January 23, 2023 marked the 100th anniversary of Max Nordau’s death. While we all know the boulevard that bears his name in Tel Aviv, the deafening silence that marked this centennial suggests that politicians, Zionist leaders and citizens alike have no idea of the importance of this Zionist genius.
At the XIII Zionist Congress, held in Karsbad in the Czech Republic in 1923, the Jewish leaders of that time spoke of him as follows.
Joseph Cowen, representing Canada:
“I know that it is the task of one of the worst speakers of the Congress to speak of the greatest speaker of the Congress – the greatest, for Nordau, as a speaker of the Congress, was greater than Theodor Herzl, he, the great Jewish tribune.
I will never lose sight of the appearance and presence of Max Nordau, nor will anyone else who had the good fortune to attend the first Zionist Congress. We had before us a man of world renown – perhaps the only personality at the first Congress, with the exception of Israel Zangwill, who was known outside Jewish circles – a man whom very few people knew was Jewish. And this man entered the Zionist organization, not only to proclaim himself a Zionist, but to make the whole tragic fate of the Jews, the Jewish question, the distress of the Jews and the demand for their solution heard by the world with the vocal power of a lion, the echo of which still rings in my ears today.
(…) It is no secret that it was he who defined the objective of our movement as the search for a home for the Jewish people secured by public law in Palestine. He defended our demands from the point of view of a sociologist. He founded our cause and strengthened its supporters with a methodological analysis worthy of a great scientist. He approached the problem of the suffering Jewish people with the rigor of a relentless logic, which had been missing for centuries. His great mind focused all his abilities on the treatment and healing of the Jewish people.”
Born Simon Maximilian Südfeld in 1849 in Pest in the Kingdom of Hungary, Max Nordau grew up in a religious and intellectual environment (his father was a Hebrew-speaking poet), before finally joining a Catholic high school that was to enable him to access the higher education he aspired to. He distanced himself from religion, married a non-Jewish woman and did not believe in Zionism… Until Theodor Herzl explains to him the ins and outs of the Project. Nordau spent his life in Paris and changed the course of the history for us.
He was the greatest Zionist genius. His verve was as impeccable as his beard. In front of the Zionist delegates, he describes year after year the intellectual, spiritual and financial misery of the Jews of the whole world. His descriptions of the catastrophic state of the Jews are so precise that they make the audience’s blood run cold. And when, after the Dreyfus affair, he spoke in front of his peers, he pointed his finger at the Jews of France, guilty of not having supported Dreyfus… Because he was Jewish!
Best friend of Theodor Herzl, he mourned the death of the great visionary like no other. And when he was offered to become President of the Zionist Organization, he refused the position so as not to harm the movement (he thought that being married to a non-Jew would be a problem for some delegates). He described like a visionary the world conflicts to come and established all the possible plans to get the Jews out of their condition of Shnorrer! More than that: for him, the only viable option was Israel! It would take 50 years for the declaration of independence to be declared and he would never see it. But Israel owes him everything.
Max Nordau was a genius and the fact that we have forgotten him is a shame that we must repair without delay. We should celebrate Nordau, we should make a pilgrimage to his grave in the cemetery on Trumpeldor Street in Tel Aviv, we should learn about the tragic and magnificent fate of this giant without whom Israel would not exist today.
As parents, let’s teach our children about his achievements. I invite those who are interested to discover his life through my last book published in English: “Max Nordau Much More Than A Tel-Aviv Boulevard.” And to the politicians who read this, a moment of recollection in the Knesset would be most welcome. Even for the Arab members of parliament: in all his speeches, Nordau kept repeating that the settlement of the Jews should be done in friendship and cooperation with the Arabs.