Jacob Golomb:

Herzl and Nordau


Budapest, 2008.05.14


First of all I would like to thank the president of the Jewish University and his stuff, and especially Professor Endre Kiss for inviting me to this special day and for extending me such a warm welcome. It is indeed a great honor to speak before you and, as you will see in a moment, honor is one of the main leitmotifs of my talk.

To celebrate the independence of Israel I have naturally chosen to dwell upon the two great Zionists who were born in your beautiful city and without whose political and literary intensive contributions and activities, I believe, it would have been taken even more time until Israel would have materialized as an independent Jewish State whose existence we are celebrating today.

Now I would like to claim before you that Zionism, was not solely the general solution of the Jewish problem in Europe, but it also aimed especially to overcome the distressing syndrome of Jewish marginality. Thus I will present in nutshell this section of  marginal Jews so widely spread among the Austrian-Hungarian and German  Jews before the second World War, then I will deal with the particular cases of the most influential leaders of the Zionist movement: Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau, and finally I will analyze two of their major plays whose protagonists, trying to defend their insulted dignity, moved from marginality to Zionism, from assimilation and simulation to personal authenticity.

The Grenzjuden

The Central European Jewry in the nineteenth century gave birth, in the same city of Budapest and almost at the same time, to two of the towering figures of the Zionist movement who had suffered from what is now called "the syndrome of marginality.1"

To these Grenzjuden or Europe's stepchildren2, belonged many prominent Central European men of letters such as Arthur Schnitzler, Jakob Wassermann, Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, Karl Kraus, Sigmund Freud, and many others. They were Grenzjuden in that they had lost their religion and tradition, but had not been fully absorbed into secular Austrian-Hungarian  society. For some, hatred of their ancestral roots led to self-hatred and self-destruction (as in the famous case of Otto Weininger's suicide). These individuals tragically lacked an identity: they rejected any affinity with the Jewish community but were nonetheless unwelcome among their non-Jewish contemporaries.

According to Gershom Scholem, "because they no longer had any other inner ties to the Jewish tradition, let alone to the Jewish people", these marginal Jews "constitute[d] one of the most shocking phenomena of the whole process of alienation.3"  Yet despite their desperate attempts to be accepted by Austrians and Germans as Austrians and Germans, most recognized the traumatic truth that, as Herzl's friend, Arthur Schnitzler, put it in his Jugend in Wien: "Es war nicht möglich, insbesondere für einen Juden, der in der Öffentlichkeit stand, davon abzusehen, dass er Jude war.4"

The marginal Jews in general attempted a wide spectrum of solutions to this unbearable situation, from full assimilation, even conversion to Christianity (Karl Krauss), to identification with some definite ideological or political cause, such as Socialism (Ernst Bloch, Kurt Tucholsky and Ernst Toller) or Zionism . Here my concern is strictly limited to this last subgroup (namely to Herzl and Nordau5) who opted to solve their problematic marginality by embracing Zionism.

II. Herzl as Grenzjude

            In the pre-Zionist period, Theodor Herzl epitomized the class of the Austrian Grenzjuden6. He wrote bitterly to Arthur Schnitzler that all the political experience he had gained while working as a correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse in France had been for nothing. "It will only benefit those who have the opportunity to enter political life. But for myself?  A Jew in Austria!7"
Herzl believed that the free, creative, and authentic Jew would be more likely to evolve in Zion, on virgin ground unstained by what his friend Max Nordau called in Entartung "European degenerated culture." In his eyes, the Zionist solution was more authentic than the continuation of assimilation and dissimulation .
If we adopt Nietzsche's formula for authenticity (which influenced Herzl), then he "became" what he was8" by overcoming what he was not: neither an Orthodox Jew, nor a Christian, nor, finally, a marginal Jew. He overcame these potential identities until he became what he wanted to be: a free secular Zionist and an authentic Jew, who proudly belonged to his people .
And witness the claim of this herald of Jewish authenticity:
The very act of going this way will change us into different people. We regain once more our inner unity that we have lost and together with it we also gain some character, namely our own, not the false and adopted character of the marranos9.

