Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Theodor Herzl visited Eretz Yisrael only once during his lifetime, a trip he undertook for the express purpose of meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm II in what turned out to be a failed attempt to press for a Jewish homeland.

From the time of his publication of Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State,” 1896), Herzl understood the Zionist goal of a homeland in Eretz Yisrael could be accomplished only through the intervention of one or more of the world’s imperial powers. When his approaches to the Ottoman sultan and anti-Semitic Russian leaders predictably failed, the hopes of the Zionist movement turned to Wilhelm, whom they hoped would encourage his ally, the Turkish sultan, to permit the creation of a German protectorate for the Jews in Turkish-controlled Eretz Yisrael.

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On Shabbat, October 29, 1898, huge crowds gathered at Jaffa Gate to welcome the kaiser, who became the first German emperor in 670 years to visit Jerusalem. Since Jaffa Gate could not accommodate Wilhelm’s enormous entourage, Ottoman officials planned to break through the Jerusalem city walls to create an entryway worthy of the Kaiser, but Wilhelm vetoed this as “a barbarous act.” Instead, the Turkish authorities plugged up the moat and created a new and wider road – which today is the vehicular access into the Old City.

Entering through Jaffa Gate and proceeding along Rechov HaNevi’im up to Jaffa Road, Wilhelm passed through a beautiful ceremonial arch designed by Meir Rosin on behalf of the Jewish community. The arch, which bore the legend, in Hebrew and German, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of Hashem,” was attractively decorated with parochet (silk curtains from synagogue arks) stitched with silver and gold and topped by the city’s most beautiful rimonim (Torah finials), all of which been lent by various Jerusalem synagogues for the special occasion.

When Rosin’s daughter died during the preparations, Rav Shmuel Salant, the Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, ruled that the importance of completing the preparations for the kaiser trumped the traditional laws of mourning and issued a halachic exemption to permit Rosin to continue work during his shiva.

Rav Salant and the Sephardic chief rabbi, Rishon L’Tzion Yaakov Shaul Elyashar, joined other important Jewish dignitaries to greet Wilhelm at the arch, and the chief rabbis gave him a beautiful Sephardic Torah case containing a blessing in Hebrew and German. Conspicuously missing from the throng of Jews dressed in their Shabbat finery, however, was Rav Chaim Yosef Sonnenfeld, leader of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazic community who, believing that Germany was the quintessential personification of Amalek (Israel’s biblical arch-enemy), ruled that the traditional blessing recited upon seeing a king should not be recited upon seeing an “Amalekite king” (Wilhelm).

Herzl was under no illusions that the kaiser, whose personal hostility toward the Jews was well known, would be supportive. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding warnings that attempts could be made on his life if he undertook the mission, he made the trip to Eretz Yisrael – at his own expense – hoping to obtain the kaiser’s patronage.

The caption beneath the very rare card shown here depicting Herzl on the boat en route to Eretz Yisrael reads, in Hebrew and Yiddish, “Herzl during his travel to Eretz Yisrael.”

Also shown here is a wonderful original photograph of Herzl sitting cross-legged on the deck among other passengers, including several Arabs, while wearing what appears to be a naval cap.

After docking at Jaffa on October 28, 1898, he traveled on by train to Jerusalem, where he would spend five anxious days anticipating his meeting with the kaiser.

Herzl was not invited to any of the Jewish community’s celebratory events to greet Wilhelm because Jewish leaders feared his Zionist message would enrage the Ottoman government; the rabbis, for their part, protested against him as “the embodiment of godless Zionism.” Nonetheless, he was present when Wilhelm stopped at the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School east of Tel Aviv on the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem. As Herzl recorded in his diary:

We drove – in the terrible heat – first to Mikveh Israel. This is an excellent school of agriculture. Bunting over the gate in honor of the kaiser, who will pass by here tomorrow on his way to Jerusalem. I will try to persuade him to visit the institution.

