The movement for the re-establishment of the Jewish state grew in popularity in the 19th century, particularly in Europe. In the 1890’s Theodore Herzl invigorated Zionism leading to the First Zionist Congress at Basel in 1897. However there were many actors on that long road and perhaps one of the most important was not a Rabbi or a scholar or a great politician or even a man. The idea of a unitary Jewish state based in the Holy Land, found perhaps its most popular – and powerful – expression in the form of the writings of Mary Ann Evans, an English novelist now known as George Eliot. (Evan’s used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels.) Hugely successful and popular in her day, her novel Middlemarch was recently voted the No 1 British novel of all time by BBC Culture.
In 1876 Eliot published Daniel Deronda, her last novel, which has been described as the first novel of Jewish nationalism and advocating the idea of a Jewish state or as the eponymous hero puts it:
“The idea that I am possessed with is that of restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again, giving them a national center, such as the English have, though they too are scattered over the face of the globe. That is a task which presents itself to me as a duty; I am resolved to begin it, however feebly. I am resolved to devote my life to it. At the least, I may awaken a movement in other minds, such as has been awakened in my own. Affection, intelligence, duty, radiate from a center”
Written in English but translated into German and Dutch it would be 14 years before the term Zionism was coined by the Austrian journalist Nathan Birnbaum and more than two decades before the first Zionist Congress was held in Basle. It even preceded the publication of Auto-Emancipation, a pamphlet written in 1882 by Leon Pinsker, one of two of what are considered to be foundational documents of the Zionist movement, the other being the book Rome and Jerusalem written by Moses Hess in 1862.
As an Hebrew speaker my own interest in this story was not just political and historical but linguistic. Personally I believe that while geography and politics and history are important, so too are words.Words have power. I believe that naming a thing , whether a phenomena, a feeling or an object is an act of creation, an act that can summon something from out of the chaos and darkness and into reality.
With that notion in mind I decided to look for people who are acknowledged authorities in naming . One of the first who came into my mind was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a cultural hero of mine who took it upon himself to re-create the Hebrew language, his son being the first person to speak Hebrew, my own mother tongue. After further research it became apparent that Ben Yehuda, who had believed that Hebrew should be the Lingua Franca and unifying force of a unified Jewish state had done nothing about this conviction, until he read….George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda:
“After I read the story a few times made up my mind and I acted”
So if it took a book by George Eliot to spur Eliezer Ben-Yehuda into action how did a middle-class Victorian woman arrive at this same position years previously?
It may well have been an affair of the heart.
In 1855, Immanuel Deutsch, a young Jewish scholar and polymath arrived in London to work at the British Library. Born in Silesia in 1829 Deutsch later said of himself:
“Before I knew how to read and write the language of the land wherein I was born, my lips were taught to stammer the Aleph-Beth, and to recite my prayers in the tongue of David…It was deemed well to steep my souls for a time absolutely in the ocean called the Talmud”
From the age of 16 he supported himself by giving lessons and writing articles in the press as well as studying Greek and Roman.
Soon after arriving in London Deutsch joined the ‘Sydenham Circle’ a group of writers and intellectuals which included Shirley Brookes, the editor of Punch, George Du Maurier, the grandfather of Daphne Du Maurier and George Eliot. Captivated by Deutsche’s lively mind Eliot soon undertook to ask Deutsch to teach her Hebrew one day a week.
Lionised in 1867 for his essay titled “˜The Talmud” which brought the ancient text out of scholarly study and into the public realm and went onto become a bestseller, the Jewish Chronicle hailed Deutsch as “a champion of Israel glorifying our long and vilified religion and literature”
Sent to Palestine in 1869 by the British Museum to excavate and decipher stone inscriptions, on reaching the shores of the Holy Land he wrote “The East: all my wild yearnings fulfilled at last” Soon after, on visiting Jerusalem’s Western Wall he was so overcome with emotion that afterwards he was unable to recount the experience without tears.
It was this passion, along with his erudition and learning that enraptured Eliot. Sadly their time together was to be cut short, Deutsch suffering terribly from a stomach cancer that eventually killed him. Eliot was heartbroken but immortalised Deutsch in Daniel Deronda as Mordecai – a young Jewish visionary suffering from consumption who befriends Deronda and teaches him about Judaism. A Kabbalist and proto-Zionist, Mordecai sees Deronda as his spiritual successor and inspires him to continue his vision of creating a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.
Without the intensity of her relationship with Deutsch – a man she called her Rabbi – teacher in Hebrew- it is debatable whether Eliot could have brought as much feeling, erudition and lucidity to the cause which inspired him.
“The effect of our separateness will not be completed and have its highest transformation, unless our race takes on again the character of a nationality. That is the fulfillment of the religious trust that molded us into a people, whose life has made half the inspiration of the world…Revive the organic centre; let the unity of Israel which has made the growth and form of its religion be an outward reality. Looking toward a land and a polity, our dispersed people in all the ends of the earth may share the dignity of a national life which has a voice among the peoples of the East and the West – which will plant the wisdom and skill of our race so that it may be, as of old, a medium of transmission and understanding. Let that come to pass, and the living warmth will spread to the weak extremities of Israel. Let the central fire be kindled again, and the light will reach afar. The degraded and scorned of the race will learn to think of their sacred land, not as a place for saintly beggary to await death in loathsome idleness, but as a republic, where the Jewish spirit manifests itself in a new order founded on the old, purified, enriched by the experiences which our greatest sons have gathered from the life of the ages. A new Judea, poised between East and West – a covenant of reconciliation. The sons of Judah have to choose, that God may again choose them. The Messianic time is the time when Israel shall will the planting of the national ensign. The divine principle of our race is action, choice, resolved memory. Let us help to will our own better future of the world – not renounce our higher gift and say: ‘Let us be as if we were not among the populations,’ but choose our full heritage, claim the brotherhood of our nation, and carry into it a new brotherhood with the nations of the Gentiles. The vision is there; it will be fulfilled.”
Less than a hundred years later, on the 14th May 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, declared the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the “State of Israel”