In 1895 the young journalist was assigned to report on the ceremony that publicly stripped French Captain Alfred Dreyfus of his military rank for espionage. The Dreyfus Affair ended Herzl’s dream that any educated, cultivated citizen could partake of the benefits of a cultured nation.
Theodore Herzl, late 1890s
As an enthusiastic product of the Enlightenment, Herzl had been deeply shocked by the Dreyfus affair. He had to confront the fact that rampant European anti-Semitism endangered the secular Jew no less than the religious Jew.
Soon after the Dreyfus trial, Herzl wrote his definitive work: Judenstadt 1896. He had quickly became convinced that the only solution to anti-Semitism was the establishment of a Jewish state.
Jewish leaders were sceptical, especially given Herzl's complete rejection of Jewish religious values. Nevertheless in 1897 Herzl organised the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland. Herzl's keen organisational skills brought together Jews from 16 countries, to debate the creation of a Jewish State. Naturally the biggest delegations came from Eastern Europe which was where most Jews lived.
Herzl's grave on Mt Herzl, Jerusalem
Saving the Jewish people might have come as a bolt out of the blue for Herzl, but once he was inspired, he seemed to work tirelessly for his cause until his death in 1904. He visited every politician and decision-maker across Europe and the Middle East, looking for someone to approve his charter for a Jewish State. His project didn’t succeed and worse still, he managed to exhaust his family's fortune in the effort. But Herzl was, above all, dedicated.
Forty four years after Herzl died and three years after the last gas chambers were closed in central and eastern Europe, the State of Israel was declared in 1948. As you would expect from a new nation, streets, currency and institutions were named after its own national heroes. Yet when the Herzl Museum on Mt Herzl in Jerusalem was initially opened in 1960, the hordes of expected visitors did not arrive. And those who did arrive found the presentation of the material too old fashioned. Eventually the museum closed up.
Herzl Museum, re-opened 2005
Herzl wasn't forgotten, of course. Mt Herzl continued to grow as a military cemetery and was the burial site of many great Israeli leaders including Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir. Theodor Herzl's tomb was at the very centre of visitors’ attraction.
In the new century, The Herzl Museum has been modernised (in terms of museology) and rebuilt, still located just inside the entrance to Mt Herzl Jerusalem. This museum, which reopened in 2005, included a replica of Herzl's study and library.
But now the Herzl Museum has created a multi-media presentation that will help students (and adults) immerse themselves in late 19th century Europe. An hour-long video creatively portrays Herzl’s motivations and visions, in Hebrew, Russian (the second most common language in Israel), English and three other languages.
1897 Congress in Basel (Room 2)
The museum is divided into four rooms where modern visitors literally sit alongside 1890s Europeans.
*Room One is 19th century Europe, recreating the anti-Semitism of the streets of large cities and small towns. Visitors watch distressing glimpses of the Dreyfus Affair and the trial’s impact on Herzl the journalist, writer and Jew.
*Room Two is a stylish reenactment of the Zionist Congresses held in Basel and a recreation of Herzl’s activities throughout the decade.
*Room Three is a replica of Herzl’s study, in the last years of his eventful life and of Herzl’s writing for a future Jewish state.
*Room Four is an imagined comparison between Herzl’s dream for a state as expressed in his writings, and the reality of the modern state.
Herzl's library (Room 3)
The Herzl Museum is trying to bridge 19th century Europe with the future of the Jewish state, especially for people not even born when the state was created in 1948. I have been trying to discover if this method of museum experience helps the modern viewer get into the mind and times of Herzl, but almost no reviews of the museum have been helpful in this regard. Only Finding Felafel said the Theodore Herzl Museum is a multimedia experience that puts visitors in Herzl's place in late 1800s Vienna... it is where we can feel the anti-Semitism that he once did. We can trace his steps in establishing the World Zionist Congress that led to the State of Israel 50 years later.