Chapter V: Zionism, The European Jew’s Counsel of Despair

12 min.

A. Between the Two Horns of a Terrible Dilemma

The Jews of Europe found themselves in the second half of the nineteenth century tossed on the horns of a terrible dilemma. If they pursued the gains of emancipation, they must assimilate; and the more they did so, the more their Judaism would have to be reformed, the more dilute it would become, the less Jewish they would finally turn out to be. If, on the other hand, they restricted their pursuit of the gains of emancipation and hence, the less they assimilated and lost thereby their Jewishness, the more they would stand out as strangers in a society bent on not granting them its identity. On either count, they stood to lose. But which loss was greater? Jewishness, or freedom, and often, life? It was not the conservative orthodox Jew of Russia that asked this ominous question, for he had never known freedom and the centuries had taught him that it is his fate to remain true to every letter of the Torah and to suffer — even die — because of it. Rather, it was the Reform Jew of Western Europe who had tasted the joys and acquired the gains of freedom, who enthusiastically accepted the invitation to become English, French or German but, at the same time, had to suffer new waves of persecution and hatred for doing so. Was it possible that Christian Europe had gone mad? The hyphenated Jew (English-Jew, French-Jew, German-Jew, etc.) could not understand what was happening to and around him.

Such a hyphenated Austrian-Jew was Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), a correspondent of the Vienna-based Neue Frei Presse newspaper. Herzl belonged to Reform Judaism and was completely Westernized. The dilemma of Jewish existence did not haunt his mind, convinced as he was that his personal destiny as well as that of his people was ‘Europe.’ Certainly, he knew of many lapses by Jews of their Judaism, and by Christians of their tolerance. But these did not bother him. Assigned to cover the trial of Dreyfus in Paris, he travelled thence with the intention of discovering new ways for Jewish-Christian cooperation and understanding. The facts glaring out of the case, however, taught him otherwise. The Dreyfus case established beyond doubt that the Christians were not at all committed to accepting the Jews in their midst no matter how Europeanised they may become. Who could suspect Dreyfus’ Frenchness? his loyalty to the Republic? And yet, the very guardians of the Republic were precisely the first to reject him. Adding insult to injury, Maurice Barres, leader and spokesman for this anti-Jewish sentiment, had boldly defined patriotism as love of the past, France as a “collective being” which lives and speaks in the conscience of its sons, and national identity as a communion of personal will with this Hegelian God-state and as harmony with it.

B. Zionism: Attempted Escape from the Dilemma

The Dreyfus episode, the upheaval it caused in France and Europe, and the awesome popularity of the anti-Jewish sentiment, left Herzl utterly dazed and dismayed, his hopes shattered and his ideal in ruins. It convinced him that the “European-Jew” ideal is impossible and futile. Since he was himself a European, educated under the same Hegelian romanticism dominating the university and cultural life of Europe, he really believed that the tendencies reflected at the Dreyfus trial were real and necessary forces of history which could not be stopped. No amount of assimilation was going to win for the Jew a European identity as long as he remained something to be assimilated, i.e., a Jew. In that direction, only conversion to Christianity would do, provided the milieu still believed in Christianity. Where that milieu had become scientific, skeptical and atheist, where it had replaced God with the state or “la nation,” the ultimate base was blood and soil from which the Jew was excluded ex hypothesi. On the other hand, no amount of self-preservation could guarantee the Jew’s survival in the midst of lands infested with this enemy mentality.

The solution of this dilemma readily presented itself to Herzl, the European romantic. There could be no return to the ghetto of the past. Therefore, the Jew must pick up his roots from Europe and leave. He must find for himself a place on this globe where he could be both a Jew and a free man; where he could exercise his Jewish identity in security; where he could allow his peculiar ethnic genius to blossom and maintain his dignity. For Herzl, it did not matter where this Jewish state was to be. In fact, he thought the Jewish state could be founded in Argentina; and he seriously considered Uganda, as well as Russian Central Asia, as possible sites. Palestine did receive a mention but on par with all those other possible areas of the world. Any place on earth or on the moon would do, provided it assured security and freedom for the Jew to be a Jew. The Jewish state which Herzl envisioned was not based on religion. It was to be a copy of the European secular national state, the only state he knew. Such a state would carry its own mystique, like the European original; it would enthrone a Jewish collective, and pursue a Jewish community-destiny (Schicksalsgemeinschaft). A religious state, or a messianic restoration a la Isaiah of the Kingdom of David, was at the farthest possible remove from his mind. He expressly denied that the present predicament of the Jews in Europe was caused by Christianity. Though true of the past, this was not true of the present attitude which Herzl regarded as due in the main to the socio-economic success of the Jews in the modern industrialised city. It is the Europeans’ persecution of the Jews, he held, that makes the Jews a people; their persistent hatred of the Jews that creates the cohesiveness of the Jewish people. Herzl’s Jewish state was an ideal born out of the Gentiles’ hatred and persecution of the Jews and the Jews’ acculturation by the Gentiles’ romantic, nationalist, secularist God-state idea which dominated Europe at the time. His famous statement, “The [Jewish] state is already founded, in essence, in the will of the people of the state” is a perfect embodiment of that gentile, non-Semitic, indeed pagan god-state idea. This was equally the way Max Nordau, Herzl’s successor, thought.1

