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The visit of Theodor Herzl in the Land of Israel, 1898



In the 19th century, Jews started to benefit from the trends of emancipation in Christian countries, with civil rights that they had never enjoyed before. In another hand, the Jews of the Muslim countries continued to live under the dhimmi laws and were never guaranteed fairness. In 1840, one case brought their plight to light in the Western world: the Damascus Affair (for more information, click here to my other web site). Voices raised in both Jewish and Christian circles to condemn the injustice made to the Jews in the Orient. And Jews from emancipating countries made their mission to help their brethren. For example this led, several years later, to the establishment of the Alliance educational organisation for Jews in Muslim countries.


But, some Christians in England started to voice a new paradigm: Jews ought to return to their home land for their own sake but also with the belief that their in-gathering and return would fasten the return of the Anointed. This belief was mostly based upon the New Testament, where Paul explains the doctrine about Jews in Romans 11: I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means ! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. [...] Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all ! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring ! [...] I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. [...] As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now[h] receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

Interestingly, this new approach mostly took off in England where Jews were not officially emancipated, unlike in most European countries, until 1858 ! In September 1838, Lord Shaftesbury wrote in his diary: The ancient city of the people of God [the Jews] is about to resume a place among the nations, and England is the first of the Gentile kingdoms that ceases `to tread her down'.

In January 1839, a memorandum, which author seems to be Henry Innes, Secretary of the Admiralty, was sent to all "Protestant Powers of North of Europe and America" about "the Restoration of the Jews". Its was claimed that political power was needed, as Cyrus the Great did once, to achieve the prophecy of the Scriptures and restore the Jews in their homeland. This important document was published in the The Times and other papers, quoted numerously by scores of clergymen of Protestant faith, and generally signaled the political activity to achieve the ultimate goal. 

In 1840, Orson Hyde, a missionary who later proselyted in Jerusalem, wrote the following: It was by political power and influence that the Jewish nation was broken down, and her subjects dispersed abroad; and I will here hazard the opinion, that by political power and influence they will be gathered and built up; and further, that England is destined in the wisdom and economy of heaven to stretch forth the arm of political power, and advance in the front ranks of this glorious enterprise. The Lord once raised up a Cyrus to restore the Jews, but that was not evidence that He owned the religion of the Persians. [...] There is an increasing anxiety in Europe for the restoration of that people [the Jews]; and this anxiety is not confined to the pale of any religious community, but it has found its way to the courts of kings. Special ambassadors have been sent, and consuls and consular agents have been appointed.

But, in these times, the Land of Israel was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire which was allied to the European Powers, so little was actually done concretely. In another hand, the plight of Jews continued.



Surprisingly, in France, a nation that was first in Europe to grant emancipation to its Jews, things turned very sour for them when the Dreyfus Affair started. He was an assimilated Jew who was officer in the French Army but, because he was Jew and from the German-speaking part of France, he was framed by the Army establishment and accused of treason. At his degradation from military titles, on 5 January 1895 in Paris, one foreign journalist from Vienna, also an assimilated Jew himself, was present: Theodor Herzl. From this event, he realized that emancipation and assimilation would not help Jews to be accepted among other nations and that the only solution for them would be to have  their own homeland where could they finally find freedom from discrimination.

After a few months later, in February 1896, Herzl published his famous book: Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). He concluded as follows: Let me repeat once more my opening words: The Jews who wish for a State will have it. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness.

And thus, a Jew who came from an assimilated background, who had no religious conviction, nor good opinion about Judaism earlier it seems, started to embark on a personal mission that would filled the rest of his life until his premature death in 1904 at the age of 44, to create the momentum that will lead to a "Jewish State". 


The Kaiser

In Vienna, Herzl came to be acquainted with Rev. William Hechler (1845-1931) soon after he published his book. Hechler was a pastor who previously went on a mission across Europe in 1882 to assess the situations of the Jews. In Russia, he was particularly shocked to find out about the reality of the pogroms. In Odessa, he met with Leon Pinsker, a Russian Jew who convinced him of the need for the Jews to have their own state in order to avoid the hatred and antisemitism. Soon after, Hechler published in 1884 a pamphlet for "the Restoration of the Jews in Palestine". Unlike other pastors, he didn't see their conversion to Christian faith as a prerequisite. Rather, the priority was their return to the land of their ancestors as this would enable the second coming of Jesus. Then, when Herzl published his book, it obviously resonated very well with Hechler, and they both met in Vienna. Hechler was very enthusiastic in helping Herzl in any way possible. As he was acquainted with the Grand Duke, uncle and mentor of the Kaiser Wilhelm II, he managed to introduce Herzl to him and to the Kaiser later in that year 1896. The Kaiser promised to pursue the idea of establishing a Jewish colony in Palestine. His motive was mostly political as he was eager to compete against the other European nations, England and France, in the pursuit of colonies. And here came Herzl who wanted to establish a German-speaking colony of Jews in the Holy Land. Herzl's efforts started on a good omen, although his idea of a "Jewish State" found opposition among many Jews, including the religious bodies who considered that only the Messiah should bring God's people back to their homeland. Nonetheless, Nonetheless, in 1897, he called for a meeting of Jews from all Europe to create an organization able to support the initiative of establishing Jewish presence in the Holy Land: it became the Zionist Congress. It took place in Basel, Switzerland, at the end of August 1897. Later that year, Herzl wrote in his diary: Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word - which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly - it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it. And indeed a state for the Jews was formally voted by the UN fifty years later...

