By Ruth Wisse
If you are going to read a 750-page novel this year, I hope it will be Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. This “Zionist novel” was written in 1876, 21 years before Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement—to the astonishment and delight of many contemporaries, and of many Jews ever since. In the hope of encouraging readers to undertake a daunting task, I recently taught a course on this book.
Why read Daniel Deronda? Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag says about the Talmud, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” I have felt this way about Daniel Deronda since I first read it, when I was in my thirties. I grew gray with it and never found any better. Good fiction immediately grabs your attention and involves you in the lives of its characters, making you feel as if you have acquired a new dimension of life. When that happens, you want to share your discovery.
Why did the first historian of Zionism, Nahum Sokolow, call it a “Zionist novel?” Was the author a Jew? George Eliot was a woman who assumed a male pseudonym when she started writing fiction, but she was certainly not a Jew masquerading as an Englishwoman. Rather, she was an Englishwoman concerned about the moral and political future of her country. England had elected as its Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who made no secret of his Jewish origins. But he was a baptized Christian, and therefore his accomplishments proved nothing about his country’s tolerance for Jews who wanted to remain within the Jewish community. Eliot believed that true national maturity meant more than readiness to assimilate a resident minority. In the novel, England’s destiny depends on its ability to recognize that Jews are a separate and equal people, “with a national center, such as the English have, though they too are scattered over the face of the globe.”
Lest this sound educational—or worse, didactic—rest assured that this book is entertainment. It begins with the attraction between a handsome young man and a beautiful young woman and builds on the tension of whether these two are destined to end happily together. There are subplots with intrigue, villainy, self-sacrifice and rescue. Parents desert their children, children defy their parents, lovers wed and others part. Yet unlike the thriller that is driven by suspense, this book derives its excitement from seeing how young people make their way in a changing society where social classes are no longer stable. Women are no longer as strictly confined within traditional roles, and newly democratic culture brings together people who had previously stayed apart. Eliot’s Victorian England is just beginning to experience some of the conflicts that we moderns face in starker form today.
The heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, is so alluring, and her conflicts so dramatically absorbing, that some English readers wanted the novel divided into two separate parts, cutting out Deronda almost completely. By contrast, Yiddish and Hebrew translators actually eliminated Gwendolen’s part because they were interested exclusively in Daniel’s discovery of Jewishness. There was obviously enough here for two novels, but the author insisted that everything in it is interconnected, and the opposing responses merely reflects the author’s courage in writing one book for both groups of readers. The book’s ideal of separation with communication was hard for readers—let alone nations—to appreciate.
2017 marks the centenary of the famous letter sent by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Baron Walter Rothschild, affirming that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” By 1917 the Jewish homeland had been under foreign occupation for almost two millennia and Jews were no longer waiting for permission to recover their sovereignty. Pioneers were building the infrastructure of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, self-appointed leaders were galvanizing the Zionist movement and the threat of anti-Semitism added urgency to the drive for self-emancipation.
But it was also necessary to win the understanding of countries that would have to help in the effort, and England’s outsized role in global affairs compounded the importance of its support. George Eliot’s brilliant novel preceded the Balfour document in demonstrating how much is at stake in the realization of Jewish nationalism—not merely for the Jews, but also for the democracies in whose midst they live.
Once you read this book, you, too, will want to share it.