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The Father (Herzl) and the Holy (Zionist) Spirit

Israeli History
Women & Gender

In this article, I will shed light on a lesser-known Herzl, as expressed in his literary work of the 1890s and the beginning of the 1900s. The amiable short stories and plays penned by Herzl reveal another side of the man, very separate from the political person whose views are better known. This is especially true when it comes to Herzl’s stand on gender issues (In so doing, I echo both Avineri’s journey into Herzl’s diaries as the arena for Herzl’s most inner thoughts and revelations, and Stanislawski’s analysis of Herzl’s literature as the haven for his psychological complexity.).

In her work on nationalism, Nira Davis maintains that gender is the key to the understanding of the nationalistic phenomenon, including citizenship, culture and national wars and conflicts. (Davis, p. 3)

‘In our new society’, asserted David Litvak, one of Herzl’s protagonists, ‘the women have equal rights…they worked faithfully beside us during the reconstruction period. Their enthusiasm lent wings to the men’s courage. It would have been the blackest ingratitude if we had relegated them to the servant’s hall or to a harem’. (Alt-Nue Land, Herzl-A Reader, p. 171)

It has long been the accepted notion that women were invited to participate in the Zionist public sphere by merit and by virtue. Nevertheless, despite the fact that women were granted both passive and active political rights, they were not spared the otherwise discriminative and secondary status in the Zionist institutions:

‘‘My wife’, David Litvak proceeded, ‘breast-fed our son and in the meantime she forgot her civil duties…beforehand, she belonged to the radical opposition and that’s how I met her, as a rival’… `ha, ha`, Kingscourt’s laughter roared, `a fine way to overcome one’s rival`…” (Alt-Nue Land [Hebrew], p. 63).

Making sure its message would not escape his readers, Herzl continued:

`Our women know better than to interfere with public affairs at the expense of their own comfort…they don’t pry too much with what they have already achieved`. (ibid, p. 78)

Herzl’s ambivalence towards women unfolds vividly as the plot of Alt-Nue Land progresses. In contrast to the Zionist, emancipated new woman, who chose not to practice her political rights, Herzl depicted yet another female prototype, Fatma, the friendly Arab woman:

“Passing near Rashid Bay’s house, a sublime female singing was heard. ‘The wife of Rashid Bay is singing,’ Miriam said. ‘She is our friend, an intelligent well-educated woman. The two of us meet often, but in her house only. Rashid Bay’s Muslim mores make it difficult for her to visit us`, explained Miriam.” (ibid)

Herzl’s assertion regarding the “right place” for women also resonates in the following paragraph, when Sara Litvak, the Zionist “new woman”, exclaimed:

`Don’t think of her as unhappy. The two of them share the bliss of married life, they have wonderful kids, but she doesn’t leave her sheltered, serene home.’ (ibid)

Making his final manifestation crystal clear, Herzl used Sara’s voice again:

`I understand her fully. In spite of the fact that I am an equal member of the new society, had my husband asked me to – I would have consented to live like Fatma! (ibid)

Hence, Herzl’s utopia is full of inherent contradictions, as Rachel Elboim Dror claims in her work. (Dror, p. 184-193)

In light of 19th century social developments, Herzl’s female characters perform professional work. In Alt-Neu-Land, Miriam, the unwed maiden, is a teacher:

`By the way`, asked Ernestina, `do you like Miriam? …she is taking her duties to society and such nonsense so seriously, playing at being a teacher…it is so fashionable these days.` Such blasphemy got Herzl’s whip-lashed response: `My dear lady, as much as I know, Ms. Litvak does not play the role of a teacher. She is one, and she takes this mission very seriously! (Alt-Nue Land [Hebrew], p. 142)

Medicine is another field in which the erudite independent woman in Herzl’s “new society” took part. In Alt-Neu Land it was ophthalmology which probably had to do with the high rate of contagious eye diseases that were prevalent in the Middle East at that time. Specifically, Dr. Eichenshtam, the daughter of Herzl’s “new society” President, was a distinguished and devoted physician. However, Dr. Eichenshtam was destined to live her life in devotion to the service of others, and as a result of that, to remain a single woman. Her devotion replaced the “natural” feminine needs for a family of her own, with no less of a duty of serving the “new society”. The “new Herzlian woman” therefore, could be a professional woman provided that she was young and [still] unmarried, or an “old maid” whose chances to be married were slim.