By the time he left Paris in 1895, Herzl had abandoned his dream of becoming a famous playwright (like his celebrated friend Arthur Schnitzler) and had ceased to live in the, unbearable for him, existential conditions of the "New Ghetto."
Das Neue Ghetto

However, initially, Herzl considered solving the problem of his own marginality by calling for mass conversion to Christianity: he himself would help the pope to conduct the baptismal ceremony on the steps of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna.10 Then he tried to assimilate into Austrian society, to follow in the footsteps of the best Viennese artists and playwrights, without striving to attain a separate personal identity. However, Herzl turned away from the Vienna stage before the Dreyfus affair. It was not this affair, traumatic as it was, that drove Herzl to Zionism, but his gnawing feeling that he could not bear any more the distressing predicament of marginality and the existential cul-de-sac that advanced assimilation had brought upon him and his fellow Jews.11

In November 1894 Herzl wrote Das Neue Ghetto (The New Ghetto), a semi-autobiographical play about the wounded honor of Dr. Jacob Samuel, a lawyer in Vienna (like Herzl himself), and a marginal Jew who regains his honor by fighting a duel with an anti-Semite. The play describes the existential vulnerability of a proud Jew who strives to overcome his marginality after realizing that he has "betrayed his own self" by attempting to shape his personal identity solely by imitating his gentile friends. This attempt has not succeeded because his friend "simply abandons me after I made him my example, absorbed his habits, spoke his language, thought his thoughts12."

Das Neue Ghetto expressed Herzl's realization that assimilation was an illusion, and that the Jews' estrangement from themselves was fruitless. The play's conclusion is that European Jews should authentically shape a new image of the Jew who is proud of his or her historical past but will not necessarily express this identity by observing the traditional religious rites.

The play portrays three negative reactions to marginality: conversion to Christianity, as represented by a character who confesses that "nothing was solved this way" the reaction of traditional Judaism, namely, to return to the old ghetto with its traditional values and faith; and the popular reaction of the uneducated Jewish masses, personified by the figure of the stock exchange Jew Wasserstein, who shrewdly adjusts to the prevalent anti-Semitic image of Jews as materialistic and greedy. This hard-working, self-hating and despised Jew, however, recognizes a fourth reaction to marginality. Though he claims that "everything revolves around money, "he admits that honor is equally important. Wasserstein regards Jacob Samuel as far superior to himself, an individual who "soars above us like a bird." Samuel transcends the walls of the new ghetto, and becomes, then, a kind of a new type of a Jew - the fourth, and only acceptable, solution to the problem of marginality, according to Herzl's narrative.

However, is not Jacob's emphasis on the honorable duel an indication of his strong dependence on gentile values? Not at all , since the dignity of human beings and their authentic spiritual power are not Christian inventions. Freedom, pride, and nobility are ancient Hebrew values13. Hence Jacob returns here to the origins of personal power, pride, and dignity. Thus Herzl does not seek to foster here a Christian European set of values but the free, powerful, and creative individual capable of defining his own values and norms. It was honor in this sense that was prevalent within the "Old Ghetto," the origins of which are to be found in biblical Zion14.        Although Herzl overcame most of the Jewish tradition, he (and his contemporary Central European Jews) were afflicted by the curse of marginality in the "New Ghettos," which prevented them from attaining genuine self-liberation. To overcome the agonies of such a marginality is for Herzl already a positive way out that will lead him to the third and more constructive stage of liberation of his self: Zionism.

The Case of Max Nordau

Max Nordau, Herzl's close friend, and collaborator also struggled during his whole life to overcome the unbearable symptoms of his marginality.

Nordau's wife and daughter (Maxa) gave us a moving picture of his marginality: Nordau passed his mature life in Paris, everywhere at home and yet everywhere a stranger. . . . and so pride and reserve made him withdraw within his own shell.15" Nordau, like Herzl assimilated into the Austrian culture and became a writer and a journalist. He spent the majority of his life in Paris. He tried to write German plays and, like Herzl, failed. But Nordau's starting point was much more Jewish than that of Herzl. Herzl was already born into an assimilated family, whereas Nordau was born into a Jewish-Hungarian home that observed the Orthodox tradition. His father, Gavriel Südfeld, was an ordained rabbi. Since Nordau belonged to the first generation of assimilators, his identity crisis was much more acute than that of Herzl. Aside from Nordau's affectionate relations with his mother and sister (both religiously Orthodox), he detached himself from the Jewish people. Following the death of his father, he changed his name from Südfeld ("southern field") to Nordau ("northern meadow"). This name change indicated Nordau's wish to become fully assimilated into German secular society and symbolized a deeply ingrained yearning to attain a status of a pure Aryan16.

