Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) was the founder of Zionism and is revered as the George Washington of Israel. He was a Viennese journalist, a secular Jew, who became convinced that only in a Jewish state – Der Judenstaat was the title of his visionary book – could Jews live free of anti-Semitism.
He was also an opera-lover.
“In the evening Tannhäuser at the opera,” he writes in his diary. “We too will have such splendid auditoriums – the gentlemen in full dress, the ladies dressed as lavishly as possible.”
But it was not only the elegance that moved him. It was Tannhäuser. Much as Wagner was using opera to create a new German consciousness, opera for the Jews could bring about a similar revival of spirit. Herzl’s infatuation with Tannhäuser culminated in the 1898 Second Zionist Congress that, according to an account of the event, “opened with the sound of the opera.”
The redemptive plot, with its motif of the power of self-emancipation, struck a chord with Herzl. Just as Elizabeth and Wolfram offer Tannhäuser the path back to moral idealism, so too Zionism is to be the path for spiritual regeneration. For him, it means a triumph over the alienation that is the lot of assimilated Jews in anti-Semitic Europe.
In the anti-Semitic Wagner’s Tannhäuser, folkloristic elements are used to create national cohesion.
Herzl uses them to inspire the Jews.