The New Ghetto: Tackling Systemic and Epidemic Jew-Hatred– Before Dreyfus

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Jewish Journal   08.09.2022


The New Ghetto: Tackling Systemic and Epidemic Jew-Hatred– Before Dreyfus


Editor’s note: Excerpted from the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People edited by Gil Troy, to be published this August marking the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress. This is fourth in a series.  

After graduating as a lawyer, Herzl barely lasted a year as a low-level civil servant for the court, from August 1884 to August 1885. He continued writing plays and, at the age of twenty-five, even had a play, “Tabarin,” produced in New York. But to pay his bills Herzl eventually turned to journalism. This allowed him, as a man of the middle, to write about politics as an observer, to be involved but not too involved, while unleashing his literary spirit. Herzl mastered the art of the feuilleton, a choreographed, oh-so-clever, often romantic, literary essay newspaper subscribers loved. 


Herzl established himself in Vienna, marrying Julie Naschauer, the wealthy daughter of even more successful Hungarian Jews. Together, the couple would produce three troubled children and a terrible marriage. Less than a year after the birth of their first child, Pauline, in 1890, Herzl had already told his father-in-law he wanted a divorce. The birth of their first son, Hans, in 1891, kept the Herzls together formally – even as they kept drifting apart – and before Herzl strained his wife’s nerves and drained her dowry with his Zionist obsession.

That year, Herzl’s best friend Heinrich Kana killed himself. Kana was lost financially and professionally. In another indication of Herzl’s growing obsession with the Jewish Question, he characterized his dead friend as a poor Jew victimized by the Jew-hatred rich, materialistic Jews somewhat deservedly triggered. Kana’s death, like his sister Pauline’s, would haunt Herzl, who may have considered suicide and certainly had an emotional volatility his early hagiographers never acknowledged. 

Still mourning Heinrich, Herzl moved to Paris in October 1891, after a great professional breakthrough – being hired by the influential Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse as the Paris correspondent. In Paris, Jew-hatred would pursue him ever more aggressively, especially as he covered the Panama scandal which exposed a group of manipulative financiers, some of whom were Jews. 

Covering the duel between the antisemite Marquis de Morès and a Jewish army officer, Captain Armand Mayer, Herzl praised Mayer’s “noble demeanor and impeccable gallantry.” But the superior swordsman triumphed, killing the dignified Jew. As Herzl started writing about the growing Jew-hatred, he struggled with his peoplehood pride and the humiliations Jew-haters tried imposing. 

Until 1893, Herzl’s response to antisemitism was defensive. He cataloged the periodic hurts or turned them around, somehow identifying the strength, the dignity, within himself, his fellow Jews, or Judaism, while nevertheless internalizing the negative self-image. But Herzl started seeing Jew-hatred as more systemic – and epidemic. Jew-hating politicians and movements were emerging in France, Austria, and Germany. 

Herzl’s unhappy conclusion stirred the affirmative political activist within and the fanciful playwright too. When the Viennese Defense Association against Antisemitism, Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus, solicited some articles from him on the question, Herzl started brainstorming. Absorbing the contempt around him, he proposed that Jews fight duels to restore their honor – and disprove the stereotype Herzl himself swallowed that Jews possessed these “anti-social” characteristics and were weak, sniveling, unappealing. 

Thinking broadly, creatively, radically, Herzl proposed a mass conversion of the Jews: not in secret, or in “shame,” but as a “proud gesture,” at noon, in “broad daylight,” on a Sunday at Vienna’s massive St. Stephen’s Cathedral. While choreographing the ceremony, Herzl remained obsessed with his pride. Protecting himself by calling his proposal of mass surrender “half-banter, half-earnest,” Herzl wrote that he and his peers would remain “the steadfast men,” constituting “the last generation” of Jews. Their children, such as his uncircumcised son Hans, would be “made Christians … before they reached the age of independent decision, after which conversion looks like an act of cowardice or careerism.”

While toying with mass conversion, Herzl scoffed at the notion of a mass migration back to the Jewish homeland. Dismissing a contemporary production of Alexandre Dumas the Younger’s proto-Zionist play from 1873, “La Femme de Claude,” Herzl wrote that “the Jews have nothing to do anymore with the historic homeland … if the Jews were ever really to ‘return,’ they would discover the very next morning that they had long ago ceased to be one people. For centuries they have been rooted in diverse nationalities, different from one another, their similarities maintained only as a result of outside pressure.”

Although the “Jewish problem” was consuming more of Herzl’s energy, the Jewish state was not yet the solution. In 1894, in a 17-day burst of creativity, he wrote a play, “The New Ghetto,” based partially on Captain Armand Mayer’s demise by dueling. Surprisingly, this illuminating play has been long overlooked – and is appearing widely accessible to all, newly-translated into English, in the Library of the Jewish People for the first time.

In this sobering, compelling play, when the Captain Mayer character – named Jacob after Herzl’s father and one of the Jews’ forefathers – dies, he proclaims: “Jews, my brothers, you will only be allowed to live again — when you …” He does not say it, but it is hard not to fill in the phrase “learn to die.” Especially because Jacob then shouts with his dying breath: “I want – out! Out – out – out of the ghetto!” 

Looking back, Herzl would recall a conversation with the Czech sculptor Samuel Beer, who was making his bust. “Our conversation resulted in the insight that it does a Jew no good to become an artist and free himself from the taint of money. The curse still clings. We cannot get out of the ghetto. I became quite heated as I talked, and when I left, my excitement still glowed in me. With the swiftness of that dream involving a pitcher of water in the Arabian fairy tale, the outline of the play came into being.”

The play sank Herzl deeper into the ghetto of Jewish concerns. He hoped to “have written myself free of the [Jewish] matter. On the contrary, I got more and more deeply involved with it. The thought grew stronger in me that I must do something for the Jews.” 

Rather typically for Herzl at that moment, “The New Ghetto’s” Jewish characters were unappealing. The powerhouse playwright Arthur Schnitzler failed to convince his friend Herzl to lighten the portraits or add some attractive Jewish characters. A character in Schnitzler’s 1908 novel, “The Road to the Open,” would remark: “I myself have only succeeded up to the present in making the acquaintance of one genuine anti-Semite … it was a well-known Zionist leader.” 

“The New Ghetto”  also addresses some growing social issues. Jacob Samuel champions poor endangered miners by contrasting the noble Samuel with Samuel’s rich, grasping, wealthy brother-in-law. This twofer allows Herzl to work out his own status anxiety as an affluent burgher constantly riled by the super-rich.  And it allows Herzl to start critiquing, tinkering, demonstrating his utopian, social-justice-oriented vision.

In defining the new ghetto as a “moral ghetto,” Herzl introduced two themes that would dominate his thoughts. First, that Jew-hatred imprisoned even the most sophisticated Jews in a ghetto with invisible – but increasingly loud – walls. And second, that the “Ghetto Jews,” the wealthy, assimilated yet swivel-headed Jews who worried about what others thought and never supported him, remained imprisoned by the Jew-hatred from without, and the ancestral, unresolved, ghetto decadence still within.

Herzl’s vision was becoming clearer: more than a political movement, Zionism had to be a psychological jailbreak.

Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People,  co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.



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