The Jews and Anti-Semitism

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Michael C. Hickey


The Jews' status as a diasporic people has shaped their social history. Expulsions from western and central Europe, settlement in Poland and the Ottoman Empire, then later resettlements in the West reinforced transnational characteristics of Jewish life. Common faith, languages (Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino), culture, and kinship networks linked distant communities and allowed the transmission of ideas, people, and trade. This held for both linguistic-cultural branches of European Jewry, the Sephardi (Hebrew for Spain) and the Ashkenazi (Hebrew for Germany), at once fostering Jews' integration and reinforcing their segregation.

The problems of integration and segregation are central to Jewish social history. Some Jewish communities remained segregated from Christian society into the nineteenth century. Segregation both constrained and nurtured the internal development of Jewish society. Jewish communal associations (kehillot) negotiated relations with Christian society and regulated Jewish community, family, and devotional life. Communal authority, although under constant strain, remained a feature of Jewish life into the twentieth century. Segregation meant Jews were enmeshed in and apart from European social history. Jewish social history intertwined, for instance, with the rise of the nation-state, modern commerce and capitalism, professionalism, urbanization, individuality, and mass politics. Yet it often followed a different chronology or revealed different characteristics. Jewish emancipation strained but did not dissolve communal institutions, opened paths of acculturation, and threw the nature of Jewish identity into question. Yet even where acculturation was most pronounced, the question of Jews' "otherness" remained, particularly in the form of anti-Semitism.

State-imposed repression and anti-Jewish popular violence punctuate Jewish social history. The nature of popular anti-Semitism is a matter of scholarly contention. Some elements of popular anti-Semitism transcend historical periods, such as the hatred of Jews as alleged enemies of Christianity and as dangerous economic competitors or exploiters. Increased Jewish population and economic integration often precipitated popular violence. But the emergence of modern nationalist and racial consciousness and, in particular, mass politics, grafted onto traditional anti-Semitism the specter of Jews as malignant aliens, which lay at the core of Nazi racial doctrine.


In the century before 1450, Jewish populations across Europe collapsed, Jewish economic activity severely contracted, and anti-Jewish violence was widespread and frequent. Jewish life in Europe reached a nadir in the late fifteenth century and the early sixteenth century with expulsions from the Iberian Peninsula and most of central Europe. Jewish communities already had been forced from England (in 1290), France (1306 and 1394), and many Germanic cities (in the mid-1400s). Jews remaining in Germany were restricted to ghettos or dispersed to small villages. In the late 1400s Jews in Spain, home to Europe's largest Jewish community, were subjected to state extortion and forced conversion to Catholicism. Conversion offered little protection, as the Spanish Inquisition made Conversos its special target. Expulsions from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1497, and from Italian and German principalities forced the massive resettlement of Jews and "new Christians" on Europe's eastern periphery in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottomon Empire.

Expulsion transformed Jewish economic life, reversed demographic trends, and reinforced transnational characteristics. Polish magnates encouraged Jewish settlement in underdeveloped territories, where Jews became intermediaries between landlords and peasants (managing estates and collecting taxes) and facilitated East-West trade. Jews in Poland-Lithuania engaged in artisanal crafts, from which they had been excluded in the West. Similarly the Ottomans encouraged Jews to engage in a range of economic activities, and Jewish communities quickly dominated critical trade routes through the Balkans. Resettlement had profound demographic consequences. Large Sephardic communities arose in the Ottoman Empire. For instance, the community in Salonika grew from a few families in 1492 to more than fifteen thousand people by 1520. In contrast to the West, the relatively secure standard of living and minimal restrictions placed on Jews in the East facilitated population growth. Diffusion to hundreds of small settlements in Poland set the stage for Jewish demographic recovery in the next century, which far exceeded the growth of the general population. In 1500 Jews accounted for some 30,000 of Poland's roughly 5 million inhabitants. By 1600 the Jewish population had increased by almost 500 percent and the population as a whole by only 50 percent. Expulsion also isolated Jewish communities linguistically from their neighbors. But Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities developed cultural and kinship ties that spanned the East, facilitated an impressive degree of cultural exchange, and built trade networks that transformed European commerce.

Expulsions added a racial dimension to religious charges against Jews. Conversion, inquisitors argued, did not cure Jews' "bad blood." While religious and racial charges emanated from clergymen, anti-Jewish violence and demands for expulsions also came from guilds in German and Italian towns, that is, from merchants and tradespeople who saw Jews as an economic threat. The social ferment of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation accentuated these antagonisms.

During the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, ecclesiastic authorities became a principle force behind expulsions and anti-Jewish agitation. In the 1530s Martin Luther, having failed in his efforts to win Jews over to Christ, called on Christians to expel them. Vehement anti-Jewish sermons fomented anti-Jewish riots and expulsions across Protestant Germany from the 1530s to the 1570s. The Counter-Reformation proved no less dangerous. Papal policy toward Jews was inconsistent, but from 1553 on it favored pressuring them into conversion and quarantining them from Christian society. In Italy, as in Protestant Germany, the clergy sometimes encouraged anti-Jewish violence involving guilds that feared Jewish competition. The Papal States, employing the model of Venice, confined Jews in ghettos to segregate them from the general population. While the ghetto has been a symbol of oppression and its overcrowding has been linked with poverty and disease, in Italian and German cities Jewish numbers increased at a far greater rate than did the general population. The Jewish population of Prague doubled from 600 to 1,200 between 1522 and 1541. Like expulsion, ghetto life reinforced the importance of Jewish communal associations.

