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Biography of Max Nordau

Biography of Max Nordau

Max Nordau  (July 29, 1849 - January 23, 1923, original name  Simon (Simcha) Maximilian Sudfeld ) was born in Pest, Hungary. His father was Gabriel Sudfeld, an orthodox rabbi and poet. He drifted away from his traditional Jewish upbringing, working as a journalist and then studying medicine, changing his name to Nordau. He went to Berlin in 1873, In 1880 he traveled to Paris and started a medical practice, but eventually turned to writing. Nordau's attacks on European art, society and politics made him controversial. In 1883 he wrote  "Conventional Lies of Society," attacking on irrationality, egotism and nihilism. In 1893 he published "Degeneration," which is viewed today as a Philistine critique of modern art and literature. He befriended Herzl, who was a newspaper  correspondent in Paris during this period. Like Herzl, he was deeply shocked by the wave of anti-Semitism attending the trial of Captain Dreyfus, and turned to Zionism as a solution. By the time of the first Zionist congress he had achieved some prominence as an author and philosopher, and his works had been translated into over 15 languages.

Nordau soon became Herzl's partner in the Zionist movement. It was he was credited with drafting the Basle program. At the first Zionist Congress, Nordau spoke immediately after Herzl. He gave an address surveying the condition of the Jewish people, which  became a tradition at later Zionist Congresses.

At the Sixth Zionist Congress, Nordau defended the plan to settle Jews in Uganda, arguing that it offered a temporary solution to the Jewish people's sufferings (see Max Nordau - Address to the Sixth Zionist Congress). He coined the term nachtasyl (night shelter) to describe the Uganda plan. After Herzl died, Nordau was offered the office of President of the World Zionist Organization. He declined, preferring instead to serve as advisor to David Wolffsohn. He opposed Practical Zionism, like Herzl, and  remained faithful to Herzl's l program of Political Zionism.

Nordau gradually distanced himself from the Zionist movement, but remained a Zionist. He last attended his Zionist Congress in 1911. Though he lived in Spain during the First World War, he tried to keep up contacts with the movement throughout that period. Weizmann tried to bring him back into the Zionist at the end of the War; but Nordau rejected the overtures, believing that the movement was a shadow of what Herzl had intended it to be.

In 1920, following the  Balfour Declaration-  Nordau attended a gathering of Zionists and British notables in England. There he embarrassed Chaim Weizmann and other British Zionists by making a frankly colonialist and utilitarian statement of Zionist aims. The Jews had helped Britain to acquire Palestine, and would help to guard the Suez Canal and British colonial interests, but the British must keep their part of the bargain and support massive Zionist settlement. He foresaw imminent catastrophe for the Jews of Europe, particularly in Germany, Hungary and Poland, and pleaded for immediate and massive immigration. He wanted to bring 500,000 Jews to Palestine immediately, but the resources of the Zionist organization were too meager to make such a plan practical, the Jews would not come, and the British would not allow rapid settlement of Palestine. He planned to immigrate to Palestine, but fell ill and died after a long illness in 1923. In 1926 his remains were brought to Tel Aviv.

Ami Isseroff

See also - Max Nordau - Address to the First Zionist Congress Max Nordau - Address to the Sixth Zionist Congress, 1905: Max Nordau - Zionism


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