On August 25, 1900, the man who famously declared the death of God died. As the body of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was laid into its grave three days later, one of the mourners declared that one day the world would consider Nietzsche’s name sacred. He spoke more from bereavement than wisdom: Nietzsche himself had written that he was afraid people might one day make him holy.

When I asked Israel Eldad to sign his translation of one of the philosopher’s books, Eldad, the extremely ideological former commander of Lehi, surprisingly quoted from Nietzsche: “If you want to follow me, be loyal to yourselves.”

Vladimir Jabotinsky, supreme commander of the Irgun in the 1930s, urged his followers to carry but “one flag” – that of Zionism. Yet he wrote that he himself refused to be branded or categorized but preferred to think freely as a Nietzschean “superman” would.

Conferences have been held in Jerusalem devoted to Nietzsche’s metaphysics, epistemology, science, and theory of this or of that. But arguably, Nietzsche’s greatest influence was his character.

Nietzsche’s most famous book is Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book in four parts, each of which was published separately between 1883 and 1885. One thousand copies of the first three were printed.

The first part sold 85 copies; the second, 93; the third, 63. Nietzsche couldn’t find a publisher for the fourth and printed 45 copies himself; he only distributed 10.

Nonetheless, he wrote to one of these 10 recipients that writing the book justified his having lived, and then he wrote several more masterpieces. Was it this sureness of one’s destiny, and this commitment to one’s truth, that stirred Eldad and Jabotinsky?

Ironically, the question of Nietzsche’s character has distanced him from some Jews and Zionists. When I lecture in Israel about Nietzsche, I am most frequently asked: “But wasn’t he an anti-Semite?” An understandable question, since German soldiers carried his books in World War I and the Nazis quoted him. Still, it is unfair to judge a man by those who quoted and misquoted him decades after he died.

Here is what Nietzsche had to say about the Germans: “They are my enemies, these Germans... They have twisted and tangled everything they touched.” He called German hatred of Jews, Poles and French a “stupidity” and said anti-Semites should be expelled from the country, that they try to excite blockheads and one should “associate with no man who takes part in the mendacious race swindle.”

Nietzsche wrote quite a bit about the Jews. He blamed the Jews for giving birth to Christianity, whose morality praising weakness he opposed. But he wrote that the Jews themselves have a history of great passions, virtues, decisions, struggles and victories that flow into great men and deeds; at some point Israel will turn into a blessing for Europe and the Jewish God will then rejoice in himself, in his creation and in his people – “and let us all, all of us, rejoice with him.”

Perhaps this rejection of German nationalism, the repeated condemnations of anti-Semitism in his writings – and his public break with composer Richard Wagner, partly because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism – and his objective praise and, elsewhere, critique of Judaism – stirred something in the souls of Eldad, Jabotinsky and other Zionists? Or did they share Nietzsche’s distaste for weakness, and want to, in his words, “revalue all values”; in their case, to leave post-Christian, Exilic Judaism and return “home”?

In the 1940s, Eldad was imprisoned in Jerusalem. He took the trouble to smuggle out an article he wrote for his underground paper about Nietzsche. The article ended with a call to Jewish youth to see things as clearly as Nietzsche had, from the mountaintops; Jews prefer to live in cities and on flat ground, but the time had come to aspire to the heights of mountains.

In the 1950s Eldad wrote that Israel’s two great mountains, Sinai and Moriah, were both outside the borders of the state but should inspire Israelis with longing. It is not surprising that Jabotinsky wrote a song while he was in jail in 1920, ending with the refrain: “Ours, ours, the crown of Mount Hermon will be ours.”

In these days when protesters call for handouts, when army veterans travel far east for inspiration, when leaders offer no vision and so many of them try to inspire only hatred or jealousy of other segments of the population, I think of how different things would be if Eldad’s call were heeded by more Israelis.

We might learn how to write books not because the government guarantees a commission but because we want to justify having lived.

We might ascend to the mountains of Israel, breathe the air of freedom, and seek to become great men of great deeds by channeling the great Jewish passions and struggles of the past into our lives.

The writer directs the Public Policy Center at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies and is the author of God, Man and Nietzsche.

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