Eitan Bar-Yosef,"From Zionist Utopia to Imperial Metropolis:
Geographies of Ideology", Guest Writer: Zia Miric

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A kosher provisions shop at 183 Brick Lane in East London (1910)
[On February 20, 2012, the Unit for Criticism co-organized a workshop with the Program in Jewish Culture and Society, “New Cities for New Jews: Zionist Utopia, Fantasy and the Modern Ur Landscape,” led by Eitan Bar-Yosef (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev). The below contribution is from Zia Miric.]

"From Zionist Utopia to Imperial Metropolis: Geographies of Ideology"

Written by Zia Miric (English)

“I say to you, therefore, that you must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance, love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion!” With these words, Mr. Steineck, the architect of the “Prosperous Land” for the New Society in Palestine, closed his improvised electoral speech in the unruly moshav of Neudorf. While this fictional character (based on the Viennese architect Oskar Marmorek) could not win the election without reinforcement from “one of the people,” David Littwak (modelled on David Wolffsohn, Herzl’s successor as President of the World Zionist Organization), he did express the ethos of the cosmopolitan nation-state from Theodor Herzl’s dream. By mediation of Anglo-German science and technology, modern liberal culture was transplanted into Mediterranean geography, yielding an exemplary progressive and open society.

It is in the context of this kind of fin-de-siècle European culture that Eitan Bar-Yosef probes the Zionist urban imaginary in Theodor Herzl’s Old-New Land (1902) and Violet Guttenberg’s A Modern Exodus (1904). In conversation with Max Nordau’s critique of a supposedly degenerative modern culture, Herzl devised the New Society as the recipe for rebuilding the Jewish body and character and as a blueprint for the "New Jew’s" urban environment. Bar-Yosef focuses critical insight on Haifa figured as a dazzlingly successful model city in Herzl’s Zionist utopia, whereas in Guttenberg’s narrative it dismally fails to “correct” the Jewish character. Bar-Yosef posits the intriguing link between Zionism and the city in the utopian genre’s modelling of Bildung understood as the improvement of the Jewish body and mind.

As Bar-Yosef’s research shows, the idea of the Jewish city, grounded in geography, genealogy and ideology, was articulated in the divergent but curiously congruent projects of Herzl’s Haifa and Guttenberg’s anti-Zionist dystopia. In Old-New Land, the cosmopolitan city reforms Jewish character because it is the perfect habitation for a “New Jew” who is stripped of Jewish traits. Bar-Yosef emphasizes two striking features of Herzlian urban fantasy: first, the prominence of department stores (to remove the threat of the vulgar peddler); and second, the absence of apartment buildings and coffee houses (to secure neat separation between public and private realms). That the urban landscape of Herzl’s futuristic city facilitates orderly, policed suppression of “undesirable” Jewish characteristics demonstrates one of Bar-Yosef’s key points. Herzl had so deeply internalized anti-semitic stereotypes that his idea of a Zionist utopia was city designed to eradicate the Jewish lifestyles of Diaspora communities.

Whereas Herzl’s urban utopia resembles other late-Victorian and Edwardian projects, Violet Guttenberg’s narrative grows out of a body of sensational, melodramatic novels penned in the 1890s and 1900s that obsessively reimagined George Eliot’s Zionist plot, though more in the spirit of what Daniel Deronda’s creator disparaged as “silly lady novelists.” Notwithstanding the coincidence of both authors choosing to portray Haifa as the epitome of the modern Zionist city, the two works are strikingly dissimilar. Guttenberg’s dystopia responds to British developments such as the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration in 1902, which led to the Aliens Act in 1905, restricting the immigration and naturalization of “pauper aliens,” namely the masses of impoverished Eastern European Jews fleeing from pogroms and revolutionary disorder.

In Guttenberg’s Zionist universe, the messy urban space reflects the messy “Jewish” character, with the blurring of private and public spheres, and embarrassing religious and ethno-nationalist bigotry. Accordingly, Bar-Yosef points out that while Herzl and Guttenberg offer comparable constructions of “Jewish” character, only Herzl imagines a utopian city that can “correct” it. This difference is emblematized in the contrast between Herzl’s depiction of Littwak’s picturesque mansion Friedrichsheim and Guttenberg’s rendering of Montella’s semi-finished house, with its Christian mistress banished because of supposed Jewish intolerance. Guttenberg eventually converted to Christianity and though little is known about her she was the author of many conversionist fictions. Still, Bar-Yosef underlines, it was Guttenberg who got right the complex reality of the “Jewish” city, including hostile attitudes toward various Others. Likewise, the messiness that Herzl aimed to downplay erupts with a vengeance in Guttenberg’s Haifa: lack of regulation and coherence in urban landscape combines with greedy and petty tendencies to result in carnivalesque excess.

Bar-Yosef’s comparison of these two utopian fictions led me to want to explore what kind of social contract Herzl and Guttenberg imagined for citizens who successfully assimilate to Western standards whether it be in Palestine’s new society, or in revitalized Britain. This question loomed large in the lively discussion by the participants in the workshop who raised the possibility that Guttenberg’s novel actually advocates a place for Jews in the West (with key characters in her novel returning to London after their failed Zionist journey). In the largest sense both of these novels seem to be contemplating the question of Jews’ place in modernity, whether as assimilated citizens in modern nations like Britain, or as de-Judaized citizens of their own modern nation-state.

Near the end of Bar-Yosef’s paper, he shows how both Guttenberg and Herzl adopt the fashionable discourse of “desirable dosage” of Jewishness in modern Europe, as featured famously in George Du Maurier’s
Trilby. One thread of discussion pondered the internal (Anglo-Saxon) racial question of blood, as it featured in the writings of prominent Victorians such as Benjamin Disraeli, Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot, leading all the way to Violet Guttenberg. British politicians and intellectuals were concerned with the nature of England’s racial composition and the aristocracy’s leadership capacity, variously drawing on Jewish/Semitic/”aristocratic” Sephardic mystique for revitalization. Combining race science and eugenic discourses with geographic and cultural determinism, late-Victorian and early-Edwardian writers were ready to authorize hygienic interventions and municipal reforms in order to shape modern cities that would counter degeneration. One possible intertext for Herzl, it was suggested, would be H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905), which explores volunteerism and freedom in a planned society, establishing intriguing parallels with Old-New Land’s utopian project of urban redesign of the Jewish body.

Carmel and Haifa taken by the American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Dept. in the 1920s.
Haifa in the
Old-New Land is an international Mediterranean city, imprinted by Western technology, culture, and politics. And yet, when the lawyer Dr. Walter undertakes to explain “the effects of the Jewish mass migration upon the Jews who had remained in Europe,”(pg. 178) he enthusiastically emphasizes that “the less Jewish abilities were offered in the marketplace, the more their value was appreciated. The value of services always increased with their scarcity”—recalling the discourse of a “desirable dosage” of Jewishness which is neither too much nor too little. Guttenberg’s narrative dénouement reaffirms this conclusion: London, as the true city of the future, is revived upon the return of acculturated British Jews who were earlier expelled. Only the shtetl rabble remain back in Palestine, where they are unlikely to transform Haifa into a utopia. Hence, in Guttenberg’s utopian London, there is no place for Yosef Haim Brenner’s multitudes calling out of the depths of distress.


Make A Comment