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By Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf | Series: | Level:

The Dreyfus Affair was as big in France as the O.J. trial was in the United States, and it dragged on for even longer. Here’s what happened:

In September of 1894, French counterintelligence discovered irrefutable evidence that one of its own was passing valuable information to the Germans. The question was, “Whodunnit?” At the time, a Jew by the name of Alfred Dreyfus was working in military intelligence, and, despite the fact that Jews had been accepted in French society for almost a century, there was no shortage of Frenchman who wished those ghetto walls had never come down-so they decided to get Dreyfus. Soon, “secret” evidence pointing directly to Dreyfus was uncovered. The accusations against Dreyfus the Jew were trumpeted in the unabashedly anti-Semitic French press, and news of a Jewish traitor was well received-and loudly echoed-by Catholic leaders and laity alike. In short order, Dreyfus was convicted, court-martialed, and sent to rot in a filthy, vermin-infested cell on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.

While Alfred Dreyfus was rotting away in prison, a re-examination of the evidence clearly pointed to another man and pressure for a retrial began to mount. The whole “affair,” as it became known, was the political event of the day across Europe. Eventually the officer who was behind the phony evidence killed himself, and though Dreyfus was once again found to be guilty, this time French President Emile Loubet pardoned him before he began to serve his sentence-which brings us to Theodor Herzl.

…To the Basel in Switzerland

Theodor Herzl was a writer, a liberal idealist, and a journalist. As a man, he was someone who believed deeply in the ideas of the Enlightenment, and in France and Germany as beacons for Europe and the world. Herzl was well-educated, urbane, and a captivating speaker. Born in Hungary, he was raised in Austria by wealthy and influential parents who identified deeply with German nationalism and with its culture and ideals. Though his parents retained their Jewish identity, the Herzl’s lived in a time when it was common for Jews to be baptized and formally opt out of their identity.

Ironically, though Judaism was just a footnote to Herzl’s life, it would be his vision of the Jewish future that would have as dramatic and enduring an impact on the next century as anyone else’s.

As a journalist, Herzl covered a number of political rallies where anti-Semitism was openly expressed, but none of these prepared him for the shock of “the affair.” Herzl was a foreign correspondent from Vienna covering the Dreyfus trial in Paris, and was deeply affected by the outpouring of Jew-hatred that spewed forth from the capital of enlightened Europe. This experience convinced Herzl that anti-Semitism was a condition that could never be remedied in Europe.

After the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl became obsessed with finding a cure for anti-Semitism. The cure he found was in the idea of a Jewish homeland. To Herzl, because the Jewish people had no state of their own, they were doomed to always being outsiders in history, and as outsiders they would always be held in contempt and despised. But a Jewish state could rectify this, and so by 1896 Herzl had written a small book that contained his prescription for anti-Semitism. It was entitled, The Jewish State, and it argued that the creation of a Jewish state would eliminate the fundamental difference between the Jews and all other people, and thus eradicate the cause of anti-Semitism.

Ironically, though Herzl became totally devoted to the idea of a Jewish homeland, he was so alienated from Judaism that it never occurred to him that his idea would strike a profoundly deep chord within the Jewish people. In fact, because of his paucity of Jewish sensibilities, Herzl was at times willing to consider both Argentina and Uganda as possible sites for the Jewish homeland. As Judaism was an afterthought in his life, so originally were Jerusalem and the land of Israel afterthoughts to his concept of a Jewish state.

To be sure, Herzl was derided from many sides, but clearly, he couldn’t be accused of lacking determination. With time, Herzl became utterly determined to create an organized movement of the Jewish masses capable of building a homeland that would include everything one could find in any other country. Eventually, he became equally determined that the place for this homeland must be in Palestine.

On August 29, 1897, Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. The Congress was attended by 204 delegates from across Europe (though almost half were from Russia) and spanned the spectrum of Jewish identity, association, and affiliation. In Basel, a flag for the Jewish homeland was unfurled, “Hatikva” was sung as the Jewish national anthem, and it became clear that the Jews were abundantly serious about where they were headed-to what then was Ottoman-ruled Palestine and what today is the State of Israel. In his diary, Herzl wrote, “In Basel, I created the Jewish state.”