Since Nordau experienced the predicament of Jewish marginality, it was only natural that he was the one to express it most poignantly in the first Zionist congress in Basle in 1897:
The emancipation of the Jews was not the consequence of the conviction that grave injury had been done to a race      and that it was time to atone for the injustice of a thousand years; it was solely the result of of pure logic, without taking into account living sentiments. The emancipation of the Jews was an automatic application of the rationalistic method17.

Because they were merely "mathematically" accepted among the nations, the European Jews remained strangers in Europe. This formal emancipation, which granted Jews rights only on paper, was the main reason for the gradual growth of the phenomenon of marginal Jewry.

Nordau was not content just to get rational justice but also wished to see a change of hearts in his gentile neighbors. However, his personal experience with anti-Semitism denied him any hope. His speech raises the issue of Jewish authenticity. In contrast to authentic Jewish experience in the "Old Ghetto", especially in the Eastern European Shtetels, were the nightmare of marginality, the self-hatred, and the self-denial of the new Jews who lived outside the walls of their former ghettos, referred to by Nordau (as by Herzl before him) as "new Marranos18 ". Nordau describes these "new Marranos" as people unwilling to employ their own "powers for the development of their real being." They also suffer from tormenting self-hatred, "suppression and falsification of self" (ibid.).

Nordau's speech against the illusions of emancipation is a typical rhetoric of marginal Jew who is frustrated in his attempts to solve the problems of his split identity by means of universal values. Nordau understood, and deeply felt, that legal rights could not solve the existential conflict involving personal and national identity. Could Zionism do the trick?

Nordau tended at the beginning of his Zionist career to answer this question in the affirmative and to complete the radical transfiguration from a marginal, assimilated, and enlightened Jew into an enthusiastic Zionist. This transfiguration into national Zionism was indeed radical since Nordau adhered more steadfastly than Herzl to the ethos of the Enlightenment, which believed in universal solidarity. But Zionism could not base itself solely on the Enlightenment since it was a particularistic movement. From the perspective of the Enlightenment it had too many religious and tribal components.

But what has really moved Nordau to try and overcome his divided identity by means of Zionism? This reason can be unveiled in Nordau's play from 1898, Dr. Kohn19.

Dr. Kohn

Before we turn to this play we should note that it is not a sheer coincidence that made both of the first leaders of Zionism to write plays with Jewish-Zionist connotations before they have embarked on an intensive political activity. Also Herzl before writing the Judenstaat wrote his play The New Ghetto in which he points to a Zionist solution. But in distinction to Herzl's relatively quick conversion into Zionism, Nordau became a Zionist quite gradually, since his sense of marginality and belief in the Enlightenment were more acute and deeper than those of Herzl. Hence only four years after Herzl's play, Nordau composed his version, where the main features of his programmatic speech before the first Zionist Congress were dramatically depicted. It should be also noted that it was not by a sheer coincidence that the two fathers of political Zionism have chosen to express their views by means of a theatrical performance. Both plays delineate dramatically the identity conflict and the hesitations about its positive content and about the right way to solve the uncertainties of their Jewish marginality. A play is intended to a wide public, and in their case, especially to the Gentile public in their countries. The sense of insult that they took from this audience which rejected them to the margins of society was calling for reaction. Their wounded honor needed retribution from those who had hurt them. Hence we can see in the very act of putting these plays on a stage a kind of an intellectual-literary 'dual' with a hostile public. These two marginal Jews sought to return with pride and flying honors to the center of the stage, and to communicate to the public, that has rejected them, that they are leaving it on their way to Zion. For this purpose, a play before a live (though occasionally hostile) audience in contrast to the intimate reading of a book can become an effective means to get even, or even to win the struggle.

The hero of the play, the new Jew Dr. Kohn, expresses his vacillation between his parents, the observing Jews from the old Ghetto and his modern views about the humanist enlightenment.
Then there appears the gist of Nordau's speech before the Zionist First Congress and it is interesting to note that this is primarily expressed by the rector of the university where Dr. Kohn works, namely by an enlightened gentile who has a tolerant attitude toward Jewish people.

