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Manual for Faculty
Unit 6: Roads from the Ghetto
(1789 to 1914)
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Program Overview

It was the era of the Industrial and French revolutions, of economic and political change. Aristocrats and monarchs were deposed and the middle class came to the fore. Napoleon's conquests brought French revolutionary ideals to Western Europe and with them the concept that all men were equal. Ghetto walls that surrounded the Jews came tumbling down and the Jews were faced with a dilemma. They had to determine how much of their Jewish identity they would have to compromise in order to integrate themselves fully into Western society.

Napoleon was defeated, liberalism suffered a setback, and the promises of equality were postponed. Some of the Jews felt that only through baptism could they be accepted in the European world. Previously, Moses Mendelssohn had argued that a Jew could embrace Western ideas while maintaining his own culture. Now, some Jews argued that Judaism needed to be reformed before they would be accepted by their countrymen. Traditionalist Jews disagreed with them on the amount of accommodation needed.

The Jews rose to new political heights but there were obstacles. Lionel Rothschild of the famous banking family was prevented from taking his seat in the English Parliament because he refused to take the requisite oath of allegiance to the Christian faith. Finally he was permitted his seat.

In Eastern Europe, Enlightenment ideas did not gain currency and the Jews' places of residence were restricted. The area permitted within Russia was called the Pale of Settlement. Most of the Jews continued their traditional life, though some sought to integrate Western ideas with Jewish practices. Under Tsar Alexander II hope arose for the reform of Russian society, but in 1881 he was assassinated and later that year riots broke out against the Jews. Anti-Semitism was fueled by economic competition and traditional Church hatred of the Jews.

The Jews faced prejudice in Western Europe but did not suffer violent attacks. Anti-Semites exploited people's difficulties in modern society and blamed the Jews for their dislocation. Conservatives and liberals alike saw the Jews as destructive to the fabric of society.

In response to the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French Jew was wrongly accused of treason, many Frenchmen were inflamed with anti-Semitic sentiment. For one acculturated Jew, Theodor Herzl, it meant that the Jews had to build their life in a land separate from Europe. Under his leadership the Zionist movement emerged as a response to the rising prejudice. But not all Jews were interested in rebuilding a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Many sought other ways to express their Jewish nationality, such as the Jewish socialist movement.

In Western Europe prior to World War I, the Jews entered Western society but were perceived as separate. During the war Jews fought alongside their countrymen on both sides of the front. After the war, hope for a Jewish state received an unexpected boost. The British, who now controlled Palestine, offered the Jews the right to establish a national homeland in Palestine.

Learning Objectives
  • Define modernity and its challenges to traditional Jewish life.
  • Trace the granting of equal rights to Jews in the West.
  • Examine the emergence of new forms of religious and political expression among Jews as a response to emancipation.
  • Understand the differences between modern Jewish history in Western and Eastern Europe in terms of emancipation, religious reform, and the nature of anti-Semitism and the Jewish response.

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