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Did Emancipation Benefit the Jews?

Did Emancipation Benefit the Jews?

Herzl and his children in 1900

Emancipation for the Jewish people in Europe was paradoxical – it was liberation, and it was false hope. Emancipation gave European Jews legal solace and hope for their future in society. However, European Jews were still persecuted before and after their freedoms were granted. Following acts of emancipation were often anti-Jewish protests as the popular opinion towards emancipation was negative. It was the aristocracy who had the power to vote, not the masses.

So, though the law protected Jews, they were still generally unaccepted by European society. Though legal emancipation did not imply social emancipation, European Jews still did their best to assimilate into society. As seen through the decisions of prominent Jewish Europeans in the 19th century, the options for Jews were generally as follows: remain Jewish, convert to Christianity, flee the country, or become Reform. Each course of action led to different results, which will be further explained in this essay. 

Remaining Jewish in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries was an obstacle. Jews in Russia were never emancipated and were persecuted directly by their own government. The Pale of Settlement, finalized in 1812, confined the Jews to the Western region of Russia. They could not travel or live outside the Pale, they could not work or live in villages beyond their boundaries, and as a result, the Jews became impoverished.

In 1827, Nicholas I conscripted Jewish males ages 12-25 and forced them to become Baptized. Jews were barred from academia, juries, and ranked military positions, and in 1881, government-backed pogroms began. As shown in Russian writer Mendele’s “The Mare,” the prince-turned-Mare was cursed with a life of starvation, and bountyless work, symbolizing the neverending Jewish plight. The Russian Jews retained their faith, traditions, and memories, but at a high cost. Emancipation would have prevented much harm and suffering for Russian Jews. 

Mendele Mocher Sefarim

19th-century German Jews lived better lives than their Russian counterparts. Emancipated in 1871, German Jews were protected by the law and could support themselves. Before and after emancipation, the epitome of Jewish success was the Rothschild family. The Rothschilds were a German family of private bankers who acquired mass wealth, held tremendous power, and were generally popular. They were proof of Jewish success and symbolic of a Jewish future in Germany. The Jews had faith in Germany’s protection and repaid their country by enlisting in the army.

This faith, though, was, in some ways, the catalyst for their demise.

Because of their faith in Germany, the Jews did not flee Europe. Instead, they chose to secularize in hopes of a fate that never came. Throughout the next half century, their emancipation was slowly reversed until the end of World War II. Emancipation in Germany was a temporary solution. Ephemeral freedoms should not be devalued, but this false hope led Jews to have faith in a society that would one day attempt to destroy them altogether. 

Another effect of emancipation was the conversion of many European Jews to Christianity. Though emancipation allowed Jews to live comfortably, many still felt limited in opportunity. They questioned whether they should stay loyal to a dated faith that inhibited potential success. Emancipation was a slow process, and Baptism was an immediate solution. For this reason, at least 250,000 European Jews were baptized in the 19th century.

In 1822, Jews were excluded from state academic postings, which triggered many Jewish professionals to convert. Eduard Gans, a well-known Jewish lecturer at the University of Berlin, found that he could not further his career because of his religion. In 1825, he chose to convert. Henrich Heine, born the same year as Gans, also converted in 1825 to further his academic career. Heine deemed the phrase that Baptism was a Jew’s “entrance ticket to European culture.” Emancipation should have prevented this necessity. Instead, it promoted mass secularization. 

Heine was a product of emancipation. He was sent to a secular school, studied the Lutheran bible, and wrote in German. As a Jew in academia, he was burdened by his religion. One question any Jew in academia had to ask was what language he would write in. Yiddish, the language of the Jews, was not respected. Hebrew, the archaic language of the Israelites, was respected on an academic level but unknown to most non-Jewish Germans. German was generally accepted but not known to all Jews.

This is indicative of the lack of social acceptance for the Jews. Heine, now a Christian, wrote in German and directed many of his works toward Germans. He became a hero of European culture; he was widely read, and his works were used in German school textbooks. However, Jewish emancipation was not what catapulted him into German fame. The extent of his fame would have been lessened had he not been Baptized. In fact, years later, during the Nazi regime, his name was removed from German textbooks, and his statue was used as a target practice due to his Jewish heritage. 

Another product of emancipation was Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister during the late 1800s. In 1826, all restrictions against Jews in Britain were lifted. At age twelve, before emancipation, Disraeli converted to Christianity. Though emancipation went into effect after his conversion, it still helped him succeed and be accepted in his political career. Disraeli used his status in the Congress of Berlin in 1876 to protect all religious rights, which included the rights of the Jews.