The kaiser, who recognized Herzl in the crowd from their previous meeting in Constantinople, greeted him and exchanged a few brief words. An exhausted Herzl then took a train to Jerusalem where, having arrived after sundown on erev Shabbat, he walked to his hotel. After Shabbat, he and his delegation moved to the Stern House on Mamilla Road, which later became known as “Herzl House” in honor of that visit.

Shown here is a lovely card depicting Herzl (dressed in white) posing with other guests in front of the lodging.

Herzl’s formal meeting with the kaiser in Eretz Yisrael took place on November 2 – ironically enough, the precise date, 19 years later, of the British issuance of the Balfour Declaration. The meeting, which had constituted a highpoint for Zionist hopes and aspirations, proved to be one of Herzl’s greatest disappointments. He was not warmly received, and he quickly understood that Wilhelm had decided not to provoke the Ottomans and his supporters in Germany by supporting Zionist aspirations.

The result was particularly disheartening because it followed Herzl’s earlier hour-long audience with the kaiser at the sultan’s palace in Constantinople on October 18, 1898. Although Wilhelm had made disparaging comments about the Jews in general, he had nonetheless condemned Russian anti-Semitism and the French Dreyfus Affair; explained why he favored Zionism; and suggested his support: “I am convinced that the Jews would embark on colonization of Palestine if they knew that I would take them under my protection…. I am the sole supporter of the sultan. He owes me something…. Tell me in a word what I shall ask of the sultan.”

In a fascinating historical side note, Herzl’s meeting with Wilhelm resulted in what may have been the first known instance of “photoshopping.” When the designated photographer botched his opportunity to grab a shot of the dramatic meeting, the problem was solved by reshooting Herzl and grafting his image onto an original shot of the kaiser. This solution proved somewhat less than perfect, however, as the kaiser was now depicted astride a black horse instead of the white steed he had actually ridden.

The utter failure of Herzl’s trip – and the sheer futility of all the efforts of the Jewish community to please and impress the kaiser – may perhaps best be exemplified by a letter Wilhelm wrote to his mother upon his return to Germany from Eretz Yisrael:

60,000 of these people [the Jews] were there, greasy and squalid, cringing and abject, doing nothing but making themselves obnoxious equally to Christian and Musselman by trying to fleece these neighbors from every farthing they manage to earn. Shylocks by the score!

Herzl never set foot again in Eretz Yisrael during his lifetime, but he did return decades after his death in 1904 at the tragically young age of 44.

In 1903, an ailing Herzl had written in his will that “I wish to be buried in a metal coffin next to my father, and to remain there until the Jewish people will transfer my remains to Eretz Israel.” In his utopian novel Alteneuland (1902), he had written about being buried on Mount Carmel in Haifa. However, there was never any doubt that the World Zionist Organization, tasked with planning the funeral, would decide to bury him in Jerusalem.

Accordingly, a year after Israel’s birth, his remains were exhumed from their burial site in Vienna and reinterred on a hill in West Jerusalem facing the Mount of Olives, which was renamed Mount Herzl in his honor. Thousands of Jews followed the coffin from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as it made its first stop near the Mikveh Israel settlement at the same place Herzl had met with the kaiser.

Shown here is a rare original admission ticket to the special session of the Knesset held on August 16, 1949, when Herzl’s remains were formally transferred to the Israeli government. In his address to the special session, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion stated:

Only two men were privileged to have their remains returned to Israel in the course of 3,300 years, and both were sons of Jacob. The first was Joseph, who left a testament asking that his remains be returned to Israel with the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and the second was Herzl. This funeral is not a mourning procession, but a triumphant march of victory for a vision converted into reality.

At the burial ceremony, Herzl’s coffin was buried with small blue-and-white packets of Eretz Yisrael soil brought by delegations from 380 Jewish settlements from across Israel. Attendees included Ben-Gurion and his Cabinet; Jewish Agency officials; the entire Jerusalem Municipal Council; attendees of the First Zionist Congress in Basle; and eight people who had participated in Herzl’s original burial in Vienna.

Kaddish was recited and the Tel Aviv Great Synagogue choir sang Tehillim (Psalms) as the visionary Zionist leader was welcomed home to the Jewish state of his dreams.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.