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« MRS. ENGELS: A Historical Primer | Main | Reinventing Hebrew »
Thursday
Feb112016

DANIEL DERONDA and Modern Zionism

If you haven't finished the novel, HERE BE SPOILERS. Consider coming back when you're done.

This is an early picture of Jews returning to modern-day Israel. It was taken in 1947. It has nothing to do with DANIEL DERONDA.

True, as George Eliot's sweeping, final novel comes to a close, we do have an intimate vision of Deronda setting off for "the East" in search of his personal roots as well as the foundations of his new Jewish identity. By "the East," both the character and the author are probably talking, not about China or India, but about the Middle East, specifically what had been called the Levant, or perhaps modern-day Israel. But actually, it's not that simple, not that definite. It's vague. It had to be, as you'll see.

One of the first synagogues built in modern-day Israel, from about 1885.At the time the novel was written (the mid-1870s) and even the time when it was set (the late 1860s), Deronda's and Mirah's voyage would have been nothing short of pioneering--and dangerous at that. The first modern "colony" of Jews in what is now Israel was founded only in 1860, just a few years before the action of the novel. That colony was always a tenuous affair. It didn't even last. In fact, the first lasting resettlement occurred in the early 1880s, years after the events of the novel and in fact a few years after Eliot's death. So if Deronda's voyage would have actually taken place in the real world, it would have been an extremely early expression of what came to be known as Zionism, the political and cultural movement to relocate the Jews to a homeland.

A homeland, not "the." And which one? It's not easy to answer. After the Roman Empire brutally crushed the Jewish uprising in 70 CE, the Jews were scattered throughout the Mediterranean region, first settling in modern-day Turkey; around Alexandria, Egypt; and in modern-day Iran near Tehran--and then spreading farther and farther out across the Empire, the far East, and Africa. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, the bulk of European Jewish settlements were in the region of modern-day Poland, Hungary, and eastern Russia; but there were many more on the Iberian peninsula and even in northern Africa.

By the nineteenth century, a revival of both Hebrew and Rabbinic culture across Europe (see the previous post) led to the belief that the Jews would never be able to practice their religion properly without being in their own land. These were the halcyon days for the idea of what we now call the "nation-state," the nineteenth century absurdity that claimed each ethnicity should have its own place: the French, the British, the Germans, etc. Of course, you'd have to buy that the French, the British, the Germans, etc., are indeed ethnicities, apart from languages and, say, cooking techniques. However, such was the world they lived in--and that we inherited. So nations were supposed to equal races (another nineteenth-century absurdity).

The first Zionist conference in 1897Early Zionist leaders suggested many places as a homeland: yes, what's now modern Israel, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire; but also Uganda, Argentina, and even a few spots in India. These suggestions are what account for George Eliot's rather vague notion of "the East."

In truth, there wasn't a concerted call yet for modern Israel to be what it now is. After all, that region had been run over by the Crusaders, by various conquering armies, and finally by the Ottomans. It wasn't exactly Paradise.

Things would take a dramatic turn after the close of Eliot's novel--and indeed, after the end of her life--when Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian journalist, penned Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State") in 1896, a plea for a modern Israel. Herzl helped convene the first Zionist conference in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. The road began to open for more and more Jews to immigrate to Israel. But all that took place decades after DANIEL DERONDA.

By the way, this mass immigration is known as the Aliyah (ah-lee-yah), a Hebrew word that means something like "the going up." If you're familiar with the language of the Bible, you know that Tanakh (what Christians call "the Old Testament") repeatedly refers to Jerusalem as "up." "Let us go up to Jerusalem." Thus, the Aliyah (or "going up") is the modern term for the mass migrations that began at the turn of the twentieth century and then picked up speed after World War II. That first permanent settlement in the 1880s is now referred to in retrospect as the first Aliyah. Still, Deronda in the 1860s would have been well ahead of this, even well ahead of Herzl.

Indeed, Eliot was well ahead of her time. Don't think that it was a common thing that Deronda should head to "the East." Eliot was sensing--even predicting--something that would happen in the decades after her death.

Theodor HerzlAs an interesting side note, Herzl's Zionism was motivated by the pogroms that regularly ran across Russia, murdering and disappearing Jews by the millions long before the Holocaust. By the time Herzl was writing, the notion that the Jews should return to their ancient homeland, what we now call Israel, was well versed--but not before. Many early Zionists believed that Jews simply needed a place, any place, of their own. In fact, because of the intense antisemitism inside Russia in the nineteenth century, many Jewish intellectuals supported Germany in World War I. It's easy--and deadly--to imagine that the devil you don't know is better than the devil you do.

Of course, much happened post-DERONDA. The Ottomans were defeated in World War I. They lost their empire. Great Britain picked up the pieces in a colonial move that proved tricky, if not absurd. The genocidal nightmares of the Nazis became a reality. The British gave up that land under a U. N. mandate. And the modern Aliyah (and state of Israel) began in 1948. But that's seventy-two years after DANIEL DERONDA's publication and sixty-eight years after Eliot's death. What she senses isn't a reality in the 1870s. It's not even a dream. She imagined it.

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