The First Zionist Novel

March 31, 2017 | Ruth Wisse
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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.

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