State and ecclesiastic authorities strictly limited the size of Jewish communities and circumscribed Jews' occupations, movement, and contact with Christians through Jewish communal associations. Kehillot collected taxes, sustained the ghetto infrastructure, and regulated Jewish social, economic, and devotional life. Elected boards of elders maintained cemeteries, synagogues and prayer rooms, slaughterhouses, schools and talmudic academies, charitable societies, and rabbinical courts. They also hired and supported rabbis, teachers, and doctors to treat the poor. To raise funds they levied taxes and fines. Kehillot oversaw markets and business practices and ensured proper attention to devotional activities. They regulated personal behavior and family functions, from granting permissions for marriage to supervising forms of dress and public deportment, and were particularly concerned with sexual conduct, especially that of women, who as a rule were secluded. The authority of rabbis declined in central Europe beginning in the mid-1500s with the emergence of a professional rabbinate, often appointed by state authorities to circumscribe community autonomy. Like communal boards, state rabbis coordinated the collection of taxes in the form of fines, which generated hostilities among the laity.

Ghetto overcrowding created social tensions. Divorce increased in German and Italian communities, and complaints of fraying sexual morality were common. Many communities responded by lowering the marriage age while mandating the deferment of childbearing, simultaneously protecting public morality and limiting population growth. Economic stratification increased, and along with an elite of wealthy merchants, a poor stratum of domestics and menial laborers who lived outside the formal legal and tax ordinances emerged. As class differentiation increased, fraternal societies and voluntary associations dominated by the economic elite subsumed charitable activities, burials, and other community functions. As in Christian communities, debate over the function of the laity accompanied social change. Lay officials displaced rabbinical authority on communal boards, and in several cities lay courts began hearing civil cases. Other aspects of Jewish community life paralleled broader social phenomena despite Jews' segregation. The printing of Hebrew books increased, popular as well as religious literature flourished, and secular concerns became more integrated into intellectual life.


In the 1570s Jewish life recovered rapidly across western and central Europe. The readmission of Jews to western and central Europe and the growth of their communities were tied to political and cultural phenomena in Christian society and to the strategic networks Jews had formed in the East. Secular statecraft, mercantilism, and radical skepticism justified princely and imperial reversals of the previous century's expulsions. Because Jewish trade networks made resettlement a tool of economic development, the revival of Jewish communities was intertwined with the rise of nation-states, the growth of modern commerce, and preindustrial urbanization. This revival integrated Jews into European economic life, and new social strata emerged in Jewish communities, which continued to experience demographic expansion until the early 1700s.

Readmission of Jews, expansion of Jewish economic life, and growth of Jewish communities occurred simultaneously across western and central Europe. In 1577, for instance, the Holy Roman emperor Rudolf II allowed Prague's Jews to practice trades previously denied them, like gold and silver work. Jewish artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants prospered, and Prague's Jewish community grew to three thousand by 1600. Relaxed restrictions fostered economic and demographic expansion in Frankfurt, where the Jewish population grew from 419 to 3,000 between 1540 and 1615. Official toleration was extended also to smaller settlements; the majority of German Jews, as many as 90 percent, lived in small towns. In Italian cities dependent on the Levantine trade, readmitted Jews formed thriving communities. The population of the Venice ghetto grew from 900 in 1552 to 2,500 in 1600 as Jews came to dominate trade with the Balkans.

Jewish demographic recovery outstripped that of Christian communities throughout the seventeenth century, even during the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648). Both Protestant and Catholic forces relied on Jews for loans and services, and Jewish victuallers supplied both the Habsburg and the Swedish armies. In return both sides granted concessions to Jews, reduced economic restrictions, and permitted new Jewish settlements. During the war Jewish populations generally remained stable or even grew, while the general population declined. A similar dynamic held for the Jewish communities in Alsace, the Dutch Republic, and Italian cities like Livorno, where the war enhanced Jewish trade and the ghetto escaped the ravages of the great plague of 1630–1631. Jewish population growth and economic expansion extended into eastern Europe. When Poland pushed eastward into Belorussia and Ukraine, Polish magnates encouraged Jewish colonization. In these territories Jews played a variety of economic roles, from artisans to estate managers, and Jewish numbers grew more rapidly than did those of the native populations.

Jewish population growth and economic integration produced violent backlashes. With the end of the Thirty Years' War, the clergy and guilds in German towns demanded expulsion of the Jews, and anti-Jewish violence erupted in several Austrian settlements. Resentment against Jewish economic encroachments was a common theme. The worst violence occurred in Polish territory when Ukrainian peasants and Crimean Tartars led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky rebelled against Polish rule between 1648 and 1651. Besides attacking Polish nobles and Catholic clergy, Khmelnytsky's followers slaughtered thousands of Jews. Religious hatreds blended with economic grievances, and Jews were attacked as the intermediaries between nobles and peasants and as instruments of Polish domination. The massacres sent streams of Jewish refugees to the West.

The violence of the mid-1600s did not deter Jewish demographic growth or economic integration, which actually accelerated. Jewish birthrates exceeded those of Christians. With notable exceptions, like Prague, where three thousand Jews died in an epidemic in 1680, the Jewish population increased, while the general population stagnated. In Amsterdam the economically influential Jewish population grew from three thousand in 1650 to over six thousand in 1700. Similar statistics exist for German, Austrian, and Italian communities, and Jewish population growth was even greater in eastern Europe.

Demographic success followed economic integration. By 1700 Jews were prominent in international and colonial trade, and they were active in industry across most of the Continent. Again, ties between communities helped facilitate this trade. Jews exercised great geographic mobility, and merchants and tradespeople moved across international and continental borders. A new elite, "court Jews," provided loans and other services to royal houses. In rural districts in central and eastern Europe, Jewish peddlers linked peasants to urban commerce. Jewish crafts thrived in places where Jews suffered few restrictions on artisanal activities or where Christian guilds were weak.

