Max Nordau

Physician, intellectual, Zionist.

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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. 

His Responsibilities

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.

His Legacy

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.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.