“You are just the same as if you were not a Jew.” (Gwendolen to Daniel, Daniel Deronda)

There’s nothing like having your identity swept under the carpet, being told that everyone can pretend you’re not what you are. I have no doubt that, like Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda, there is an absence of malice in many of these polite attempts to maintain the status quo. It would be paranoid and foolish to think that off-the-cuff comments like “you can’t tell” are anything but awkward faux pas. We all get caught off guard and blurt out the most stupid and unexpected things we don’t mean. There is too much anti-Semitism in the world as it is. We don’t need to see it where it does not exist.

Persistent avoidance or pretence, however, is a different matter. If someone needs to pretend you’re not a Jew in order to be comfortable around you, if someone can’t handle you talking about or doing Jewish-related things, then they have a problem, and the name of that problem is anti-Semitism. They may never do anything directly harmful to a Jew, and they probably baulk at the idea of being bigoted, but the creation of this unspoken line across which we shall not wander is the sort of noxious mentality that allows people to turn their backs on grave injustices to fellow man. When someone doesn’t “see you as a Jew”, they’re making an exception. The question that needs answering is how they’d treat you if they did see you as a Jew… because that’s what you are.

Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda meant to reassure him that she still held him in high esteem, but when you deny someone’s identity you make a mockery of that professed esteem. Sadly, many readers of Daniel Deronda, instead of being inspired by Daniel’s Zionist vision, engage in the most bizarre mental contortions in order to voice their appreciation of George Eliot’s last and most controversial novel. I don’t like to psychoanalyse, but the fixation with Gwendolen and the accompanying litany of justifications suggest that many would rather that the book did not have a Jewish theme, which would be somewhat like wishing that there were no class issues in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Indeed, one literary critic went so far as to excise (read: censor) all the Jewish bits and rename his edition Gwendolen Harleth. A not insignificant proportion of readers have also expressed their wish that Daniel had married Gwendolen instead, which for me is like suggesting that Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice should have married George Wickham.

One might have hoped that the BBC’s gorgeous television adaptation would have ameliorated the situation – let’s face it, far more people watch the adaptation than read the book. One might have thought that Hugh Dancy’s good looks and sensitive portrayal might have drawn our attention back to the protagonist, that in the smog of so-called realism that shrouds our entertainment industry Daniel and Mirah might shine and inspire as examples of honour, integrity, and altruism. But, no, apparently they, especially Mirah, are “too good”, too perfect, boring. Now, I agree that George Eliot’s portrayal of Gwendolen is absorbing, but it is absurd to argue that the plight of a lovely young woman searching for her brother in a foreign land who is driven to drown herself in the Thames is uninteresting.

Gwendolen is a strong character, though, so perhaps it’s not Mirah’s fault after all. Despite or perhaps because of her human failings, Gwendolen is widely admired and many women say they ‘identify’ with her. I can’t help wondering in what way. Are they gamblers with fantasies of being worshipped as goddesses of luck? Did they marry for money after realising they couldn’t earn a living with their mediocre talent? Did they expect to rule their husbands only to find that men are not slaves to their desires? Do they wish their husbands dead? Or do they simply mean that they like the way Gwendolen gets away with so much because she’s a woman? It seems that the beautiful Gwendolen’s moral compromises and emotional manipulations are of greater interest and attraction than Daniel’s love for the Jewess Mirah, his quest to find his mother, or his fascinating friendship with the mysterious Mordecai. Gwendolen is lauded as a feminist character. But surely it is Mirah – who has worked hard all her life, nurtured her talent, and begun to build up a clientele from nothing – who should be the feminist icon.

None of the brouhaha over Daniel Deronda makes sense, not unless you factor in ‘the Jewish question’. I know people will say I am reading things into it, but they are the ones who are reading things into it. You cannot dismiss the Zionism in Daniel Deronda as a reflection of the times. Creative anachronism is fine for reenactments, but it is unacceptable in the field of history, literary or otherwise. Theodore Herzl was barely sixteen when the novel was published in 1876. The ‘Zionist movement’ as we know it could not have influenced George Eliot. My response to those who focus on Gwendolen at the expense of Daniel is: why are you so keen to avoid discussing Zionism when it is clearly the central theme?

We already have the answer to that question, of course. George Eliot gave it to us in the form of Daniel’s mother, the self-loathing Jew who could not respect her own son enough to take him at his word. She decided upon meeting him for the second time that she knew better than him his own motives and feelings: “Deronda had that objection to answer which we all have known in speaking to those who are too certain of their own fixed interpretations to be enlightened by anything we may say.”

And this is how I believe so many see poor misunderstood Daniel Deronda: a lovesick youth on a romantic voyage of discovery (with a bizarre streak of Zionist politics best left alone). No doubt this is how many see my own support of Israel, something they can conveniently explain away as due to my husband being Jewish. Never mind that my husband and I only recently discovered his Jewish roots (not unlike Daniel Deronda I admit), and that I first took an interest in Zionism when barely more than a child, when my Balfour grandmother told me her brothers had stayed with Lord Balfour when on leave from France during the Great War, not long before he wrote that renowned letter to Baron Rothschild known as the Balfour Declaration.

The problem with the we-know-better attitude is its smug politeness. Little can assail their conviction, and little will assail it simply because it’s impolite to do so. This sort of civility is a curse under which we all labour. It allows bigotry to fester and poison the soul so that when the time of testing comes principles are forgotten and the conscience is incoherent.

So I will end with a plea: Do not explain away the things you do not understand. Do not create your own censored version of Daniel Deronda in your head. Read the book as George Eliot wrote it. Don’t make the mistakes Gwendolen and Daniel’s mother made… because being Jewish does matter: ”’It has made a great difference to me that I have known it,’ said Deronda, emphatically.” But that doesn’t mean casting off the rest of one’s identity:

“The effect of my education can never be done away with. The Christian sympathies in which my mind was reared can never die out of me,” said Deronda, with increasing tenacity of tone. “But I consider it my duty–it is the impulse of my feeling–to identify myself, as far as possible, with my hereditary people, and if I can see any work to be done for them that I can give my soul and hand to I shall choose to do it.”

There is nothing civil or polite about denying the passions that stir our souls.