Herzl carefully adjusted his mouse-gray gloves and followed the young secretary through a massive door held open by a uniformed footman.
“Mr. Herzl, Your Excellency,” the secretary said crisply, standing as stiff as a sentry at a military tomb.
illustration by Avi Katz
The man at the desk carefully penned notes in the margins of a document. His desk testified to his assiduous and deliberate character. Dossiers and documents were piled to the Interior Minister’s left, a large brass telephone with a wooden housing stood at his right hand. In front of him, partly blocking Herzl’s view of his host’s gray head, were the gilded accoutrements of a high imperial official—two tall candlesticks, two inkwells, a paperweight in the shape of a crouching lion, and a small, triumphant angel that served, it seemed, as a pen stand. All were carefully polished; they glinted in dappled August sunlight that filtered in through the oak outside a north-facing bay window. Behind the desk hung a large portrait of Czar Alexander III and a smaller icon of St. Mary Magdalene. Herzl felt faint and his beard itched. But he steeled himself.
“I believe Mr. Herzl would appreciate a breeze,” the Minister said in impeccable French, his face still close to the page he was writing on. The secretary strode over and opened the window. The Minister looked up approvingly, revealing a bushy gray mustache. Taking a deep breath of the fresh air that flowed in from the park outside, he stabbed his pen in the angel’s back. Then he offered his guest the smile of a much younger man, one who was planning some mischief as soon as the adults got out of the way. To Herzl he looked more like an uncle who liked to romp on the living room floor with his nieces and nephews than Vyacheslav von Plehve, the brutal repressor of rebellions and hangman of revolutionaries.
“That will do,” he said matter-of-factly to the secretary, who nodded and withdrew from the office, the servant closing the door behind him. Plehve came around from behind his desk and took Herzl’s hand warmly in both of his.
“Herr Herzl,” he said. “Baroness von Suttner has told me so much about you. I feel we have a great deal in common. Please sit down.” He motioned to the large plush chair that stood facing his desk and then, almost comically, bounded back into his own throne-like seat.
Suddenly serious, the Interior Minister clasped his hands before him on his desk and said: “First, allow me to convey to you, as the leader of the Jewish people, my Imperial Majesty’s most profound regret at the unfortunate events in Kishinev this past Easter. His Majesty is saddened by the loss of so many of his Jewish subjects and those who have been left injured and without homes, all as the result of a most regrettable misunderstanding.”
Herzl resolutely repressed his body’s desire to jerk. Control was everything. Good German control, he believed, could win out over Slavic emotionalism. But then he, a Jew from Budapest, was about as much of a German as Plehve, a Baltic Teuton, was a Russian. They were probably evenly matched. “Your sentiments, and those of his Imperial Majesty,” he told his host, putting just the right ever-so-mild tinge of sarcasm in his voice, “are most gratefully received.”
Plehve’s voice took on a harsher tone and his eyes flashed. “But his Imperial Majesty has also asked me to inform you how wounded he is by the attacks on him and his government, most specifically his Minister of the Interior, by the Jewish and international press—which, as we know, is much the same thing—accusing him of instigating, encouraging, and not doing all in his power to end the disturbances.”
Herzl now offered a smile of his own, and not the obsequious one that the Czar’s Minister of the Interior might have expected from the leader of a miniscule national movement with no legions, no territory, and few resources. Perhaps the Ancient of Days, or Clio, the muse of history, had craftily arranged to make the leader of the fledgling Zionist Organization a leading member of the one profession that the Interior Minister truly feared—a journalist. Plehve had made the mistake of revealing his Achilles heel from the start.
“I believe that His Excellency will see the press’s attitude change if he is forthcoming on the issues presented in my memorandum.”
Plehve leaned back in his chair and surveyed the man in front of him. “I have asked you to come see me so that we might reach an understanding with you about the Zionist movement, of which you are the leader,” he said, choosing his words with the care of a diplomat. “The relationship which will be established between the Imperial Government and Zionism—and which can become, I will not say amicable, but in the nature of an understanding—will depend on you.”
Herzl nodded. Plehve quickly added: “I should stress that the Jewish question is not a vital issue for us. But it is one for which we at present have no solution. On the one hand, the Russian state is bound to desire the homogeneity of its population. At the very least, we demand of all the peoples in our Empire, and therefore also of the Jews, that they act as Russian patriots. As patriots, they may assimilate into the Russian people through higher education and economic advancement, though of course we must restrict their numbers in our universities and government service so that we do not run out of places for Christians.”
