The Jewish Body, Part 5: The Warriors

Dr. Max Nordau, the apostle of muscle-Jewry, was also an avid Zionist and friend of Theodor Herzl, but they differed on how long it would take to get the Jews in shape for independence. As Herzl wrote in his diary … Read More

By / February 27, 2009

Dr. Max Nordau, the apostle of muscle-Jewry, was also an avid Zionist and friend of Theodor Herzl, but they differed on how long it would take to get the Jews in shape for independence. As Herzl wrote in his diary on November 19, 1895:

Nordau, it would seem, is completely won over to the cause. My talk with him concerns objections in the higher realms; "If the Jews are anthropologically fit for nationhood?-and the like.

Experience will tell.

Nordau thinks that the plan will need three hundred years for its realization.

I believe thirty–provided the idea makes headway.

Nordau seems to have thought that the Jewish body had to evolve in the Darwinian sense before they could be ready–something that would have taken a lot more than 300 years. Herzl’s diary entry on September 3, 1897, contained this boast: "If I were to sum up the [First Zionist] Congress in a word…I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it."

Exactly 50 years and 87 days later, on November 29, 1947, the UN partition vote created the Jewish state; Israel’s nationhood was proclaimed on May 14 the next year. It was not evolution, it was revolution, and it was in large part a revolution of the body.  

Between1904 and 1914 an estimated 40,000 Jews came to Israel. One, Aaron David Gordon, was a founder of the first kibbutz, Degania. Like many Zionists, he thought a major part of the Jewish "problem" was that Jews had an unhealthy alienation from physical labor on the soil. At his death in 1922, he was widely known in Israel as an old man with a long white beard who farmed in the fields of the kibbutz all day and led the young men and women in song and dance at night.

But all was not song, dance, and working the soil. Causes of death ranged from malaria through suicide; there were Arab attacks, and Jews in the older settlements had hired Bedouin and Arab guards – basically, a protection racket in which Jews paid Arabs not to attack them. In 1907 a group of ten Jews began to protect themselves, and their success led to an expanded multi-settlement organization called Ha-Shomer – the Guard. They dressed as Arabs and spoke Arabic well but slung bandoliers of bullets across their chests like Mexican revolutionaries. They were good horsemen, considered both fierce and fair by the Bedouin, and their motto said it all: "By blood and fire Judah fell, by blood and fire Judah will rise up."

The rest, like they say, is history. European Jewry was doomed, and the Zionists who had foreseen that doom took the helm of Jewish destiny. Six million Jewish bodies were crushed by the Nazi murder machine and millions more were permanently hurt in mind and body by the ravages of deliberately inflicted starvation, disease, beatings, loss, humiliation, and more. The Jewish body took on a new element in the form of a tattooed number on the arms of survivors, and this indelible mark on that body will not only outlive them, it will stand out forever in our collective memory as emblematic of what happens when Jews allow others to define their bodies.

Of the remnant, hundreds of thousands went to Israel and followed their Zionist predecessors into blood and fire. But Judah did rise up, and the martial courage and prowess of the new Israeli Jews stunned the world, friend and foe. For Jewish Americans, only a tiny fraction of whom joined those fights, the success of the new Jewish body in the uniform of the IDF would recreate the pride of the distant past.

In the tiny historical space of a single lifetime, Jews have experienced the greatest physical weakness and vulnerability in their long, often tragic history, both as a people and as individual bodies. After centuries of relying on mind, faith, and spirit, they discovered that no matter how good your mind is, bodily weakness is still dangerous. In the same single lifetime they have also experienced their greatest historical strength, giving the lie to millennial slanders about their physical fortitude and courage.

Strength is better.


Melvin Konner’s website is, See the videotrailer for his new book, The Jewish Body here: and listen to a podcast here:

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