Economic integration had strict limits. Jews were still banned from landownership in most states. Craftspeople could not compete for Christian customers, and new restrictions arose when they threatened Christian guilds, as in the Dutch silk-weaving industry. Moreover changing state policies undermined Jewish economic life. In eighteenth-century Prussia export prohibitions and high tariffs crippled Jewish trade and produced widespread poverty. Despite economic integration, Jews remained segregated. State authorities circumscribed their settlements, controlled their contacts with Christians, and denied them the legal status afforded Christians. From the early 1700s state control over Jewish communal life increased, as did internal tensions. Enlightenment absolutist principles dictated that states weaken Jewish self-government, and economic thought de-emphasized Jewish-dominated areas of international commerce. States attacked the autonomy of kehillot and Jewish regional associations, and most German states limited the power of Jewish courts in the eighteenth century. For example, in Hamburg a 1710 regulation gave Christian courts power over Jewish divorce cases. The Polish Commonwealth also weakened Jewish communal autonomy in the 1740s.

The assault on communal autonomy coincided with the deterioration of Jews' economic and demographic positions. Beginning in 1713 Jewish populations grew more slowly than the general population in all of Europe except Poland, where Jewish numbers continued to soar. Most estimates set the number of Jews in Poland in 1700 at 350,000, whereas by 1750 the Jewish population there neared 750,000. Population growth in Poland was accompanied, however, by a wave of anti-Jewish violence and accusations of ritual murder, peaking in the 1740s to the 1760s. In some places, such as the Balkans and Holland, the reversal of demographic trends was linked to the contraction of trade. Elsewhere, such as Prussia and other German states, it stemmed from changes in governmental economic policies and the new restrictions on the size of Jewish communities. Simultaneously, Jewish communities in western and central Europe faced accelerated economic stratification and rising rates of poverty and indigence. More than half of all German Jews lived in poverty by the mid-1700s, and 10 percent were vagrants. The situations in Italian, Dutch, Bohemian, and Moravian communities were no better. Social problems like crime worsened, and communal and voluntary associations had difficulty raising revenues for charitable and other institutions. Jews responded by dispersing to smaller communities. In this social context and in light of the growing number of Jews conversant with the secular culture of the Enlightenment, rabbinical and communal authority declined.


The partitioning of Poland carried out between 1772 and 1795 had a great impact on Jewish social history. The partitions divided Europe's largest Jewish population among three states that would follow very different Jewish policies. Around 1 million Polish Jews became subjects of the Russian Empire, which had banned Jewish settlement. Russia granted Jewish communal institutions limited autonomy but imposed new civil disabilities. Over 200,000 Galician Jews came under Austrian rule, joining the 70,000 Bohemian and 80,000 Hungarian Jews in the Habsburg Empire. In 1781 Emperor Joseph II reduced legal disabilities but left residency restrictions in place. Jews in western Poland were put under the authority of Prussia, where a debate had arisen over transforming Jews into useful members of civil society by ending legal disabilities. But the question of emancipation was put most forcefully in France, which had only a small Jewish population.

In December 1789 the French national assembly considered the question of Jewish emancipation. Debate over the civil status of France's forty thousand Jews ended in September 1791 with recognition of their equal rights, and emancipation forced the problems of integration and Jewish identity to the foreground. Were Jews a separate nation or simply adherents of a different religion? Now that law no longer required segregation, would Jews assimilate or remain ghettoized?

Emancipation relaxed external constraints, but reactions varied. France's two principle Jewish communities, the Sephardim in Bordeaux and Bayonne and the Ashkenazim in Alsace, had developed along different lines. Sephardim had resident status and had formed a prosperous merchant community with close ties to Amsterdam and London. In Alsace, Jews lived in small ghettoized communities of poor tradespeople. During the French Revolution prosperous Jews in Bordeaux defined themselves as French citizens of the Jewish faith and identified with the new national state. Alsatian Jews, in contrast, retained communal associations and traditions and identified with their own communities. Emancipation introduced many individual and community responses, from assimilation (exiting the community) to radical assertion of Jewish differences.


One transnational response to violence in the sixteenth century was the strengthening of mystical currents in Jewish life. The mystical teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria in the late 1500s, for instance, spread quickly from Safed (in Galilee) to the ghettos of Vienna, Amsterdam, and other centers of European Jewish life, as did the teachings of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague. Messianism promising redemption and justice—a common current of seventeenth-century European popular religious culture—reflected growing social tensions in the ghetto and the constant threat of violence. Anti-Jewish violence contributed to Jewish messianism, which found its greatest popular expression in the Sabbatian movement. Shabbetai Tzevi of Smyrna was one of several self-proclaimed messiahs to appear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Shabbetai declared himself the Messiah in 1648, but his movement had little impact in Europe. In 1665, though, news of the Messiah's arrival spread from Salonica, the epicenter of Sabbatianism, through Jewish communities across Europe. The movement had broad appeal, and popular messianic fervor lasted for nearly a year, triggering anti-Jewish riots in several cities in Poland and Germany. Arrested in Constantinople by the sultan in 1666, Shabbetai's subsequent conversion to Islam halted the movement but did not destroy the underlying basis of popular Jewish mysticism, which reemerged, for instance, in Hasidism in eastern Europe.


