How Small Men Become Great: Theodore Herzl as a Zionist Leader, Visits NEU

Story by Amy Hood | hood.a@husky.neu.edu

Upon first impression, Derek Penslar is what you might expect from a historian, leading scholar in Israel Studies, and academician. He is tall, middle-aged, and slim. He prefers a simple suit with clean edges and tie. His choice in glasses has mastered the scholarly art of providing an academic yet unassuming air. A graying hairline suggests experience as does the natural way he shapes small circles with his hands when driving home a point. Derek Penslar exudes approachability and a quick wit, quite the feat for scholar whose resume boasts the likes of Oxford and Harvard. On a late afternoon in April on the ninth floor of Renaissance Park, with all of Boston stretched out behind glass windows, he chose a lighthearted comment about the spring air to begin his lecture.

His topic for the evening was that of his upcoming biography of Theodor Herzl, the father of politcal Zionism. The subject is not new to the field of Israel Studies; the life of Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist, playwright, political activist, and writer, is the focus of some 200 biographies in languages ranging from Japanese to German to Esperanto. With a wealth of scholarly work to draw upon, Penslar was sure to specify: there were new things to say about the man whose lifework set the foundation for the modern state of Israel. Namely, scholars in years past fixated on the same key pieces of Herzl’s scholarship, without delving into the numerous plays, letters, and feuilletons that he produced throughout his lifetime. In doing so, previous insights into Herzl the man proved lacking. Penslar’s new biography on the topic would hope to fill in these gaps.

Penslar’s exploration into these little-known primary sources led him to an interesting dual structure with which he laid out his book: that of a small man reaching great heights. There was the Herzl that most knew, the Herzl of history: Herzl as the “great” man, the genuine charismatic who generated a movement of people around him and laid the foundation for future generations of Zionists. The Herzl that founded political Zionism and paved the way for the realization of the modern Israeli state. Lesser known, but equally vital to the first version of Herzl, was Herzl as the “small” man: a man whose family and personal life was filled with tragedy, a fragile person prone to deep depressions and bouts of hysteria. Penslar argues that both Herzls, small and great, were two dependent halves a whole: without one, the other could not have succeeded or survived.

In discussing the “greatness” of Herzl, Penslar hones in on Herzl’s both natural and constructed charisma which enabled him to gain the support of both Jews and anti-Semites alike. Penslar asserts that this charismatic nature was often a physical quality. Herzl’s commenters often fixated on his expressive, dark or brooding eyes. He is consistently referred to as tall, despite only being two inches taller than the average Austrian of his era. He was expected to be Messianic; this expectation is blaringly obvious in the physical description of his “Jerusalemite glory” or his comparisons to biblical heavyweights such as Moses, David or Solomon. Herzl managed to create and reproduce an image for himself, something he was acutely aware of and was no doubt a very real part of his success. In a moment with the rise of fast dissemination of information and images through printing and newspapers, Herzl was able to manufacture his image, an aspect of his personality that was part natural and part constructed.

Penslar argues that this historical moment proved vital to the success of Herzl’s message, in more ways than just the printing press. Jews in Europe in the late 19th century were perched at a pivotal moment: Jewish traditional world was in utter disarray. Rabbinic authority, whose direction and advice proved so absolute in centuries past, was fading. The bureaucratic system offered by the states in which Jews lived failed to provide even the most basic of protections to Jews; pogroms were a gruesome part of life. The Jewish Europe needed someone like Herzl; they needed solutions and a Messiah of sorts. This need allowed Herzl to rise outside of these traditional sources of power, neither anointed by rabbinic authorities nor chosen by state leaders, Herzl was a purely self-legitimized power. Such a feat would not have been possible without considering the historical context within which the charismatic Herzl arose.

In discussing charisma, Penslar uses Max Weber’s framing of the charismatic to provide a structural base of his analysis. Recalling Weber’s separation between the “prophet” charismatic, who seeks to destroy the existing system and replace it entirely, and the “magician” charismatic, who seeks to solve a specific problem within an existing without removing the structure entirely, Penslar argues that Herzl was more magician than prophet. He sought to quite literally “pull a rabbit out of a hat,” offering an answer to some of the great questions held by the Jews of late 19th century Europe. His solutions, however, were not revolutionary in nature. He sought to preserve the existing structures he had experienced in Europe, even as he suggested that the relatively radical idea that the only lasting solution for the Jews was to assert modern statehood.

