Footage of the newly invented machines that helped launch the Industrial Revolution is a fitting beginning to this program. The economic upheaval that swept the Western world, coupled with the political turmoil that saw its first fruits in the French Revolution, were to remake European society and, as a direct consequence, to refashion the role of the Jews within the countries of Europe. Organized religion was under attack; it was no longer seen as containing the ultimate truth for mankind. Rather, human reason, as celebrated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, appeared to be a fitting guide to contemporary society.
Jews both participated in and were affected by Enlightenment ideas. A major figure of the Jewish Enlightenment was Moses Mendelssohn, a friend of Gotthold Lessing (mentioned in the last chapter) and a prominent philosopher in his own right. In Source Reader Selection 1, Mendelssohn attempts a synthesis of Jewish teachings, especially Jewish law, and the demands of the general society.
Enlightenment ideas led to calls for a new political order in Europe. No longer would divine right be accorded kings, or a nobility or aristocracy claim any greater hold on society's benefits and honors. Society, the theorists argued, should be governed by those who showed themselves to be most fit and capable, not by those who received their mandate through heredity. The question for the Jews was where they would fit into this newly ordered society. Previously, they had been seen as a people apart. But if all legal distinctions between men were to disappear, where did that leave the Jews? Would they be able to maintain their group identity if they merged with the general society?
There were economic motivations for this new reordering of society. If each government benefited by maximally utilizing their citizens, it made no sense to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their religion. The Jews welcomed the opening of vast opportunities but wondered what their role would be in this new political and economic system.
The French Revolution erupted in 1789 and on August 27 its leaders declared that all men were equal. But did this statement include the Jews? Deputies of the National Assembly long debated the issue and came down on both sides of the question. (See Source Reader Selection 2.) For some, the Jews would always be a people apart, never taking their place in the French mainstream; for others, the Jews were to be accepted if they converted to Christianity; for still others, whose ideas eventually carried the day, the Jews had to be emancipated and granted equal rights, for only then would they be able to develop into worthwhile Frenchmen.
The Jews, however, were not all emancipated at once. The Jews who lived in southern France, who were of Sephardic origin, were given equal
rights in January 1790. (See Source Reader Selection 3.) But the Ashkenazic Jews of eastern France, who were poorer and mainly Yiddish-speaking, were not included in this declaration. When the French Constitution (see Source Reader Selection 4) declared liberty for all in September 1791, the Ashkenazim had to be emancipated. (See Source Reader Selection 5.)
Not all the Jews were sure that emancipation was a blessing. But for Berr Isaac Berr, whose words we hear in the video, it was a time for great rejoicing, as Jews were allowed to join their compatriots as Frenchmen. (Professor Michael Stanislawski has included a large excerpt from Berr's remarks in Source Reader Selection 6.)
But these revolutionary ideas affected more than French Jewry. When Napoleon began to conquer territories in Western Europe, he brought French revolutionary ideals with him, including those that maintained that the Jews were full citizens of the modern state. (See Source Reader Selection 7.) And some countries were simply affected by the French ideals: Prussia, for example, granted the Jews full political rights. (See Source Reader Selection 8.) Napoleon, while emancipating the Jews and destroying the ghetto walls that surrounded them, raised the Jewish question at home in France. He was vexed by the economic tensions that continued to erupt between the Ashkenazic Jews and the other inhabitants of northeastern France. While he struggled with this problem, the Jews were still treated as a group apart from the rest of society. Napoleon's stance on Jewish issues became more obvious when he called an assembly of Jews and asked them to reply to various questions, including whether Jews considered themselves Frenchmen. Even after legal emancipation, Jewish status was still being called into question.
Although emancipation was not revoked in France, it was turned back elsewhere in Western and Central Europe after Napoleon's defeat in 1815. The Congress of Vienna sought to reestablish the old political and social order, and the Jews' freedoms were curtailed by this reactionary program. The Jews in these countries were frustrated and sought, through political means, to put their homelands back on the liberal track. They were briefly successful during the 1848 revolution, but as explained in the TV series, the conservative forces won the day and the new reforms were rescinded.
