May 25, 2013
Milton Viorst on the Emancipation of Europe’s Jews
Posted on Jan 22, 2010
But another major factor was the increasing dominance of capitalism, for which Jews seemed to have an aptitude, over static agrarian culture. Until modern times, ghettoized Jews had run their own school systems, in which virtually all their children learned to read. They had also developed a wide communications network for consultations on provisions of Jewish law. Some historians theorize further that Jews, used to the daily perils of anti-Semitism, were more comfortable with risk. Whatever the explanation, Jews were better prepared for the new money economy than their agrarian neighbors. Europe, however, resented their success, and in time its dormant anti-Semitism awoke.
And so Emancipation, buffeted by capitalism, retreated. More than a few Jews, recognizing its fragility, thought they would be protected by conversion. Among the most celebrated, and most sensitive, was Heinrich Heine, the brilliant German-Jewish poet, who is a favorite of Goldfarb. Heine quickly understood that his conversion had gotten him nothing and, in anger, he left Germany for the more liberal France. From Paris he wrote to an old friend, “I am now hated by Christian and Jew. I regret very much that I had myself baptized. … Since then, I have had nothing but misfortune.”
Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance
By Michael Goldfarb
Simon & Schuster, 432 pages
Emancipation suffered a near-fatal crash in 1881, when the czar’s government in Russia unleashed bloody pogroms on the Jews of the Pale of Settlement. Russia’s capitalism had produced unruly hordes of impoverished workers and peasants, who threatened the regime’s stability. When Czar Alexander II was assassinated—though the perpetrators were not Jews—his successor reasoned that he could pacify the hordes by turning them loose on the Jews. The bloodshed lasted for several years, undermining the conviction of Jews—especially of Enlightenment Jews—that they had a future in Europe.
That is when Russia’s Jews—my own grandparents among them—fell back on the Jews’ ancient practice of fleeing oppression, and began their mass exodus to America. Significantly, most Orthodox Jews, heeding their rabbis’ warning to shun godless asylums, remained; half a century later, they became Nazism’s principal victims. But many Enlightenment Jews, more psychologically than legally emancipated, made the unprecedented decision of taking Jewish destiny into their own hands.
Though the Enlightenment had failed to keep its promises to the Jews, it transformed Europe’s Jewish community. As no Jews before them, post-Napoleonic Jews were heavily secular, unwilling to submit to an inferior social status and skeptical about the sagacity of their rabbis. They were determined at last to be masters of their fate. In West Europe, many took the avenues to influence that liberal societies had opened to them. In the far more repressive East, substantial numbers seized the flag of Marxism or other revolutionary doctrines. But many others joined together to establish a counter-nationalism, called Zionism, where they laid the foundation of a Jewish state.
All of these Jews, in one way or another, were the offspring of the Enlightenment and of its adopted child, Emancipation. I wish that Goldfarb had told us more about them within this vitally important context.
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