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Max Nordau (1849 - 1923)


Max Nordau (1849 - 1923)

Max Nordau was born Simon Maximilian Südfeld in Pest, Hungary. He was a physician, a Zionist leader, writer and social critic.

Eleven years Herzl's senior, Nordau, the son of rabbi Gabriel Südfeld, received an orthodox Jewish upbringing, but in his early adulthood he had, as an atheist and German writer, become alienated from Judaism. ("'When I reached the age of fifteen, I left the Jewish way of life and the study of the Torah... Judaism remained a mere memory and since then I have always felt as a German and as a German only.") He began his literary career still as a medical student. 1863 some of his poems, essays, and tales were published. He then became a regular contributor to the columns of the "Pester Lloyd," and for six years was connected with that journal in an editorial capacity.

After Nordau had completed his studies in 1873 and after a short stay in Vienna, he spent about six years in travels, visiting Berlin, Russia, Scandinavia, England, Iceland, France, Spain, and Italy. In 1878 he returned to Budapest, where he practised medicine, and in 1880 he settled permanently as a physician in Paris.

His profession was that of a doctor, but he was at the same time the Paris correspondent of the Vossische Zeitung. Through his books, among them "Konventionelle Lügen der Menschheit" - "The Conventional Lies of Civilization" (1883) " Paradoxe" "Paradoxes" (1885) and "Entartung" - "Degeneration" (1892), which appeared in an enormous number of editions and in a great many languages, he achieved a worldwide reputation as a independent and fearless thinker. It was as a fanatic for the truth and as a destroyer of superstition and of ignorance that he loomed before the educated world - one of the most widely known figures of those days. "Entartung" - "Degeneration" provoked a vehement literary controversy as Nordau attempted to demonstrate that many authors and artists manifest the same mental characteristics as insane criminals; and that they exhibit traces of "degeneration," which he defines as "a morbid deviation from an original type, and satisfy their unhealthy impulses with pen and pencil."

Nordau, the Zionist
Max Nordau was one of Herzl's first Zionist converts. He, the critic of critics, was swept off his feet by "Der Judenstaat" - "The Jewish State". He described the pamphlet as a great act, a revelation.

In his speech to the first Zionist Congress, 1897, Nordau addressed the spiritual misery of assimilated Jews in the late 19th century Europe. Nordau claimed that for centuries Jews had been shielded psychologically by their common life in the ghetto.
"What did it matter that those values which were prized within the ghetto were despised outside it? The opinion of the outside world did not matter, because it was the opinion of ignorant enemies. One tried to please one's brothers, and their respect gave honorable meaning to one's life." ("Was lag daran, dass man ausserhalb des Ghettos verachtete, was man im Ghetto pries? An der Meinung der Aussenstehenden lag nichts, denn es war die Meinung unwissender Feinde. Man strebte, den Brüdern zu gefallen und das Gefallen der Brüder war ein würdiger Lebensinhalt.")
The, according to Nordau, a historic change occured. With civil emancipation, gained in France in 1792 and fully realized in Austria in 1867 and in Germany in 1871, "Jews rushed to burn all their bridges immediately." ("Die Juden beeilten sich in einer Art Rausch, die Brücke sofort hinter sich abzubrechen." ) They abandoned the ghetto and sought a new belonging, and acknowledgement as fellow Frenchmen/women, Germans and Austrians. Eagerly they rushed to pay the full price for their admission to gentile society, shedding their Jewishness and modeling themselves after their new compatriots. Tragically, after a short honeymoon period, the Jewish longing for acceptance was balked by an abrupt antisemitic backlash. Jews were then psychologically defenseless, for they could no longer take comfort in their ghetto refugeor from the esteem and solidarity of their fellow Jews. The assimilated Jew, Nordau maintained: "has abandoned his specifically Jewish character, yet the nations do not accept him as part of their national communities. He flees from his Jewish fellow, because anti-Semitism has taught him too, to be contemptuous of them, but his gentile compatriots repulse him as he attempts to associate with them. " ("Seine jüdische Sonderart hat er aufgegeben, die Völker bedeuten ihm, dass er ihre Sonderart nicht gewonnen hat. Die Heimat des Ghetto hat er verloren, das Geburtsland versagt sich ihm als Heimat. Seine Stammesgenossen flieht er, weil der Antisemitismus sie ihm selbst verekelt hat. Seine Landsleute stossen ihn zurück, wenn er zu ihnen halten möchte.") As a result, Nordau continued, "the emancipated Jew is insecure in his relations with his fellow men, timid with strangers, and suspicious even of the secret feelings of his friends. His best powers are dissipated in suppressing and destroying, or at least in the difficult task of concealing his true character. He fears this character might be recognized as Jewish, and he never has the satisfaction of revealing himself as he is in his real identity, in every thought and sentiment, in every physical gesture. " ("Der emanzipierte Jude ist haltlos, unsicher in seinen Beziehungen zu den Nebenmenschen, ängstlich in seiner Berührung mit Unbekannten, misstrauisch gegen die geheimen Gefühle selbst der Freunde. Seine besten Kräfte verbraucht er in der Unterdrückung und Ausrottung oder mindestens in der mühsamen Verhüllung seines eigensten Wesens, denn er besorgt, dass dieses Wesen als jüdisch anerkannt werden möchte, und er hat nie das Lustgefühl, sich ganz zu geben, wie er ist, er selbst zu sein, wie in jedem Gedanken und Gefühle, so in jedem Ton der Stimme, in jedem Lidaufschlag, in jedem Fingerspiel.")
Nordau concluded: "He has become a cripple within, and a counterfeit person without, so that like everyhting unreal, he is ridiculous and hateful to all men of high standards." ("Innerlich wird er verkrüppelt, äusserlich wird er unecht und dadurch immer lächerlich und für den höher gestimmten, ästhetischen Menschen abstossend wie alles Unwahre.")

