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Jewish Social Studies 8.1 (2001) 126-152



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Rights of Man, Reasons of State:
Emile Zola and Theodor Herzl in Historical Perspective

Max Likin


Writing in the same city and wrestling with the same late nineteenth-century issues of nationalism and antisemitism, Emile Zola and Theodor Herzl provide examples of some of the most important public interventions in the European political scene at the dawn of the twentieth century. The work of both authors set into motion deep cultural and political reconfigurations in their respective French and Jewish constituencies. 1 Although the two figures emerged from different cultural backgrounds and intellectual traditions and belong today to two distinct national historiographies, they shared strikingly parallel trajectories, in their own lifetimes and posthumously. In the early stages of their careers, both men endorsed stock-in-trade antisemitic prejudices about Jewish physiognomy and morality, before reversing themselves in similar gestures of atonement. In later writings that artfully juxtaposed reality and fiction, Zola and Herzl presented themselves as the lonely tools of Progress, proclaiming an end to antisemitism, in the form of an imminent fusion of political equality, rule of law, and national prosperity. Both articulated powerfully the principles of government, asserting the intrinsic connection between the respect for laws and uncompromised happiness. 2 In the midst of nascent universal high culture, itself the product of an increasingly competitive environment, with growing restlessness in millions of urban readers, both authors fully exploited the newly established [End Page 126] power of mass-circulation broadsheets to their own ends. 3 In their frontal attacks on nineteenth-century particularisms, both sought to rehabilitate the eighteenth-century notion of inalienable rights as a model of morality by integrating it with the twentieth-century promise of national technological fulfillment. Each man gave the better part of himself to his cause célèbre. Both died untimely deaths--Zola in the fall of 1902 and Herzl in the summer of 1904--bequeathing to future generations "unfinished victories" against modern racism and age-old xenophobia.

Zola and Herzl in History and Memory

A century after their "sublime gestures"--fusing "authority, disinterestedness, courage, and effectiveness" and leading to "struggle or renewed struggle"--Zola and Herzl form an integral part of imagined communities in France and Israel. 4 As focal points of national commemoration, they have each in their turn been honored by mass funerals, by street signs and school names, by postcards and stamps, by exhibitions and ritual debates. 5 The tensions and contradictions of commemoration and historical interpretation have, in the case of each figure, been marked by unique national cultural dynamics.

As much as Zola and Herzl have been invoked to inspire the youthful enthusiasms of school children, the two have also served as controversial figureheads in the academic environments of France and Israel.6 To most French high school students, discovering his emblematic text J'Accuse in the Lagarde et Michard textbook, Zola is offered simply as the creator of a unique piece of writing, a presentation that avoids the complexities taken into account by Zola specialists who unfailingly place J'Accuse into the much wider intertextual web of cumulative writings on the Dreyfus Affair while situating Zola himself within an intricate network of artistic, intellectual, and political associations-- what French historical sociologists refer to as lieux-milieux-réseaux (sets, circles, networks). 7 Having provided what is perhaps the most important model for twentieth-century intellectuel engagés, these often-charged representations of Zola figure frequently in axiomatic debates at French universities over the role of intellectuals in society. 8

In Israel and the United States, Herzl has been situated within a pantheon of leading Zionist thinkers, many whose work Herzl was unfamiliar with when composing his own radical solution to the Jewish Question. 9 As a controversial "father figure," Herzl has been at times the object of both fierce attacks and moving eulogies from Ahad [End Page 127] Ha-am, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion. 10 In the case of Ben-Gurion, for instance, the iconographic portrait "Prophet of the Jewish...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2028
Print ISSN
0021-6704
Pages
pp. 126-152
Launched on MUSE
2001-11-01
Open Access
No
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