“I Shall Be Better for Having Known You”: Feminism, Zionism and Daniel Deronda

This article originally appeared in Moment Magazine.

George Eliot (Alexandre-Louis-Francois d’Albert-Durade, 1849)

Proud Zionists and feminists have understandably been incensed by recent remarks about the incompatibility of the two principles. What about believing in the Jewish right to live in its national homeland is at odds with caring about the rights of women? And yet, the tension here has deeper roots than present debates. Indeed, the discourse of universal human rights that is characteristic of the feminist movement has never led to an embrace of a vigorous nationalism as an inevitable matter. Further, Zionism in particular is in many respects an outgrowth of Judaism, which is not an egalitarian religion, at least not as traditionally practiced. There may also be a question of allegiances: Could membership in a universal sisterhood potentially conflict with a more particularistic nationalist association?

Nearly 150 years ago, these two impulses found themselves curiously juxtaposed in the Victorian novel Daniel DerondaDaniel Deronda is the final novel of the famed writer George Eliot (née Mary Anne Evans). Generally speaking, Eliot was acutely sensitive to the way in which her society constricted and limited opportunities for her female heroines. Even within Eliot’s oeuvre, Daniel Deronda stands out for its strong women who rebel against their circumstances in ways that both succeed and fail. Not every woman in Daniel Deronda achieves a perfect feminist outcome—in fact, none of them do. Yet Eliot opens up a familiar line of argument about gender and injustice that is still being debated today.

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