Melanie Phillips

22 May 2009

George Eliot and the essence of Zionism

Published in: Jewish Chronicle

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Against the current backdrop of rampant anti-Israel and anti-Jewish prejudice, we find ourselves once again asking the age-old question: why are people antisemites? What is it about the Jews that makes some people hate us so much?

But we might also ask ourselves the reverse question: why are other people philosemites? Why should certain people have such a deep love for the Jews? And what might be learned about the Jews from such love?

Alongside the long history of Jew-hatred in Britain, stretching back to medieval times and rooted in Christianity, is another history of profound affection for the Jews, rooted in first the Puritan and then the evangelical movements.

It was the latter that, in the 19th century, gave rise to the Christian Zionist movement, of which Arthur Balfour — he of the eponymous Declaration which committed Britain to the restoration of the Jewish national home in Palestine — was a leading light.

The Victorian novelist George Eliot is often spoken of in the same breath. In 1876, she caused a sensation with her novel, Daniel Deronda, which not only had a Jewish hero and delineated Judaism with extreme sympathy but embodied a passionately Zionist message — 21 years before Herzl addressed the first Zionist Congress in Basle.

But, as a new book points out, George Eliot did not actually fit the template of Christian Zionism. Although she went through an evangelical Christian phase, by the time she wrote Daniel Deronda she was a committed atheist. So why was she so pro-Jew and pro-Zionist?

In her brilliant and moving book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, the distinguished Victorian scholar Gertrude Himmelfarb concludes that the essence of the attraction lay in Eliot’s perception that Judaism, although unique, was inseparable from the culture and history of all mankind.

The key point Himmelfarb makes is that, for Eliot, Zionism was not a response to antisemitism. As a self-evidently natural correlative of Judaism, it was something positive, noble and good in and of itself.

This is surely a vital point for today’s Jews to grasp. For so often they present Zionism in a defensive manner. They justify it on the basis that Israel is an essential refuge for a people which uniquely has been persecuted in every country in which they have settled. In similar vein, the founding of the state of Israel is misleadingly represented as Europe’s response to the Shoah.

But Zionism’s roots are far deeper. Zionism is simply the movement for the self-determination of the Jewish people. And its significance is greater than any other movement of national liberation because Judaism itself rests upon three legs — the people, the religion and the land. If one is lopped off by having its legitimacy denied, the whole thing collapses. That is why anti-Zionism is far more than an unpleasant political position. It is a direct attack on Judaism itself.

As Himmelfarb writes, what was so remarkable about the character of Daniel Deronda was that Eliot had him emigrate to Palestine, not out of fear of pogroms or persecution, nor even because of the drawing-room antisemitism of England, but instead to fulfil a proud and unique heritage.

What she was therefore saying was that Judaism is not principally a story of persecution and that Jews are not in their essence victims, survivors or martyrs. It is not the antisemite who defines the Jew. It is Judaism, the religion and the people, that has created the Jew and Jewish statehood.

In grasping this, George Eliot’s achievement was all the more notable because she was repudiating some of the most powerful ideologies of her time: noxious anti-Jewish prejudice; aggressive, atheistic hostility to all religion; and the secular humanism of 'enlightened' liberals who were in fact anything but.

Ring any bells? Himmelfarb’s book could not be more perceptive — or more timely.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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