Theodore Herzl, as everyone knows, was an Austrian lawyer who is considered the father of modern political Zionism. It is also well known that before he decided to become an advocate for a return to Zion, he felt that assimilation or conversion to Christianity would be the solution to the antisemitism of his time.
In 1893, Herzl set out his plan, in which, “There would be a procession in broad daylight to St Stephen’s Cathedral where a mass baptism would take place.”
In an 1895 diary entry Herzl wrote:
About two years ago I wanted to solve the Jewish question, at least in Austria, with the help of the Catholic Church. I wanted to get an entrée to the Pope, not without having assured myself in advance of the assistance of the Austrian upper clergy, and to say to him: “Help us against anti-Semitism, and I shall lead a great movement for the free and decent conversion of the Jews to Christianity.”
Herzl claimed he was not entirely serious, and that he never considered baptism for himself.
The idea of general baptism is half facetious and half serious. I am permitted to say it; I, who would not be baptized. But what about my son Hans?
His children struggled with his complex message. He had two daughters and a son. Hans converted to Christianity, and eventually killed himself at the age of 39, the day after his sister Paulina died of a heroin overdose. Margaritha (also known as Trude) was killed by the Nazis in Theresienstadt.
In his suicide note, Hans wrote:
A Jew remains a Jew, no matter how eagerly he may submit himself to the disciplines of his new religion, how humbly he may place the redeeming cross upon his shoulders for the sake of his former coreligionists, to save them from eternal damnation: a Jew remains a Jew.
And we know that Theodore Herzl himself realized after the Dreyfus Trial that conversion would not end antisemitism.
But there was another assimilated Jewish lawyer who fully embraced the idea of conversion, and absolutely rejected Zionism. His name was Max Naumann.
Naumann, born in 1875 to assimilated Eastern European Jewish parents, was only 15 years younger than Herzl. During World War I he served as a captain in the Bavarian Army and was awarded the Iron Cross for his bravery. He earned a law degree from the University of Berlin.
In 1921, Naumann founded The Association of German National Jews (Verband nationaldeutscher Juden), and was the chairman for most of the group’s existence.
The goal of the Association was to encourage German Jews to assimilate fully into German culture and life. And, despite his own family’s origins, the group advocated expelling Eastern European Jews from Germany. It was also stridently opposed to Zionism, which it viewed as a racist movement and a hindrance to assimilation.
It is perhaps not surprising that it had only a small membership of no more than 6,000 people. And despite the stated goal of encouraging assimilation, the members of VnJ were never fully accepted by German society.
After World War I, Germany was struggling to pay the reparations agreed to in the Treaty of Versailles. The country was governed by international agreements limiting its military capabilities. The Allies tried to crush German pride. Yet their efforts had the opposite effect. Many Germans yearned to make Germany great again. This was also the goal of VnJ. The strong patriotism of the group was expressed in its statute:
The Association of National German Jews aims to bring together all those Germans of Jewish descent who, by openly confessing their ancestry, feel so inextricably intertwined with German nature and German culture that they cannot feel and think anything other than German. He fights all expressions and activities of un-German spirit, whether they come from Jews or non-Jews, which impair the resurgence of German national strength, German legality and German self-confidence and thus endanger Germany’s re-emergence to a respected position in the world.
Naumann and VnJ were proud German Jews, whose Germanness far outweighed their Jewishness.
Then, in 1932, The National Socialism (Nazi) party won the greatest share of the popular vote in the general election. Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Hitler had made no secret of his views on Jews. The party had adopted its “25 Points” in 1920, which included denying citizenship to anyone of Jewish descent.
Yet Naumann enthusiastically supported the Nazi party. He and VnJ thought Hitler’s rhetoric was merely a tool to stir up the crowds and keep him in power. The organization’s manifesto called on Jews to vote for Hitler. A January 7, 1931, headline in the JTA read, “Patriotic German Jews Must Support Hitlerist Party in Germany’s Interests Even if It is Antisemitic.”
And when it became difficult to justify the antisemitism endorsed and encouraged by the party, as Jews were losing their jobs and being expelled from universities, the Association still managed to justify it as making the country great.
We have always held the well-being of the German people and the fatherland, to which we feel inextricably linked, above our own well-being. Thus, we greeted the results of January 1933, even though it has brought hardship for us personally.
