“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.

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