During the nineteenth century the movement of people and ideas across borders still contributed to cultural homogeneity among Jews, even as they integrated into European life. A greater proportion of Jews than non-Jews rose into the middle class, and resentment of Jewish social mobility and the public's association of them with the dislocations of capitalism blended with anti-Semitism. Embourgeoisement, though, was more typical of communities of western and central Europe than of the larger populations in eastern Europe, where the majority clung to petty bourgeois status or hovered between the working class and abject poverty. Political contexts shaped the differing paths open to Jews, and divergent social trends manifested themselves along an east-west axis. Demographic stagnation held in western and central Europe, while the Jewish population continued to rise more rapidly than the general population in eastern Europe. Overpopulation and poverty fueled an exodus westward in the late 1800s, creating new tensions within communities and feeding popular anti-Semitism

Prior to the late twentieth century historians juxtaposed Jewish assimilation in western and central Europe against Jewish traditionalism in the East. According to this paradigm, emancipation destroyed communal authority, assimilated Jews, and either redefined Jewishness as a solely religious attribute or rejected it. Historians of the late twentieth century distinguished between assimilation and acculturation and recognized that communal structures proved tenacious. In Britain communal associations actually strengthened. By 1860 thirty-five thousand publicly acculturated Sephardic and Ashkenazic British citizens privately supported Jewish communal institutions, synagogues, schools, and welfare agencies; lived on predominantly Jewish streets; and maintained Jewish homes, the significance of which differed between Orthodox and Reform Jews. Debates over communal authority, Jewish identity, and integration intensified in the late 1800s as a consequence of immigration from the East. French Jews did not routinely abandon their Jewish identity when affiliating with the French nation. Some wealthy Jews broke ties with communal institutions, which were then voluntary, but most Jews did not. Acculturation began to affect rural Jewish life only when the village economy declined and state educational institutions penetrated the Alsatian countryside in the late 1800s.


The Jewish encounter with modernity produced complex social tendencies toward both acculturation and the renegotiation of community and identity. These tendencies were evident even before 1789 in two social phenomena born of the late eighteenth century, the Haskalah (Enlightenment) and Hasidism (the doctrine of piety).

The Enlightenment spread to Jewish society only in the late 1700s in the form of the Haskalah. In Berlin a circle of scholars around Moses Mendelssohn embraced the scientific and universalistic worldview of the German Enlightenment and rejected religious obscurantism but not Judaism. A second, independent center of Jewish Enlightenment developed in Prague. Enlightened Jews (maskilim) argued for Jewish renewal through reform and integration into European society. In the 1780s maskilim began calling for an end to Jewish legal disabilities. The Haskalah emphasized self-understanding and the cultivation of individuality, which like its universalism deemphasized communal identity. These principles, particularly attractive to elites, spread primarily through literature and the founding of new Jewish schools. The Haskalah penetrated a broader strata of German Jewish society only after the French Revolution.

Hasidism posed a more immediate threat to traditional authority though from a different theological, sociological, and geographical position. With roots in seventeenth-century mystical currents, Hasidism emerged in the mid-1700s in southern Poland. Its progenitor, Israel Bacal Shem Tov (the Teacher of the Good Word), merged cabalism with the elevation of wholehearted devotion over talmudic scholarship. In practice Hasidism combined this doctrine with the veneration of charismatic rabbis in dynastic "master-disciple" communities. The movement spread far more rapidly than did the Haskalah, had great currency with poor Jews, and was enormously successful in rural districts of eastern Europe. Its penetration into Lithuania and Belorussia and into urban areas created conflicts with kehillot, as Hasidim rejected communal oligarchs and established their own separate courts and schools. This challenge coincided with the Polish assault on Jewish autonomy and the partitions of Poland.

In Germany and Italy the piecemeal process of emancipation culminated with national unification. Individual German states granted partial Jewish legal and economic integration, which sped acculturation. One of the most significant measures was the inclusion of Jewish children in compulsory state schooling. Although acceptance into the German middle class required assimilation, in the 1840s most Jews remained at least partially segregated and practiced endogamy. Legislation in the 1860s eliminated legal disabilities, and the unified state abolished compulsory membership in kehillot in 1876. Emancipation and Germany's rapid economic growth accelerated embourgeoisement and acculturation but did not eradicate Jewish identity. Middle-class Jews, while subscribing to the German emphasis on moral education and self-cultivation, formed new Jewish mutual aid, reading, and insurance societies, clubs, and associations. The renegotiated German Jewish identity united an otherwise religiously and socially fragmented community, and politicized hostility toward Jews reinforced this sense of identity. While tensions between German, Czech, and Magyar cultural loyalties complicated acculturation in the Habsburg Empire, Austrian and Hungarian cities underwent similar processes.

Although Jews could be found at all levels of the nineteenth-century economy, from wealthy bankers like the Rothschilds to laborers at the margins of poverty, most Jews in western and central Europe rose into the middle classes. Relatively few, though, entered the industrial bourgeoisie, instead benefiting from the expansion of commerce and the professions. In Germany, where over half of all Jews had lived in poverty in the mid-1700s, tax records indicate that nearly 80 percent were bourgeois by 1870. Germany's 470,000 Jews constituted only 1 percent of the country's population but accounted for nearly a quarter of its bankers and 10 percent of its merchants. Jews in Britain, France, Italy, and the cities of Austria-Hungary also rose into the middle class. In Budapest, Jews dominated the liberal professions, journalism, and the arts and occupied a disproportionate number of places in the secondary schools and universities.

Rapid urbanization and declining birthrates accompanied embourgeoisement in most of western and central Europe. As states lifted residency restrictions and education and economic opportunities opened, Jews gravitated toward cities. Jewish urban populations rose most dramatically in Austria-Hungary. Only 290 Jews lived in Vienna in 1806, but 146,926 Jews lived there in 1900 (9 percent of the population). In Budapest between 1870 and 1900 the number of Jews rose from 44,747 to 166,198 (24 percent of the population). But like the middle class in general, western and central European Jews had begun limiting family sizes, and their birthrates and death rates remained lower than those of the general population. The nineteenth century's massive Jewish population expansion, from approximately 2.7 million in 1825 to 8.7 million in 1900, resulted entirely from demographic trends in eastern and southeastern Europe.