A key example of this “magician” attitude is Herzl’s penchant for founding institutions which mimicked the system he had been born into. Institutions such as a financing mechanism and the establishment of the first six Zionist Congresses, which repeatedly limited Herzl’s own jurisdiction, were his legacy more than his ideology. After all, Herzl’s message was not new; his ideas did not stray too drastically from the notions that Leon Pinsker, another Zionist activist, had presented just a few years before. Not all of his projects were accepted by these institutions. He did not enjoy universal success in all of his endeavors. What he managed to accomplish that proved so influential was create institutions that lasted beyond his own lifetime; these bodies would then later achieve the dream he had dedicated his life to. Herzl was the right man to present these ideas to a public: his charisma attracted a strong grassroots base as well as the attentions of those in power, while his prophet-like approach to problems led him to recreate the system he had been born into. This “magician” charisma provided the base with which Herzl achieved prominence.

In direct contrast to the “great” man of history is the “small” man, which Penslar describes as a “psychological exoskeleton.” The inner life of Herzl was very different from the image he espoused to the world. He was extremely intellectually intelligent, yet his emotional intelligence was rather low. He participated in a lifelong struggle to understand people. He never had a successful or satisfying erotic relationship with another person of either gender; his marital life was an uncontested failure. His closest childhood friend committed suicide. His inner life was a minefield; while he never seriously contemplated suicide, he wrote of it often. Within all of this was a man who continued to feel weak because he had been challenged to a duel in college that he managed to shirk out of. He was transfixed by the idea of Jewish honor; for him, he had lost it in getting out of a challenge many years ago. Honor would save the Jewish people, just as it would could have saved him many years ago.

Probably the most relevant to history, however, was that Herzl was a depressive; to this fact, Penslar asserts there is little room for doubt. It was Herzl the depressive who drove the engine of Zionism forward, according to Penslar. Success was the only thing that staved off Herzl’s persistent depression. In proof of this, Penslar recalls that Herzl’s most celebrated literary piece was the result of a three-week manic episode. The piece itself was part mad and part genius, with some sections plainly insane or nonsensical. He handed over the stack of loose leaf over to his father, who lovingly translated it; Herzl wanted all of it, including the manic sections, to be published. Herzl’s depression became a key driver of his relevance. For Herzl, Zionism was a project, a method to relieve his anxieties. He needed to devote himself fully to a cause to manage his own neuroses. In this, the small man implicates the great man: without the depressed, complicated, and troubled Herzl, there could never have been a great man of history.

For Penslar, Herzl is a true example of an “historic personality,” or a person who devotes themselves fully to changing the course of history. This devotion, however, was also the end of Herzl: he burned the candle at both ends. The physical stress placed on Herzl by the call of his work was something that exceeded his human limitations. In discussing this aspect of Herzl’s personality, Penslar recalled the time an Oxford undergraduate asked what the world’s outcome might have been, had Herzl lived a few more decades. For Penslar, such a thing was never capable of occurring. For the nature which had made Herzl so influential was also the slow poison which would eventually take its toll on Herzl, leading to his relatively young death at 44.

Penslar brought his speech to a close by a simple summation of his key arguments, stating that Herzl was the right man at the right time in a Jewish Europe that was aching for a leader they could believe in. Europe needed someone like Herzl, and Herzl needed Zionism for survival in his own skin. What Derek Penslar, the slight man with his ever-academic spectacles, was so able to effectively do was paint a picture of a life, and not just a list of historical accomplishments or failures. In his lecture, Penslar was able to paint a very distinct picture of a brilliant yet troubled man, whose importance to history was just as much the result of chance as it was talent and hard work. In this, Penslar’s lecture sets the expectations high for his upcoming biography, as the art of capturing the human soul in a very hundred pages is never an easy task, let alone in the short span of an hour.