The “normative” Zionist woman, therefore, was an equal citizen, sharing with her male counterparts the same political rights and duties. This, however, should not cover up the fact that the “new woman” is also an obedient housewife and mother, happy to remain in her sheltered home, like Fatma, the Arab woman. The Zionist woman muted her voice, enabling her husband and master to reign supreme:

‘The duty of a Hebrew wife to her husband is bigger than the one of a Christian woman to hers. It happens to be so because our husbands carry a certain burden when they go into society. Their home should therefore be their restful haven. You have to dress up only for his satisfaction, to think only about his needs, and to live your life just for him, ` exclaimed Mrs. Samuel, a mother-in-law to her newly-wed daughter-in-law, in Herzl’s play ‘The New Ghetto. (Kol Kitvai Herzl, vol. 6, p. 198)

In this view of the confined-to-the-private-sphere-married woman, Herzl echoed meticulously the liberal–capitalist patriarchal social order, which in Heidi Hartmann’s critique is the root of women’s subordination. (Hartmann, Heidi, “The Historical Roots of Occupational Segregation: Capitalism, Patriarchy and Job Segregation by Sex,” Signs, 198013.)

Herzl’s portrayal of women as reflected in his literary work is convoluted at best, and indeed, reveals his psyche. Fears, resentment, discontent and at times, even vindictive feelings, comprise the attitude of his characters towards women. These stories underscore the fact that on the one hand, Herzl put women on a pedestal, both protecting and admiring them. Focusing on the tender, erudite, pretty, articulate, chaste, and pure woman, Herzl flattered women. Yet, on the other hand, with his skillful pen, he ridiculed them, describing women as petty, full of gluttony and greed, vulgar and tasteless.

Herzl portrayed women, both young and old, and especially married women, as the epitome of the ills of human kind. In Aniline’s Inn, (written in 1896) Herzl invited his readers into a married couple’s ‘hall of horrors`:

“Once upon a time there was a man and he had a spiteful wife. The woman made his life miserable with her capricious behavior…More than anything else”, Herzl continued, “this man loved to sit in his study, surrounded by his books, reading, writing or just letting his thoughts wander. During such blessed occasions, the wife used to burst into the room, swearing, shouting and disturbing him with her chatter. At that moment, the guy’s heart was broken and he ran away… and while he was running…he managed to crack a smile, a vindictive smile, thinking of the wife’s outburst once she is harshly punished.” (Aniline’s Inn, Kol Kitvai Herzl, vol. 4, p. 109)

Like many of Herzl’s writings, `The New Ghetto ` echoes Herzl’s resentment toward the type of women he most likely encountered: wealthy women of the Jewish Diaspora:

`Miss Hermina would like to be well provided for, like her sister, I presume,’ said Waserstien. `Beautiful dresses, jewelry, evenings at the theater and at concerts and so forth. The meaning of this is to hew a lot of money. Can a lawyer provide for all of this? ` (Kol Kitvai Herzl, vol. 6, p. 191)

And in one of Alt-Neu Land ‘s scenes, Herzl described the Zionist ‘late-bloomers’, the rich European Jews and Jewesses who refused to join his Zionist adventure as follows:

“On the opposite side of the Opera house, two women, one old and one young, dressed in the most excessive decoration, with too many jewels and precious stones, took their seats…`who are they?` Fredrich inquired. `Leschner, the wealthy stock-market investor from Vienna, his wife and daughter,’ David replied. `I did not expect to see them here`, Fredrich said to David. `Well, they simply got here after the country was already built`, said David.” (Alt-Nue Land [Hebrew], p. 83)

Akin to other thinkers, political activists, and social critics, women, oftentimes bourgeois women, were caught in the cross fire and became the target for their venom. One example is Paul Lafargue’s, Le Droit a la Paresse (The Right to be Idle). Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in- law, wrote his satire in the 1880s, accusing vain women of the bourgeoisie of collaborating with the capitalists in exploiting the poor.

