Tales of our Homeland #9: The New Ghetto

Notes for further study from Michael Unterberg:

Herzl was a prolific author, best known for his pamphlet “Der Judenstaat” and novel “Altneuland”. This lesser work, “Das Neue Ghetto” is worthy of attention as his last Jewish but pre-Zionistic creation. In fact, he wrote it in France while reporting and processing the Dreyfus affair. A tip of the hat goes to one of my learned and wise sons-in-law, Yoni Nuriel, for bringing the Freud reference to my attention. The play is mentioned in any Herzl biography, but Shlomo Avineri is particularly insightful in his 2008 work.

Panel 1: Reference in “The Interpretation of Dreams”. As in often the case when hearing someone else’s dream, the details sound vague, confusing and boring. Here is how he describes the dream: “On account of some happenings or other in the city of Rome it is necessary for the children to flee, and this they do. The scene is then laid before a gate, a two-winged gate in antique style (the Porta Romana in Siena, as I know while I am still dreaming). I am sitting on the edge of a well, and am very sad; I almost weep. A feminine person—nurse, nun—brings out the two boys and hands them over to their father, who is not myself. The elder of the two is distinctly my eldest son, and I do not see the face of the other; the woman who brings the boy asks him for a parting kiss. She is distinguished by a red nose. The boy denies her the kiss, but says to her, extending his hand to her in parting, “Auf Geseres” and to both of us (or to one of us) “Auf Ungeseres.” I have the idea that the latter indicates an advantage.” 

Freud comments, “This dream is built upon a tangle of thoughts induced by a play I saw at the theatre, called Das neue Ghetto (“The New Ghetto.”) The Jewish question, anxiety about the future of my children who cannot be given a native country of their own, anxiety about bringing them up so that they may have the right of native citizens—all these features may easily be recognised in the accompanying dream thoughts.” Then he adds cryptically, “We sat by the waters of Babylon and wept.”

For an analysis of the Jewish aspects of Freud’s interpretation of this dream, you can read “Sigmund Freud’s Passover Dream Responds to Theodor Herzl’s Zionist Dream” by Ken Frieden.

Herzl wrote the play in 1894, and tried to have it produced using the nom de plume Albert Schnabel. This ended in failure. After he achieved fame as a Zionist leader, it was finally produced in Vienna in 1898. Reading accounts of the play, it sounds like a dogmatic melodrama to modern sensibilities. Herzl admitted, “I don’t know if it’s a good play, but I feel it is a necessary one!” (Avineri, page 77)

Panel 2: The play was criticized for the negative and stereotypical portrayals of Jews at the same time as condemning anti-Semitism. Herzl explained, “I do not want to defend the Jews or ‘save’ them. All I want to do is raise the issue as forcefully as possible.” (Avineri, page 77)

Panel 3: This was, of course, the central metaphor of the play. The physical ghettos were destroyed, but the Jews still could not normalize into Austrian society. Jewish alienation in the West is the “New Ghetto”. Samuel, clearly articulating Herzl’s thinking, concludes that Jews will need to destroy these new invisible walls by themselves, from the inside. This “New Jew” concept is Herzl’s step before full Zionism.

Panel 5: Herzl was deeply troubled by the Jewish Question. He finished writing the play on November 8th, just as the Dreyfus case was heating up in the French media. Famously, the Dreyfus Affair was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Herzl, and would lead him to leadership of the Zionist movement.

Michael Unterberg (author) and Zvi Ron (artist) have been making comics together since they were classmates in Yeshivah of Flatbush elementary school. They both live in Gush Etzion.

Please do not reuse without permission from the authors. Thank you. 

To download Issue #9 The New Ghetto

About the Author
Michael is a Senior Israel Educator at Makom. He is a very proud father and grandfather, and lives in Efrat.
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