The First Zionist Novel

March 31 2017

Written in 1876—over two decades before Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement—George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda tells the story of an Englishman who discovers his Jewish identity and then embraces a quest to restore the Jews to their homeland. Ruth Wisse explains why the novel is must-reading today. (To enroll in Professor Wisse’s online course on the book, click here.)

Why did the first historian of Zionism, Nahum Sokolow, call [Daniel Deronda] a “Zionist novel”? Was the author a Jew? George Eliot was a woman who assumed a male pseudonym when she started writing fiction, but she was certainly not a Jew masquerading as an Englishwoman. Rather, she was an Englishwoman concerned about the moral and political future of her country. England had elected as its prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who made no secret of his Jewish origins. But he was a baptized Christian, and therefore his accomplishments proved nothing about his country’s tolerance for Jews who wanted to remain within the Jewish community. Eliot believed that true national maturity meant more than readiness to assimilate a resident minority. In the novel, England’s destiny depends on its ability to recognize that Jews are a separate and equal people “with a national center, such as the English have, though they too are scattered over the face of the globe.”

Lest this sound educational—or worse, didactic—rest assured that this book is entertainment. It begins with the attraction between a handsome young man and a beautiful young woman and builds on the tension of whether these two are destined to end happily together. There are subplots with intrigue, villainy, self-sacrifice, and rescue. Parents desert their children, children defy their parents, lovers wed and others part. Yet unlike the thriller that is driven by suspense, this book derives its excitement from seeing how young people make their way in a changing society where social classes are no longer stable. Women are no longer as strictly confined within traditional roles, and newly democratic culture brings together people who had previously stayed apart. Eliot’s Victorian England is just beginning to experience some of the conflicts that we moderns face in starker form today. . . .

[This year] marks the centenary of the famous letter sent by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Baron Walter Rothschild, affirming that “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” . . . George Eliot’s brilliant novel preceded the Balfour document in demonstrating how much is at stake in the realization of Jewish nationalism—not merely for the Jews, but also for the democracies in whose midst they live.

Read more at Moment

More about: Arts & Culture, Benjamin Disraeli, Daniel Deronda, England, George Eliot, Literature, Zionism


Syria’s Druze Uprising, and What It Means for the Region

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the Druze for the most part remained loyal to the regime—which has generally depended on the support of religious minorities such as the Druze and thus afforded them a modicum of protection. But in the past several weeks that has changed, with sustained anti-government protests in the Druze-dominated southwestern province of Suwayda. Ehud Yaari evaluates the implications of this shift:

The disillusionment of the Druze with Bashar al-Assad, their suspicion of militias backed by Iran and Hizballah on the outskirts of their region, and growing economic hardships are fanning the flames of revolt. In Syrian Druze circles, there is now open discussion of “self-rule,” for example replacing government offices and services with local Druze alternative bodies.

Is there a politically acceptable way to assist the Druze and prevent the regime from the violent reoccupation of Jebel al-Druze, [as they call the area in which they live]? The answer is yes. It would require Jordan to open a short humanitarian corridor through the village of al-Anat, the southernmost point of the Druze community, less than three kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Setting up a corridor to the Druze would require a broad consensus among Western and Gulf Arab states, which have currently suspended the process of normalization with Assad. . . . The cost of such an operation would not be high compared to the humanitarian corridors currently operating in northern Syria. It could be developed in stages, and perhaps ultimately include, if necessary, providing the Druze with weapons to defend their territory. A quick reminder: during the Islamic State attack on Suwayda province in 2018, the Druze demonstrated an ability to assemble close to 50,000 militia men almost overnight.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: Druze, Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy