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A People That Shall Dwell Alone…”

Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870

by Jacob Katz
Harvard University Press, 271 pp., $12.00

Since World War II a number of important studies have been published in Israel, America, England, and Germany on the complex subject of the Jews who tried to leave the ghetto at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. The immense fight for emancipation of these Jews, their aspiration to enter European society on the basis of equality, economic as well as political, have been the subject of intense scholarship, much of it naturally turning on the role of Germany during this crucial period.1

The revival of interest in this subject bears on two related questions. Why did Germany, of all European countries, adopt the most anti-Semitic policy toward the Jews, one that led to the Nazi holocaust and the extermination of over six million Jews? And can the regeneration of Jewish nationalism be interpreted as the direct result of the total or partial failure of emancipation? In other words, the appearance of emancipation as a political phenomenon is considered by many scholars to be the starting point of both modern, secular anti-Semitism and of the birth of Jewish national consciousness.

Different answers were given to these questions. Sometimes these answers were diametrically opposed. The conclusion reached by each historian often reflects his national environment and its political conditions. A famous Soviet historian, M. Pokrovsky, once said that history is but a projection of present politics to the past. The saying, while largely false, contains a grain of truth.

A brief survey of the Jews in Europe on the eve of the French Revolution shows a very mixed picture. The majority of Jews, the Ashkenazim, lived in Poland, Galicia, and Russia (after the first partition of Poland, the latter acquired a large Jewish population). They were almost completely enclosed within themselves, living in compact, mainly urban Jewish communities, where they often formed the majority of the population. In these declining self-governing communities, voluntary societies—known as Hevroth—proliferated. Their social and religious purposes were various and they were riven by bitter inner religious polemics between the new group of Hasidim and their opponents—the Mithnagedim. They had minimal contact with the outside world; in the Biblical phrase: “It is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” Like the rest of the population the Jews did not enjoy any political rights, and most were destitute.

Another large group of Jews—the Sephardim—lived in Turkey and the Balkans. Economically they were better off, but they had far less autonomy in their own communities, and were without any political rights. This vast conglomeration of Jews did not try to improve their political status. Their only wish was to be left in peace, strictly adhering to the letter of Jewish law and somehow relying on religious hope, summed up in the abstract Hebrew word Bittahon, that they could manage to eke out a living. Both groups were large, comprising nearly two million Jews. Both lived in the twilight of a slowly disintegrating medieval world.

A very different picture, again not a uniform one, prevailed in the Western and Central European countries. Here Jews were comparatively few. In Italy, the oldest Jewish community in Europe, there were about thirty thousand. In France, including Alsace where the Ashkenazim were concentrated, Bordeaux with a Sephardic component, and in Comtat Venaissin—the former Papal States, where the real French Jews lived—there were altogether forty-five thousand. In England their numbers fluctuated between twenty and twenty-five thousand. In Holland, it is estimated there were about fifty thousand. In the little kingdoms and cities of the Germanic states, up to the first partition of Poland in 1772, there were about sixty-five thousand. In Austria-Hungary their combined numbers probably did not exceed 100,000. In England, Holland, the Italian cities, and the Bordeaux area Jews were treated, economically, relatively well. Politically they were tolerated, not molested, although they had few rights. Hostility toward them was most violent in other parts of France and, particularly, in the Germanic states.

Traditional Jewish society before the French Revolution can be mainly characterized by its basic, autonomous self-governing institutions in a hierarchical order, based on a kind of alliance between the wealthy and learned Jews, who were frequently linked through marriage. Legally the Jews can be compared to a medieval corporation, which imposed its own discipline and rules on its members. Breaking the rules meant for the offender being partially or completely ostracized (Herem), a condition well described by one observer as a powerful prison without bars. Jews, whether they liked it or not, had to belong to the Jewish community. The Jew could not remain separate from the community—the Kehillah. Breaking the rules, in the Jewish legal sense, led frequently to conversion, which cut the offending Jews from the body politic. Spinoza remains the sole example of a Jew being expelled from the community who did not join a church but instead defiantly called himself just a human being, belonging to the universe—uomo universale.

The restraints imposed by the Jewish communities varied from place to place, and from country to country. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a select group of Jews—the court Jews (Hoff-Juden)—emerged in the Germanic states and in the Austrian empire, gaining influence in the various courts as government agents, factors, responsible for the financial administration, taxation, providing fodder, food, uniforms, and other needs for the army, and moreover raising loans for the monarchs. In effect they were pioneers in civil service and book-keeping, and were the forerunners of early capitalism, in the mercantile, not industrial, sense. Many of these people had to become fluent in German and French. They lived in the style of the nobility; they patronized the arts—in their case, a revival of an old Jewish art, illumination of Hebrew manuscripts, which had almost disappeared in Europe with the invention of printing, but which re-emerged in Bohemia-Moravia at the end of the seventeenth century and flourished through the eighteenth century. The children of these Jews received private instruction in European languages, culture, music, and dancing.