By the late nineteenth century most Jews lived in the Russian Empire, where government policies restricted them to western provinces known as the Pale of Settlement. The state initially recognized kehillot but also required that Jews, like all other subjects, enroll in a social estate. Most Jews belonged to the town-dwellers' estate, although a few were registered as peasants, merchants, honorary citizens, and even nobles. Until 1880 most restrictions placed on Jews applied to all nonnoble subjects, who were denied freedom of movement and, as town-dwellers, could not reside in rural districts. In the Pale, though, Jews provided the trade nexus between town and country. The state periodically expelled them from rural districts, then subsequently relaxed restrictions out of economic necessity.


Public acculturation into the dominant culture and private renegotiation of Jewish identity were manifest in women's roles. Bourgeois Jewish women in Germany, for example, ensured that their children dressed, spoke, and carried themselves as Germans. They insisted that Jewish communities recognize the shifts in gender roles taking place in German society as a whole. Yet they still participated in exclusively Jewish women's organizations; transmitted Jewish cultural traditions to their children, although not always by observing Jewish rituals; maintained Jewish family networks; associated Jewishness with a respectable family life; and socialized primarily with other Jews.

Early-nineteenth-century Russian-Jewish social history reached its nadir under Nicholas I, who in 1827 rescinded Jews' exemption from the military and began conscripting Jewish boys, who were removed from their homes and pressured into conversion. Between 1827 and 1854 about seventy thousand Jews were conscripted, of whom nearly fifty thousand were minors. Consequently conflicts within the Jewish community amplified as resentment grew against the privileged elite, who dominated communal boards and arranged for their own sons' exemptions. State policies and economic differentiation accentuated these tensions. In 1844 the state weakened the kehillot by abolishing communal boards but did not abolish the communal association itself. Communal associations still governed most aspects of Jewish social and devotional life, although under stricter state supervision, but antagonisms against communal leaders festered as communities were torn between acculturation and the reassertion of tradition.

Historical generalizations about the traditionalism of eastern European Jews require qualification. In the mid-nineteenth century a minority of Russian Jews followed a path of embourgeoisement and acculturation similar to that occurring in the West. This process accelerated in the 1850s through the 1870s as industry and trade expanded and the state liberalized its Jewish policies. In the 1860s child conscription ended, and the state permitted Jews in professions and in state schools to live beyond the Pale. By 1880 Jews accounted for less than 4 percent of the empire's total population but 12 percent of its students and 14 percent of its university students. Growing numbers of Jews entered the professions, where they were disproportionately represented in law, medicine, and banking, and a handful of Jewish entrepreneurs amassed large fortunes. By 1897 nearly a quarter of the empire's Jews could read Russian, and the percentage was higher in cities. Embourgoisement and acculturation increased conflicts between maskilim (enlightened Jews) and traditional rabbis, both of whom claimed to speak for the community.

But in the 1880s state policies constrained Jewish embourgeoisement in Russia. In the wake of pogroms, the government in 1882 issued laws banning new Jewish settlements outside of towns and cities, which debilitated the already declining Jewish trade in the countryside and contributed to urbanization. The state also imposed quotas on Jews' access to higher education. In 1887 Jews could constitute only 10 percent of students in state schools in the Pale, 5 percent outside the Pale, and 3 percent in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1889 Jews were banned from legal practice.

Most eastern European Jews remained poor. In 1897 about a third of Russia's Jewish males were petty traders with small shops or stores or were peddlers. At least 300,000 Jews, including several thousand women, worked in small plants concentrated in the consumer sector, and a much greater number toiled in artisanal shops. Another 10 percent of adult Jews were day laborers or domestics, while nearly a tenth had no regular employment. Fewer than 3 percent of Jews farmed. Population growth, restrictions on movement and occupations, and changes in transport and trade that undermined traditional Jewish rural occupations contributed to growing poverty. By 1900 nearly 20 percent of all Jews in the Pale relied on charity from either the commune or Jewish philanthropic associations.

Jewish demographic patterns in eastern Europe resembled those of western and central Europe in two regards. The Jewish population became increasingly urban as people migrated in search of economic and social opportunities, and Jewish death rates fell below those of the general population. But unlike western and central Europe, the Jewish population in eastern Europe rose more rapidly than the general population. Between 1772 and 1897 the Jewish population of the Pale grew from 1 million to over 5 million people, and Jews constituted 11 percent of the Pale's population and over half the population of many urban districts. Similarly, between 1825 and 1900 the Jewish population grew in Galicia from 275,000 to over 800,000 (11 percent of the total population) and in Hungary from 200,000 to 852,000 (5 percent of the total population). Overpopulation, poverty, government repression, and anti-Jewish violence prompted mass emigration, and between 1880 and 1914 over 3 million Jews left eastern Europe. While the majority resettled in the Americas, nearly a million moved to western and central Europe.

This exodus changed Jewish communities, creating new internal tensions and feeding popular anti-Semitism. In Germany, in 1880 foreign-born Jews accounted for 3 percent of the Jewish population, but immigrants constituted 13 percent of all Jews there by 1910. In Britain immigration brought a surge in Jewish residents, from 60,000 in 1880 to 300,000 by 1914. Bourgeois Jews generally considered poor, Yiddish-speaking immigrants to be backward, excessively traditional, a burden on the community, and a threat to acculturation and acceptance. Anti-Semites cited the immigrants as evidence of Jewish racial inferiority. The alleged threat posed by poor Jews competing for low-paying jobs and cheap housing became a staple of anti-Semitic rhetoric and thereby contributed to popular anti-Semitism, especially in Britain.

