Max Nordau, Address at the First Zionist Congress, Basel Switzerland

Anna and Max Nordau, Max Nordau: A Biography, Nordau Institute, New York, 1943, pp. 132-136.

Context and perspective are key elements in understanding history. Zionism emerged in the 19th century because there was a unique Jewish identity built around belief, Torah, ritual, and community concern for one another. And second, the presence of wretched anti-Semitism.  Pronounced anti-Jewish feeling forced Jews into precarious living, where oppressive impoverishment, physical threats, and denial of citizenship rights were pervasive.  Jews hoped that they would be emancipated from oppression through the enlightenment, but that objective proved to be a false dawn in just about all places where Jews resided. They were always inhabitants, rarely citizens. Government sanctioned anti-Semitism combined with racist sentiments—held not just by local politicians but by many in the general public—caused some Jews to change religious practice or migrate to more secure venues. Zionism was another choice: the notion that true Jewish emancipation could only be found by creating a secure place of their own, evolving a majority Jewish state. That prospect could shield them from the vicissitudes of economic deprivation and the scourge of anti-Semitism. It could also preserve their religious identity, even if the Zionists themselves were not religious in practice.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, Max Nordau (1849-1923) and his friend Theodor Herzl witnessed anti-Semitic oppression. Both were born in Hungry and became friends. They were middle class essayists and writers; becoming impassionedly indignant by the Dreyfus Affair in France in the early 1890s. There, a French Jewish military captain was erroneously and intentionally accused of spying for Germany. Both believed that the prospects of Jewish emancipation in a liberalizing Europe was impossible to achieve. Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, an outline for how Jews should take destiny into their own hands and build a territory of their own.

Nordau earned a medical degree and, like Herzl, became a devout Zionist. He attended the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland in August 1897; delivering an impassioned speech about the general Jewish condition in Europe. Nordau’s engagement in the Zionist organization in its early years induced many Jewish intellectuals to follow suit. According to the noted Israeli political scientist and Zionist historian, Shlomo Avineri, “If Herzl gave Zionism an address, Nordau and his Orthodox Jewish background understood better than Herzl the impulses and actions of the ‘Jewish street.’” When Herzl died suddenly in 1904 at the age of 44, Nordau was asked, but declined, to lead the Zionist movement. Nonetheless, he remained active as an often-quoted representative of the Zionist effort to link Jews to the land of Israel. Nordau was part of a cohort of dedicated, early Zionist leaders. They included Menachem Ussishkin, who shaped the Jewish National Fund’s early years; David Wolffsohn, who followed Herzl to lead the Zionist movement; and later Chaim Weizmann, who negotiated for the Balfour Declaration during World War I. These individuals demonstrated how a stable of capable leaders, even with greatly diverse outlooks, led the Zionist movement as it pushed forward toward taking an idea and making it a reality. Nordau’s 1897 speech at the First Zionist Congress characterized his impassioned commitment to Zionism which these early leaders possessed. He spoke about the wretched physical insecurity Jews endured. When perspective is applied to the times when political Zionism evolved in the mid-1800s, it is easy to understand why some Jews wanted to exchange their precarious existence of living on the margins of societies and establish—through diligence and sacrifice—a secure future for themselves, in a territorial entity of their own.

Ken Stein, January 2023

…This picture can, on the whole, be painted only in one color. Everywhere, where the Jews have settled in comparatively large number among the nations, Jewish misery prevails. It is not the ordinary misery, which is probably the unalterable face of mankind. It is a peculiar misery, which the Jews do not suffer as human beings, but as Jews, and from which they would be free, were they not Jews. 

Jewish misery has two forms, the material and the moral. In Eastern Europe…the misery of the Jews is understood literally. It is the daily distress of the body, anxiety for every following day, the painful fight for the maintenance of a bare existence. In Western Europe, the struggle for existence has been made somewhat lighter for the Jews, although of late the tendency has become visible even there to render it difficult for them again. The question of food and shelter, the question of security of life, tortures them less; there the misery is moral.

The Western Jew has bread, but man does not live on bread alone…. The Western Jew meant emancipation to be real liberation, and hastened to draw the final conclusions therefrom. But the nations made him feel that he erred in being so heedlessly logical. The magnanimous laws magnanimously lay down the theory of equality of rights. But Governments and Society exercise the practice of equality of rights in a manner which renders it the same mockery as did the appointment of Sancho Panza to the splendid position of Viceroy of the Island of Barataria. The Jew says naively: ‘I am a human being, and I regard nothing human as alien.’ The answer he meets is: ‘Softly, your rights as man must be enjoyed cautiously; you lack the right notion of honor, feeling for duty, morality, patriotism, idealism. You must, therefore, hold aloof from all vocations which make possession of these qualifications as conditions.’ 

