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Texts Concerning Zionism: Address by Max Nordau at the Sixth Zionist Congress

(August 24, 1903)

You will pardon me if I trouble you at the outset with a few personal observations. My name has been placed in error on the Orders of the Day. I came to Basle with the firm intention of only speaking if, in con-sequence of the trend of any discussion, I regarded it as my bounden duty, as the representative of numerous constituent groups, to place my views before you. Should this necessity not have arisen I wished to remain in my seat a silent listener, voting on occasion with the rank and file. I find critics in recent years have represented me as imagining myself to be a sort of tenor of the Congress, whose role it is to come and sing a few heroic notes, receive applause and then to gracefully retire. I was resolved to avoid even the appearance of this so just and disinterested a representation of my activity at the Congress. I am conscious of never having indulged here in idle oratory, though I can imagine that a realistic survey of the past and present of the Jewish people might appear purely academic to one who failed to realise that we had to begin our Argonaut journey by taking our bearings. This indispensable item of navigation is now accomplished. Henceforth we must engage in steering a straight course. Less than ever may this Congress become an academic assembly. Mere rhetoric, art for art's sake, has here no place. Here only sober, calmly intelligent business speeches may be delivered. For such a one I ask your indulgence.

Our President communicated to us yesterday two facts, which spread a hitherto unfamiliar light across our path. He conveyed to us the intelligence that the British Government is prepared to grant a concession of land to the Jewish people, not in the form in which such concessions are usually granted, not for the purpose of financial speculation and commercial exploitation, but with the authoritative expression of the wish of the British Government to evince its sympathy for the Jewish people and to help it in its endeavours to help itself. The Chairman further stated that the Russian Government had given him officially to understand that Russia was disposed to further our efforts for the settlement of Palestine.

That is then the diplomatic situation with which the Zionist movement is confronted. Four Powers, including the greatest that hold sway over the globe, have expressed themselves as favourably disposed, if not to the Jewish people, at any rate to the Zionist movement. His Majesty the German Emperor expressed his sympathy with our movement at its inception. The British Government is prepared to evince its sympathy in a very substantial and practical manner -- in the form of a grant of land. The Russian Government has declared its willingness to further our plans so far as they comprise the Jewish settlement of Palestine. The United States of North America has recently taken two diplomatic steps which justify the hope that when the time comes we shall not have to turn to them for sympathy in vain.

The fourth item of the Basle programme, on the granite composition of which the snarlers and back-biters will break their teeth, speaks in its necessary and deliberate terseness, which admits of no broad examination of details nor any expansion of its laconically expressed idea -- it speaks, I repeat, of the "steps for obtaining the assent of the Governments which are necessary for Zionism to achieve its end." This sentence has always had the good fortune of being regarded by every opponent of Zionism as a thorn in the side. Round this sentence the wit of our opponents has played the most. "This assent of the Governments," we were ironically told again and again, "you will never, never obtain. The Sultan will and can never grant you Palestine, for even if he were disposed to do so -- which will never be the case -- he would encounter the opposition of Russia, and on your sweet behalf the Sultan will not pick a quarrel with his most powerful neighbour. Russia will never allow the ground which has been trodden by the founder of the Christian religion ever to become Jewish." Our critics have once more tested the correctness and wisdom of the English saying "Never prophesy unless you know."

Russia, whom we were told to recognise and fear as the insurmountable obstacle in our path, Russia declares in a friendly way that it has absolutely no objection to the occupation of Palestinian soil by Jews. II

And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, cast your eye back upon the path which Zionism, after something less than seven years' existence, has covered in its present form. After barely a year's activity it called this Congress into being; a body to which none, but a few crazy Jewish opponents, denies the quality of legitimately representing the Jewish people.

All serious people recognise that we are the executive and deliberate representatives of the Jewish people. Since the first achievement, to which I have just referred, six years have elapsed. In these six years apart from everything else we have done one thing attracted in all possible ways the attention of the world to the Jewish question. Contemporaries do not often take account of the historical significance of events that take place before their own eyes. Posterity is usually juster; it is in a position to be so since it regards human affairs from a higher perspective, from a broader standpoint. Posterity will know how to appreciate the fact I have just mentioned. For until the rise of Zionism the non-Jewish world was assured by the persons, who till then had alone been recognised as the official representatives of Jewry, that there was no Jewish question, that the Jews were happy and contented. It had become, particularly in the last decades, since the emancipation of the Jews in the West, a fixed tradition of official Jewry to put on a pleasant face whenever it came into contact with non-Jews. The position of our celebrated "great Jew" has always been that he is eternally rubbing his hands, if he has not stuck them in the arm-holes of his waistcoat, or put them in his pocket to pay contributions to public -- generally anti-Jewish -- funds or institutions.

