Although Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau both stemmed from Budapest, the two men met for the first time in Paris, in 1894. Nordau was by that time an international literary celebrity, the author of such controversial works of cultural criticism as The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization (1883) and Degeneracy (1893). He had traveled an immense distance from his Orthodox Jewish roots and, indeed, any affiliation with the Jewish people to become a cosmopolitan agnostic. His observation of growing European antisemitism had left him skeptical, however, about the possibilities for Jewish assimilation, and when Herzl began to espouse Zionism he found in Nordau a ready convert to the new idea.
Nordau became Herzl’s right-hand man and the vice-president of the World Zionist Organization. A consummate orator, his speeches were the highlights of the early Zionist Congresses. According to the London Jewish Chronicle, his speech at the first Zionist Congress generated a “fever heat of enthusiasm among the delegates.” They interrupted him repeatedly with loud shouts of approval, and some of them wept openly as he described the contemporary travail of the Jewish people. His subsequent orations weren’t always accorded such a warm reception. The speech he gave in 1903 in support of the “Uganda Plan” (to follow up a British offer for a Jewish homeland in East Africa as a temporary substitute for Palestine) inspired one opponent to try to shoot him at a Zionist Hanukkah party in 1903. Nordau survived the attack, and lived long enough to witness the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.
“Such is the existing liberation of the emancipated Jew in Western Europe. He has given up his specifically Jewish character; but the peoples let him feel that he has not acquired their special characteristics. He has Lost the home of the Ghetto; but the land of his birth is denied to him as his home. His countrymen repel him when he wishes to associate with them. He has no ground under his feet and he has no community to which he belongs as a full member. With his Christian countrymen neither his character nor his intentions can reckon on justice, still less on kindly feeling. With his Jewish countrymen he has lost touch: necessarily he feels that the world hates him and he sees no place where he can find warmth when he seeks for it. This is the moral Jewish misery which is more bitter than the physical, because it befalls men who are differently situated, prouder and possess the finer feelings.”
Jewish Review of Books
Allan Arkush is Professor of Judaic Studies and History at the State University of New York at Binghamton and Senior Contributing Editor of the Jewish Review of Books. He holds degrees from Cornell University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Brandeis University. He is the author of Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment and co-editor of Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism: Essays in Memory of Alexander Altmann. His numerous essays on modern Jewish thought and Zionism have appeared in Modern Judaism, Jewish Social Studies, Jewish Quarterly Review, Polity, and other periodicals and books. He is the translator of Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem and Gershom Scholem’s Origins of the Kabbalah. From 2006 to 2009 he was the editor of AJS Perspectives, the magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies.