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The Best Mistake Ever: A Eulogy for a Great Man

By Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank (the CyberRav) Cyber Rav

When our children were little, we used to read them a Richard Scary book entitled, The Best Mistake Ever. In one of its brief tales, Huckle the Cat and Lowly Worm go off to the grocery to fulfill Huckle's mother's request for three items - butter, cream, and potatoes. Huckle and Lowly go to the store, but having forgotten the shopping list, forget exactly what to buy. The two return home with peanut butter, ice cream, and potato chips. As it turns out, unexpected guests arrive and on account of Huckle and Lowly's mistake, mother has yummy snacks to serve. As it turned out, Huckle and Lowly made "the best mistake ever."

Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, did not write children's books, but what an imagination he had! In 1896, he wrote a treatise that would change the course of Jewish history: Der Judenstaat or the Jewish State. In it, he dreamed of a national homeland for all Jews. It would be established in Palestine, the very land that gave birth to the Jewish people, and such a state would resolve one of the most virulent problems the Jews faced, the problem of anti-semitism.

Herzl was hardly a religious Jew. He was born into an assimilated family in Budapest in 1860. His Jewish education was minimal. The family eventually moved to Vienna where he achieved a law degree from the University of Vienna. He eschewed the practice of law for journalism. He became the Paris correspondent for the influential, liberal Viennese paper, New Free Press. In 1895, he witnessed the conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was accused of espionage in a trial which denied him access to the evidence against him. He was convicted and publicly stripped of his rank with a mob shouting in French, "Death to the Jews." Herzl, witnessing all this, realized that however assimilated a Jew may be-and Dreyfus, as Herzl, was thoroughly assimilated-he is forever subject to anti-semitism, as long as he is perceived to be an expatriate from some other land. The solution: a Jewish state, a place Jews could return to and definitively call home.

After publishing Der Judenstaat, Herzl worked feverishly to make his dream a reality. Between 1897 and 1902, he called Jews from around the world to talk about creating a Jewish state. Each gathering was called a congress and such congresses continue to meet periodically, even today. He tried to enlist the financial support of the Jewish philanthropists of the day-Baron Hirsch and Baron Rothschild, but both thought Herzl was slightly off-base. He met with the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, at that time the ruling force in Palestine, in order to secure a homeland for the Jews. He spoke with British officials about bringing Jews to the Sinai peninsula, or Cypress, or Uganda. After the infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903, he appealed to Russian officials to help him relocate Jews in a home all their own. All these efforts bore no immediate results. On July 3, 1904, he died. He was merely 44 years old, and he died 44 years before the founding of the State of Israel. This July marks the 100th anniversary of his death.

Were he alive today, he would not be too pleased. In spite of a home that Jews can call their own, in spite of a military power that is regarded among the best in the world, anti-semitism persists throughout Europe, especially in France, and throughout the Mid-East as well. Herzl was wrong. A Jewish homeland would not render anti-semitism obsolete. But the establishment of a Jewish homeland did give persecuted Jews a refuge, assured the future of a reborn Hebrew language, provided a culture wherein Jewish and Hebrew literature and arts proliferated, turned Jews into an international political force, allowed for the establishment of new Jewish universities and yeshivot, and has given all Jews reason for hope. Theodore Herzl's Jewish homeland did not resolve the problem of anti-semitism, as he thought it would, but the benefits and blessings accrued from his realized vision are undeniable. His was the best mistake ever!

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