Like the new Zionist woman, Herzl also penned her equivalent, the new Jew. Herzl’s men protagonists were illuminated with a bright cosmopolitan ray of sunshine. Rooted in the Jewish ghetto of past days, or, like Herzl himself, growing up in the new emancipated world, these men were worldly and savvy; they were well-educated with polished Central-European manners. In `Fair Rosalinda ` (written in 1890), Herzl depicted men who belonged to this “entitled class”:

“the two men approached the hallway together. `Hello’, said the taller one `are you going home?` `I have no idea, it is a pleasant night, I might wonder the streets a little`, replied the other. `Good idea, will you take me with you, ` the tall one asked. The two men walked side-by-side, bound together by their equal worth.” (Fair Rosalinda, Kol Kitvai Herzl, vol. 4, p. 159.)

Thereupon, the two men started a vivid conversation about the merits of drinking and other forms of social behavior.

Herzl’s male characters were bourgeois, no doubt. Enjoying not only travel, wine, good food, theater, opera, literature, fine clothing and the company of each other; they were also seeking more profound things: the company, and if possible, the love of beautiful, sophisticated, exotic women.


The Zionists targeted women as potential allies for the creation of the new “Promised Land”. As such, women were not excluded from the nationalistic project; but, as Herzl’s literary writings prove, their place was a complex one.

The founding father of Zionism harbored inherent contradictions. On the one hand, he recognized the power of “mass communication” to entertain people, but at the same time, he used this power to scrutinize what he thought should be eradicated from his futuristic world. Herzl penned a stereotypic portrayal of the old-new woman, the embodiment of the patriarchal order of the fin de siècle.

In the final analysis, Herzl was nothing but the product of his time. As a politician, he could not exclude women – the response of Herzl the intellectual. Yet at the same time, the inclusion of women was at odds with Herzl’s psyche; a man whose personal life was shattered by tragedies and misfortune.

Dr. Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern is a lecturer in Jewish History and Women’s Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.


Avineri, Shlomo, `Darco Shel Herzl Le-Gibush Tod`a`a Leumit Yehudit` (Herzl’s Way to National-Jewish Consciousness), Alpaiim , 15 (1997), pp. 254-287.

Davis, Nira, Gender and Nation, London 1997.

Elboim-Dror, Rachel, Yesterday’s Tomorrow, Jerusalem 1993.

Hartmann, Heidi, `The Historical Roots of Occupational Segregation: Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex`, Signs 1980.

Herzl, Theodor, Kol Kitvai, vols. 4, 6, (Hebrew), Tel Aviv 1950.

Herzl, Theodor Alt-Neu Land, (New Hebrew translation), Tel Aviv 1997.

A Herzl Reader (compiled by Benjamin Jaffe), Jerusalem 1980.

Lafargue, Paul, Le Droit a la pareses (The Right to be Idle), (Hebrew translation: Tamar Kaplansky), Binyamina 2004.

Stanislawski, Micahel, Zionism and the Fin de Siecle: Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism form Nordau to Jabotinsky , University of California Press 2001.

Vital David, The Origins of Zionism, Oxford 1975.

Bat-Sheva Margalit Stern is an associate professor of history. Her fields of research include Women’s Studies, Modern Jewish History and Land of Israel Studies. Professor Margalit Stern got her PhD at the University of Haifa and her post-doctoral training at Stanford University. After several years of exploring life in the United States, she came back to Israel and became a member of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

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