“I can assure you that all my Russian Zionist colleagues are loyal subjects of the Czar,” Herzl said, “and engage in no activity opposed to their Emperor or his government.”
“Indeed,” Plehve said. “I should point out that some do not share my admiration for your people. At a recent meeting of the cabinet, my esteemed friend, the Minister of Finance, told our Imperial Majesty that he would be quite happy if it were possible to drown Russia’s six million Jews in the Black Sea. I do not share that view. I believe that we must give the Jews an opportunity to live. Indeed, I understand their position. If I were a Jew, I believe I would also be attracted to the revolutionaries.”
“More than they are rebelling, they are fleeing,” Herzl noted.
Plehve nodded. “Our problem, indeed, is that while the French and English berate us for being cruel tyrants, they themselves have become alarmed at the numbers of Jews entering their countries and are passing laws to staunch the flow. This means that dissatisfied and frightened Jews will remain here and join the Social Revolutionaries.”
“At the same time,” Herzl noted, “the bad press that Russia has received has made it very difficult for His Imperial Majesty to obtain the loans he needs to maintain order and to pursue his interests in the Far East.”
“Therefore,” Plehve said, tapping his pen on his desk, “the creation of an independent Jewish state, capable of absorbing several million Jews, would suit us.”
“I have noted in my memorandum a number of steps that His Imperial Majesty’s government could take to further our program,” Herzl said. “If he will personally intervene with the Sultan, allow our movement to promote emigration to Palestine, and take certain steps to ameliorate the poverty and oppression of the Jews in Russia, I have every reason to believe that governments and banks in the West will view with favor Russia’s requests for credit.”
Plehve stroked his mustache. “You bargain as well as a Turk in a bazaar,” he said. “Of course, you people learn that from a young age.”
Herzl did not reply.
The Interior Minister took a large dossier from the left side of his desk, placed it carefully in the middle, and opened it up.
“You are a brave man,” he said, “to negotiate with a man your people see as a criminal.”
“I have no reason to doubt that His Excellency works solely for the welfare and security of the Czar’s subjects,” Herzl replied.
Plehve turned over page after page in the dossier.
“Many of your colleagues are angry with you for meeting me,” he said. “You know of course that we are fully informed about the most intimate discussions of the Russian Zionists. Among your colleagues are some who are quite happy to provide us with detailed reports. Although it would, of course, be very embarrassing for them if I were to reveal their names.”
“His Excellency is famed for his extensive knowledge,” Herzl said.
“They say that you betray your people and your movement by shaking the hand of the Butcher of Kishinev. How can a man claiming to represent the Jewish people exchange pleasantries with the man who, at the very least, did not send troops in to stop the rioting, who let it go on for three full days without interference? This at a time when the bodies of the dead are still warm, the widows and orphans still mourning their dead, the homeless still roaming the streets, the young women still heavy with the issue of the Russian men who raped them!”
Herzl choked back his emotions. Could they be seen on his face? He was sure they could not. “Europe’s Jews will have a state of their own, or they will die,” Herzl said simply. “To save them, I treat with men of power who have it in their hands to help my people achieve that goal, not with friends who can do nothing to help us. I meet with cabinet ministers and kings. Few of them care for Jews. Many believe the Children of Israel to be smelly, criminal, and disgusting. It is of no concern to me. It is their hatred that provides the basis for dialogue. I wish to take the Jews out of Europe and they wish to be rid of them. I need the Ottomans to agree to Jewish settlement and autonomy, which they are reluctant to give but which the Czar might, through appropriate pressure, might make it worthwhile for them to consider. The Czar is worried about his Jews because they people the forces that oppose his regime and killed his father. The Czar needs credit, and the Jews have bankers who can provide it. The Czar needs allies and has suddenly realized that in the modern age, Western democracies will not want to be allied with a bigoted autocracy. The Jews can provide good press if their interests are provided for. Under the circumstances, neither I nor His Excellency should be checking to see if the man sitting opposite him has horns.”
Plehve, whose eyes had grown noticeably larger as he listened to Herzl’s speech, now chuckled.
“Herr Herzl,” he said, “you are a man after my own heart. The Devil is ready to bargain.”