The great strength of Avineri's immensely readable biography is to deliver Herzl in all his tortured complexity and - something not always given its due - the philosophical clarity of his diagnosis of what had befallen the Jews in the modern age and what might be done about their predicament. He had the beard of a poet but a brain for realpolitik. As one might expect from Avineri, who is first and foremost a powerful historian of political thought, this is the most chewily cogent account yet of Herzl the political thinker and doer.
Avineri rightly sums up Herzl's work as a 'glorious failure that produced impressive results'. It is Avineri's understanding of the exigencies and difficulties of politics for a mere private individual, without money or official status that makes this book well worth reading.
What Avineri gives us is a fine-grained and tender portrait of the Hungarian-born Herzl as a feverish romantic, dodgy dramatist, prolific writer and political organizer, a vibrant man whose energy and devotion to finding a national solution for a Jewish state were palpable and exhausting.
Turning the idea of Jewish nationhood into an organised movement was Herzl's work of genius, which is expounded by Avineri with scholarship, sensitivity and wisdom.
What...Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political sciences at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, offers is a different perspective on Herzl's life. Professor Avineri largely relies on Herzl's own writings, especially his obsessively written diary, rather than so much on secondary sources as many other books do. This device has the advantage of explaining Herzl's thoughts, as well as his actions.
In this book Avineri has reclaimed Herzl from the propagandists.
This Herzl remains a charismatic figure whose story is a romance. And so, in some measure, it should be, because that is how Herzl functioned and why he succeeded. He combined Disraeli's charm and political genius, Marx's analytical insight, and the towering authority of his people's lawgiver, Moses.
Herzl [is telling] the story of Zionism from the beginning, one of the strangest, most romantic, most bewildering episodes in modern history, and to this day one of the most bitterly contentious.
How Herzl conjured up the idea of a Jewish state out of the air is the subject of this book. It is a political biography; of Herzl's family life, his loves and his hatreds we learn little. With almost nothing but his will, he wrote, cajoled, talked and organised Zionism into existence. Between 1895 and 1897, in two short years, he provided the movement with its key text (Der Judenstaat), its destination (Palestine) and its organisational birth (the first Zionist Congress in Basle). Then he hawed his ideas around the leaders of Europe, to see if he could make a reality from the dream. These unlikely peregrinations are captured perfectly by Avineri. Without them there would have been no Israel.
It was Austrian politics, not a French miscarriage of justice [the Dreyfuss case], which moved Herzl towards Jewish separatism, Avineri explains, with a rather more complex story than the one the professor tells us is taught to Israeli schoolchildren. Political liberalism had ended official anti-Jewish discrimination in Austria and widened the franchise; but, to the horror of liberals like Herzl, anti-Semitic demagogues were elected. It seemed that the more democratic Austrian society was, the more anti-Semitic it became.
Herzl is an excellent biography of a great man and as such long overdue.