Herzl's and Nordau's addresses were the two highlights of the Congress. The Presidium of the Congress had been elected, in accordance with the plan adopted at the preliminary conference, before Nordau delivered his address. Herzl was President, Nordau first Vice-President. Nordau had been entrusted by the Commission of the Preliminary Conference to formulate the program of the Zionist movement. The opening sentence of his report, and the most important in it, reads: "Zionism seeks to establish for the Jewish people a legally secured homeland (Heimstätte ) in Palestine."

After the completion of Herzl's drama "Das neue Ghetto" - "The New Ghetto", Max Nordau captured the essence of the play's character Wasserstein. He wrote to Herzl: "I must give you great credit for interweaving compassionate humor in the base, degraded Jewish usurer Wasserstein, whose charachter has been pulverized by a two-thousand year old Jewish fate, but who lets us see, under all the dust, the original and abiding nobility of our race."

At the sixth Zionist Congress, Nordau, who was at bottom opposed to the Uganda plan, but who had been impressed by Herzl's plea for an objective attitude toward the British offer, and was, moreover reluctant to abandon Herzl in this difficult moment, delivered an ambitious oration in support of Herzl's arguments; he coined, for the prospective colony in East Africa, the phrase Nachtasyl - a night shelter for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were being thrust out of their homes and to whom Palestine could not yet be offered. "It will, however, be a night shelter in which the inhabitants will find something more than food and lodging; they will find there the means for a political training, to educate themselves and the world to the idea that we Jews are a people capable, willing and ready to take upon ourselves all those tasks which characterize an honorable and independent people." ("Es wäre ein Nachtasyl, das seinen Bewohnern nicht bloss augenblicklichen Unterschlupf und Nahrung gewährt, sondern das auch ein politisches und geschichtliches Erziehungsmittel sein würde, ein Erziehungsmittel, das die Juden und die Welt an den ihnen seit Jahrtausenden fremd und vielen unleidlich widerwärig gewordenen Gedanken gewöhnt, dass wir Juden ein Volk sind, ein Volk, fähig, willig und bereit, alle Gesamtaufgaben eines gesitteten selbständigen Volkes zu erfüllen.")

On the evening of 19 December 1903, at a Hanukkah ball arranged by the Paris Zionist society "Mevaseret Zion", a twenty-seven year old student, Chaim Zelig Louban, approached Nordau, cried out "Death to Nordau, the East African" and fired two shots at almost point blank range. The shots missed. A bystander was wounded in the leg. A panic ensued, in the midst of which Nordau alone remained calm.
The next morning the papers reported the attempt on the life of the famous writer. It was soon established that the attacker was mentally unbalanced, but the attempt served to show how far-reaching had been the effects if the anti-African agitation. "Yesterday evening ", wrote Nordau to Herzl, "I got an instalment on the debt of gratitude which the Jewish people owes me for my selfless labors on its behalf. I say this without bitterness, only in sorrow. How unhappy is our people, to be able to produce such deeds ." ("Wie unglücklich ist unser Volk, dass es derartige Taten hervorbringen kann.")

On 27 July 1905, Nordau opened the seventh Zionist Congress, the first after Theodor Herzl's death. Nordau was offered the position of President of the World Zionist Organization but he declined preferring instead to serve as advisor to David Wolffsohn. He opposed the growing trend toward practical Zionism remaining faithful to Herzl's political program.

Nordau distanced himself from the Zionist movement but not from the idea. He last attended a Zionist Congress in 1911 and although resident in Spain during the First World War tried to maintain contact with the movement throughout that period. Weizmann attempted to bring him back into the organization at the end of the War, however Nordau rejected the overtures believing that the movement was a shadow of what Herzl had intended it to be. In 1920 he raised the idea of evacuating half a million Jews from Europe to Eretz-Israel but no one took the idea seriously at that time. By then he had returned to Paris, where despite discussion of his immigration to Eretz-Israel he died after a long illness. 1926, his remains were buried in Tel Aviv.
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