Of all the series’ villains, none are more sinister than the Jews. Two minutes into its very first scene, Abdulhamid is riding in a procession in Istanbul when a mustachioed onlooker flips a coin into the hand of one of the royal guards. The soldier opens his hand to find the coin is etched with a Star of David surrounding a squat cross in the style favored by Crusaders and Freemasons. The signal thus received, dozens of his fellow guards turn around and open fire on the royal carriage. The screen fades to black and to the crescent moon that accompanies the mournful opening theme.
Later in the episode we learn that underneath the coin-flipper’s Ottoman fez is a black skullcap of a Catholic priest, for he is a Vatican emissary working for none other than Theodor Herzl, the Jewish Austrian journalist who founded modern Zionism. Herzl, his beguiling assistant Sarah and their various co-conspirators are forever haunting Istanbul, meeting with wayward members of the sultan’s family who are themselves intoxicated by deviant, imported ideas such as popular sovereignty. Herzl is the series’ arch-villain, so perfidious as to hold his penniless father imprisoned without his mother’s knowledge all because the old man opposes Zionism.
As with much of “The Last Emperor,” most of it is fiction. Herzl’s father wasn’t poor but a wealthy businessman, and differed with his son not on the necessity of Jewish statehood but only on the methods for achieving it. Sarah, Herzl’s sidekick, doesn’t appear to be based on any real-life figure. At the First Zionist Congress, held on the show in Vienna (the actual one was in Switzerland), bearded delegates evoking the Elders of Zion applaud Herzl’s stump speech. “Soon all humankind will only live to serve us Jews, chosen by Jehovah,” Herzl intones, then paints the Zionist flag, a blue Star of David, for the assembled, braying crowd. Not satisfied, a red-dressed Sarah calls out from the audience, insisting that he flank the star with two horizontal blue stripes to mark the Jews’ supposed territorial ambitions: no less than the Nile to the Euphrates. To the delegates’ delight, Herzl complies.
That episode, which aired in March, provoked a surge in anti-Jewish invective on social media. One Twitter user vowed to turn the supposed Jewish homeland into a “Jewish graveyard.” Another, citing the same purportedly vast territorial objectives, declared, “The more I watch The Last Emperor,’ the more my enmity to Jews increases you infidels, you filthy creatures.” Both users identify in their bios as Erdogan supporters.
The real Herzl is known to have visited Istanbul only a handful of times and obtained an audience with the sultan only once. Though he failed in his chief objective obtaining a sultanic charter for the already-nascent Zionist settlement enterprise in then-Ottoman-controlled Palestine he was given a first-class induction into the Order of the Medjidie, a prestigious honor the Ottomans only ever granted to 50 people. Herzl hadn’t exactly made a Zionist out of the sultan, but the notion of a rivalry between the two leaders one of a sprawling empire and the other of a minuscule Jewish-nationalist movement is revisionist in the extreme. Herzl’s attempt to curry favor with the sultan was brief and unsuccessful, and he soon resumed his activism, journalism and fundraising in London and Vienna.