Next Year in Jerusalem

Less than a year after the first Zionist Congress, over a thousand Zionist societies had been established across Europe, predominantly in Russia, and even some in America.

The living dream of “Next Year in Jerusalem,” combined with Herzl’s uncanny idea of establishing a Jewish state and the desperate need of Russia’s Jews to escape the stranglehold of the Czar, all combined to fuel a movement-the Zionist movement-that would alter the course of Jewish history.

After two thousand years, the Jews, not just as individuals or families, but as a people, were ready to go home.

The obstacles along the road from Basel to Jerusalem were remarkably daunting. Palestine was still ruled by the same Ottoman Empire that had conquered it almost four hundred years earlier. World War I-a war that would devastate Europe and throw European Jewry into a pit of chaos and upheaval-was yet to be waged. Palestine would still have to pass from the hands of the Turks to the hands of the British. World War II, and the destruction of seven out of every ten Jews in Europe, was still a distant catastrophe, and the newly established Arab states of the Middle East would yet try to crush the Jews and their Jewish home.

Eventually, however, Israel would be reborn.

Zionism the Vortex

While Zionism was a remarkable idea, and a history-altering movement, not all Jews embraced it. Zionism became an ideological vortex that no Jew could escape. Whether you loved it, rejected it, or fought to redefine it, Jews everywhere couldn’t help but confront it and be confronted by it. The following list of ideological responses is not comprehensive. Its purpose is just to provide a sense of how various elements within the Jewish people have dealt with Zionism.

Herzl’s National-Political Zionists:
These were bottom-line pragmatists and they had a plan. Step by step, they were prepared to put the political and economic pieces in place that would provide the basis for the infrastructure of a modern state capable of absorbing immigrants and moving them into the endeavors needed to build a viable political entity. People like Chaim Weizmann exemplified their commitment to working within Europe’s existing political structure to bring about the realization of Herzl’s vision. Weizmann was able to use his connections, prestige, and eloquence to advance the cause of a Jewish homeland at the highest levels of government. He would eventually become the first president of Israel.

Achad Ha’am’s Cultural Zionists:
This was Zionism with a soul. Achad Ha’am (born Asher Ginsberg) held in disdain a Zionist vision that stripped the Jewish people of a spiritual core. To Achad Ha’am, Herzl’s idea of a Jewish state was little more than a kind of assimilation writ large, and he told Herzl as much. To the Cultural Zionists, for a state that happened to be populated by Jews to in fact be a Jewish state, it would have to also become the cultural and spiritual center of the Jewish people.

Reform Non-Zionists:
Leopold Stein, a prominent leader of Reform Jewry in Germany, wrote, “We know but one fatherland, that in which we live. We cannot pray as though our present home were strange to us and our true home lay a thousand miles distant.” This statement was echoed in America in 1897 when the reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis formally condemned political Zionism. It was only much later, when it became obvious that Germany represented the end of Jewish life-and not a golden future-that Reform leaders like Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver so ably took up the cause of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Socialist Zionists:
In Russia, Jews were playing a central role in advancing the wave of socialism that would do away with czarist Russia and its centuries of oppression, and replace it with the imagined utopia of communism. In the main, these Jews were opposed to Zionism both ideologically and because it in no way addressed the reality of millions of Jews who in all likelihood would remain on Russian and European soil.

Eventually, a young intellectual named Ber Borochov proposed a theory of Marxist Zionism that envisioned a Jewish state built on the principles of Engels and Marx. This was the beginning of Labor Zionism, and most of the thirty thousand Russian Jews who immigrated to Palestine between 1905 and 1914 came with this ideology in mind. Many of Israel’s founders, builders and political leaders-people like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Yitzchak Rabin-were Labor Zionists, and it was Labor Zionism that would place a far-reaching socialist stamp on economic and social policy during Israel’s formative period.

Religious Zionists:
A number of prominent rabbinical figures, including Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim, and most notably, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer contributed their scholarly perspectives on the significance of the land of Israel to the movement that would become the Chovavei Tzion, the Lovers of Zion. In 1893, Rabbi Shmuel Mohliver founded mercaz ruchani, the “spiritual center” that would later, under Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, become the Mizrachi party.

Religious Zionism saw the return to the land as a spiritually natural extension of all that Judaism represented and viewed any break with traditional Torah-based Judaism as an abandonment of that which had brought the Jews to the verge of return in the first place.

