When writing his best known work Der Judenstaat (‘The Jews’ State’, 1896), Theodor Herzl drew much comfort and inspiration from the music of Richard Wagner. He writes,
Heine tells us that he heard the flapping of an angel’s wings above his head when he wrote certain verses. I, too, believe that I heard such a fluttering of wings while I wrote that book. I worked on it every day to the point of utter exhaustion. My only recreation was listening to Wagner’s music in the evening, particularly to Tannhäuser, an opera which I attended as often as it was produced. Only on the evenings when there was no opera did I have any doubts as to the truth of my ideas.
(Cited in Piterberg, 2008, p.31)
The fact that the founder of modern Zionism and the Grandfather of the State of Israel was so inspired by the music of Wagner, should not be particularly surprising.
Herzl was, after all, a great admirer of German culture, to the point where he wrote in his diary in 1895, “[i]n fact, had I wanted to be someone else, I would have chosen to be a Prussian aristocrat from the old nobility.” (cited in Piterberg, 2008, p.31). It is also not strange that the most prominent advocate of Jewish national liberation should be so moved by the music of an anti-Semite. It is possible to admire the art while rejecting the artist. I bring it up because it is a curious historical irony that on the surface is perfectly innocent and only of interest to the biographer studing Herzl’s musical preferences, but when considered in the context of fin de siécle central and eastern European politics becomes more serious. It is a coincidence of taste and politics that is informative for studying the roots of Zionism and its subsequent development.
Herzl was compelled to write Der Judenstaat after witnessing the wave of anti-Semitism in France that was sparked off by the Dreyfus Affair, and the corresponding rise in French nationalism. One of the most salient issues throughout the nineteenth century was the ‘Jewish Question’, and it was the sight of a so-called “civilised” nation like France displaying its most chauvinistic qualities by turning on one of its minorities, that led to Herzl proposing his own solution to this ‘Question’: Zionism. Herzl surmised that assimilation had failed the Jewish people. Gentile anti-Semitism had proved too ingrained within European culture, and so Jews should reject Europe entirely, creating a home for themselves elsewhere.
Within the traditional Zionist narrative this moment has a Biblical quality. It is analogous to the Exodus story, with Herzl playing the role of Moses, leading his people out of bondage to national liberation. This version of the story of Zionism emphasises the notion of a sharp break from Europe. The idea of liberation is based on the idea of a ‘fresh start’, a movement unencumbered by the prejudices of the old world. But the reality is that Zionism was very much a product of Europe. Far from being a rejection of the ideas that fed into European anti-Semitism, Zionism drew on some of the same chauvenistic notions.
The end of the nineteenth century was a historical moment characterised by imperialism and ethnocentric nationalism, and it was against this back-drop (along with the sounds of Wagner) that Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat. Carl Schorske places Herzl’s Zionism within the context of what he describes as “Politics in a New Key” (cited in Piterberg, 2008, p.30). This was a new type of politics that was predominantly characterised by an anti-rationalist and anti-liberal approach. It was an attempt to mobilise the masses in the name of ethnicity and a chauvanistic nationalism that was premised on exclusion and the (re)creation of a distant past. As Schorske writes,
In his appeal to the masses, Herzl combined archaic and futuristic elements in the same way as Schönerer and Lueger before him. All three leaders espoused the cause of social justice and made it the center of their critique of liberalism’s failures. All three linked this modern aspiration to an archaic communitarian tradition: Schönerer to the Germanic tribes, Lueger to the medieval Catholic social order, Herzl to the pre-diaspora Kingdom of Israel. All three connected ‘forward’ and ‘backward’, memory and hope…and thus outflanked the unsatisfying present for followers who were victims of industrial capitalism before being integrated into it: artisans and greengrocers, hucksters and ghetto-dwellers.
(Cited in Piterberg, 2008, p.31)
It was within this context that modern Zionism was produced. It was formulated as a reaction against liberalism and cosmopolitanism, and was based on an ethnocentric world view that presupposes essential differences between its adherents and those who fall outside of the “communtiy”. This does not mean that Zionists are necessarily chauvinistic in they’re outlook. Zionism, like all nationalisms, is a complicated phenomenon combining many different strands. It is perfectly conceivable to be a liberal nationalist.
But an understanding of Zionism’s darker side is absolutely necessary when trying to understand how openly rascist politicians such as Avigdor Lieberman can enjoy such popularity within Israel today. Lieberman openly advocates the “transfer” (euphemism for ethnic cleansing) of Israel’s substantial Arab population to the surrounding Arab states. His politics can be seen as sharing a lot in common with the communtarian, Wagnerian mindset that characterised late nineteenth century political discourse, and it is unfortunately this version of Zionism that is gaining ground today.
If anyone is interested in reading more about this topic then see Gabriel Piterberg’s The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel (2008) and Zeev Sternhell’s The Founding Myths of Israel (1998).