England presented a different situation for the Jews. They were never formally emancipated, but restrictions on their political and social behavior were gradually discontinued. By 1858 Jews could be seated in Parliament, eleven years after the first Jew was elected. (See Source Reader Selection 9.) The debate over Lionel Rothschild's admission to the House of Commons is extensively treated in the video.
Modernity also affected the Jews socially and intellectually. Jews began to acculturate into the societies in which they lived as a means of economic and social advancement. The new ideas also affected Jews' views of Judaism. We have briefly mentioned Moses Mendelssohn and his ideals. But his synthesis did not appeal to those Jews who questioned
whether to remain Jewish at all. Especially in Western European countries, where political emancipation had not been granted to the Jews, some Jews attempted to refashion their Judaism to make it palatable to their compatriots. Many simply left their Jewish heritage behind, ever mindful of the poet Heine's advice, quoted in the video, that baptism was the ticket to European society.
But not all Jews wished to take this step. The movement for religious reform in Judaism argued that Jews no longer needed to follow specific rituals and observances. Rather, the core of their religion was ethical monotheism, and if a person lived according to those precepts he was a fine Jew. Students should realize that this refashioning of Judaism was both ideological and practical. (See Source Reader Selection 10.) The Jew would feel an obligation to spread his truth to others but had no connection to other Jews throughout the world; he could and wished to be a full participating member of the society in which he lived.
In their desire to reform Judaism, other Jews sought to investigate the Jewish past to determine what was the core of their religion and what could be considered peripheral. Another group, the Positive-Historical school, thought that the Reform movement had gone too far and argued for a more moderate approach to the reorganization of Judaism. (For more on this group, see Source Reader Selection 11.)
A more conservative approach was adopted by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and his Neo-Orthodox adherents. Willing to accept the benefits and responsibilities of emancipation, they nevertheless argued that they would not change any of the traditions enjoined upon the Jews. They adopted some of the philosophy and rhetoric of the Reform movement, yet they adhered closely to Jewish laws. (See Source Reader Selection 12.).
Slowly, the Jews were emancipated in the rest of Western Europe: in united Germany in 1869, and in unified Italy in 1870. (See Source Reader selections 13 and 14.) The majority of European Jews, though, were in the eastern half of the continent, and for these Jews the political, social and economic climate differed radically from that of their co-religionists in the West. Jews lived in what was formerly eighteenth-century Poland: in Western Poland, now under Prussian rule; in Galicia, now part of Austria; and in the semi-independent kingdom of Poland. Mainly they resided in Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine, all part of the greater Russian Empire. Although the Russian government had not allowed Jews to live within its borders, it acquired almost one million Jews when it took over Polish lands.
The Russian Jews were Yiddish-speaking and religiously observant; they were engaged in small-scale commerce and crafts. Many of them by the nineteenth century were aligned with Hasidic groups. (See Source Reader Selection 15.) In the video, voice-overs offer the words of typical individuals in a shtetl (town) of Eastern Europe. For a contrast to the members of the Hasidic groups, listen especially for the student of the Talmud and his concerns.
Politically the Russian Empire was ruled by a monarch whose power was unlimited. Socially, serfdom was the reality for the majority of the peasants. The Jews were limited in the area of their residence to approximately the same territories they had lived in while under Polish rule. They could not reside where they wanted within Russia. (See Source Reader Selection 16.) In such a society, Enlightenment ideas hardly made any headway. Those who were attracted to aspects of modern Jewish culture were in the distinct minority.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Tsar began to intrude more and more into Jewish communal affairs. By 1844, Jewish communal boards were abolished. In the next decade, the government tried to encourage Russian culture among the Jewish population. While the Westernized minority among the Jews welcomed this new turn of affairs, most of the Russians distrusted the Tsar's educational "reforms." (See Source Reader Selection 17, which is very revealing of the nature of Russian Jewish attitudes towards these foreign ideas.)
The recalcitrance of the masses did not stop the Russian Jewish Enlightenment from plowing ahead, creating new literary works in Hebrew and Yiddish and translating Western thinkers into the Jews' own languages. A call for a new Jewish intellectual consciousness was issued by Judah Leib Gordon, whose poem "Awake My People" (reproduced in Source Reader Selection 18) assures Jews that progress is at hand if they will only join hands with their. Russian compatriots.
