Zionism Before Herzl

By Erika Dreifus
Monday, April 22, 2013

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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