Modern, political anti-Semitism arose later in the century, built on religious and economic hatreds, resentment of Jews' upward mobility, fear that Jewish influence corroded the national culture, and new racial theories. Political anti-Semitism was also based on traditional views, of course, but they involved new arguments, groups, and manifestations, though historians debate how much change occurred. Following the 1873 stock market crash, mass politics, particularly but not exclusively on the right, commonly identified the Jewish middle class with corporate capitalism and charged that Jews exercised undue influence. Scapegoating blamed Jews for a variety of ills, from department stores and banks to socialism. Political anti-Semitism was a complex social phenomenon that drew support from those who felt threatened by economic and cultural change, including elements of the middle classes, the working class, the aristocracy, and the peasantry. As a force in German politics, it reached its apogee in the 1880s, supported by several popular intellectuals as well as a political party. But in Austrian cities, where the Jewish middle class was most prominent, anti-Semitism based on resentment of Jewish social mobility remained a mass political movement through 1912. In Britain the influx of cheap Jewish labor, the identification of Jews with big business, and the political influence of Jewish grandees fostered political anti-Semitism in the 1890s. In France those same factors plus the rise of Jews into state service contributed to political anti-Semitism at the end of the century. False accusations of spying charged against a Jewish army officer brought the surprisingly strong Dreyfus movement to a head in the 1890s. But in nineteenth-century western and central Europe political anti-Semitism rarely translated into anti-Jewish violence.

Popular anti-Semitism was more intense and more violent in eastern Europe. In 1882 pogroms broke out in Hungary, where resentment of Jews' social mobility was compounded by their association with the Magyar elite. Anti-Jewish violence was recurrent in Romania, where virulent anti-Semitism cut across the political and social spectrum. To peasants Jews were parasitic agents of the landlords, the weak Romanian middle class considered Jews dangerous economic rivals, and intellectuals argued that immigrant Galician and Russian Jews threatened Romanian nationhood. Russia experienced waves of pogroms in 1881–1882, 1903, and 1905. Government policies and anti-Semitic instigation fomented violence, but savage attacks on Jews, like that in Kishinev in 1903, were complex social events. Peasants who associated Jews with economic exploitation participated in attacks, but so did members of the middle class, who saw Jews as competition, and workers, for whom Jews represented both the class enemy and rivals for work and housing. Workers perpetrated most of the violence in Odessa, for instance, where more than three hundred Jews were killed in 1905.

Jews actively participated in mass social movements and mass politics. They enrolled in national parties across the political spectrum. Jewish intellectuals, often assimilated, were heavily represented in leftist movements. Specifically Jewish mass movements developed as well, as emancipation and acculturation failed to end discrimination and anti-Jewish violence. The General Jewish Workers' Bund, a social democratic party promoting Jewish cultural autonomy, attracted broad support among Jewish factory workers and artisans in the Russian Empire. Political Zionism proved even more important as a trans-European movement. Jewish nationalism united a diverse range of Zionists, from secular liberal members of Theodor Herzl's World Zionist Organization, to Zionist socialists, to Orthodox supporters of the religious party Mizrachi. Zionists argued that antagonisms against Jews would not disappear and Jews must therefore emancipate themselves by creating their own national state or territory. The events of 1914 through 1945 seemed to prove the Zionists' point.


World War I severely disrupted Jewish life. In every country charges proliferated that Jews profited off the war and lacked loyalty to their homelands. Yet Jews volunteered and were conscripted for service, often in percentages higher than the general population. In Britain 14 percent of the Jewish population served, compared with 11 percent of the total population. Nearly 18 percent of Germany's Jews served, as did 20 percent of France's Jews and 11 percent of the Jews in Austria-Hungary. Some 300,000 Jews served in the Russian army. Jews accounted for roughly 1 percent of the total population of the countries engaged in the war but made up 2 percent of all conscripted soldiers.

The majority of Europe's Jews lived within major war zones in the East and suffered deprivations along with the general population, including devastation, hunger, and epidemics. Some 400,000 Galician Jews fled to western Austria during the war, creating a refugee crisis in cities like Vienna, where largely acculturated local communities swelled with waves of traditional Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. In Russia popular anti-Jewish sentiment was matched by the government's fear that Jews would sympathize with Germany. In 1915 the Russian military expelled more than 600,000 Jews from the Pale into the country's interior, creating another mass refugee crisis. As the war dragged on economic hardships increased, and so did anti-Semitic agitation and outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence, particularly in central and eastern Europe. This was especially true in regions devastated by fighting and occupation, such as Galicia and western Ukraine. But popular anti-Semitism raged in Germany and Austria as well. The collapse of old regimes in central and eastern Europe in 1917 and 1918 then loosed mass anti-Jewish violence.

Revolutions in Russia, Germany, and Hungary resulted in greater civil equality for Jews, but the association of Jews with leftist upheavals added another dimension to political and popular anti-Semitism. In Russia the provisional government formed in March 1917 recognized Jewish civil equality, ushering in a brief but fruitful period of Jewish political and social organization. But deteriorating economic conditions again heightened resentment toward Jews, whom nationalist parties charged with profiteering and promoting Bolshevism. Charges that Jews controlled the Bolshevik (Communist) Party became a rightist commonplace after the October 1917 Revolution, but anti-Jewish violence knew no political boundaries during Russia's civil war, from 1918 to 1921. Communist and anti-Communist forces both carried out atrocities in Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine alone experienced more than two thousand pogroms at a cost of as many as forty thousand lives. Most Jewish communities eventually sought accommodation in Vladimir Ilich Lenin's government, which proved less hostile than its military opponents. Because of that relationship and the number of assimilated Jews in the Bolshevik leadership, political anti-Semites equated the Communist regime with Jews. Similarly Jewish participation in and support for the Social Democrats in the 1918 German revolution and during the Weimar Republic fed into political anti-Semitism, as did the prominence of Jews in Béla Kun's short-lived Communist regime in Hungary in 1919.