Like Herzl before him, Nordau too is quite sober concerning the syndromes of Jewish marginality and its acute problems. The fact is that he puts in Dr. Kohn's mouth a penetrating description of the unbearable situation of the marginal German, Austro- Hungarian  Jews, which sounds as a personal confession of Nordau himself: this desired union with our fellow-countrymen cannot be obtained ... If, nevertheless, we are urged to be baptized, it is not with the intention of receiving us as brothers, but cruelly to gloat over our weakness, our last self-humiliation. They want to see us, like dogs, jump over a stick at the sound of a whistle. This is the source of my rage. At school, in the regiment, at the university, love for our native German land, pride in our German birth, enthusiasm for the Germany's past history, and all the great deeds of the German brain and the German hand, are fostered, then when we go out into the world, German to our finger tips, German in everything we love and hate, they suddenly thrust us back, crying scornfully: 'You are no Germans, and there is no way for you to become so; you are aliens, and aliens you will remain forever'. What are we then? (p.75)

In the play all the possible relations between Germans and Jews and all the relevant Jewish stereotypes are depicted:

  1. Dr. Kohn, the secular new Jew who is proud and authentic.
  2. Moser, the fully assimilated Jew, who puts all his hopes on baptism and intermarriages till the moment of truth when all his world collapses and he finds himself ostracized by his own family.
  3. Ernst, his son who is a 'Mischling' and suffers from a deep self-hatred. By his example Nordau shows that even a descendant of intermarriage is rejected by his German friends because of his Jewish father. And hence, as an anticipation of the Nazis attitude toward the 'Mischlinge'  Nordau demonstrates that not solely the marginal Jews are rejected by the Germans but even the descendants of the second generation of marginality cannot find their proper and peaceful place among the Gentile anti-Semitic society.
  4. Rector Professor Kielholt, an enlightened  sympathizer of the Jews who himself is married to a Jewish woman.

Nordau shows in his play that a Jew remains a Jew - in spite of his deep assimilation. Hence in the year 1898 Nordau reached a penetrating insight regarding the deep roots of the problem of the marginal Jewry and he did not expect to find any solution by means of assimilation, intermarriages and conversion, but solely by the Zionist program. Nordau reveals also the hypocrisy of the German aristocracy: to marry a rich Jew is 'kosher' but Moser's aristocratic wife objects when her rich daughter wants to marry a poor Jew!

In any event, the play leads necessarily to the Zionist-national conclusion of Dr. Kohn and we have to take it from this respect as an internal dialogue of Nordau within his own problematic self, that finally led him to the Zionist movement, just as Moser upon his awakening from the assimilatory dream expresses his sympathy to Kohn's idea about the  "return to Palestine, and the regeneration of the Jews" (ibid., p. 120).

However, before the Zionist solution there is no choice for Dr. Kohn but to guard his honor as a proud Jew. And when in the dual he shoots into the air and not toward his enemy, the officer and brother of his beloved, it becomes actually an act of a courageous suicide. By that Nordau performs here a complete re-evaluation - the German officer acts as a coward whereas Dr. Kohn, the humiliated Jew, acts heroically. But this romantic heroism leads of necessity to his death before the Zionist renaissance.

The figure of the "new Jew", envisioned by Nordau and personified by the protagonist of his play Dr. Kohn (like Herzl's Jacob Samuel), embodies not just a spiritual excellence but also a physical manifestation in the form of a duel, as a means to defend his wounded honor as well as uplift the image of his humiliated people. Nonetheless, Nordau also stresses the view of Kohn's father, who refuses to be consoled by the fact that his son has acted nobly and died honorably. In contrast to his son who, though secular and proud, still vacillates between modern humanist enlightenment and the tradition of the "Old Ghetto," his aged father expresses the traditional Jewish ethos: "This is no consolation at all. Why should my son be chivalrous? He is no knight. We have learned from our forefathers to abhor brute force. Let others slay with bullet and fist. Our weapon is the mind." Nordau rejects this approach and seeks to "normalize" the Jewish people by moving them toward the physical history of action (as opposed to the mere spiritual existence), and by stressing the importance of what he calls "Muskeljudentum" ("muscular Jewry"). The new Jew should be proud, brave, and militant, a fighter who had traded his excessive spirituality for the cultivation of the body.  The first pioneer settlers (Halutzim) in Palestine actually followed this ideal of Nordau as well as it was adopted by the revisionist movement who made Nordau (through Zeev Vladimir Jabotinsky) into its spiritual father.

Let me observe, by the end, that this vision of Nordau is somewhat narrow-minded, or if you will, narrow-bodied. Does only Maccabi Tel-Aviv, the European basketball champion represent our country? With all due respect, I think that also the recent Nobel prize winners who came from our Universities and academies represent our country no less, if no more, than these Muskeljuden.  The same can be said of our high-tech of computers that is only second to the United States in exporting its products. Thus the real remedy is to attain the delicate balance and synthesis between the new Jew of Nordau, and the moral image of the new - Hebrew of Ahad Ha'am school. But this is altogether an another story that hopefully will be told in the years to come when the peace will finally silent the cannons and inspire the creative-spiritual powers of the modern Israeli to flourish once more.