Meanwhile back in Herzl's time. In 1898, the Kaiser was to travel to Palestine in order to inaugurate the foundation of the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem, so he asked Herzl to meet with him there to further discuss the Zionist initiative. ​ 


Encounter in Mikveh Israel

Herzl and a handful of Zionist representatives traveled to the Holy Land in October 1898. They landed in Jaffa on Wednesday 26 October 1898. They learned that the Kaiser was going to arrive from Haifa, after he decided to dock his ship in front of the German colony of Templars there. Then he was to come to Jaffa, where another colony of German Templars were to welcome him. From there, the plan was to visit the agricultural school of Mikveh Israel, not far from Jaffa, before heading to Jerusalem. Herzl arrived at the school on the 26th, and spent a night there awaiting for the Kaiser the next day. One of the Zionist delegates, David Wolffsohn, carried a camera to immortalize the encounter between the two.

Mikveh Israel (means "Hope of Israel" in Hebrew) was a school established by the French organization "Alliance" in 1870. Its goal was to instruct Jewish and Arab pupils about agricultural methods. It operated more or less for 50 years, until the establishment of the State of Israel. Herzl hoped that the Kaiser would visit the school as a successful example of Jewish-led agricultural learning and implementation. 

The Kaiser arrived on horseback on the 27th. He recognized Herzl from afar and rode to him. He told him his impression from what he has seen so far: It is a land of the future. As Herzl stood in front of him, Wolffsohn took the picture. Alas, he didn't frame it correctly: Herzl was cut off completely and so was the white horse of the Kaiser. So Wolffsohn decided to arrange a separate picture of Herzl, when they would be back in Jaffa, and to make a photo-montage with the aide-de-camp of the Kaiser, on black horse, and with the head of the Kaiser bent towards Herzl. After some hours of hard work, Wolffsohn got the historical photo that he was seeking for...


Jewish villages

The Kaiser didn't stop long in Mikveh Israel after he learned that the school was actually by managed by French organization. France and Germany were already at odds over the control of colonies in Africa. While the Kaiser continued his route to Jerusalem, Herzl spent the rest of the day touring some other "colonies of Judah" (Moshavot Yehuda). First he headed to Rishon-le-Zion, meaning the First in Zion because they claimed to have settled first in the Land of Israel. But financial issues caused the first colonists to seek the patronage of the Baron de Rothschild, who indeed helped many early Jewish settlements (the so-called First Aliyah). Rothschild helped turn Rishon-le-Zion into a wine production village, but an appointed commissioner was managing the colony. Herzl noted in his diary: Fear of Monsieur le Baron hovers over everywhere. 


Following a rather disappointing visit in Rishon, Herzl was enchanted by his next visit in Ness Ziona. The colony there was privately owned (no patronage of the Baron) and started when a Jew from Odessa, called Reuben Lehrer, came here in 1883 and bought a piece of land near the Arab village of Wadi Chanin. Later, from 1891, several other Jews settled near him and merged the settlement into one they called Ness Ziona (the Miracle of Zion). Herzl noted:  There we were met by the entire population; singing children; an old man [Lehrer] presented me with bread, salt and wine from his own vineyard; I had to visit almost all the homes of the colonists. 


When they left Ness Ziona, the Zionist delegation were met with a "cavalcade" who begged them to visit their settlement as well, in Rehovot. The village was founded in 1890 from early pioneers who didn't wish to be under the patronage of Rothschild. The name Rehovot means "the broadening" after Genesis 26:22: For now the LORD hath made room (broadened) for us. The visit there made a lasting impression on Herzl who saw his vision of what should be a Jewish homeland: A cavalcade came galloping towards us from the settlement of Rehovot. About twenty young fellows who put on a kind of 'fantasia', lustily singling Hebrew songs and swarming about our carriage. [We] had tears in our eyes when we saw those fleet, daring horsemen into whom our young trouser-salesmen can be transformed. Hedad ! they cried, and dashed away cross-country on their little Arab horses. [...] At Rehovot, an even greater demonstration: the whole village awaited me in rank and file. The children sang. With the resources of the poor, a princely reception. 


Travel to Jerusalem

After this enlightening day, they returned to Jaffa for the night. The plan was to travel next day, on 28 October, to Jerusalem by train. The line recently opened in 1892 and it was the first railway in the Middle-East. But it didn't go as planned because Wolffsohn wanted to rectify the photo he took in Mikveh Israel. The morning was spent in dealing with the matter, so the group only took the train later in the day, which was a Friday, and arrived in Jerusalem after Shabbat had started... This caused unease with the Jewish community of the Holy City in addition to the situation that religious leaders, in general, were negative towards Zionism. The group spent the Friday night in an hotel they had booked.



