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Derek Penslar, Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader (Jewish Lives)

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 31, Numbers 3-4

Derek Penslar, Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2020, 256 pp.

Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader is a publication by Derek Penslar within Yale University’s Jewish Lives series. Jewish Lives seeks to publish “deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present” and has previously published fascinating biographies such as Karl Marx by Shlomo Avineri, and Harvey Milk by Lillian Faderman. I was also very excited to learn that Jewish Lives is currently preparing a book on Golda Meir by Deborah E. Lipstadt.

Theodor Herzl: The Charismatic Leader (Jewish Lives)

Critics speak of a “contemporary obsession with (auto)biographies” that reflects a “culture of individualisation,”1 especially in North America. Psychologist Svend Brinkmann believes “that there is something about the linear progression of the biography, in which events happen in chronological order, that has a reassuring effect in an accelerating culture that otherwise seems to be running amok.”2 It is certainly problematic that (auto)biographies celebrate the individual as the most important aspect of human history to the expense of society, economic, political, or demographic circumstances. But an individual’s journey to develop, struggle, change, and reflect is often thrilling to read, I must admit.

But apart from the joy (political) biographies can bring to the reader, they do constitute a scholarly problem. Pierre Bourdieu spoke in this regard of the “biographical illusion” and a “socially irreproachable artifact.”3 Others described the biography format as a “quixotic enterprise,” due to the elusiveness of a historical actor’s character,4 or the impossibility of reconstructing from records the life of a person.5 Stanley Fish made a point when he attacked modern biography in the New York Times as “Minutiae without Meaning” that comes up with “little more than a collection of random incidents, and the only truth being told is the truth of contingency, of events succeeding one another in a universe of accident and chance.”6 Since biographies often do not substantially add to our understanding of history, I wonder in the context of Penslar’s Theodor Herzl if there is anything left uncovered in the life of Herzl that a new biography could bring to light that previous ones did not. And is there anything of academic value one could gain by reading about Herzl’s life?

Political biographies, in general, lie somewhat between academic scholarship and literary art. They can therefore be judged by the knowledge they produce and how well they are written. According to the author, the book “centers around three interwoven themes: Herzl’s inner life, his relations with the Zionist movement, and his position in the world as a professional journalist and amateur statesman.” There are already hundreds of Herzl biographies in various languages. I am, however, unsure what Penslar’s intention was to write just another biography of the Zionist founder and, unfortunately, did not find any new insights about Herzl in the book. No biographer can be a completely detached observer. It would have, therefore, been necessary for Penslar to make the reader aware of his own emotional relationship to his subject, Herzl. Otherwise, it is impossible to assess the autobiographical element of his book. Unfortunately, this is not taking place apart from the inclusion of a picture of Penslar on the book cover that might remind the reader of not Herzl speaking through the text but its author.

At times, the book reads a bit like a horoscope that could describe almost every individual: he “desperately needed a project to fill his life with meaning and keep the blackness of depression at bay” (3); he “was a self-centered and overwrought young man, but he possessed a surprising inner strength…For Herzl, travel was both a stimulus and a balm. It inspired some of his finest writing, but it also gave him opportunities to slow down, reflect, and drop the mask of insouciance that was such a heavy burden. Herzl was a lonely man, yet he was also resolutely capable of being alone.” (28); “Most of the time, when Herzl thought of his children, he saw them as a reflection of himself” (127); his “failure left him feeling trapped” (129); “In early 1901, although Herzl was only forty, he already felt that he was entering the autumn of his life” (130); he “had always both admired and envied the wealthy” (134); “Here, as throughout Herzl’s life, the spoken word has a transformative quality” (173).

Theodor Herzl is an improvement on Penslar’s earlier writings on Herzl and Zionism (statements such as “Zionism became a means by which he [Herzl] could expose his genitals”7 might come to mind). But, unfortunately, the book repeats earlier mistakes of describing Herzl as a heterosexual man and Heinrich Kana as his “friend,” “close friend,” or “friend from university” repeatedly throughout the entire book (27-29, 36-37, 51, 71, 86, 1688). Peter Loewenberg, former director of the Training School of the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute and of the New Center for Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles, depicts Herzl’s homosexuality in his brilliant work Decoding the Past: The Psychohistorical Approach (130). Ernst Pawel discusses Herzl’s homosexuality, too, in The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl, where he describes “jealousy and sexual tension” between Kana and Herzl. And psychologist Avner Falk discusses a “homosexual relationship” in Herzl, King of the Jews: A Psychoanalytical Biography of Theodor Herzl.9 After Herzl sent Kana his wedding invitation, Kana’s response was heartbroken, telling Herzl he would be emotionally unable to attend:

I do not go out, so hard it is for me…. Without you, I would have drifted through life, and my great longing for love, whose power few people appreciate, would always have remained unsatisfied. I thank you today, which I have never done till now, out of this silly shamefulness from which I can never free myself, for all the Zärtlichkeit [tenderness, caresses] you have given me, and shall gladly see how the far greater part of the love of which your heart is capable now takes another direction.10

Jacob Press noted in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction that: “Three months into his marriage, [Herzl] began writing a play about the fundamental incapability of men and women – a memorable line of dialogue: ‘What a happy man I’d be if only I had the courage to run away from her.’”11 But he did not, and Heinrich Kana eventually killed himself on February 6, 1891. It is hard to understand why Penslar decided to downplay Herzl’s homosexuality. Penslar’s misunderstanding of Herzl’s sexuality is also highly problematic because he describes him instead as a pedophile stalker of a 13-year-old girl he saw at a children’s ball (31).