It is difficult to say which of the two parent conditions gave more than, or was prior to, the other in bearing Zionism as a solution to the tragedy of the European Jew. Certainly, persecution and hatred are negative. What they give birth to is of the nature of a reaction; and it is natural herd-feeling to withdraw into the group in face of danger. Necessarily, this is not creative; it is an “un-vision.” It is otherwise with the God-state, collective being idea of romanticism. It is a vision of reality, new and positive, which has the power to fascinate as well as to transform. It spread in Europe like wildfire; and the Jew, in his effort to Europeanise himself, fell into it with gusto. Herzl’s mind which first articulated the vision of a Jewish state was thoroughly trained in it. But the first to envisage it were those Jews who lived in areas of Europe where the craving for a national entity was at its fiercest — namely, the Balkans and Poland. Yehudah Alkalai witnessed the movements of the Balkan peoples for national independence and sovereignty and envied them for their success. Zvi Kalisher participated in the struggle of the Poles and convinced himself that the Jews ought to do likewise to achieve an identical goal. The revolutionary movements of the mid-century which called for social justice in the name of national collectivism inspired Moses Hess, another leading Zionist thinker, to mix up the Jew’s yearning for egalitarian justice with a fatherland on the European model. Running against the grain of all Semitic wisdom through the ages in its assertion that “the People” has always meant solely the humans composing it, Moses Hess declared that “A common native soil is a precondition for healthier relations between capital and labor among the Jews”.2

The same despair which characterised Herzl and the Jews of Western Europe filled the hearts of Eastern European Jews after the pogroms of 1871 and 1881. Peretz Smolenskin, while advocating with one side of his mouth that “every Jew is a citizen of the land in which he dwells, and it is his duty to be a good citizen … {a citizen upon whom fall] all the obligations of citizenship like all other nationals,” advocated with the other side of his mouth the theory that the Jews already had a “national identity” whose essence was culture. He claimed that the Jews “have always been a spiritual nation, one whose Torah was the foundation of its statehood.” After 1881, Smolenskin dropped the European citizenship idea to advise his fellow countrymen to pull out their roots and emigrate to Palestine, for “only in the Land of Israel…can the Jews find truth and lasting peace”.3

Likewise, Leo Pinsker advocated more than any Russian the total russification of the Jews of Russia, and founded societies to bring about such assimilation. His dedication to the task and devotion to Mother Russia was noticed – and rewarded – by the Czar himself. Indeed, he was so blindly committed to Russification that even the pogroms of 1871 did not shake him. But the pogroms of a decade later did it. His assimilationist ideal was shattered and he fell headlong into abandonment of Europe for the sake of a Zionist kingdom-to-be.

C. Europe’s Failure of Nerve

The above-mentioned cases leave no room for doubt that the emancipation of the Jews was, as far as the Europeans are concerned, a half-hearted affair. It came “too little,” and “too late” to establish itself securely in the legal and political systems of Europe whose people had been only “half-baked” by the Enlightenment. As to those Europeans who used their reason and were convinced of emancipation as a necessary corollary of their rationalism, their hearts were never won. For too long, the European stood unaffected by any sentiment of universal humanity or fraternalism. Equally, the emancipation of the Jews had come too late; for, the forces of ethnocentrism, nationalist self-assertion and egotism were too deeply impressed upon the European soul for the Enlightenment to undo. Though temporarily silenced by the military and political might of Revolutionary France and fastened securely by legislation, this European ethnocentrism reacted violently once these stops were removed by the retreat of Napoleon.