When Alexander II ascended to the throne in 1855, the Jews in Russia were filled with hope. He emancipated the serfs in 1861 and generally appeared to be modernizing Russian society. But these hopes for the future, such as those expressed by J. L. Gordon, were soon to be dashed.
By the 1870's any observer of the Jewish scene across the European continent would argue that things were getting much better for this oft-oppressed minority. Jews were emancipated in the West, and ideas of reason and progress appeared to be constantly gaining ground.
But what this view overlooked was that, for many other groups in society, the influence of modern ideas had been detrimental to their economic and political status. Agricultural laborers, clergymen, small shopkeepers and factory workers all looked upon the developments of the past century as destructive to their lives. What emerged from their distress was the belief that the Jews who appeared to benefit from the changes of modernity were the prime movers behind all of their misfortunes. Theological anti-Judaism was rediscovered, cleansed of its religious overtones and combined with racist ideas. This modern anti-Semitic ideology was employed by people on both ends of the political spectrum and was used as a basis for the founding of new political parties. A full discussion of modern anti-Semitism is presented in the television program.
In Eastern Europe, the hopes for reform, fueled by the policies of Alexander II, abruptly ended when the Tsar was assassinated in 1881. Soon after, hundreds of Jews were injured and killed and Jewish stores were destroyed as pogroms broke out in Russia. It was widely known that government officials often stood by while the Jews were attacked. The government enacted the infamous May laws, which further restricted Jewish economic life in the wake of the destruction. (See Source Reader Selection 19.)
At the same time in Western Europe, anti-Semitism was on the rise. In France, the home of the revolution, a Jewish army official was falsely accused of conspiring with Germany against France. Anti-Semites used the Dreyfus Affair to call the whole issue of Jewish patriotism into question. After many years of much protest, Dreyfus was exonerated.
One of the leaders in his behalf was the writer Emile Zola, whose famous call, "J'accuse," is found in Source Reader Selection 20. His words are also included in the TV show.
Shaping a Future
After these events, in both Eastern and Western Europe, many Jews rethought their attitude towards emancipation and acculturation. For some Jews, among them the Vienna-born journalist Theodor Herzl, the Dreyfus case was the last straw leading to the realization that the Jews would never be accepted within modern European society.
Herzl, affected by European nationalism, founded the Zionist movement, an organization pledged to create a separate national homeland for the Jewish people. (See Source Reader Selection 21, which contains an excerpt from Herzl's "The Jewish State.")
Some Zionist thinkers did not see this new Jewish state as simply a political solution to the Jewish problem. They envisioned a national entity that would nourish world Jewry intellectually and spiritually. The new Hebrew culture to be created in this homeland would be of great consequence for oppressed Jewry. Western notions of emancipation were "slavery in freedom" to Ahad Ha'am. (See Source Reader Selection 22.)
Some Jews within Russia did not long for a separate Jewish homeland because they deemed the Zionist dream impractical. Rather, they imagined that Jews should possess national autonomy within the European societies in which they lived. One of the spokesmen for this Diaspora nationalism was the historian Simon Dubnov; an excerpt from his writings is found in Source Reader Selection 23. For many Russian Jews, however, a separate national entity was no solution. They felt that Jews should fight for a social revolution to create a totally new society in which no forms of prejudice would be recognized.
Alongside this frenzied Jewish political activity of all stripes, Yiddish and Hebrew writers in Eastern Europe were creating gems of literature attuned to modern sensibilities. The video often refers to the corpus of Jewish literature that developed at this time. In Source Reader Selection 24 you will find H. N. Bialik's "In the City of
Slaughter," one of the most moving poems in modern Hebrew literature. Bialik excoriates traditional Jewish society for creating a type of Jew who could not resist his attackers during the Kishinev pogroms of 1903. Whether or not Bialik was correct in his analysis, his poem stands as a monument to the feelings of many Jews in Eastern Europe who were impatient with the oppressive status quo.
A New Century
This period of modern Jewish history came to an end in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. In the aftermath of the "war to end all wars," new options would be created and new dangers would loom over Jewry throughout the world.