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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Also: Civil Rights; Jewish People; Status of the Jews Definitions and Dialectics

Emancipation of the Jews in modern times stands alongside such other emancipatory movements as those of the serfs, women, slaves in the United States, and Catholics in England. The term "emancipation" is derived from Latin (emancipation), and originally meant in ancient Rome the liberation of a son from the authority of his father and his attainment of independent legal status. It has come to mean the liberation of individuals or groups from servitude, legal restrictions, and political and social disabilities. Jewish emancipation denotes the abolition of disabilities and inequities applied specially to Jews, the recognition of Jews as equal to other citizens, and the formal granting of the rights and duties of citizenship. Essentially the legal act of emancipation should have been simply the expression of the diminution of social hostility and psychological aversion toward Jews in the host nation. Indeed, Jewish emancipation was related to the weakening of the general social antipathy toward Jews; but the antipathy was not obliterated, and constantly hampered the realization of equality even after it had been proclaimed by the state and included in the law. Emancipation was achieved by ideological and social change and political and psychological strife. Before achieving full emancipation, the Jews in many countries passed through several transitional stages. They had to overcome the barriers of vested interests and such ancient prejudices as the hateful image of the Jew as alien, his religion odious, and his economics unscrupulous. Ideologically, emancipation stemmed from the utopian political and social thought since the 18th century. Emancipation was, however, dependent on actual political and social conditions in each country and on the residential, cultural, and social characteristics of the Jewish population. Stages in the history of emancipation have been marked by the strength or weakness of egalitarian ideology and the corresponding interaction with existing laws, institutions, and relationships.

The Three Periods in the History of Jewish Emancipation
The first period, "heralding emancipation," covered the 50 years preceding the French Revolution (1740-89). The second period, the 90 years from the French Revolution until the Congress of Berlin (1789-1878), comprised emancipation in Western and Central Europe. Finally, the third period extended from the Congress of Berlin to the Nazis' rise to power (1878-1933), and saw in an atmosphere charged with newly inflamed hatred and racial animosity the achievement of Jewish emancipation in Eastern Europe, and the struggle in many countries to maintain civic equality and the right to national definition.

Among the Jewish initiatives toward obtaining civic liberation, the literary activity of Moses Mendelssohn is of historic importance, and the demands of Zalkind Hourwitz are worth noting. The petitions for equal rights and "equality in religious rights," presented by U.S. Jews in 1784 and 1787, set an example which was later widely followed.

The second period opens with the principles and wars of the French Revolution and ends with the resolutions and tactics of the Congress of Berlin. In the intervening 90 years, Jewish emancipation became a political and legal fact in all European countries where revolution and liberalism were in the ascendancy: France Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. The revolutionary peaks of 1789-91, 1830-31, 1848-49 and times of fundamental change in the structure of European states (e.g., unification of Germany and of Italy, and national independence in Hungary) were periods of progress in Jewish emancipation. Even where the emancipation evolved from legislation created within the permanent framework of the existing order (England and Scandinavia), or as the result of international circumstances (Switzerland), or international pressure (Serbia; Bulgaria), the relation between the new liberal political climate and the emancipation of the Jews was decisive. The ideals of the Enlightenment were also evident in the numerous arguments and lengthy literary and political deliberations on Jewish emancipation which took place during this period. It was stressed that keeping the Jews in a politically limited and socially inferior status was incompatible with the principle of civic equality. Such deprivation would be a contradiction of the principle of "natural rights" of man, and, therefore, would undermine the civic equality of all who had attained it by revolution and the application of this principle. Emphasis was placed on the belief that "it is the objective of every political organization to protect the natural rights of man," hence "all citizens have the right to all the liberties and advantages of citizens, without exception."

As men, Jews should be guaranteed political rights in the countries in which they reside. Their ethnic origin and messianic hopes notwithstanding, the Jews had adopted the language and the culture of their environment; they were loyal to the state and identified themselves with the national feelings of their fellow countrymen. The activity of Jews in the struggle for their rights was bound up with their energetic participation in the general striving toward political liberty and egalitarianism as exemplified by Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Boerne, Johann Jacoby, Ignaz Kuranda; by the journalists and parliamentarians Gabriel Riesser, Berr Isaac Berr, Moritz Veit, Sir David Salomons, and Lionel Nathan Rothschild; and by the statesman Adolphe Cremieux, who in 1870 issued in the name of the French government the law which conferred French citizenship on the Jews of Algeria. Jewish society fought for its emancipation not only through general institutions (the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Central consistory of Paris, individual communities), but also through organizations specifically devoted to this aim. The Alliance Israelite Universelle worked energetically for its declared goal "of striving universally for the freedom of the Jews."

The third period (1878-1933) witnessed a reaction to Jewish emancipation, and in Europe was marked with the prevalence of rabid anti-Semitism. Intense opposition brought many Jews to realize that the state's legal recognition of Jewish civic and political equality does not automatically bring social recognition of this equality. The controversy over Jewish emancipation intensified and became embittered in almost every European country. Racism and nationalism were the bases for anti-emancipation agitation. Opponents claimed that emancipation was granted under the false pretenses that Judaism is only a religion, and that emancipated Jews would give up all Jewish national identity and assimilate into the host nations. The "price of admittance" had not been paid by most Jews, who continued to form a separate national group. Even in the view of many liberals, the claim of Jews for participation in the government of the nation in which they were not an organic part was unjustified. Racists added that Jews should not be granted civil rights or become assimilated because their racial inferiority could only harm the "superior race." Throughout its difficult and complex history, Jewish emancipation was a touchstone of freedom and social openness in European culture. Support came from those who cherished liberalism in life, thought, and politics, while bitter opposition came mostly from the reactionary camp. In Jewish life the fight for emancipation at first went hand in hand with a readiness to assimilate, and then, in the late 19th century, became associated with national Jewish loyalty and autonomy.


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