Jewish Emancipation

views updated


At the turn of the nineteenth century Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), asking rhetorically what the great task of the day was, stated: "It is emancipation. Not simply the emancipation of the Irish, the Greeks, Frankfort Jews, West Indian blacks, and all such oppressed peoples, but the emancipation of the whole world, and especially of Europe" (quoted in Sachar, p. 106). Heine may have conflated religious, ethnic, racial, geographic, and national distinctions. There was prescience, however, in his implication that the granting of equal rights to the Jews would be inextricably linked to the emancipation of oppressed groups, the socioeconomic transformation of Europe, and the emergence of newly created nation-states.

Jewish emancipation in western, central, and eastern Europe spanned more than one hundred years (France, 1791; Belgium, 1831; Great Britain, 1858; Italy, 1861; Austria-Hungary, 1867; Germany, 1871; Switzerland, 1874; Serbia and Bulgaria, 1878). The decrees and public debates of revolutionary and Napoleonic France consistently provided the paradigm for this often tortuous process.

By the end of the eighteenth century, except for the Iberian peninsula, Jews had returned to Europe west of the Russian Empire. Although subject to numerous and oppressive geographic and financial restrictions, which often confined them to cramped quarters and ghettos, to lending money and dealing in used clothing, and to a dress code designed to call attention to their status and identity, they were almost universally granted the privilege of juridical autonomy. They numbered 175,000 in Germany, 70,000 in the Austrian Empire, 100,000 in Hungary, 40,000 in France, 50,000 in Holland, and 25,000 in Great Britain.

By the end of the eighteenth century, among "enlightened" Jews and non-Jews, there had also evolved an image of the future in which everything pertaining to the Jews—their education, economic diversification, language, and civil status—was to be radically altered. Some, of course, challenged this image, arguing that it was predicated on a diminution of the Christian character of society and of the Jews' theological significance for Christianity. Others argued that the religion, traditions, and messianic expectations of the Jews made their integration neither possible nor desirable. Among the Jews as well there was much debate concerning the cost of their integration. Although welcoming an end to oppressive regulations that constrained their life, the rabbis and leadership struggled to retain the autonomy of their communities and the validity of Jewish tradition.

In 1782 Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II passed an Edict of Tolerance, which, along with other decrees specific to the Jews, denied them rabbincal jurisdiction, made them liable for military service, and permitted them to discard special emblems and dress; learn handicrafts, arts, and sciences; and enter universities and academics. In 1784 French king Louis XVI issued his Lettres Patentes, which denied the right of local authorities to expel Jews legitimately resident in Alsace, provided formal recognition of the authority of the lay leaders and rabbis, and modestly expended their range of economic activities. The motivations behind these decrees differed significantly. Joseph had in mind an ambitious overhaul of his empire, which included ensuring that all his subjects become equally productive regardless of religious opinions or influential status. Louis XVI was merely responding to an increasingly volatile situation in Alsace. Significantly for future events, they both gave voice to a contingency of toleration and fueled ambivalence.

Although the Jewish leadership, whose authority remained intact, generally reacted positively to the reforms in France, reaction to the far more radical reforms proposed by Joseph II was intense and heated. For some, primarily the maskilim (religious enlighteners), the edict represented the opportunity for Jews to embrace the educational and linguistic reforms of a "great man, a savior to mankind, an exalted emperor." For others, rabbis and traditionalists, the reforms challenged the primacy of Torah and threatened acculturation to the non-Jewish world.

Reforms, edicts, and enlightened despotism belonged to the ancien régime. By the summer of 1789, with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, France posed a new ideal of citizenship—democratic, noncorporatist, and inclusive. It was only a matter of months before the debates in the National Assembly focused on whether Jews, too, were to be included in the newly emerging state. "To call the Jews citizens," the Abbé Maury proclaimed, "would be as if one would say that, without letters of naturalization and without ceasing to be English and Danish, the English and Danes could become French" (Archives Parlementaires [Paris, 1878], vol. X, p. 757). While some deputies argued that the Jews should be excluded altogether, others suggested "tolerating" them or even giving them "hospitality," "protection," and "security." To this another deputy, Clermont-Tonnerre, countered with what would soon become the model for integration of the Jews as well as the leitmotif of future debate on the terms of their emancipation: "We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation. We must grant everything to them as individuals."

Although the revolutionaries welcomed non-Catholics as full members of the body politic in December 1789, they could resolve nothing concerning the Jews. As a result, the disparate communities of France—Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews) in the Southwest, Ashkenazim (eastern European Jews) in the Northeast, and a small and illegal community in Paris—were for the first time identified as one—if only in their exclusion. Within a month the acculturated Jews of Bordeaux and Bayonne had lobbied and received particular attention from the National Assembly, which decreed on 28 January 1790 that they were to continue to enjoy the rights they had previously enjoyed, including active citizenship. This recognition was not to presume any decision concerning the Ashkenazim of the northeast.

