As a tribute to the influence on Zionist thought of the 19th century English novelist George Eliot, Israel honoured her legacy by naming streets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after her. Eliot — real name Mary Anne Evans — completed her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876. It’s not only seen as a masterpiece of Victorian literature, but also as an influential work that shaped early Zionist thought.
Unusual for its time, the novel includes a character by the name of Mordechai Cohen and follows his journey of self-discovery as well as his deepening relationship with the Jewish community. A major part of the book is dedicated to delving into Jewish culture, identity and dreams of establishing a national homeland. The character Cohen articulates the need for a renewed Jewish nationhood, while introducing Victorian Britain to Zionist ideas and eliciting sympathy for the cause.
Eliot popularised Zionist thought long before Theodor Herzl's The Jewish State and the First Zionist Congress in 1897. Mordechai Cohen's dream of a "great migration" back to a Jewish homeland mirrored sentiments that would gather momentum in the coming decades. While a work of fiction, Daniel Deronda resonated with sentiments of some within the Jewish diaspora. Its themes inspired early Zionist thinkers and leaders, while providing literary validation for the shared vision of a Jewish homeland.
Evans/Eliot, of course, did not produce these ideas and write in a vacuum. The Victorian era was one of expansive British imperialism, as the empire stretched its influence across continents. This imperial mindset was not confined to politics and military endeavours alone; it permeated the cultural space, finding its way into Victorian literature. Novels and books from this period offer insights into the racialised attitudes and prejudices of the British towards various colonised regions and peoples, including Palestine and its Arab inhabitants.
Novels portray the British Empire's self-image as the civilising force in the world, bearing what Rudyard Kipling termed the "White Man's Burden" to govern and "uplift" non-Europeans. British characters are often depicted as superior, contrasting with the perceived primitive or exotic nature of colonised peoples.
With its rich Biblical history, Palestine held a unique place in the Victorian imagination as the Holy Land. However, this romantic view often overlooked the actual inhabitants of the region. Arabs were stereotyped frequently as backward, lazy or deceitful, tropes that can be traced back to earlier European travel narratives but were solidified during the Victorian period. These stereotypes and racist attitudes were reproduced in novels such as Daniel Deronda.
Eliot is one of several writers featured by the famed Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani in his book On Zionist Literature. It was translated into English for the first-time last year after its publication in Arabic in 1967. The book contains a new preface by Anni Kanafani and an introduction by Steven Salaita. Introducing readers to Kanafani, the American scholar stresses the value of the enormous task undertaken in On Zionist Literature. According to Salaita, “Zionism’s crude political goals could not achieve dominion of the Western imagination without the dexterity of literature and other creative media.” Zionist leaders “mined the past in order to create a viable pretext for settling the Levant.” Although by and large they turned to the Bible for source material, Salaita credits Kanafani for showing that much of the “labour of invention” had occurred through novels and cultural artefacts which were conscripted to the service of Zionism.
The Zionist narrative… served to rationalise away the suffering inflicted on the indigenous Palestinian population
Kanafani seeks to uncover the history and genealogy of the narrative and ideological framework that not only enabled the rise of Zionism, but also helped justify the immense violence and displacement caused by the settler-colonial project when establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Delving into the writing of the likes of Eliot, Benjamin Disraeli and others, Kanafani explores the development of the Zionist narrative, analysing how it served to rationalise away the suffering inflicted on the indigenous Palestinian population in the pursuit of Jewish settlement and statehood.
Stating that “the Zionist movement used the weapons of literature in a manner only matched by its use of politics,” Kanafani peels back the layers of mythmaking to expose how the Zionist narrative emerged and evolved to sanitise the crimes perpetrated in the founding of Israel. For Kanafani, “Zionist literature was a crucial and indivisible part of the movement, which political Zionism employed extensively not only for its propaganda efforts, but also for its political and military campaign.”
Fabricating an ancestral connection between European Jews and the Biblical homeland
Kanafani contends that the Zionist project relied on inventing an ethnic basis for Jewish claims to Palestine by fabricating an ancestral connection between European Jews and the Biblical homeland. He traces this carefully constructed lineage of Zionism through characters in popular works such as Disraeli's 1833 novel The Wondrous Tale of Alroy. This book depicts the exploits of a medieval Jewish prince named Alroy who receives a prophetic vision inspiring him to revolt against oppressors and reclaim the Jewish kingdom in Jerusalem. While fictional, Alroy's messianic dream of Jewish restoration foreshadowed the nationalist visions of later Zionism.
Central to Kanafani’s project in On Zionist Literature is the examination of his belief that the “Jewish Question”, as it presented itself in Europe, could have been addressed through more humanistic and universal means. Zionism opted instead for a “solution in favour of racism and chauvinism.” The anti-Semitic trope of “the Wandering Jew” popularised in novels reinforced the belief that the doomed status of Jews will only end by settling in Palestine. The legend evolved into a symbolic metaphor for the precarious, outcast state of Jews in the European diaspora.
Zionist thinkers inverted this anti-Semitic myth to argue that Jewish persecution could only be cured through Jewish nationalist rebirth in Palestine. By the late 19th century, the figure of the eternally wandering Jew became a pivotal trope in Zionist discourse, deployed to justify the colonisation of Palestine as the only solution to centuries of homelessness. Theodor Herzl invoked the myth repeatedly to highlight Jewish exile as an unnatural curse only resolvable through Jewish statehood. This re-conceptualisation illustrates Zionism's appropriation of anti-Semitic mythology to advance its ideological claims to Palestine.
Despite the anti-Semitic nature of many of these ideas, embedding such views about Jews in popular culture was a necessary pre-condition for Zionist thinkers to be able to plot their political project through works such as Herzl’s influential 1902 utopian novel The Old New Land. Herzl, who is seen as the father of modern political Zionism, paints an imaginary picture of a future Palestine transformed into an idyllic socialist paradise by Zionist mass settlement, complete with egalitarian kibbutzim, modern technology and economic prosperity. He depicts Zionism as the fulfilment of historical destiny and moral duty rather than simply a colonial project.
For Kanafani, the long legacy of racism and the politicisation of literature in the service of Zionist propaganda reached a crescendo in 1958 through Exodus by Leon Uris. A major international bestseller, the book is centred on the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. It depicts the story of a ship called SS Exodus which tries to take Jewish Holocaust survivors to British-controlled Palestine following World War Two. The novel portrays the Zionist paramilitary group Haganah in heroic terms as it battles the British authorities and Arab forces to establish Israel. The Arab and Palestinian characters are largely depicted in an Orientalist and racist manner. Arabs are portrayed as backward, bloodthirsty and irrational obstacles in the way of the noble Zionist project.
Although Kanafani could be accused of overstating his case, On Zionist Literature is extremely valuable for readers to understand how literature and art were effectively "weaponised" to justify Zionism's ideological pretensions and the erasure of Palestinian history. Half a century after his assassination, Kanafani's critique stands as a powerful challenge to still-prevalent Zionist myths.