Penslar, Derek. “Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader”, (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2020.
A New Biography
Derek Penslar’s “Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader” could not have arrived at a more opportune time. I am busy preparing a course on philosophical approaches to Zionism and even though I am not using Herzl, his thoughts resound everywhere and with every word I read it seems. The five philosophers I am using are Arendt, Benjamin, Scholem, Buber and Chomsky might claim to be far and politically removed from Herzl but they cannot deny the influence that Herzl’s thoughts had on them.
Herzl’s life has always been something of an enigma and it takes Derek Penslar, an esteemed and eminent historian of Zionism to delve into the life of the man and give us some of the answers we seek. Herzl lived a short life (1860-1904) that was filled with mystery and puzzlement. Perhaps the most puzzling questions we have are how did a man who was so assimilated into his daily life become a founder of the Zionist movement and how was it that a man who had so much diplomacy, intellectualism and morality live with some of the dark passions that were part of his life?
Through exploring Herzl’s personal, literary, and political writings, Penslar shows that Herzl’s involvement with Zionism had as much to do with personal crises as it did with antisemitism. It took his devotion to a cause and in his case that cause was Zionism that caused him to become the great leader that he was. His leadership provided him with strong energy, organizational ability, and outstanding charisma. He quickly “became a screen onto which Jews of his era could project their deepest needs and longings.” Penslar probes the deep character of the man who was the catalyst of the Zionist movement even though it had actually begun to develop independently of him and continued long after his death.
Herzl was a paradox in every sense of the word. His complexities may never be solved by here is a window into the man who did so much in a very short period of time. The fact that Herzl was able to change the course of Zionism from an ideological movement into a political shows the tremendous influence he had on those who embraced him and followed him. He changed the course of history by redefining Zionism and launching it and setting it on a new course. There is a lot of new information here and it is eloquently stated and wonderfully readable— so much so, that I read it in one sitting and then went back and read it again. This will become an indispensable text to today’s Zionist movement and its thinkers.
“About Jewish Lives:
Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.”