No one has ever tried to justify these terrible accusations by facts. At most, now and then, an individual Jew, the scum of his race and of mankind, is triumphantly cited as an example, and contrary to all laws of logic, the example is made general. This tendency is psychologically correct. It is the practice of human intellect to invent for the prejudices, which sentiment has called forth, a cause seemingly reasonable. Probably wisdom has long been acquainted with this psychological law and puts it in fairly expressive words: ‘If you have to drown a dog,’ says the proverb, ‘you must first declare him to be mad.’ All kinds of vices are falsely attributed to the Jews, because one wishes to convince himself that he has a right to detest them. But the pre-existing sentiment is the detestation of Jews.


I must utter the painful word. The nations which emancipated the Jews have mistaken their own feelings. In order to produce its full effect, emancipation should first have been completed in sentiment before it was declared by law. But this was not the case. The history of Jewish emancipation is one of the most remarkable pages in the history of European thought. The emancipation of the Jews was not the consequence of the conviction that grave injury had been done to a race, that it had been mistreated most terribly, and that it was time to atone for the injustice of a thousand years; it was solely the result of the geometrical mode of thought of French rationalism of the 18th century. This rationalism was constructed by the aid of pure logic, without taking into account the living sentiments and the principles of the certainty of mathematical action; and it insisted upon trying to introduce these creations of pure intellect into the world of reality. The emancipation of the Jews was an automatic application of the rationalistic method. The emancipation of the Jews was an automatic application of the rationalistic method. The philosophy of Rousseau and the encyclopedists had led to the declaration of human rights. Out of this declaration, the strict logic of the men of the Great Revolution deduced Jewish emancipation. They formulated a regular equation: Every man is born with certain rights; the Jews are human beings, consequently the Jews are born to own the rights of man. In this manner, the emancipation of the Jews was pronounced, not through a fraternal feeling for the Jews, but because logic demanded it. Popular sentiment rebelled, but the philosophy of the Revolution decreed that principles must be placed higher than sentiment. Allow me then an expression which implies no ingratitude. The men of 1792 emancipated us only for the sake of principle. 

As the French Revolution gave to the world the metric and the decimal systems, so it also created a kind of normal spiritual system which other countries, either willingly or unwillingly, accepted as the normal measure for their state of culture….Jewish emancipation was also one of these indispensable articles of a highly cultured state….In this manner Jews were emancipated in Europe….not because the people had decided for their hearts to stretch out a brotherly hand to the Jews, but because leading spirits had accepted a certain cultured idea which required that Jewish emancipation should figure also in the Statute book.

….The majority of the Jews are a race of accursed beggars…This poverty grinds down his character, and destroys his body. Fevered by the thirst for higher education, he sees himself repelled from the places where knowledge is attainable—a real intellectual Tantalus of our non-mythical times. He dashes his head against the thick ice crusts of hatred and contempt which are formed over his head. Like scarcely any other social being—whom even his belief teaches that it is a meritorious and God-pleasing action for three to take meals together and for ten to pray together—he is excluded from the society of his countrymen and is condemned to a tragic isolation. One complains of Jews intruding everywhere, but they only strive after superiority because they are denied equality. They are accused of a feeling of solidarity with the Jews of the whole world’ whereas, on the contrary, it is their misfortune that as soon as the first loving word of emancipation had been uttered, they tried to pluck from their hearts all Jewish solidarity up to the last trace. Stunned by the hailstorm of anti-Semitic accusations, they forget who they are and often imagine themselves in reality the bodily and spiritual miscreants whom their deadly enemies represent them to be. Not rarely the Jew is heard murmur that he must learn from the enemy and try to remedy his feelings. He forgets, however, that the anti-Semitic accusations are valueless, because they are not based on criticism of real facts, but the effects of a psychological law according to which children, wild men and malevolent fools make persons and things against which they have an aversion responsible for their sufferings.

To Jewish distress no one can remain indifferent, neither Christian nor Jew. It is a great sin to let a race to whom even their worst enemies do not deny ability, degenerate in intellectual and physical distress. It is a sin against them and against the work of civilization, in the interest of which Jews have not been useless coworkers. “That Jewish distress cries for help. To find that help will be the great work of this Congress.”

Let us not forget that these words were spoken in 1897! What a warning they were and how true they sound today!