I am going to the East to become better acquainted with the condition of my race in various countries there.
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 … 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.
So who said it? You’d be in good company if you guessed Theodor Herzl. But it wasn’t Herzl nor any of those pioneering Zionists. In fact, these words were published in 1876, more than two decades before the First Zionist Congress was ever convened.
Would you be surprised to learn that the writer was not even Jewish, but British, and on top of that, the most prominent British novelist of her day: Mary Anne Evans?
Mary Anne Evans, better known by her pen name, George Eliot, wrote these stirring words for the close of her classic novel, Daniel Deronda.
There are many reasons to recommend this book to the Jewish community, to Zionists, and to anyone who loves literature. Briefly, it is the story of Daniel, a sincere young man unaware of his parentage, who is raised by a British gentleman. As Daniel searches for his identity and his role in life, he finds himself inexplicably drawn to Jews and Judaism. The drama builds until he finally meets his mother, and learns that she, and by extension he, are Jews.
The book is heavy lifting at almost 900 pages. If its length gives you pause, consider this: there is a way to make this journey a bit lighter.
The Tikvah Fund has enlisted Harvard Professor of Literature Ruth Wisse to give 8 lectures on the book which Wisse calls “one of the finest ever written.” (Go to tikvahfund.org and for a small fee, subscribe.)
Each lecture runs about 45 minutes, and by taking the course, you’ll have an Ivy league tour guide highlighting its major themes and exploring their deeper meanings. Professor Wisse is a charming, elegant lecturer, who brings her considerable knowledge of Jewish history and literature to the project. She clearly loves this book, and deeply respects its author.
George Eliot was Britain’s pre-eminent novelist in the Golden Age of the novel. Queen Victoria was among her most devoted readers. And in this, her last novel, Eliot shocked the literary world by writing what was derisively called her “Jewish book.”
But why? Eliot was raised as a Christian, but broke with the church in her 20’s. She felt that great fiction, (as opposed to escapist fiction) was meant to cultivate the soul, and promote moral behavior. And while she was surely a champion of the Jews, she saw herself as ministering primarily to the British.
Eliot was distressed with the rising levels of anti-Semitism in England. British readers had long been used to low-life Jewish characters like Shakespeare’s Shylock, and Dickens’ Fagin, and even though Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister when this book was published, Eliot felt that anti-Semitism was pernicious enough that it was corroding the English character.
So George Eliot sought to heal this disease of the mind by writing Daniel Deronda.
By making Daniel’s journey so intriguing and his character so admirable, she challenged the bigotry of British society. By the time Daniel discovers his Jewish heritage and says “I am glad of it,” the reader is glad too.
She does not simply create a hero and then make him Jewish; her readership was too sophisticated for that. Like her character Daniel, she immersed herself in Jewish study and among Jewish thinkers. Eliot did a massive amount of research in preparation for this work: she translated Spinoza, read Josephus, studied both Hebrew and the Talmud. Gertrude Himmelfarb, in The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, writes that in the published volume of Eliot’s notebooks on this topic alone, the list of books Eliot consulted comprise 23 pages.
As a result, Eliot drew believable portraits of all kinds of Jews: the devout and deeply committed, the ambivalent and assimilated, the scoffers and rejectors. She is effective because she understands the varied viewpoints, and gives them life through articulate, persuasive speakers.
One of the most compelling characters is Daniel’s mother. He is finally summoned by her, now called Princess Leonora, a glamorous, world famous singer, who deliberately broke every chain which bound her as a Jew. In a cool, formal meeting, she informs Daniel that she gave him up so that he would be raised as a British gentleman, without any of the burden of being a Jew. Princess Leonora forcefully explains her rejection of Judaism: to her a fossilized religion filled with superstition, senseless restrictions and the subjugation of women.
As fiercely as Daniel’s mother rejects Jews and Judaism, Daniel’s new friend and mentor Mordechai champions them both. Mordechai is the consumptive Talmud Scholar and passionate Zionist who lights the spark in Daniel’s soul. During private study sessions with Daniel, and in meetings of the Philosopher’s Club, Mordechai lays out the rationale for Jewish nationhood and the return to Zion in a series of debates that foreshadow the First Zionist Congress of 1897.
Eliot drew nuanced portraits of British aristocracy too, and perhaps no character is more memorable than her Gwendolyn Harleth. Though the novel is named for Daniel, critics thought it could easily have been entitled The Education of Gwendolyn Harleth. Beautiful, entitled, and ambitious, we don’t much like Gwendolyn, but we can’t fail to be captivated by her.
We wonder whether Daniel will pursue Gwendolyn or Mirah, a modest, but committed Jew. He saves each woman, albeit in a different way. When Daniel finally learns he is Jewish, he is elated to know he is now an appropriate suitor for Mirah, a match which he and she (and we) have been hoping for all along.
If this were simply a love story, it would not be a masterpiece, and one of the most consequential novels in the history of Zionism. Eliot wasn’t just trying to correct the slandered image of the Jew. She sought to justify the creation of a Jewish state and she wanted Britain to use its imperial influence to help this happen. On the novel’s terms, this means Gwendolyn must not only bear her rejection by Daniel, she must support his Jewish journey, and credit the role he played in helping save her shattered soul.
Near the end, in a letter wishing Daniel well on his marriage and his upcoming voyage to Jerusalem, Gwendolyn thanks him for helping her become a better person. She closes with: “It is better—it shall be better with me because I have known you.”
This is what Eliot wanted for Britain ~ not simply to tolerate Jews hoping they will one day blend in, but to acknowledge the contributions of the Jews as Jews, and help them in their effort to rebuild themselves as a nation in the land of their forefathers.
Professor Wisse poses a wistful question: imagine the course of history if the British understood what Eliot did: that England’s special mission ought to be to help the Jewish people re-establish their nation; that instead of halting Jewish immigration to the Mandate in the 1930’s it had helped the Jews get there; and instead of placating Arab leaders in the 1940s it had protected the Jewish refugees. How many lives might have been saved, what calamities might have been averted in the blood soaked 20th century.
As Professor Wisse says: “a good novel, just a couple of inches on a shelf, can change the world.”
Read it. Read it with Professor Wisse. And on this, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, and the 70th birthday of Israel, remember that before Arthur Balfour, even before Theodor Herzl, there was Mary Anne Evans, better known as George Eliot, a towering intellect and masterful writer who studied Hebrew, Jewish history and the Talmud, and then went to bat using all her skill, for Jews and the idea that would one day become the modern State of Israel.