Jewish Emancipation in Western Europe

Liberty, equality, fraternity: Was it good for the Jews?

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How could a community-based religion like Judaism fit into a society based on individual rights? How could a religious minority long considered theologically and socially inferior realize equality? How could a religious minority survive and thrive in an increasingly secular society? These issues comprised what would come to be known as “The Jewish Question” in the modern period. The following article outlines the political paths that the nations of Western Europe pursued in response to the Jewish question as it related to citizenship. It is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

Recognizing that Jews were equal to other citizens and working toward the legal abolition of disabilities and inequities were ideals that began to materialize in Western Europe only two centuries ago. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the manifesto of the French Revolution, inspired by the spirit of the Enlight­enment, implied Jewish equality. The law passed by the Constituent Assembly on September 27, 1791, the first act of full emancipation by a Christian state, was perceived by the Jews as an historic turn which heralded a future of happiness. "France... is our Palestine, its mountains are our Zion, its rivers our Jordan. Let us drink the water of these sources; it is the water of liberty... ! " (a letter to La Chronique de Paris, 1791). 

map of western europeAfter the French Revolution, emancipation became the central issue for Jews everywhere, but each community had to maintain its own struggle for emancipation. In most places, the legal decision was the crowning achievement of a lengthy process of economic and social integration. However, in some cases--as in France itself--emancipation preceded the renunciation of traditional Jewish society: it was the liberals' struggle for the universal application of' "natural rights" which ensured the civil equality of the Jews.

Conte de Clermont‑Tonnere, in his famous speech to the National Assembly (December 1789), explicitly demanded that the Jews not be excluded from article X of the Declaration of Rights ("No man ought to be molested because of his opinions, including his religious opinions"). Therefore, he said, "The Jews shouldbe denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals." The revolutionary French armies exported this type of emancipa­tion to all the countries they conquered.

Whether it was the result of a deliberate choice (as in France), or imported and enforced (as in Italy and Germany), or a product of an extended process of socio‑cultural maturation (as in Austro‑Hungary), emancipation was never a linear nor a painless process. The customary religious hostility toward the Jews, characteristic of traditional pre­industrial societies, was reinforced by modern ideologies and political forces, both conservative and revolutionary, which regarded Jewish equality with fear and antagonism. These animosities often merged with the opposition to Napoleon who extended the scope of emancipation with his military victories.

Thus, Jewish emancipation in Europe suffered major regression during the years following the Congress of Vienna (1814‑1815), which ended the age of the Revolution and sought to reestablish peace in Europe based on the restoration of the old order. Nevertheless, liberal and democratic forces everywhere took up the cause of Jewish emancipation and turned it into a central issue in their political campaign. On the eve of the revolution of 1848, the idea of Jewish equality could no longer be ignored anywhere in the west.

The upheavals which rocked Europe in the mid‑nineteenth century resulted, admittedly, in only a few formal changes. Popular anti-Jewish feelings, the reticence of governments, and nationalist fermentation in multi‑national empires, all still played a central role in restricting the full and legal admission of the Jews into society. But as the West was shedding, at an uneven but irreversible pace, its feudal and traditional structures, and entering a liberal, bourgeois, individualist, and industrial age, the equality of all citizens was becoming an essential condition of modernity.

When Switzerland granted the Jews equal rights in 1874, the process that had begun in Paris almost a century earlier was completed: Jewish emancipation in the West was by now an established political and legal fact. This nineteenth‑century achievement, however, was rather fragile, andwas therefore easily destroyed in certain European countries with the rise of twentieth-century racist ideologies. This goes to show that legal and full political participation do not necessarily lead to social acceptance and recognition.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University