Religious Zionism sought to work from within the general Zionist movement and Rabbi Avraham Yitchak Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine, became a powerful advocate for the inclusion of Zionism in the rubric of a Torah-true outlook on Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish destiny.

Religious Non-Zionists:
In order to make sure that their voice was heard in the Jewish world and beyond, and in order to counter the trend of abandoning Judaism that was present in the Zionist movement, 204 of Jewry’s most distinguished rabbis gathered in 1912 for the founding of Agudas Israel. These were the chareidim, those who today are referred to as the ultra-orthodox. For centuries, these were the people who risked everything to settle in the land of Israel.

Ironically, it was these same people who rejected Zionism. To the political Zionist, the future and well-being of the Jewish people was dependent on the creation and well-being of a Jewish state. To the religious non-Zionist, just the opposite was true. The well-being of a Jewish state was dependent on the well-being of the Jewish people, and the well-being of the Jewish people was dependent on its ability to fulfill its calling as defined by the teachings and practices of the Torah. Amongst these non-Zionists, there was a minority that rejected any form of pre-messianic Jewish sovereignty.

Bagels & Lox Zionists

These were the Jews who weren’t all that interested in Zionist ideology and who were never going to settle in Israel but who nonetheless believed with all their hearts that it was critical for the Jews to have a country of their own. In the wake of World War II, these were the masses of Jews in the United States and elsewhere whose unflagging support for the Jewish state expressed itself in financial support, political activism, and countless visits to Israel that made them feel so proud to be Jews.

Israel, Here We Come

On the day that Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897, there were about 60,000 Jews living in Ottoman Palestine. Forty years later, there were nearly half-a-million Jews living in British Palestine, and twenty years after that, there were almost two million Jews living in Israel, including 600,000 who had been expelled from Arab countries after the birth of the Jewish state.

That the Jewish people kept the dream of a return to Zion alive for over two thousand years is a remarkable phenomenon. That this dream manifested itself in the re-establishment of a Jewish state after twenty-five centuries is an event utterly unique in the annals of human history.

Shimon Apisdorf is the co-founder and educational director of the Jewish Literacy Foundation (JLF). Mr. Apisdorf has authored eight of the foundation’s books, including the popular Jewish Holiday “Survival Kit” series. Under Mr. Apisdorf’s leadership, JLF has distributed more than 67,000 books to unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews across the continent in an effort to educate Jews about their heritage and bring them closer to Judaism.

Most recently, Mr. Apisdorf completed Israel in a Nutshell, a book that discusses the history of the creation of the State of Israel and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israel in a Nutshell is the first book to launch JLF’s continent-wide campaign to provide every Jewish home with a Jewish library. This book is part of a series of twelve books entitled Judaism in a Nutshell that addresses modern-day Jewish issues such as God, spirituality, holidays, and interpersonal relationships in a concise format.

In 1999, Mr. Apisdorf received the Benjamin Franklin Award from the Publishers Marketing Association for Chanukah: Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul, and in 1993 he received the same award for the best-selling Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit series.

Before joining JLF, Mr. Apisdorf was the first Judaic studies teacher hired at the newly founded Columbus Torah Academy High School in 1992 where he taught for three years. From 1991-1993, Mr. Apisdorf was the educational director for the Jewish outreach organization, Aish HaTorah, in Columbus, Ohio. From 1987-1990, Mr. Apisdorf served as the director of special programs for Aish HaTorah in Toronto where he was instrumental in the development of Canada’s largest Jewish adult education program. Today, Mr. Apisdorf resides in Baltimore, MD with his wife, Miriam and their four children.

Mr. Apisdorf attended the University of Cincinnati and then went on to study at the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. In addition, Mr. Apisdorf studied at the Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem for five years where he received his Rabbinic Ordination in 1995. Mr. Apisdorf is also the author of The Passover Survival Kit, The Survival Kit Family Haggadah, The One Hour Purim Primer, and the co-author of The Death of Cupid: Reclaiming the Wisdom of Love, Dating, Romance, and Marriage.

Shimon Apisodorf can be reached at [email protected]

Enjoyed Israel in a Nutshell?
Other books by Shimon Apisdorf, available online at The Jewish Literacy Foundation.