Theodor Herzl: Gentleman Leader

Oct. 8, 2020

BY DAVID MATLOW

I own the world’s largest private collection of Theodor Herzl memorabilia. It reflects my fascination with the birth of the State of Israel. On May 13, 1948, Israel did not exist. On May 14, 1948, it did. How did this happen?

Ad for a penknife and the knife

It is an amazing story. Although the Jewish people have prayed to return to our ancestral homeland since we were expelled from it 2,000 years ago (thus the holiday-time plea of “Next Year in Jerusalem”), it was only in the 1800s that tangible steps were taken to make this happen. Herzl did not come up with the idea of Zionism, although he thought he did. However, unlike his predecessors who had a similar idea, he set out to actually make it happen.

In 1896, he wrote Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). The next year, he convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, at which the World Zionist Organization was created. In 1899, he formed the Jewish Colonial Trust. In 1901, he inspired the creation of the Jewish National Fund. In 1902, he wrote Altneuland (Old New Land). In 1903, he received an offer from the British government for a Jewish territory in Africa. And in 1904, he died at age 44, having dedicated the last eight years of his life to the cause of the Jewish people.

Herzl understood that he had to rally the Jewish people around a new idea: that we could live in our own country, make decisions for ourselves, and keep each other safe. He needed a symbol to represent that dream. He became that symbol, and after he died, his successors maintained him as that symbol to keep his dream alive.

Cufflink celebrating the 1917 Balfour Declaration

This is why there are so many Herzl related items to collect. I own more than 5,000 of them, items ranging from ice tongs to medals, pen knives to portraits, postcards, pencils, busts, handkerchiefs, and much more.

It’s all been assembled piece by piece through auctions, hunting at flea markets, and the purchase of entire collections from veteran collectors who wanted to entrust their life’s passion to someone who would cherish it.  As well, at least once a month, I receive in the mail a Herzl item that someone found and for which they want a good home.

My collection is a national treasure of the Jewish people, and in case anyone wonders what it might be worth, I believe it’s priceless.

Portrait of Herzl for the 19th Zionist Congress in Prague, 1933

I have chosen to use my collection as a tool to help people learn about Herzl and be inspired by his work. I am hopeful that by learning about Herzl, people will know a little more about where Israel came from, why it was needed as a safeguard against antisemitism, and why it continues to be needed.

Herzl’s motto was, “if you will it, it is no dream,” and I believe that by learning how Herzl pursued his impossible dream (which, as we all know, came true), we can be inspired to make our own dreams come true.

“The Herzl Project” is my initiative to achieve these goals. To that end, I have created a website with resources about Herzl and my collection (www.herzlcollection.com) and published a book, Collecting the Dream, available free of charge as a PDF on the website, or as an ebook on Amazon.

During the pandemic, I have done over 25 videos, webinars and other online presentations on the subject of Herzl. This is not only because for many months I was sheltering at home with my entire collection. It is also because Herzl provides us with an important lesson for this time. He teaches us that the situation in which we find ourselves today can change and improve, and that tomorrow will be better.

Herzl also taught us by example how to be a leader in difficult times. He used his skills and talents as a lawyer, playwright and journalist to create something that would benefit others. Knowing that he was very sick, he focused on the future of the Jewish people, understanding that he was not likely to live to witness the birth of the state he envisioned.

Herzl pencil and pencil stand

Herzl also believed that we cannot do things that benefit only ourselves, and that because of our history, Jews are uniquely able to have a broader perspective. He understood that as citizens of this planet we all share, we must also act to help others. This is best illustrated in this reference from his book Altneuland, in which one of his characters expresses the following:

“There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy, only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.” 

This is remarkable. While dedicating his life to the Jewish people, Herzl also had the goal to help end Black suffering. He understood that issues of prejudice and discrimination are related, and that we are free only if we are all free. He knew that we cannot only look after ourselves; that we must care for the plight of others.

Bulletin announcing Herzl’s death

We have all seen pictures of Herzl in his top hat and tuxedo. He also often wore white gloves to formal events. He was a gentleman.

But being a gentleman is not limited to how you dress. It is how you behave, what you say, what you think, and what you do. It is also about the care you show for others.

I have come to know Herzl through my collection. He was a gentleman leader. We all benefit from his work, and we should all be proud of the way he did it.


David Matlow
David Matlow

David Matlow is a lawyer and partner at Goodmans LLP in Toronto. He is a member of the board of directors of the iCenter for Israel Education and the Ontario Jewish Archives. He is featured on a six-part series about Herzl called “Herzl Explained,” produced by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.