In the wake of the war, declining Jewish birthrates, which characterized demographic trends in western and central Europe, extended to the ravaged communities of eastern Europe. The birthrate among Polish Jews, for instance, dropped by nearly 50 percent between 1900 and 1934. Most social patterns prevailing before the war continued, often at an accelerated rate. Intermarriage became increasingly common across Europe, especially among working-class Jews and in urban districts. In Germany more than half of all Jews who married between 1926 and 1929 chose non-Jewish spouses. The pace of urbanization accelerated, so by 1925 more than a quarter of Europe's Jews lived in cities with populations of 1 million or more. In Germany, where some 550,000 Jews accounted for less than 1 percent of the population, two-thirds of the Jewish population lived in six large cities. Acculturation remained complex. Increases in out-marriage and declining religious observance came with expanded Jewish political, social, and cultural activity and a revived interest in Jewish culture and history in the 1920s. This continuing renegotiation of Jewish identity took place not only in major centers for Jewish learning, like Berlin and Vilna, but also in the USSR, where the state tried to detach Jewish cultural identity from its religious foundations and encouraged Jews to take up "useful labor."

Jewish acculturation, though, did not prevent the rise of anti-Semitism during the interwar period of instability and cultural change. In most of Europe in the 1920s, Jewish social mobility and influence in politics, the economy, and cultural life escalated popular resentments. The 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression spurred mass mobilization of popular anti-Semitism. In Romania the Iron Guard, which called for the destruction of Romanian Jewry, emerged as the third largest political party. But the Nazi movement in Germany most effectively mobilized anti-Jewish sentiment and transformed anti-Semitism into a central aspect of state policy.

From 1933 to 1937, Nazi Jewish policy reversed the achievements of Jewish emancipation and integration in Germany. Historians debate the extent to which Nazi racial theories resonated with the general public, but it is generally agreed that Nazi anti-Semitism tapped into the popular association of Jews with social disruption. While prohibitions on marriage or even intercourse between Jews and non-Jews elicited little enthusiasm, laws stripping Jews of citizenship rights, removing them from government service and educational institutions, attacking their participation in the media and cultural activities, and circumscribing their economic activities were popular. The 1935 Nürnberg Laws establishing strict racial classifications of Jews similarly elicited virtually no public opposition. By 1937, though, only 130,000 of Germany's 540,000 "racial Jews" had emigrated. Restrictions in the West deterred the flow of refugees, and many acculturated Jews preferred to remain in their homeland. Nazi disruption of Jewish public and economic life in a sense strengthened Jewish communal institutions and structures. Jewish welfare and educational institutions became essential as the Nazis isolated Jews from public life, and new forms of communal representation took shape.

From 1938 until 1941, the stated goals of Nazi Jewish policy were the removal of all Jews from greater Germany and, pending that outcome, their complete isolation and segregation. Historians debate whether the Nazis followed a deliberate program (the "intentionalist" perspective) or whether the "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem" developed piecemeal (the "functionalist" view). Nazi policy clearly became radicalized in 1938, as the regime faced flagging popular support and embarked on an expansionist foreign policy. Annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939 brought more than 400,000 Jews into the Nazi orbit. In 1938 the Nazis openly encouraged pogroms; repealed the legal status of kehillot and dissolved most Jewish public organizations; stripped Jews of property and the rights to engage in labor, trade, or professional activities; and imposed other punitive and restrictive measures. Still, previous to 1939 public expectation that the state would maintain law and order constrained the regime's use of overt violence against Jews. In the meantime the Nazis endorsed the creation of a national Jewish communal organization. The organization facilitated the emigration of another 100,000 Jews, created a network of Jewish schools, and provided welfare for the masses of Jews impoverished by Nazi policies, in part by taxing those who still had property. The extent of Jewish poverty in the prewar Nazi realm is illustrated by conditions in Austria, where 32,000 of 58,000 Jews relied on communal welfare in fall 1939.

The September 1939 German invasion of Poland and the onset of war initiated a new stage in Nazi policy. The regime began deporting Jews from greater Germany to occupied Poland, where it concentrated Jews in ghettos. It also began using Polish Jews as slave laborers and in 1940 established the first concentration camps in Poland. The overcrowded ghetto populations of Warsaw, Łódź, and other cities suffered from hunger, disease, and grinding poverty. Once again communal councils bore the responsibility for social welfare, education, and the conduct of ghetto residents, and mediated relations with Nazi officials. Research emphasizes the variety of Jewish responses to ghettoization and divisions in the ghetto community, and there is controversy among historians particularly over the extent and significance of collaboration with the Nazis by communal councils struggling to create a modicum of social stability in desperate conditions. In occupied western Europe the Nazis imposed discriminatory laws on Jews in 1940, but a number of factors, including Nazi administrative difficulties, manpower shortages, and the high level of integration of Jews into society, prevented them from implementing reconcentrations, or roundups, for forced labor until 1942.

