but came away convinced that Palestine had sufficient potential for mass Jewish settlement.

As the film points out, Herzl’s decision to accept Uganda as a provisional Jewish state did not withstand scrutiny by fellow Zionists. He wrested a lukewarm letter of support from Russia’s antisemitic minister of interior, but came under fire for soliciting assistance from such a reviled figure. Herzl wangled an audience with the pope in the Vatican, but it was an exercise in futility. The pontiff did not approve of Zionism and, furthermore, informed Herzl that Jewish settlers in Palestine would be targeted by Christian missionaries.

Herzl’s promotion of Zionism exacted a terrible toll on his already precarious health. “The movement has made me old, tired and poor,” he complained. But he continued to work tirelessly on its behalf. His sole regret was touching: “It was a mistake that I began too late.”

It Is No Dream does not recoil from unpleasantries. Herzl’s daughter, Pauline, was a drug addict and died of an overdose in 1930 at the age of 40. His son, Hans, a convert to Christianity, committed suicide on the day of her funeral. His youngest daughter, Trude, died in Theresienstadt, the Nazi camp.

Their tragic deaths were an implicit rebuke to Herzl. But these bitter blows  have not diminished him as a visionary. As Peres observes, “He was the carrier of the [Zionist] dream.”

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