Jewish History, 1700 to 1914

Print this page Print this page

Emancipation and enlightenment changed Jewish life between 1700 and 1914. The philosophies of the European Enlightenment, including rationalism (the idea that a person could govern his or her own actions on the basis of reason) and natural law (the idea that every person possessed the right to unlimited independence) inspired the emancipation of the Jews (that is, the process by which they gained equal rights).

One of the first individuals to speak and write about the connections between rationalism, natural law and Jewish citizenship was a Christian, Wilhelm Van Dohm (1751-1820). Dohm set the tone for the debate on Jewish emancipation in Germany with the publication of his book, On the Civil Improvement of the Jews, in which he argued that a Jew was more a man than he was a Jew. By this Dohm meant that a Jew was endowed by nature with the same capacity for life, liberty and happiness as a Christian. If Jews seemed superstitious, unsocial and unsavory it was because they had been subject to oppressive conditions for many generations. Lift the oppressive conditions, argued Dohm, and the Jews will better themselves. They will become productive, useful members of the state.

Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), a colleague of Dohm, spearheaded Enlightenment among the Jews. Mendelssohn broke the traditional mold of the Jewish scholar by pursuing subjects beyond Judaism. He became a prominent philosopher whose writings, most famously Jerusalem, outlined his vision of religious tolerance and pluralism. Mendelssohn was a forerunner of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement, which emerged and developed from the mid-eighteenth to the late-nineteenth centuries, and aimed to spread modern European culture among the Jews.

Individuals like Mendelssohn and Van Dohm provided the intellectual background for Jewish political and social emancipation. The political, social and economic climate of individual nations determined the pace and process of emancipation in each. For example, the road to emancipation was short in France (citizenship for Jews was granted 1791), long and bumpy in Germany (where it took 100 years and required the Jews to demonstrate time and again that they could be productive members of society) and brutal and never-ending for Russian Jews. The ongoing harsh conditions imposed on Russian Jews by the Tsarist government fueled two great Jewish movements of the time: Zionism and Socialism.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.