Nazi policy toward Jews became openly genocidal with the June 1941 invasion of eastern Poland and the USSR. Mobile killing units slaughtered well over a million Jews, often in mass actions, like the murder of 33,000 people at Babi Yar outside Kiev in September 1941. In December Nazi forces began using gas to kill Jews at extermination camps like Chełmno. By spring 1942 the Nazis had murdered some 1.5 million Jews. As the 1942 offensive in the east bogged down, the genocide escalated. Mass exterminations began at Auschwitz, Majdanek, and other labor camps, and the Nazis began mass deportations of Jews to camps and began killing Jews in ghettos. German military and police units, together with local collaborators, killed masses of Jews in smaller eastern European cities and towns. In summer 1942 the Nazis and collaborating local officials began relocating western European Jews to ghettos and concentration camps in the East. In the camps those incapable of work, in particular children and the elderly, were murdered directly; those who could work starved or were worked to death. By February 1943 the Jewish death toll had risen to over 4 million. As the war on the eastern front turned against Germany in 1943, the Nazis "liquidated" most remaining eastern European ghettos, killing residents outright or sending them to camps, while deportations to the camps continued in occupied territories across Europe. The last mass deportations, commenced in April 1944, removed the Hungarian Jews. In November 1944 gassing in the camps ended, but mass deaths in the camps continued as the Nazi war effort collapsed. Tens of thousands of Jews died of starvation and disease in the war's final weeks. By the end of the war the Holocaust had claimed the lives of between 5,596,000 and 5,860,000 Jews, approximately 60 percent of Europe's Jewish population. The death tolls were highest in eastern Europe—in Poland, the USSR, Hungary, Romania, and Lithuania.

No general social-historical interpretation of the Holocaust has emerged, although social-history methods have been applied to questions ranging from the social order in the ghettos and concentration camps to the brutalizing effects of war on the eastern front. Three issues reveal the difficulty of generalization: the social basis of support for genocidal policies in Germany, the social basis of collaboration with Nazi extermination policy in occupied territories, and the nature of Jewish resistance. Although it has been argued that the German populace as a whole shared "eliminationist" anti-Semitic attitudes, most Germans welcomed the exclusion of Jews but remained passive and silent in the face of Nazi genocide. Policemen and soldiers involved in mass killings relied on anti-Semitism to rationalize their atrocities, but the brutality and dehumanization of war on the eastern front and the pressures toward conformity were equally important factors in their actions. In much of western Europe, Nazi sympathizers and local officials collaborated in the deportation of Jews. Even in France and Holland, though, where collaboration was greatest, local officials were more willing to deport foreign Jews than natives. In both western and eastern Europe collaboration in Nazi atrocities transcended social categories. Peasant cooperation was especially common in eastern Europe, the product of long-standing anti-Semitism and antipathy toward Jewish middlemen in the countryside, accentuated by wartime hardships. Finally, the lack of widespread, armed Jewish resistance to the Nazis was a function not simply of passivity but also of the difficulty of obtaining arms and mounting resistance in the ghettos and camps. Even though few ghetto councils prepared for resistance and armed rebellion meant annihilation, revolts occurred in the Warsaw ghetto (April–May 1943) and at the camps at Sobibor (October 1943) and Auschwitz (October 1944). Moreover thousands of escaped Jews joined armed resistance movements, and an armed underground formed in several ghettos.


In the first few years following the war, at least a third of Europe's surviving Jews lived in displaced-persons camps, where they struggled to rebuild shattered families and community structures. The experience of the Holocaust cast a shadow over all aspects of Jewish life, in particular survivors' family lives. In general, though, the dominant patterns in post-1945 Jewish social history continued or elaborated pre-Holocaust dynamics.

Demographic trends in postwar Europe continued patterns established in the late 1800s. The first and most dramatic trend was mass emigration. The main destinations of emigrants were the Americas and Israel, established in 1948. By 1967 nearly a million Jews, a quarter of Europe's surviving Jewish population, had emigrated. Emigration increased after the period 1989–1991, as Jews fled eastern Europe and the former USSR. A second trend was continued declining birthrates among Europe's aging Jewish population, though the birthrates were no longer lower than those of the general populations. Between emigration and declining birthrates, Europe's Jewish population declined steadily. In 1946 Europe's surviving Jewish population was just under 4 million. By 1967 that number had fallen to just over 3 million with declines of over 300,000 in Romania, 200,000 in Poland, and 120,000 in Germany. By 1994 fewer than 2 million Jews remained, and the number in the former USSR fell by a million between 1967 and the end of the century. Only in Spain and France did Jewish populations rise. At the close of the twentieth century France's Jewish community numbered over 500,000, nearly a third of Europe's Jews. Many were immigrants from North Africa. Two other nineteenth-century social patterns, the paired processes of acculturation and embourgeoisement, also continued, and the meanings of Jewish identity and community remained contested.

Anti-Semitism, too, remained a factor in postwar Jewish life regardless of the decline in Jewish populations. Jews in Eastern Europe faced waves of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the first decade after the war, especially in Poland and the USSR. In periods of political or social tension, communist regimes sought to manipulate popular anti-Semitism. Ironically, one of the major elements of Eastern European popular anti-Semitism was the belief that Jews controlled the Communist parties. While a high percentage of Jews participated in several Eastern European Communist parties, most were later purged, as in Poland in 1967 and 1968. The most overt anti-Jewish violence was in Poland, where pogroms took the lives of as many as 1,500 Jews between 1945 and 1947. During the post-communist social disruption of the 1990s, nationalist movements in eastern Europe and Russia sought to manipulate popular anti-Semitism by associating Jews with both communism and rapacious capitalism. In western and central Europe ultranationalist movements played on the established themes of popular anti-Semitism. In France and Germany expressions of political and popular anti-Semitism were most common during periods of economic stagnation. Still, popular anti-Semitism remained a complex social phenomenon.

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