Davis Center: Messiah or "Simple Son"? Theodor Herzl and East European Jewry


Wednesday, September 27, 2017, 4:15pm to 6:00pm


CGIS South, S153, 1730 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA
Derek Penslar Pic

This talk employs Theodor Herzl’s relationship with eastern European Jewry as a case study of the social construction of charisma and the legitimization of leadership. There was considerable tension between Theodor Herzl and the Eastern European Zionist activists who had founded the Lovers of Zion movement more than a decade before Herzl burst upon the scene. They viewed Herzl with a mixture of veneration, envy, suspicion, and derision. According to the Russian Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin, Herzl’s “greatest deficiency will be his most useful asset. He does not know the first thing about Jews.” Ussishkin’s snide opinion was shared by many of his colleagues, who formed within the Zionist Organization a loyal but rancorous opposition. Yet it was Herzl, not they, who captured the attention of the masses, dazzled them with his very strangeness, and replenished their self-esteem. Herzl’s position as a secular, assimilated, western Jew, alien to the world of traditional Jewish practice and culture, enhanced his charismatic appeal to Eastern European Jews who could never have accepted one of their own as he would have been all too familiar. Herzl’s legitimacy thus derived from the imagination and sentiment of his followers. Herzl’s sense of destiny and legitimacy, in turn, was nourished by the accolades of his followers, although intriguingly it was enhanced and not weakened by the intense criticism to which his leadership was constantly subjected.

Derek J. Penslar is the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History at the University of Toronto and the Stanley Lewis Visiting Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. He recently joined the Harvard History Department as a visiting professor and in 2018 will assume the William Lee Frost Chair in Jewish History. Penslar's research specialties are the history of modern European Jewry, Zionism, and the state of Israel. Penslar’s books include Zionism and Technocracy: The Engineering of Jewish Settlement in Palestine, 1870-1918 (1991); Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe (2001); Orientalism and the Jews (co-edited with Ivan Kalmar, 2004); Israel in History: The Jewish State in Comparative Perspective (2006); The Origins of the State of Israel 1882-1948: A Documentary History (with Eran Kaplan, 2011); and Jews and the Military: A History (2013). Penslar is currently writing a biography of Theodor Herzl for Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series and a book titled Zionism: An Emotional State, for Rutgers University Press’ series on Keywords in Jewish Studies. 

Derek Penslar, Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History; University of Toronto; Stanley Lewis Visiting Professor of Israel Studies, University of Oxford; Visiting Professor, Department of History, Harvard University

Sponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

For more information, please call 617-495-4037.