The New Zionism

Feel your pain. TV advert, Tel Aviv.

The new Zionism, which has been called the political one, differs, however, from the old, the religious, the Messianic one, in this,—that it disavows all mysticism, no longer identifies itself with Messianism, and does not expect the return to Palestine to be brought about by a miracle, but desires to prepare the way by its own efforts.

The new Zionism has grown in part only out of the internal impulsions of Judaism itself, out of the enthusiasm of modern educated Jews for their history and martyrology, out of the awakened consciousness of their racial qualities, out of their ambition to save the ancient blood, in view of the farthest possible future, and to add to the achievements of their forefathers the achievements of their posterity.

On the other hand, Zionism is the effect of two impulses which came from without,—first, the principle of nationality, which for half a century ruled thought and feeling in Europe, and governed the politics of the world; secondly, anti-Semitism, from which the Jews of all countries have more or less to suffer.

The principle of nationality has awakened self-consciousness in all the peoples; it teaches them to regard their peculiarities as qualities, and gives them a passionate desire for independence. It could not, therefore, pass over the educated Jews without leaving a trace. It induced them to remember who and what they are; to feel themselves, what they had unlearned, a people apart; and to demand for themselves a normal national destiny.

Helmet babes. Tel Aviv, October 2015.
Helmet babes. Tel Aviv, October 2015.

This slow and painful work of the recovery of their national individuality was rendered easier by the attitude of the peoples, who eliminated them from among themselves as a foreign element, and put stress, without consideration or courtesy, on the real and imaginary contrasts, or at least differences, between themselves and the Jews.

The principle of nationality has, in its exaggerations, led to excesses. It has been led astray into Chauvinism, abased to idiotic hatred of the foreigner, degraded to grotesque self-worship. From this caricature of itself the Jewish nationalism is safe. The Jewish nationalist does not suffer from self-inflation; he feels, on the contrary, that he must make tireless efforts to render the name of Jew a title of honor. He modestly recognizes the good qualities of other nations, and seeks diligently to acquire them in so far as they harmonize with his natural capacities.

He knows what terrible harm centuries of slavery or disability have done to his originally proud and upright character, and seeks to cure it by means of intense self-training. If, however, nationalism is on its guard against all illusions as to itself, this is a natural phase in the process of development from barbaric selfish individualism to free humanism and altruism,—a phase the justification and necessity of which can only be denied by him who has no comprehension whatever of the laws of organic evolution, and is totally lacking in the historical sense.

Anti-Semitism has also taught many educated Jews the way back to their people. It has had the effect of a sharp trial which the weak cannot stand, but from which the strong emerge stronger or more confident in themselves. It is not correct to say that Zionism is but a “gesture of truculence” or an act of desperation against anti-Semitism.

Sigourney Weaver goes Tel Aviv.
Sigourney Weaver goes Tel Aviv.

It is true that more than one educated Jew has been moved only by anti-Semitism to throw in his lot again with Jewdom, and he would again fall away if his Christian fellow-countrymen would receive him anew in a friendly spirit. But, in the case of most Zionists, anti-Semitism only forced them to reflect upon their relation to the nations, and their reflection has led them to conclusions which would remain a lasting acquirement of their mind and heart, even if anti-Semitism were to disappear completely from the world.

Be it well understood; the Zionism analyzed above is that of the educated and free Jews,—the Jewish élite. The uneducated mass, clinging to the old traditions, is Zionist without much reflection, from feeling, from instinct, from distress, and yearning. They suffer too much from the hardships of life, from the hatred of the peoples, from legal disabilities, and social outlawry; they feel that they cannot hope for any lasting amelioration of their situation so long as they must live as a powerless minority among a hostile majority. They desire to become a nation, to rejuvenate themselves by close contact with mother earth, and to become once more the masters of their destiny.

This Zionist mass is still in part not quite free from mystical tendencies. It allows its Zionism to be pervaded, to a certain extent, by Messianic reminiscences, and blends it with religious emotions. They have certainly a clear idea of the aim, the reassembling of the Jewish nation, but not of the means. Still, even they have realized already the necessity of themselves making efforts, and there is a vast difference between their active readiness for organization and their spirit of sacrifice, and the pious, prayer-indulging passiveness of the purely religious Messianist.

Adapted from Zionism and Anti-Semitism (1905), by Max Nordau. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. Published under a Creative Commons license.