Theodor Herzl and Isaac Mayer Wise’s Competing Visions for Jewish Self-Determination

June 10, 2024
Add to History Board Share Print
Image from The World's Parliament of Religions : an illustrated and popular story of the World's First Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in connection with the Columbian exposition of 1893, by John Henry Barrows, 1893

On August 15, 1897, two weeks ahead of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, Theodor Herzl received his first mention in The New York Times. The article set the scene for what would be discussed at the conference, the challenges the delegates would be facing, and gave a detailed description of the existent Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine. The author claimed that the article was the first of its kind in that it was “a statement of the full scope of the project and the problem which is to be solved.”{1} Ten days after the Congress adjourned, The New York Times ran an article by Isaac Mayer Wise, a Reform rabbi and arguably the most influential Jewish American leader of the time. He also happened to be the father-in-law of the paper’s new owner and the most vocal anti-Zionist of Reformed Judaism, if not of America. The article, “A Jewish State Impossible,” was published both in The New York Times and in Wise’s own publication, The American Israelite. {2}Wise’s criticisms of political Zionism were more pronounced in his own paper: a month earlier he had described the movement as a “momentary inebriation of morbid minds, and a prostitution of Israel’s holy cause to a madman’s dance of unsound politicians.” {3} The most powerful mainstream American rabbinic figure and editor of one of the most widely-read Jewish newspapers in America skewered the father of political Zionism “Don Quixote Herzl.” Max Nordau, who was a towering popular intellectual before he met Herzl and got involved in Zionism, was similarly branded (and arguably more insultingly) by Wise as “Sancho Panzo Nordau.” Wise did not exclusively criticize people outside of his own camp. He excoriated Zionist Reform rabbis as unfit to be leaders, going as far as to call them “Ziomaniacs.”

Though Wise was born in Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) in 1819, he immigrated to the United States as a young man in 1846. Herzl was Wise’s junior by forty years and had spent his entire life in Europe. Whereas Herzl had recognized an immutability in antisemitism and so sought a national Jewish homeland, Wise was determined to show that acculturation, rather than separation, would eventually relegate antisemitism to the past. Wise dedicated much of his literary career as the editor of The American Israelite to combating the negative depictions of Jewish people in the press and a cornerstone of his battle against antisemitism was the constant reiteration of Jewish people as Americans first. In 1856, his paper openly challenged Horace Greeley for publishing negative stereotypes of Jewish people in his paper. Unintimidated to call out the surprising antisemitism rampant in the abolitionist circle, Wise’s paper responded: “We are really at a loss how to explain the fact that Horace Greeley, the champion of liberality, permits the columns of his paper to be used for such medieval-like calumnies and disgraceful stories. . . . Sir, the pretension in your paper that we are strangers wherever we reside is false and untrue. We are Jews in religious respect, but as citizens we are as true and devoted to our country as any denomination whatever.” {4}

Throughout Wise’s life, he would maintain that American Jews were indiscernible from other religious groups such as Methodists and Catholics, who only differ from their peers in attending a different church. American Jews in no way comprised a “distinct element from the rest of the population”;{5} to Wise, America offered an unparalleled opportunity in human history for religious freedom. This doesn’t seem to have been lost on Jewish immigrants; between Wise’s chastisement of Greeley in 1856 and his fierce opposition to Herzl in 1897, the Jewish population in America quadrupled. With this tremendous growth came a major change in how Jews practiced their religion.  The beginning of the century had seen smaller, more traditional – or Orthodox – Jewish communities. After the Civil War and rapid industrialization, and with the 1868 passing of Isaac Leeser, the foremost Orthodox rabbi in America, Reform Judaism began its ascent, with Wise at its helm.

Wise led American Jewry along the lines of the German Reform Movement in Europe. Wise was determined to sever the ties between the modern Jewish people and their ancestral homeland, insisting  that Jewish identity was not “endemic; it is not conditioned by space, land, or water […] The Jewish nationality and his attachment to it has been made portable; he carries it along with him wherever he goes, unites it with the country of his choice, and if he is a good man he is patriotic as a citizen no less than as a Jew.”{6}

Both Herzl and Wise understood the need for Judaism to evolve in the rapidly changing world. They each championed the unity and empowerment of the Jewish people in the pursuit of self-preservation and determination. But their visions differed substantially. Herzl advocated for political selfhood for the Jewish people in the same vein as various nationalistic movements emerging in Europe. Wise sought to reform and integrate American Judaism and Jewish people into their respective countries, in a manner akin to the Protestant Reforms in Martin Luther’s time and similar to the Unitarianism gaining popularity in America in Wise’s time. 

By 1900, Wise was dead; four years later, so was Herzl. American Reform Judaism remained faithful to Wise’s vision until the Columbus Platform of 1937, in which Reform Judaism officially adopted Zionism.{7} That year opened with the Aryanization of the German economy, in which Jews were compelled to sell their businesses and the mayor of Berlin expelled all Jewish children from the city’s public schools. By the early spring, the leaders of the American Reform movement had decided that  “In view of the changes that have taken place in the modern world,” they would officially  adopt Zionism. {8} Neither Herzl nor Wise lived to see their seemingly incompatible philosophies united within the largest denomination of American Jewry: Reform Judaism.  


  1. [1]
    The New York Times, 15 August 1897, p.9
  2. [2]
    Ibid, 10 September 1897, p.6
  3. [3]
    The American Israelite, 8 July 1897, p.4
  4. [4]
    Ibid, 15 August 1856, p.44 Horace Greeley (1811-1872) was an influential journalist and politician who used his newspaper, the New-York Tribune, to influence and shape public opinion at a pivotal time in American history. Greeley also used his platform to help Lincoln secure the Republican nomination, after which, he worked with Lincoln to shape public policy.
  5. [5]
    Ibid, 27 June 1889, P. 4
  6. [6]
    Ibid, 24 Jan 1879, p.4
  7. [7]
    For the heterogeneity concerning Zionism in the Reform Movement, see Sarna, Jonathan D. "Converts to Zionism in the American Reform Movement." Zionism and Religion, 1998, pp. 188-203.
  8. [8]
    Central Conference of American Rabbis, "Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism," Central Conference of American Rabbis, 3 June, 2024