The Shabbat morning, 29 October, Herzl was looking at the city from his window. He noted in his diary: Jerusalem is magnificently situated. Even in its present decay, it is a beautiful city and, if we come here, can become one of the most beautiful in the world again. From there, he also saw the arrival of the Kaiser, and the welcoming decorated arches that all communities of the city had arranged in his honour. SOme say he even stopped a bit of time at the Jewish one. But the Zionist delegates had to leave their hotel that morning ! All hotel rooms of the city were fully booked due to the Kaiser's visit. Through acquaintances, they managed to find lodging in a private house on Mamilla road (this house is still visible today and hosts a Steimatzky bookstore), just outside the city walls near Jaffa Gate.


Herzl realized that the local Jewish leaders were worried to anger the Turkish authorities if they showed any kind of support or interest towards Herzl, the sponsor of a "Jewish State" in the Holy Land. And the world had learned about the first massacres of Armenian populations, approved by the Sultan Abdul-Hamid II around 1895. In fact, even Herzl himself expected to be arrested at any time and expelled from the Holy Land, if not worse. 

While waiting for an interview with the Kaiser, which was becoming increasingly uncertain due to the tight schedule of the official visit, Herzl and his companions toured the Old City, in a way that modern tourists would do today: the Western Wall, the Via Dolorosa, the Holy Sepulcher, the Tower of David. From the top of an old synagogue (maybe the Hurva), he looked at the Temple Mount and the Mount of the Olives.  

On Monday 31 October, the Kaiser was at the consecration of the Church of the Redeemer, which was the official reason for his journey to the Holy Land. He had political views too, to build an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and counter the Western nations. But the clock was ticking for the Zionist delegates: the Kaiser was to leave the Holy Land two days later and there was no confirmation of an interview. Later on that day, Wolffsohn went from time to time to the German encampment (which was on present-day Ha-Nev'im Street in Jerusalem) to go to the news of a meeting. Herzl finally got the response that the Kaiser will meet him the next day or the day after. Optimism raised again.

Herzl meets Wilhelm

Finally, a meeting was arranged for the coming Wednesday. The Zionist delegates had to wait a bit more. Meanwhile they continued to visit sites in the city, including the Mount of Olives and the Tomb of the Kings, for which Herzl noted that it belonged to a French Jew, Pereire, who was obliged by the Turkish authorities to cede it to the French government because: This is how impossible people would consider it that the Jews would ever own anything themselves.  

Finally the audience took place as planned, on 2 November, 1898, around mid-day. The Kaiser was very affable towards Herzl. After the Zionist leader read his prepared communication, the Kaiser answered that the matter required more study and discussion, that the land was in dire need of shade [trees] and water, and concluded that Herzl's [Zionist] movement contained a sound idea. The need for a solution to water was stressed several times in this conversation. In total, the audience was rather short and Herzl stated to his other companions the Kaiser said neither yes nor no. Herzl perceived that the mission to obtain the Kaiser's patronage had failed. 


After the audience, they travelled to Motza, a small colony started in 1854 by a Jerusalemite Jew. When Herzl visited the village, there were some 200 residents who managed to cultivate a very infertile soil. There Herzl planted a young cypress tree that lasted until World War I when the Turks cut down most of the trees of the Holy Land in order to feed their steam machines and fight on the Southern front against the British forces.    


Hasty departure from the Holy Land

The following day, Thursday 3 November, they took an early train back to Jaffa. Herzl was eager to leave the Holy Land before the Turkish authorities would eventually get to arrest him. Further delays obliged them to spend an extra night in Jaffa, where Herzl felt surrounded by spies. But they finally left by boat on Friday 4 November, this time before Shabbat ! 

So in total, Herzl's visit to the Holy Land lasted 10 days during which he visited 7 communities of Jews, from different periods of settlements: Jaffa, Mikveh Israel, Ness Ziona, Jerusalem and Motza were all established before the so-called "First" Aliyah which started in 1882, while Rishon-le-Zion and Rehovot dated from that First Aliyah. 


Herzl felt the long-expected meeting with the Kaiser was unsuccessful. The issue was that the Kaizer did raise the proposal to the Sultan when he met with him in Istanbul but the Sultan categorically refused to allow Jews, and only Jews, to settle in the Holy Land. But one person was following the matter closely: Rev. Hechler. At that time, he worked as chaplain to the British Embassy in Vienna and had one parent being British. Having failed the German initiative gave him the opportunity to start an British one... And because the idea had already matured in the minds of key British politicians, who shared the same religious conviction as Hechler, the new initiative made progress.


On the very same day, 19 years after the Herzl-Wilhelm meeting, Lord Balfour gave the famous "declaration" to the Jewish leaders in Britain on a 2 November [1917]. Those interested in Astrology would not fail to notice that, coincidence or not, the period of 19 years is the duration of the so-called Metonic Cycle when all the planets in the solar system go back to the same position.

As History knows it now, the Balfour Declaration favoured the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land. And, because Arab nations rejected it as well as other proposal or compromise to do differently and share the common land., it finally paved the way towards a vote at the U.N. to establish independent and separate Arab and Jewish states. 

(c) Albert Benhamou, February 2019

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