The enfranchisement of the Sephardim was a vindication less of the principles of the Revolution than of the privileged position these few thousand Jews had consistently enjoyed in the ancien régime. Yet the decree of 1790 was significant. It not only communicated to the rest of the Jews the necessary terms for their citizenship (most importantly that juridical autonomy would be unacceptable) but also empowered them in their response to its postponement.

When emancipation finally came, in contrast to the debates of December 1789 as well as those of January–February 1790, the vote had little to do with the Jews, their patriotism, or their equality. On the contrary, a commitment to France, the ideals of the Revolution, and the constitution had led the revolutionaries to acknowledge the Jews as fellow citizens. They had done so, moreover, by granting citizenship to "individuals of the Jewish persuasion," thus ending the autonomy of the Jewish communities and begging the question of Judaism as more than a set of religious beliefs.

The Jews of France continued their economic practices and bore the brunt of traditional enmities; they also took the civil oaths required of them, entered the army, and actively participated in the national guard. In an eloquent Lettre d'un citoyen (Letter of a citizen), signed Juif, citoyen actif (Jew, active citizen), Berr Isaac Berr of Nancy assured the religiously observant among his coreligionists that with their oath they renounced only their servitude. He placed citizenship in traditional terms, suggesting that God had chosen the French to effect the regeneration of the Jews. With the Berlin maskilim as his guide, he also outlined the educational, linguistic, and professional changes he believed necessary to transform Jews into respected citizens and their communities into voluntary associations.

The French armies extended the emancipation of 1791 to Italy, Holland, Belgium, and southern Germany. Since Prussia had included among its reforms a decree emancipating its Jews, and Great Britain had quietly permitted significant social and economic integration, only the status of those Jews residing in the Austrian Empire remained unchanged.

Napoleon raised anew the question of citizenship for the Jews when he convened an Assembly of Jewish Notables (1806) and a Grand Sanhedrin (1807). Requiring from these bodies concrete guarantees "converted into religious doctrines," he both redefined the terms of Jewish emancipation and permanently linked it to the ambiguities and contingencies articulated throughout the eighteenth century.

With Napoleon's defeat, restrictions were restored and Jewish disabilities revived. Rome, for example, returned its Jews to the ghetto. Although the Treaty of Vienna (1815) assured the Jews enjoyment of all rights accorded to them "in" the several German states, a last-minute shift to "by" left only the Jews of Prussia with rights. Hostility to the enlightenment, to Napoleon, and to religious skepticism fed traditional enmities and provided additional justification for excluding the Jews.

The decisions of the Napoleonic Sanhedrin, and their preamble that "Israel no longer forms a nation" provided a template of political emancipation and accultuation for the Jews of Europe and later the United States. Conferences, convened in Brunswick, Frankfurt, and Breslau (1844–1846), set an agenda of reforming Judaism to insure compatibility with "the spirit of the age." From these often-heated rabbinic debates emerged Reform, Conservative, and Neo-Orthodox Judaism. All welcomed emancipation, which by 1914 was denied only to the Jews of Romania and the Russian Empire.

Historians continue to debate the motives behind emancipating the Jews and the price the Jews paid, the extent to which modernization was linked to emancipation, and the halakhic (Jewish legal) significance of the decisions promulgated by the Napoleonic Sanhedrin. The Zionist movement, moreover, founded at the end of the nineteenth century, rejected the premises of the debates of 1790, questioned emancipation itself, and asserted in its stead a paradigm of Jewish nationhood.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Jews and Judaism; Minorities; Nationalism; Religion.


Brenner, Michael, Vicki Caron, and Uri Kaufmann, eds. Jewish Emancipation Reconsidered: The French and German Models. London and Tübingen, 2003.

Liedtke, Rainer, and Stephan Wendehorst, eds. The Emancipation of Catholics, Jews and Protestants: Minorities and the Nation State in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Manchester, U.K., and New York, 1999.

Kieval, Hillel J. The Making of Czech Jewry: National Conflict and Jewish Society in Bohemia, 1870–1918. New York and Oxford, U.K., 1988.

Malino, Frances. A Jew in the French Revolution: The Life of Zalkind Hourwitz. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Rozenblit, Marsha. The Jews of Vienna, 1867–1914: Assimilation and Identity. Albany, N.Y., 1983.

Sachar, Howard M. The Course of Modern Jewish History. New York, 1990.

Frances Malino

About this article

Jewish Emancipation

Updated About content Print Article


Jewish Emancipation