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Zionism Before Herzl

In the beginning, there was Theodor Herzl.  Or so I thought.  I have a Ph.D. in European history, but I have long been aware of the deficiencies in my knowledge of Jewish history and my Israel literacy.  So when I discovered the opportunity to take a non-credit course on Zionism here in New York, I jumped at the chance. 

Once enrolled, I learned just how much Zionist history there was before Herzl.  Our initial sessions were devoted to a variety of Zionist forerunners and an extensive documentary legacy that anticipated Herzl’s visionary 1896 pamphlet, The Jewish State

I was dutifully taking notes during our second class meeting when our professor mentioned another text that expressed Zionist sentiments well before Herzl took up his mission.  But unlike the writings of Rabbis Yehuda Alkalai and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, or those of Leon Pinsker and Ahad Ha’am, this text was written in English, and by a woman who wasn’t even Jewish. Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t a polemic or a pamphlet.  It was a novel by George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Anne Evans), Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, 21 years before Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress. 

Now, my Jewish literacy may be sub-par, but I’ve read my share of 19th-century European novels. In one undergraduate seminar titled “Victorian Women Writers,” I was assigned another Eliot tome, The Mill on the Floss.  It was around that time, more than two decades ago, that I first discovered—and filed away somewhere in my mental notes—that Eliot had also written a novel with a particularly Jewish dimension, Daniel Deronda.  I bought a paperback of the book soon afterward but, confronted with chunky opening chapters that appeared to follow an all-too-traditional plotline (beautiful young Protestant Englishwoman, unexpectedly impoverished, seeks husband), I gave up before I reached the material that truly engages with Jews and Judaism, a narrative that grows more complicated as the mystery of the parentage of the hero, Daniel Deronda, unfolds and his relationships with certain other characters—Jewish characters—deepen. 

But my recent studies prompted me to give that old paperback another chance. 

At first, it wasn’t easy to do so.  Re-reading the chapters that I hadn’t seen in a couple of decades, I found plenty to make me cringe. Right from the start, the young English beauty Gwendolen Harleth, when she finds herself unexpectedly impoverished while on holiday, decries, “these Jew dealers [who] were so unscrupulous in taking advantage of Christians unfortunate at play!”  Later, when another major female character, Mirah, introduces herself to Deronda, she reveals that she is “a Jewess” and immediately asks him, “Do you despise me for it?”  That he does not “despise her for it”—and this is long before he discovers his own Jewishness—is clearly intended to suggest a notable nobility of spirit.  Even the kindly family that Deronda persuades to care for Mirah expresses a repeated wish to convert her to Christianity.  (I can’t say that I’m entirely unsympathetic to their concerns: when two of these family members accompany their guest to a local synagogue, one of them asks, “Excuse me, Mirah, but does it seem quite right to you that the women should sit behind rails in a gallery apart?”) 

It took literally hundreds of pages before I finally reached the chapter in which the novel’s most obviously proto-Zionist character, Ezra Mordecai Cohen (known throughout the text as Mordecai), makes his most expansive and articulate arguments.  He does so at a London gathering of a group nicknamed “The Philosophers”—whose members’ sentiments and counter-arguments reflect other viewpoints that found expression in Eliot's time, including both an awareness of the Jewish plight and a call for assimilation—and in the presence of Deronda, an educated English gentleman whose Jewish ancestry has not yet been revealed (either to himself or to the reader).  In the meeting, Mordecai pleads: 

Revive the organic centre: let the unity of Israel which has made the growth and form of its religion be an outward reality. Looking towards a land and a polity, our dispersed people in all the ends of the earth may share the dignity of a national life which has a voice among the peoples of the East and the West—which will plant the wisdom and skill of our race so that it may be, as of old, a medium of transmission and understanding.