Benjamin Disraeli

Furthermore, he was a mixture of modern and new ideologies. He blamed the Christians for not acknowledging the positive characteristics of Judaism, and he blamed the Jews for not attempting to understand and acclimate to Christianity, which he termed “complete Judaism.” Legal emancipation did provide opportunities for Jews, but the absence of social emancipation countered much progress. Emancipation cracked a door that was eventually shut. The mass secularization triggered by Emancipation ultimately weakened the Western European Jewish community. 

For many Jews, emancipation did not suffice, so they fled Europe. In Russia, where the government orchestrated anti-semitic acts, emigration was a popular option. The first pogrom occurred in 1881, and throughout that year and 1882, an average of 50 to 60 thousand Jews left Russia and went West. Two million went to the U.S. and created a prosperous American Jewry. They established synagogues, observed Judaism, and the children learned English. Russians Jews found solace in America. Western European Jews, on the contrary, continued to suffer through their disillusioned hope for “complete emancipation.”

Theodore Herzl was a singular Jew who saw emancipation for what it was – not enough.
Herzl (seated in the middle) with members of the Zionist Organization in Vienna, 1896

He was a successful Jewish journalist and political activist – another symbol of success post-emancipation. However, shortly after witnessing the Dreyfus trial in 1894, when an innocent French Jew became framed and charged with treason. Herzl wrote The State of the Jews in 1895. He united the Eastern Jews and Western Jews with the idea of true emancipation. He wrote that emancipation failed the Jews and that a Jewish state is an ideal solution.

Alfred Dreyfus in his room on Devil’s Island in 1898

Most European Jews merely fought to be human. They were willing to shed their religious identity to be accepted by society. Herzl is a Jew who fought to be Jewish. Because of him, the state of Israel exists, which in part, ensures the existence of Jews.

If emancipation had never been granted to the European Jews at all, perhaps they would have fought for religious rights as well as their human rights. Or, perhaps European Jews would have fled Europe altogether and spearheaded the Zionist movement much earlier. 

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (1850 painting by David Roberts)
Did Emancipation Benefit the Jews?

Reform Judaism was another product of Jewish emancipation. This branch of Judaism was the alternative to complete assimilation. As Paul Johnson says in A History of Jews, it was a way for Jews to remain Jewish, but without having to “defy the world” to do so. Emancipation led to the birth of the secular Jew, who had received a secular education but retained the essence of his own religion. Reform Judaism introduced Christian-style sermons, organ music, choral singing, etc. Johnson said that it was an enlightened Jew’s attempt to “remove the taint of ridicule from Jewish forms of worship.”

Rabbi Geiger, a Reform leader in Germany, preached the rebuilding of Judaism and the modernization of Jewish thought. He introduced prayers that weren’t in Hebrew, criticized circumcision, and allowed for breaches of the Sabbath. Another German Reform leader, Rabbi Holdheim, preached similar ideologies. He did not emphasize the importance of circumcision and emphasized professional duties over the observance of Shabbat. Reform Judaism lacked a singular leader and could not take a strong hold in Europe for the lack of a clear platform.

However, it did take a strong hold amongst American Jewry. In 1880, approximately 90% of American synagogues were Reform. European-American Jews created a successful community in their new country. They were the foundation for the thriving Jewish community in New York, which ultimately led to a prosperous Jewish lineage in America. Emancipation allowed for this new sect of Judaism to arise and made way for a successful compromise for many Jews. 

The effects of Emancipation are controversial.
Bodies of inmates of the Mittelbau-Dora Nazi concentration camp

Though it led to a delusionally strong patriotism in Germany, it also ensured the physical well-being and protection of many Jews in most Western European countries. So though the solace was imperfect, it granted many Jewish families the strength to move forward, grow their families, and have faith in something. And though this idealism was misguided, the hope that better things will come is a more optimistic way to live. On the other hand, the Russians were never granted emancipation and suffered greatly. Though many Russian Jews emigrated to Israel or America and were able to flourish eventually, their plight was tragic and degrading. Western European Jews fought a slow battle against antisemitism.

Moreover, the British Jews waited for many years until they could hold positions in Parliament and eventually attack anti-semitism from a legitimate position of power. With perspective, this civilized method of battle was not successful, as anti-semitism only grew with the rise of the Nazi party. However, the small victories of the Jews were crucial to morale.

In conclusion, without emancipation, the Jews may have felt so downtrodden there is a chance the religion would forfeit its primary tenets altogether.

Furthermore, social emancipation discussed in this essay is not only a historical issue. Anti-semitism appears today in many forms, blatant and hidden. So, maybe if the Jews had realized what was to come, they would have fled sooner or acted with more force. In any light, emancipation for Western European Jews was a victory and allowed for more happiness than sorrow.

Did Emancipation Benefit the Jews?

Written by Lila Baer

Did Emancipation Benefit the Jews?