Nietzsche: A Misreading

Reviewed by Werner J. Dannhauser

Nietzsche and Zion
by Jacob Golomb
Cornell, 2004, 274 pages.

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n modern Europe, Jews excelled at being the purveyors, explicators, and popularizers of the intellectual products of the countries in which they lived. This was especially true of Germany, so that Arnaldo Momigliano could joke that the Jews invented Goethe. Even today, no mastery of Kant, Hegel, Heine, Marx, or Heidegger is likely without taking into account works by Jews on these luminaries.
And Nietzsche? Suffice it to mention Georg Brandes (1842-1927), an eminent Danish literary critic who late in the 1880s lectured on Nietzsche in Copenhagen and was instrumental in spreading the latter’s fame. Though Nietzsche was aware of the fact that his promoter was a Jew, not many knew that Brandes was born with the name Morris Kohen. This is one of the intriguing facts one learns from Jacob Golomb’s intriguing Nietzsche and Zion. Similarly, one discovers that the young Martin Buber set about translating Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra into Polish and actually completed a rendering of part I; that some of the founders of Zionism referred to Nietzsche as their “rabbi”; that Micha Josef Berdichevski visited Nietzsche’s notorious sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche; and much more.
I do not mean to suggest that Nietzsche and Zion is mainly of use to those who enjoy playing a Jewish history version of Trivial Pursuit. Golomb takes on an important subject that deserves much more attention than it has received. His book is more than a discussion of Nietzsche’s reception among Jews and an example of Jewish skill in “spreading the word about Nietzsche”; it seeks to shed light on the important topic of Nietzsche’s influence on the early Zionists by assessing his impact on Ahad Ha’am, Berdichevski, Buber, Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, and Hillel Zeitlin. It is of special usefulness in that it rectifies some of the relative neglect by historians of fascinating figures like Berdichevski who have been unfairly overshadowed by the three titans: Herzl, Nordau, and Ahad Ha’am.
Golomb is imbued, moreover, with the salutary ambition to write more than a simple cultural history. He calls for nothing short of a revision of the current historiography of the Zionist movement. The latter, he insists, must be viewed less as an attempt to provide a national home for Jews, and more as the cultivation of a new Jewish identity:
The prevalent accounts of Zionism emphasize the national and social objectives of Zionism, that is, the establishment of a Jewish egalitarian society in Palestine. Thus they tend to overlook some of Zionism’s more implicitly ideological aspirations: for example, the attempt to foster a new image of an authentic Jew.
Golomb similarly seeks to reclaim Zionism from “the so-called New Historians of post-modern bent” who threaten to drown Zionist dreams in a Palestinian narrative.

Werner J. Dannhauser has taught political science at Cornell and Michigan State, and is the author of
Nietzsche’s View of Socrates (Cornell, 1974).

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