On March 25, 1933, Hitler’s second in command, Hermann Göring, summoned Naumann and charged him with combatting foreign claims of antisemitism. An August 13, 1933, JTA article states that:
Dr. Max Naumann, leader of the Union of National German Jews, (Verband Nationaldeutscher Juden) an organization enrolling seven thousand Jewish citizens of Germany, declared in an interview that Nazi action against Jews was in many ways justified. He further stated that patriotic German Jews did not want the support of foreign Side in New York, and the Grenadierstrasse here.
A year later, in August 1934, JTA reported that Naumann sent a message to Hitler, protesting the World Jewish Conference’s condemnation of the Nazi government.
Dr Naumann declared the Geneva conference was composed of “outrooted Zionists, and of Jews who are not entitled to speak for the nationally reliable German Jews, who do not want outside interference and who hope for early solution of the Jewish problem on the basis of national trustworthiness.”
The next time Naumann appears in the JTA archives is a very brief note from November 25, 1935:
Dr. Max Naumann, president of the Union of Nationalist Jewish Germans, was yesterday arrested by the Gestapo, Nazi secret police. The Union, comprising the so-called “Jewish Nazis,” was officially ordered disbanded yesterday.
Naumann was arrested and incarcerated in the Columbia Haus concentration camp, and VnJ was disbanded by the Gestapo. Naumann was released after a few weeks. I don’t know if he started doubting himself at that point or whether he still remained loyal to Hitler and the Nazi party. We all know how difficult it is for people to change their long-held beliefs, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence.
Naumann died a few months before the outbreak of World War II, on May 18, 1939.
We now know that assimilation and patriotism did not save the Jews of Europe from the Final Solution. But throughout Hitler’s rise to power, there were Jews who justified the Chancellor’s antisemitism and thought it would never apply to them. In Naumann’s case, that was because he shared most of the racist and antisemitic beliefs of the Führer. He too, thought that Eastern European Jews and Zionists had no place in Germany. And he truly believed that Hitler would make Germany great again.
In this week’s Torah reading of Vayechi, we read of the deaths of the patriarch Jacob, and his son Joseph. Joseph had almost single-handedly saved Egypt and the surrounding nations from famine and death, by storing the grain during the seven years of plenty. Jacob was revered by Pharoah and the Egyptians because the famine ended when he and his family came from Canaan to Egypt. After mourning his death in Egypt, the leaders of Egypt accompanied Jacob’s coffin on its final journey back to Israel.
Joseph’s two sons grew up in the luxury of the palace. The Midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 3:93) says that one of them Ephraim, kept to himself. But the other, Manasseh, accompanied his father in everything he did. He was so assimilated into Egyptian society that when the brothers came to Egypt, they mistook him for an Egyptian. And according to Midrash Shochar Tov 81:7), Manasseh’s children were never enslaved to Pharaoh, but served in the elite forces of his army.
It would have been easy for Manasseh and his children to fully embrace their Egyptian identity. I could imagine them supporting Pharaoh when he began to enslave the Israelites, because they may have considered themselves superior to the downtrodden masses living in Goshen.
But before he died, Joseph instilled within his grandchildren such a strong connection to their brethren that Manasseh and his descendants never abandoned the Israelites for a minute.
The last verses of Genesis (50:22-26) state:
Joseph lived in Egypt, he and his father’s house. Joseph lived for 110 years. Joseph saw Ephraim’s great grandchildren. Also the children of Machir, son of Manasseh were born on Joseph’s knees. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will remember you and will bring you from this land to the land which He swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joseph swore to the children of Israel, “God will remember you. Bring my bones out from this.” And Joseph died aged 110. He was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.
It is not by chance that Manasseh’s grandchildren were born on Joseph’s knees. The viceroy of Egypt was closest to the children of his son who accompanied him on all his official duties. And they in turn were the ones most at risk of assimilation. Joseph had a special relationship with them, and that relationship meant that they remembered their Israelite identity even hundreds of years later.
And the oath that Joseph swore to his brothers and their descendants is ultimately what got them through the persecution and suffering of slavery. They knew that however harsh Pharaoh’s decrees were, they were only temporary and that if they remained firm in their ancestors’ faith, they would not only survive but also flourish.
When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, He instructed him to use a similar phrase to the one Joseph used, to tell the enslaved Israelites that because of their belief in this oath they would be redeemed.
“Go and gather the elders of Israel and say to them: The Lord, the God of your ancestors appeared to me, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I have remembered you and what was done to you in Egypt,’” (Exodus 3:16).
The entire Jewish people across the globe is going through an extremely difficult time now. It is tempting to think that assimilation and patriotism to other countries is the best option. But the story of Joseph reminds us that we have a redemptive future. However bad things are, they will get better, just as long as we hang on to the faith of our ancestors.