The language barrier seems to have been a problem for Penslar as well (“All translations are my own unless otherwise identifies, p. 211”); when translating from Herzl’s German to English, the author seems to miss the nuances. Herzl’s novel Altneuland becomes “Old-Newland” (9, 161, 171) instead of “old unknown territory;” Neuland is a word of its own, not neues Land, the “new land” in English. Altneuland is a novel, after all, and the German language is not as technical as history might indicate. More crucially, the novel Der Judenstaat gets translated as “The Jewish State,” not “The State of the Jewish People.” This is not merely a minor translation error, but significant and of current political relevance. Herzl had precisely in mind a state for the Jewish people, not a state of Jewish character, a Jüdische Staat. Evident here are not only translation issues and the author’s difficulty in conducting research in German, but also gaps in understanding of the fundamentals of early Zionist thought.

Parts of the book are, unfortunately, factual incorrect: “When Herzl was seven [1867], the Hapsburg [sic] Empire became a constitutional union in which the kingdom of Austria and Hungary had equal status. In this new entity, known as Austria-Hungary or the Dual Monarchy, Jews were fully emancipated.” (12) The “Hapsburg” typo aside, Jews were not fully emancipated in the Habsburg Monarchy and were still discriminated against. Teaching positions at universities were closed to them, and they were not allowed to become ministers or diplomats (without conversion). Since the book describes Herzl as an “amateur statesman” (3), it would have been necessary to clarify that as a Jew he had no chance of being a real one to begin with.

Problematic is Penslar’s simplistic understanding of how memory works where everything Herzl, the “man of dreams,” recalls about his own life is described as either true or a lie in order to attract his followers. Neurological research suggest that false memories are widespread in humans and that most likely every human is affected by them.12 Probably all of us remember – sometimes quite confidently and colorful – events that never happened. These findings shake up our justice systems which relies to a great part on eyewitness testimonies. For the field of (auto)biographies, too, this should be taken into account. And isn’t it precisely what makes memory such a fascinating topic? Later in his life, Herzl spoke of having had a childhood dream where he met the Messiah and Moses. This could have been the case or consciously have been made up. But a third possibility, that of false memory is not taken into consideration in the book. Perhaps, including new neurological findings of how people construct their memories and identities would have opened a door to write a new and meaningful, Herzl biography. Everything else seems to have already been produced and reused by various other scholars. I wonder if, instead of writing yet another portrayal of a “heterosexual” man who with all his charisma made politics, a study on women or homosexuals in Jewish history, for instance, would have created more knowledge for the fields of Israel studies or Jewish political history. But Penslar’s Theodor Herzl, unfortunately, falls short.

* * *


1 See for example: Svend Brinkmann, (2017). Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, Polity, p. 86.

2 Ibid.

3 Pierre Bourdieu, “The Biographical Illusion,” in Identity: A Reader, ed. Paul du Gay, Jessica Evans, and Peter Redman (Los Angeles, 2000), 297–303, p. 301.

4 Peter France and William St. Clair, “Introduction,” in Mapping Lives, ed. France and St. Clair, p. 2.

5 William St. Clair, “The Biographer as Archaeologist,” in Mapping Lives, ed. France and St. Clair, 219–234; Leonard Cassuto, “The Silhouette and the Secret Self: Theorizing Biography in Our Times,” American Quarterly 58 (Dec. 2006): 1249–1261, pp. 1253–1254.

6 Stanley Fish, “Just Published: Minutiae without Meaning,” New York Times, Sep. 7, 1999, p. A19.

7 Derek Penslar, “Zionism as Theodor Herzl’s Life Project”, in Nina Caputo and Mitchell B. Hart, editors. On the Word of a Jew: Religion, Reliability, and the Dynamics of Trust. Indiana University Press, 2019, p. 287.

8 The book’s index states “Kana, Heinrich, 27-28, 36, 71, 168”. This is incomplete as it is missing four pages in which Kana is also being mentioned (29, 37, 51, and 86).

9 University Press of America, 1993, 68-70.

10 Kana to Herzl, Central Zionist Archives, File H-VIII-424a-43.

11 Duke University Press, 1997, 317.

12 See for instance: Elizabeth F. Loftus and Daniel M. Bernstein, Rich False Memories: The Royal Road to Success, in A. F. Healy (ed.), Experimental Cognitive Psychology and Its Applications, Washington DC: American Psychological Association Press, pp. 101-113.