On the evening of December 19, 1903, a Hanukkah ball in Paris was interrupted by gunshots, as a young man opened fire on Zionist luminary Max Nordau. Nordau was not hit by the bullets, although a bystander was grazed by a shot. As he took aim at the 54-year-old Nordau, the shooter, a 27-year-old student of Russian origin named Chaim Zelig Louban apparently shouted, “Death to Nordau, the East African.”
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At the time, the meaning of the cry was well understood: The Zionist movement was racked by a bitter controversy over Theodor Herzl’s recommendation that it consider a proposal by the British government to set up of a temporary national home in British East Africa, in what is today actually part of Kenya, though it has always been referred to as the “Uganda plan.”
The idea was raised at the Sixth Zionist Congress, held in Basel in August 1903, and, although it met with fierce opposition from many members, the Congress did vote to have an exploratory committee visit the proposed plot of land the following year. Particularly opposed to the idea was the delegation from Russia, whose members would not consider any alternative, even a temporary one, to a Jewish home in Palestine.
Nordau (1849-1923) was then the second-most important figure in the Zionist leadership. Born in Pest, Hungary, he had grown up in an Orthodox family, but by the time he was a young man, he had become completely assimilated. Nordau was trained as a physician, and worked as a journalist and as a social philosopher (and held some beliefs that could be considered bizarre today: He was, for example, a supporter of eugenics). Like Herzl, he was largely converted to the Zionist cause after witnessing the Dreyfus Affair first-hand in Paris, where he lived beginning in 1880.
Out of loyalty to Herzl, Nordau had supported the idea of sending a team to visit Africa when it was raised at the Zionist Congress – he referred to Africa as a “nachtasyl” (night shelter, in German), or temporary refuge -- but he was never truly in favor of the Uganda alternative, nor did he expect it to come to pass.
The day after the shooting, Nordau wrote to Herzl, with not a small amount of self-pity: “Yesterday evening I got an installment on the debt of gratitude which the Jewish people owes me for my selfless labors on its behalf. I say this without bitterness, only in sorrow. How unhappy is our people, to be able to produce such deeds."
Chaim Louban, who was apprehended at the scene of the crime, initially confessed to the attempt to kill Nordau, describing himself as a “revolutionary” who had been sent to carry out the task by his comrades in Bern, Switzerland. Within days, however, according to newspaper accounts from the time, he declared that he had never meant to hit Nordau and had only fired in the air. The bullet that hit another guest did so only after ricocheting, he said, a claim that was reportedly confirmed by the unfortunate bystander.
Following Herzl’s death, in July 1904, Nordau was offered the leadership of the Zionist Organization, but turned it down, and gradually became less active in the movement. He died on January 23, 1923, in Paris.