Whenever a Minister or Ruler on a journey or on solemn occasions received the official representatives of Jewry, the burden of the song was always: "We are happy under your Government, or under your administration, we are deeply grateful for the gracious protection which you grant us; we shall humbly endeavour to continue to deserve your grace and favour.

We cannot blame the Governments if with a parade of good faith they amazedly reply to the Jews who now complain, "What, you are not contented? You are complaining? That is something new! Your recognised representatives have always assured us of the contrary." I claim it as a great service rendered by Zionism that it has put an end to the humbug about being happy and contented, and to the comedy of gratitude. From the very beginning we boldly and distinctly said, "We are not contented; we regard our situation as a very bad one; we consider our treatment as discreditable and undeserved; we regard a fundamental change in our situation as a vital necessity; after the humiliating attempts we have made at assimilation with other peoples we have taken counsel with ourselves and we desire to live in our own way, in our own right, on our own soil." We have, I repeat, placed our wishes in all kinds of ways before the world, we have spoken to the nations as a people suffering from a wrong and demanding justice, wt have gone to the Governments. That, I repeat, may appear a small matter to contemporary observers; as a matter of fact it is a turning-point in the history of the Jewish people.

We have asked. Since the world began there have ever been but two methods of obtaining anything. These two methods may be succinctly stated in the words: Take it or ask for it.

We are neither in a position nor desire to take anything so we are thrown back upon the second method, that of asking. It is strange, but literally true, that before the rise of Zionism we absolutely did not ask. Among ourselves we heaved deep sighs, expressed longing desires in prose and verse, pressed each other's hands with significant looks, but we have never stood before the Powers, and in an unequivocal form openly and distinctly stated what we wanted. We can neither reproach ourselves nor others on that account. The Jewish people was in a state of chaos; it was unorganised; it was a human swarm; it did not even know itself what it wanted; it had no representatives competent to speak in its name; and as it did not know itself what it wanted, it was only natural that the Governments remained in ignorance. To have altered all that appears little, but in reality it is very much. We had asked! We had asked that Palestine should be open to our occupation. III In more than one official quarter we received a reply, couched perhaps in polite terms, something to the following effect: "You are discontented and you wish to change your quarters. We congratulate you on this resolve which testifies to your self-respect and to your energy. But no Government machinery need be put in motion. We place not the slightest obstacle in the way of your emigration, and even give you our best wishes for a pleasant journey." Perhaps for the first time in our lives we did not require to possess a sense of humour but were forced to reply with imperturbable, respectful seriousness: Pardon, it does not suffice to open your doors when the other doors are bolted. You permit our going out, but nobody allows our coming in. As we cannot believe you are playing with the lives of a nation of twelve million souls, we ask you not to stop at the permission to emigrate but to secure an entry in the land which we have in view as our goal.

Not from those to whom we appealed, not from official quarters, but from the numerous amateur diplomats with which the ranks of our opponents swarm, did we get the mocking reply, "What on earth do you imagine is going to happen? Do you expect the Powers are going to say to the Sultan: Now, then, just you give Palestine to the Jews or you'll have us to reckon with!"? To this we reply with a seriousness which the objection hardly deserves: "That has never been our idea nor our desire. The sovereign rights and the dignity of the Sultan shall never be infringed. The day on which we enter a Turkish Province shall for all time be a great and happy day in the history of the Ottoman Empire. All that we desire is to be placed by the Great Powers into official communication with the Sultan so that, after comprehensive discussion with His Majesty, in the course of which we confidently expect to convince him that an agreement with us would be to his advantage, at the final conference the Great Powers would be represented as participants, witnesses and guarantors. If it became apparent that it was impossible to come to an agreement with His Majesty the Sultan, if his unbending will shut us out of Palestine, then, still solemnly asserting our undying historical claims to the land of our fathers, firmly and resolutely adhering to the Basle programme, we should have to be patient and wait. We can afford to wait.

Make no mistake. We cannot afford to wait if we abandon ourselves to despair of our future, if we lay down our arms in abject surrender; for then we should rush at terrific speed to a most horrible downfall. But if we once again summon up courage, resolve to continue to live as a nation, have a clear and settled purpose, then once more shall we be the "everlasting people," am olam, and nothing nor anybody will be able to do us the least bit of harm. Then we shall wait patiently till better circumstances present themselves, and continue to renew, when the time comes, deliberately and with imperturbable tenacity -- which our enemies, if they please, can call by another uglier name -- our demands, till a situation arises in the politics of the world which will cause the Powers to deem it desirable to give us a hearing.

Sources: Essential Texts of Zionism