Leo Baeck 1


Feb 2003 Journal

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Two admirable blue stockings (editorial)

Exactly 100 years ago a plaque was affixed to the plinth of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island. The inscription read:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The promise contained in these stirring lines by Emma Lazarus was, alas, only temporary. In 1924 the US Congress ended unrestricted immigration, abruptly terminating the greatest Jewish population movement in history. It had started in 1881 when the Tsarist regime responded to the assassination of Alexander with a series of pogroms.

Within a year boatloads of fugitive Russian Jews arrived in the USA. Her encounter with them inspired the Sephardic Emma Lazarus, who had personally experienced neither poverty nor persecution, to write Songs of a Semite. In the composition of those poems she endeavoured to live up to her teacher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s precept ‘to show the celestial element in the despised present’ (i.e. in humdrum daily life). On completing the cycle Lazarus dedicated it to a fellow woman writer, who, she wrote, ‘did most among the artists of our day towards elevating and ennobling the spirit of Jewish nationality.’ This dedicatee was George Eliot.

Eliot seems unique among her literary contemporaries – both Continental European and English – in espousing the cause of the Jews. Dostoevsky showed antisemitic tendencies, as did Gustav Freytag, and, to a lesser extent, Balzac. Among English novelists the best-selling Charles Dickens had created the stereotypical Fagin figure (although he subsequently tried to make amends with his sympathetic portrayal of Riah, a minor character in Our Mutual Friend). The similarly prolific Anthony Trollope made the foreign financier Melmotte a monomaniac – though not unique – villain in The Way We Live Now.

Eliot had not always been a philosemite. Criticising Disraeli’s novels Conigsby and Tancred at the start of her literary career, she had written: ‘The fellowship of race to which Disraeli exultantly refers is an inferior impulse … Everything specifically Jewish is of a low grade.’ During the subsequent decades, when she immersed herself in philosophy and theology, travelled on the continent, fell under the spell of Heine, and suffered ostracism because of her unconventional lifestyle, her estimate of the Jews underwent a radical transformation.

And not only that. She hoped that Daniel Deronda (published in 1874) would ‘widen the English vision’. For her, the Jews’ preservation of their faith through centuries of dispersal and persecution was a model for the way the English might reaffirm their national consciousness.

But above all, of course, Daniel Deronda was a Zionist novel, and Eliot deserves to be called the greatest, if not the first, gentile Zionist. And, like most visionaries, she was – often wilfully – misunderstood. To Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father) Zionism was a scheme only one degree less chimerical than a plan for a gipsy nationality in Africa.

When Henry James was asked to review the novel, he found the task so onerous that he wrote his critique in the form of a debate between three readers. One of his alter egos said she was wearied by the Jewish burden of the story and felt tempted to skip chunks. Another dubbed Daniel Deronda ‘a dreadful prig’ and subjected him to primitive antisemitic jibes: ‘I am sure he had a nose and I hold that the author has shown great pusillanimity in her treatment of it. She has quite shirked it.’

The fact that Henry James felt impelled to inject this crude example of gutter antisemitism into his review shows the forces George Eliot was battling. She was fully aware of this, as shown by the title of one of the last essays she wrote: ‘The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!’ (the acronym for Hierusalema est perdita: Jerusalem is lost – the cry uttered during the Crusader pogroms).

Two centuries ago Wordsworth wrote: ‘Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour/England has need of thee.’ Today, when the air is filled with the din of new ‘Hep! Hep!’ cries from Peshawar to Finsbury Park, one would like to rewrite Wordsworth’s lines, substituting George Eliot for Milton, and Zion for England.

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