Furthermore, there is no room for doubt that the Emancipation of the Jews came too little and too late as far as the Jews were concerned. It came too little because the Europeans could not sustain it for more than a generation; and where they did sustain it at all, they did so reluctantly. The Jewish claim is certainly sound that whatever gains the Jews acquired were achieved by superior Jewish effort, never gratuitously given; that Jewish superiority in the various fields of endeavor was only the obverted facade of the Jews’ ever-denied equality. On the other hand, the Emancipation came too late because the ghetto had reshaped the Jewish soul beyond the possibility of universalist reform; even beyond that of relaxing ethnocentrism to enable the Jews to coexist with their European hosts. The ghetto had built separatism into their flesh, as the diaspora had built it into their bones; and Biblical ethnocentrism had built it into their marrow. It was inconceivable therefore that Emancipation would efface Jewish collectivism, or that this would happen within a generation.

The European thought he had fooled the Jews. When he began to discover that he was fooled by them, he lost his temper! He thought he could wipe the Jews off the map of Europe by Europeanising them; but he did so only for a moment, and he seems never to have been truly convinced of it. The Jew, too, thought he could wipe off European hatred by merely changing his name and language; but he did everything he could, working thrice as hard as anyone, to achieve quick mastery over his fellow Europeans, both as affirmation of his racial superiority and protection against insecurity. Each of them knew in his depth that the other was only fooling. The European’s loss first of his “Enlightenment” nerve and, subsequently, of his “reason” in the romantic outbreak, convinced the Jews that their fears- which never left them – were certainly justified. Hence, the disillusionment and despair on both sides.

If, under the circumstances, the Jew opted for the Zionist solution of pulling out his roots and exiting from Europe, his decision is certainly understandable, though we may criticise it as one of despair. The plain truth was that the European soul was sick. The cure did not lie in a Jewish exodus. Europe had nursed and sustained the ideal of the universal community for a millennium of Church ascendancy. This left an indelible, though temporarily submerged, mark upon its soul. What it needed was a restrengthening of the Enlightenment nerve that failed it. That is what the emancipated Jews of Europe should have helped restore and promote until it could blossom forth again. What they did, however, was the reverse. From their new positions of leadership in European life, they helped fan the very fires of romanticism which were later to consume them and ruin Europe.

No one will doubt that romanticism made the souls of Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Poland and the Balkan countries sing and dance with delight — nay, intoxication! No one will doubt that the arts of Europe blossomed as if in a hothouse; or that romanticism did something to promote science and technology under the heat of national defense; or to institute accord and harmony, social justice and welfare, between the members of the national group. Nor can it be denied that these were in some sense human gains as well, indirectly relevant to the welfare of humankind.

But it cannot be denied that from the purview of human history, these songs and dances of romantic Europe were macabre; that the hothouse atmosphere engendered by romanticism detracted the soul of Europe farther away from God and His law. Romanticism dethroned God and apotheosised the state and the nation. It granted absolute priority to the common will because it is “common” and “actual.” It agreed with John Stuart Mill that the only evidence that a thing is desirable is that it is desired, and went on to mix up the success of nationalist egotism with divinity. It relativised all past history and destroyed its normativeness, while it absolutised the present which is no less dated than the past. With Schleiermacher, it dethroned “reason” and replaced it with “feeling.” The religiously oriented were relieved that the new base of “feeling” and personal ineffable experience provided far sounder support for Christian dogma, then in peril from the attacks of rationalists as well as scientists and other secularist “despisers of religion.” The secularly oriented, on the other hand, saw in “feeling” a new epistemological base for their romantic claims. They were thus emboldened to absolutise their particularist theses for “Volkstum,” “national genius,” race and Historismus, and they sought inspiration in a mystical experience of empirical nature. The innate contradictions of human tendencies and passions were enthralled as visions of the sublime. Romanticism asserted that the highest and ultimate expression of the human soul was a tragedy — and Wagner! Fascism was romanticism’s proudest offspring; secularism was his throne. Hitler came down in the very flames it quickened, but not before Europe lay scorched and in ruins.

The greatest pity is that the victims of romanticism’s holocaust of the last one hundred years, namely, the Jews, had become infected with the disease, and helped fan its flames by their literary, artistic and philosophical contributions. But the pity that is greater than the greatest is that their walking skeletons should emerge from the Nazi ovens singing — as Zionists — an adapted romantic song of their own, whose materials may perhaps be Jewish but whose essence is Romanticism all over again, both à la Treitschke and à la Wiesel!

From Chapter 5: “ZIONISM: The European Jew’s Counsel of Despair” in Ismail Raji al Faruqi, “Islam and the Problem of Israel”, Islamic Council of Europe (1980)


  1. “Zionism,” in A. Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea, New York, Atheneum, 1971 ??
  2. “Comments,” in The Zionist Idea, p. 136 ??
  3. Let Us Search Our Ways,” in The Zionist Idea, p. 151 ??



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