Max Nordau first encountered Zionism in 1895 when Theodor Herzl, suffering from what seemed to be a near-delusional obsession with the problem of anti-Semitism, was referred to Nordau’s medical practice for psychiatric advice.
On hearing Herzl’s plans for founding a Jewish state, Nordau is said to have declared, “If you are insane, we are insane together. Count on me!”
Nordau was to become Herzl’s most devoted follower, his ideological lieutenant, and second-in-command of Herzl’s World Zionist Organization. Together they created political Zionism, the movement devoted to the creation of a Jewish state by diplomatic means as the only possible solution to European anti-Semitism.
Religious and Cultural Upbringings
Like Herzl, Nordau was born in Budapest and grew up in a German cultural milieu. Although he received a medical degree and practiced as a physician, Nordau was best known as a journalist and a man of letters. From the late 1860s he worked for several leading European newspapers, including the Viennese Neue Freie Presse— the same institution which employed Herzl as its Paris correspondent.
After receiving a traditional Jewish education (and, unlike Herzl, graduating from his studies with a working knowledge of Hebrew) Nordau abandoned religious life. He became a member of the assimilationist Western European Jewish intelligentsia before making a dramatic return to Jewish life with his newfound passion for Zionism.
It was in this assimilationist phase, prior to 1895, that Nordau published the books which brought him notoriety in European intellectual circles: The Conventional Lies of Society (1883) and Degeneration (1892). In these works he articulated a liberal, utilitarian philosophy based on the concept of human solidarity: the idea that an individual could best serve his or her own interests through consideration of others and by working to improve the lot of humanity as a whole.
Of this, he wrote, “The flourishing of mankind is your Garden of Eden, its degeneration–that is your Hell.” Nordau envisioned a rationalist version of the Zionist state, serving as a contractual framework designed to promote the wellbeing of its citizens. This was the background for his fiery and controversial denunciation of late 19th century Europe’s descent–or degeneration– into irrationality, ethnic nationalism, and anti-Semitism.
Why He Was a Zionist
Perhaps Nordau’s sudden embrace of Herzl’s Zionism was not surprising, given his intellectual and biographical baggage. Both he and Herzl had witnessed the waves of racial hatred which swept France during the Dreyfus trial of 1894. And both believed that the degeneration of liberal European society and the birth of ethnic nationalism (where blood, not citizenship, marked a person’s identity) explained the rise of racial anti-Semitism and ensured that even assimilated Jews would never find full social acceptance. The establishment of a state in which Jews could live on their own terms was an indispensable stage on the path to human solidarity.
In his address to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Nordau articulated this argument based on an assessment of the state of contemporary European Jewry. Following Emancipation (the granting of legal equality to Jews during the French revolution) Jews, desperate for social and economic advancement, had rushed headlong out of the ghetto. When the anti-Semitic backlash began in the 1870s, these acculturated Jews found themselves trapped: having abandoned their Jewish identity they were now rejected by the non-Jewish world. The only solution open to them–insincere conversion to Christianity–resulted in alienation, self-hatred, and a feeling of defenseless in the face of abuse. Nordou commented that:
Stunned by the hailstorm of anti-Semitic accusations, the Jews forget who they are and often imagine that they are really the physical and spiritual horrors which their deadly enemies represent them to be. I contemplate with horror the development of this new race of Marranos [a pejorative term referring to forced Jewish converts to Christianity in medieval Spain], which is sustained morally by no tradition, whose soul is poisoned by hostility to both its own and to strange blood, and whose self-respect is destroyed through the ever-present consciousness of a fundamental lie.”
Nordau was convinced that the creation of a Jewish State was the only solution.
As Herzl’s right-hand man, Nordau became one of the most important leaders of Jewish nationalism at the time. At the first Zionist Congress in 1897 he drafted the Basle Program, which declared the aim of Zionism to be the creation of a Jewish state that was secured by international law. Nordau served as vice-president of the first to sixth World Zionist Congresses (1897-1903), and as president of the seventh to tenth (1905-11). He remained loyal to Herzl’s political Zionism, arguing at the 1903 congress in favor of the controversial plan to establish a Jewish homeland in Uganda, despite his own misgivings.
Following Herzl’s death, Nordau refused to take over the presidency of the World Zionist Organization but continued to argue passionately that only political Zionism, with its goal of immediately founding a Jewish state, could prevent tragedy for European Jewry. He was vehemently opposed to the gradual building of proposed by cultural and practical Zionists such as Ahad Ha’am and Chaim Weizmann. In a 1920 speech at London’s Albert Hall, he argued for the rapid creation of a Jewish majority and sovereignty in the land of Israel through mass immigration from Eastern Europe.
Max Nordau died in Paris in 1923 and was reburied in 1926 at the Old Cemetery in Tel Aviv. Although his proposals for mass immigration were rejected by the Zionist leadership in favor of more incremental approaches, he bequeathed to Jewish nationalism one of its more important ideological predilections. In 1903, he published an article entitled Muskeljudentum (“Jewry of Muscle”), in which he argued for physical strength and fitness as core values of Zionism:
We must think of creating once again a Jewry of muscles…. In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their gay movements; in the dimness of sunless houses our eyes began to blink shyly; the fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in a crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face of their executioners. But now, all coercion has become a memory of the past, and at last we are allowed space enough for our bodies to live again. Let us take up our oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.
Whereas Nordau’s immediate–and successfully realized–goal was the creation of Jewish sports clubs, his ideas profoundly influenced the ideological tenor of the Zionist movement. Labor Zionists, who controlled the state of Israel until the 1970s, came to see agricultural pioneering and physical work as the highest expression of Jewish nationalism.
But the right wing Revisionist movement–the forerunner of today’s governing Likud party–interpreted Nordau’s celebration of Jewish physical strength in military terms. To them, and to broad sections of the Israeli public, self defense, army service, and militarism have become synonymous with the Jewish national liberation that Nordau preached.