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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.
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