1 Several publications of mine dealt with this problematic Jewish syndrome. For example: "Nietzsche and the Marginal Jews." In Nietzsche and Jewish Culture, ed. Jacob Golomb (London and New York: Routledge, 1997): 158-192; "Nietzsche und die 'Grenzjuden'" in ed. Jacob Golomb, Nietzsche und die jüdische Kultur, (Wien: WUV, 1998): 165-184; "Stefan Zweig: The Jewsih Tragedy of a Nietzschean 'Free Spirit'" in ed. Jacob Golomb, Nietzsche und die österreichische Kultur (Wien: WUV, 2004): 92-126.

2 Cf. Solomon Liptzin, Germany's Stepchildren (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society 1944): 195.

3 Gershom Scholem, "Jews and Germans", Commentary (November, 1966): 35.

4 "For a Jew, especially in public life, it was impossible to disregard the fact that he was a Jew," my translation from Arthur Schnitzler, Jugend  in Wien, eds, Therese Nickl and  Heinrich Schnitzler (Wien: F. Molden 1968): 328.

5 See my essay: "The Case of Max Nordau against Nietzsche: The Structure of
Ambivalence," Historia: Journal of the Historical Society of Israel  7 (2001): 51-
77 (Heb.).

6 See mine: "Thus Spoke Herzl: Nietzsche's Presence in Herzl's Life and Work." Leo Baeck Year Book  (London)34 (1999):  97- 124

7 Herzl's letter to Hugo Wittmann from 30.3.1893 in Theodor Herzl: Briefe und Tagebücher (henceforth HBT), eds., Alex Bein, et.al., (Berlin: Propyläen Verlag 1983, Vol. I): 585-648.

8 On Nietzsche's ideal of authentic life see my: In Search of Authenticity from Kierkegaard to Camus, (London, New York,: Routledge, 1995): 68-87 and "Nietzsche on Authenticity." Philosophy Today, 34 (1990):  243-258.     

9 Herzl, A Speech before the Israeli Union, in  ed. A. Pollack, ed., Ko Amar Herzl (Tel Aviv: Newman,  1940): 30 (my translation from Hebrew).

10 The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, ed. Raphael Patai, trans. Harry Zohn, 5 vols., (New York: Herzl Press, Vol.1,1960): 7. See also Jacques Kornberg's invaluable Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism (Bloomington, IN. : Indiana University Press, 1993): 115, 118-21.

11 Hence I can hardly agree with Alex Bein, who is at pains to explain the profound impact that the Dreyfus trial had on Herzl and on his conversion to Zionism (Theodor Herzl: A Biography of the Founder of Modern Zionism, trans. Maurice Samuel [1934; reprint, New York, 1970], p. 87 n. 22).

12 My translation from Act 2, Scene 6. An abridged English translation by Heinz Norden appears in Theodor Herzl: A Portrait for This Age, ed. Ludwig Lewisohn (Cleveland: World Pub. Co. 1955):. 152, 93.

13 See, for example, Nietzsche's Gay Science, section 137; cf. Golomb, "Nietzsche on Jews and Judaism," Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 67 (1985): 139-61; idem, "Nietzsche's Judaism of Power," Revue des études juives 147 (1988): 353-85.

14 Although Herzl incorporates into this play a short story about Moshe from Magenza, who functions for Jacob as an exemplary figure and who behaved as authentically and humanly as a genuine 'Mensch', Moshe's humanity originated with the ancient Hebrews and was preserved within the Jewish tradition.

15 Anna Nordau and Maxa Nordau, Max Nordau: A Biography (New York: Nordau Committee, 1943): 1, 74.

16 Cf. Robert S. Wistrich, "Max Nordau, Degeneration, and the Fin-de-Siecle," in Krisenwahrnehmungen im Fin-de-Siecle, ed. Michael Graetz and Aram Mattioli (Zurich, 1997): 83-100.

17 Max Nordau, Max Nordau to His People,  ed. B. Netanyahu (New York: Scopus 1941): 65-66.

18 See above note 10. p. 72.

19The play in English translation is called A Question of Honor: A Tragedy of the Present Day, trans. Mary J. Safford ( Boston:  John W. Luce 1907)..