Not long afterward, it is Deronda, having learned the truth of his lineage, who assumes the work that the physically weakening Mordecai is unable to continue.  As Deronda ultimately explains to Gwendolyn, around whom so much of the novel revolves, “I am going to the East to become better acquainted with the condition of my race in various countries there.”  He adds:

The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again, giving them a national center, such as the English have, though they too are scattered over the face of the globe.  That is a task which presents itself to me as a duty; I am resolved to begin it, however feebly.  I am resolved to devote my life to it.  At the least, I may awaken a movement in other minds, such as has been awakened in my own.

Eliot’s personal and intellectual trajectory toward a philo-Semitic endorsement of the idea of a Jewish homeland is a subject larger than the scope of this essay.  If it interests you, you will want to read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s excellent 2009 book The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot.

In the end, what matters most to me, as someone both deeply engaged in the reading (and writing) of “Jewish literature” and committed to acquiring a deeper understanding of the history of Israel, is that I now understand why Daniel Deronda is often cited as a “Jewish novel” despite its non-Jewish authorship.  Equally important, I see it as a proto-Zionist novel as well.

Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which has been named an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature.

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cinnamon on April 22, 2013 at 5:25 am (Reply)
you will find a lane, near the king david hotel in jerusalem, named after george eliot. it is a well worn path that you have discovered only recently.
    cinnamon on April 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm (Reply)
    Dan Deronda is a marvellous book, and an absolute original. I think the author was both sensitive too and prescient of the jewish situation, especially in europe. there seem to be too many references to germany, so that i noticed. she understood persecution, and the fringes of what is called society in her other books. culturally a pre-cursor to the observations and stance of marcel proust.

    linked to that, there is her latter ambivalence to the christianity she was brought up in.

    however, even though the novel is profoundly zionist, i do think she lays in on thick with daniel. being ever so much the british aristocrat, so very honourable, so perfect in a way. i think this is done to make the idea of zionism palatable to her reading audience. perhaps she overdoes it slightly?

    a heart wrenching read nevertheless.
      cinnamon on April 24, 2013 at 1:19 pm (Reply)
      having thought about it for a while, i was wrong. eliot creates the character of daniel with skill. it isn't thick.

      daniel is the epitome of english aristicratic manner. most honourable and compassionate. but he can't fit in. if daniel can't fit in, what then of the mordechai's and jewish philosopher groups that eliot portrays? will they fit in?

      in my humble opinion the most heart wrenching scene in the book is when daniel finally discovers his mothers identity. she is a (jewish) european princess (literally, and by marriage). and the price she has to pay to fit in? the price is her son. perhaps there are some out there who can tell me if it is not tragic for a woman to loose her son to pay for an identity?

      thus the jewish condition in a zionist novel, written by somebody who certainly had a finger on the pulse of events. if i wrote the same thing, and i could about persecution or some such like, it would not be original idea, but a now old reality in a new costume.

      a reality as old as that quiet, long since, old lane in jerusalem.
        cinnamon on April 26, 2013 at 10:59 am (Reply)
        edward said commentated that daniel deronda was racist. in his mind set zionism was racism.

        mr. said had his integrity attacked severally, and not without good cause in my opinion.

        edward said, born he said, in mandatory palestine, first went to the most expensive schools in the middle east. after graduating princeton and harvard, he became professor at columbia and had a host of other academic positions of the highest rank and reputation.

        for the kulturkampf against israeli scholarship (sometimes called the boycott) for which he was amply promoted in order to figurehead (some would say way beyond his scholarship) he made a career of calling zionism racism. he was adored by the bbc types. woe betided any jew who spoke against him, racism by inference and association.

        those who have read the book should then easily understand the nature of doublespeak. arabia does not lend well to democracy, but said served to manufacture the consent of the democratic masses against zionism. he's one of those guys who made murder respectable.

        thus you will rarely find this zionist work in academia, or indeed those who would promote its reading.
Emil Simiu on April 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm (Reply)
Settling Jews in Judea following a request to the Sultan by an influential Turkish Jew was suggested by the philo-Semitic Prince de Ligne (1735-1914) in his Memoire sur les Juifs (Oevres choisies, 1808), pp. 47-65, see

Zionists before Herzl also include the Romanian Jewish founders of Rosh Pina in Palestine in the early 1880s.
susan on April 22, 2013 at 11:32 pm (Reply)
I am not surprised.
Jacob Arnon on April 23, 2013 at 9:00 am (Reply)
I don't if you are familiar with a text by Moses Hess written in 1862 but this is probably one of the very first or even the first book which argued that Jews will never be accepted in Europe because they are seen as an alien nation.