What is more revealing is that many people belonging to this group of nouveaux riches became lax in their religious observances, even though they continued to live amid their brethren. During the day they mixed with the local patricians and government administrators, but in the evening they had to return to the ghetto. Their importance in the courts of the Central European monarchies made them immune to the restrictions demanded by the leaders of the Jewish communities. They were free from the Herem. Furthermore, through their government connections the court Jews frequently became spokesmen for the Jews. They were not elected by the communities. Their economic activities made them self-appointed intermediaries between the Jews and the various kings. They frequently tried to help Jews who were threatened with expulsion, heavy fines, and other forms of punishment. Their courtly business made them indispensable to the rest of the Jews. Paradoxically they were, unknown to themselves, the pioneers of Jewish emancipation. They were the first to loosen the bonds of the Jewish corporate existence, and by opening a window in traditional Jewish life to secular elements they thereby undermined its structure.

Curiously enough the second group to become largely indifferent to religious observances was the large number of Jewish vagabonds, shady characters, and petty criminals, who frequently formed gangs with gentiles from the underworld. They were an acute embarrassment to the Jewish communities, and many local leaders were only too glad to see these people leaving the Jewish fold and joining the Church. The mission to the Jews established in Halle in 1724 mostly attracted people from these circles who got into trouble with the authorities, Jewish and non-Jewish. Not all of these Jews converted, but those who remained Jews showed that the leaders of the Jewish communities were losing their grip on their members, and that traditional Jewish society was in a state of crisis, if not inner disintegration.

The outside world presented no less complex a picture. On the one hand, the rise of the absolute monarchy showed favor toward some entrepreneurial Jews and gave them many privileges if they helped to develop certain branches of the economy. On the other hand the mass of Jews suffered from humiliating disabilities, which included a poll tax for each Jew, limited rights of residence, threats of imminent expulsions, and restrictions on their numbers. Jews were the only segment of the population that was required by law to remain stationary, and forbidden to increase its numbers.

These and other vital issues form the center of the very important book by Professor Jacob Katz, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870. Jacob Katz has devoted over forty years of research to the topics of emancipation, assimilation, and the relations of Jews with gentiles. He has published books and articles in German, Hebrew, and English. His earlier books Exclusiveness and Tolerance and Tradition and Crisis are recognized as standard works; his lecture to the Israel Academy of Science, “A State within a State,” is accepted as a minor classic. He is an elegant writer, managing to express complex sociological formulations lucidly. His learning is wide, yet his work is not overwhelmed by masses of footnotes. His mastery of the subject makes his book a pleasure to read. It is essentially a synthesis, and a brilliant one, of some of the specialized studies Professor Katz has published in the last twenty-five years.

Like many other historians he devotes much attention to Moses Mendelssohn, the immensely influential German-Jewish philosopher, writer, and bookkeeper who died in 1786. He sees the ideas and lives of Mendelssohn and his circle as the center from which sprang the diverse movements to improve the position of the Jews and pave their way later to full emancipation. Though the title is very broad, Out of the Ghetto is primarily a study of Germany, or more correctly Prussia. It devotes relatively little attention to other countries, though some pertinent remarks are made concerning French Alsatian Jews. This has advantages, but regrettably the book stops, almost abruptly, with 1812, the year when the Edict of Emancipation was promulgated by Prussia, although the title mentions a terminal date of 1870.

The University of Alabama has recently published a monumental study of Mendelssohn by Professor Alexander Altmann of Brandeis University.2 In many respects the two books overlap, and in some they complement each other. For some historians, like Yitzchak Baer, Selma Stern, and Azriel Shohet, Mendelssohn represents the climax of a period which began with the new attitude toward Jews by some of the leading mercantilists, and particularly the enormously important role performed by the court Jews. In this view Mendelssohn belongs to the later circles of the Berlin court Jews: he himself worked as a bookkeeper for one of them. To other historians, including Katz, Mendelssohn was the first modern Jew—the real champion of emancipation and rights of Jews. Though in his personal life Mendelssohn remained an observant Jew, his teachings contain all the destructive elements that subsequently led to the near-collapse of traditional Judaism. He was the extreme exponent of Locke’s theory of the separation of church from state, and of the right of the individual to be treated as a human being held as a universal truth. For Mendelssohn to remain a Jew was purely voluntary. He was not to be coerced by Jewish or other institutional constraints.

  1. 1

    To provide a full bibliography of the recent publications on this topic would occupy too much space, and hence it is left out. I shall only mention some of the more important scholars who have contributed distinguished studies. In Israel: S. Ettinger, J. Katz, R. Mahler, A. Shohet, U. Tal, J. Toury, B. Mevorakh, and M. Eliav; in England: F. L. Carsten, H. Liebeschütz, and Peter Pulzer; in America: A. Altmann, Salo W. Baron, I. Barzilay-Aizenstein, M. A. Meyer, J. J. Petuchowski, N. Glatzer, Max Wiener, and Hannah Arondt; in Germany: Golo Mann, H. Schnee, and Selma Stern.

  2. 2

    Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study, by Alexander Altmann (University of Alabama Press, 1973), 900 pp., $15.00.

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