Moses Hess is an interesting figure: he introduced Marx to the notion of communism. He was part of that circle of thinkers called Hegelian leftists. (The American philosopher Sidney Hook has written about Marx and Hess: Sydney Hook "Karl Marx and Moses Hess" 1934) Hess as a communist (this was a pre-Marxian type of communism which today would be called communitarianism.As a member of this group he was exposed to antisemitism by people like Bruno Bauer. It was Bauers antisemitism which Marx countered in his infamous "On the Jewish Question. (It's been argued that the essay wasn't antisemitic because Marx wasn't arguing for the abolition of Judaism but for government non intervention in religion and allowing Jews to coexist with other religion in Europe as was the case in the US.

I don't buy the argument because no matter what Marx believed the language in the essay is antisemitic even if we allow that the terms Marx used were per-biological antisemitism. The essay inspired many Marxists to embrace antisemitism.

In any case Moses Hess wrote in his book Rome and Jerusalem which probably George Eliot also read. (Hess was associated with Feuerbach whose book "The essence of Christianity" Eliot translated. That book btw was among the first to argue for the historical interpretation of Christianity which led to the questioning to the existence of Jesus.

Hess is one of those thinkers very common today who moved away from Judaism and became very critical of the religion (some will say antisemitic) but later on in his life he repudiated communism and moved back to Judaism.

The British thinker Isaiah Berlin (also a Zionist) in our day wrote very passionate essays on Moses Hess.

We should better acquaint ourselves with the early history of both Zionism and communism since these views have been brought back to life but today's antisemitic leftists who don't realize how their believes had been discredited by Moses Hess and others.

George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda could not have been written had Eliot not been acquainted with both Feuerbach and Moses Hess.

A recent biography of Karl Marx brings to light Marx' own contradictory views about communism (at times he argued against it) which had it not been for Engels' editing and publishing Marx's Capital we would probably Marx would have been forgotten along with Feuerbach and Hess.
Jerry Blaz on April 23, 2013 at 3:18 pm (Reply)
Proto-Zionists are not hard to find. In the United States, Mordecai Noah, a Philadelphia native of Portuguese descent, bought Grand Island in the Niagara River to be an interim gathering place for Jews in Europe and in the Muslim states to stay while the Sultan could be convinced to allow the Jews to return to their homeland. He found resistance to his ideas, particularly from some rabbis who simply ridiculed his ideas. Noah, a restless soul who participated in the life of the young American republic, was a journalist, playwright, and politician, who served as the plenipotentiary representative with the goal of freeing American seamen who had been captured by Barbary pirates. His removal from diplomatic office has been attributed to anti-Semitism. He was a strong Jacksonian Democrat, but never held elected office, supposedly because of his Jewishness. His life had its quixotic moments, and the purchase of Grand Island was considered to be one of them. Not one Jew ever ingathered there in preparation for "aliyah" to the historical Jewish homeland.
Jacob Arnon on April 23, 2013 at 4:32 pm (Reply)
Yes, Proto-Zionists are not hard to find. However Moses Hess wasn't a proto-Zionist. He is important because he responded to the plight of Jews in Europe in his own and his ideas had an effect on subsequent Jewish generations especially German Jews. I am not ware that Mordecai Noah's left a legacy to future generations of American Jews. (I could be wrong though.) Justice Brandeis an active Zionist didn't mention him in any of his writings as far as I am aware. (Again I could be wrong.)

Doers anyone here know if other Jews took up Mr. Noah's notions?

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