Can a group, defined solely by its religious affiliation, transform into the intellectual and social leaders of their time? Can they do it within three generations? In Michael Goldfarb’s sprawling history of European Jews, Emancipation, the answer is yes.
Until the eve of French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, Jews of Europe were marginalized by society, segregated in ghettos, and denied the basic rights of citizenship in their native lands.
It is astounding that from 1482 until 1796, all of Frankfurt’s Jews were housed in a squalid neighborhood called the Judengasse, which directly translated means Jewish alley or Jewish street. They were herded there by an edict from Emperor Frederic III and the ghetto gates were locked by the city burghers on nights and weekends. Even as these populations grew over centuries, they remained sandwiched into the same small plot of real estate. This was the way of life in cities and rural areas throughout Europe.
In a story that remains largely untold, Goldfarb grabs the reader at the eve of the French Revolution and guides them through the next 125 years until the dawn of the First World War. In less than three generations after Emancipation, a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein was poised to revolutionize Physics, Sigmund Freud created psychoanalysis, and the Rothschild family created a global manufacturing and banking empire that spanned Europe.
A long history of segregation and humiliation. In his preface, Goldfarb writes, “For almost half a millennium, starting with the time of The Black Death, the Jews of Europe lived in enforced segregation. They were sequestered in rural hamlets or locked away at night in restricted areas of towns and cities. The laws applying to them were as varied as the numbers of states on the continent.” Religious hatred stemmed from false complicity in Christ’s crucifixion but remained in place for centuries as successive leaders punished Jews by stripping them of citizenship and locking them into ghettos.”
“One of the last places to segregate Jews,” wrote Goldfarb, “was Venice, the heart of the emerging Renaissance. In 1516, the city-states government ordered the seven hundred or so Jews residing there to live n a quarter locally known as the gheto. Current scholarship generally agrees gheto is a corruption of the Italian word for foundry. There had been a number of ironworks on the site. Ghetto quickly became a generic term for a place of segregation.”
The French Revolution and the Emancipation of Jews in France. In the years leading up to the Revolution, France was simmering with resentment against the Bourbon monarchy and their courtiers. French thinkers were also flush with new ideas on how people should be allowed to live their lives. As the Revolution took hold in France, the question was this: Would Liberté, égalité, fraternité, (Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity) apply to everybody?
Answering the “Jewish Question,” was ever more astounding considering that there were only 45,000 within a French nation of over 26 million. After great debate, Article X of the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen declared, “No one should be troubled for their beliefs or their religion, nor harassed in exercising his form of worship; provided the form of worship does not disturb the public order as established by law.”
Napoleon and the Jews. As Napoleon conquered the various states of Europe, Napoleonic Code followed close behind. With each conquered nation, ghetto-dwelling Jews found their first taste of real freedom. Bit by bit, the old rules that subjugated the Jews fell away. Jacobins like Robespierre demanded the end to special “protection taxes” paid to French nobility and called for full equality. Emancipation not only survived the Reign of Terror but became the latest French export for Napoleon’s conquering armies.
“In the Ghetto of Ancona, a port city on the Adriatic, coast of Italy,” Goldfarb said, “the Jews knew that their liberation was at hand and they were afraid.” Italian mobs turned on the Jewish Ghetto and the inhabitants barricaded themselves for dear life.
The French soldiers who freed the Ancona Jews and opened the gates for good had one surprise up their sleeves: They called out to the frightened residents in the ghetto in Hebrew because they were Jewish themselves. In Ancona, Jews were forced them to wear yellow badges that identified and isolated them from the rest of the population. It was simply astounding that the French, a Christian and predominately Catholic nation would employ Jews in their armed forces. In scenes repeated in Rome, Venice, Padua, and other Italian cities, Napoleon’s forces posted decrees that Jews were free to live anywhere, thereby ripping up 500 years of exile within their home ghettos.
However, Bonaparte was no Zionist; his hope was that Jews would assimilate into a Greater France, that religious affiliation would be exchanged for a larger national identity.
This empowered a new Generation of Jews to take their place on the European stage. However, in 1808, Napoleon decreed that the French Government would choose Rabbis for French Temples. Napoleon then signed a decree to force Jews into traditional French jobs by banning money lending. That backfired because Jews had to pay for an annual license to participate but it exempted the rest of the nation. Third, Jews could not hire a replacement for compulsory military service, an option freely used by the wealthy. Finally, in a decree announced several months later, Jews were forced to change their family surnames to sound more indigenously French. In France, Napoleon lost his luster to many Jews, but on the frontier where he was liberating those from within the ghetto, he was lionized.
The Old Order Returns. After Napoleon temporarily left the European landscape for Elba and exile in 1814, the plight of Jewish progress slowed. While they had won their freedom from the Ghettos, full accoutrement of citizenship was another idea. As Metternich restored monarchies at the Congress of Vienna, the plight of the Jews began to ebb. While Napoleon offered Emancipation, achieving membership in French society’s upper rungs remained illusive. However, leading Jews like Baron Nathan von Arnstein and his wife Fanny created their own Jewish social networks that cut across religious lines and Vienna, but expanded along religious lines throughout Europe. During the Congress of Vienna, the Baron and his wife were able to make the case for continued Jewish Emancipation in expansive salons that brought together Talleyrand, Wellington, Metternich, and all of the major players together.
Try as they might, the days of Napoleonic code might be over, but the genie could only be partially stuffed back into the bottle. For example, Baron Arnstein was able to continue his personal rise as one of the wealthiest men in Austria but he still had to rent his castle because Jews could not own property. While noblemen leaned sympathetically toward Jewish rights, local politicians at the rabble level were ready and eager to clamp down again. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo the Old Order reasserted itself.
Self emancipation produced success and advancement but……. After the Congress of Vienna, Metternich traded away personal freedoms to engraft political stability. However, Jews were in no mood to return to the Ghettos; the Emancipation Generation took their pent-up demand for freedom and ran to daylight. Street peddlers moved into the merchant class. Moneylenders became financers. The Rothschilds became indispensible to government heads. Jews swelled the educated classes throughout Europe and created their own spider web of networks considered unthinkable in the Ghetto.
…. it also produced a stinging Anti-Semitic Backlash. Jews, until a century earlier remained small in population, doubled. However, with success came an organized resentment which became known as Anti-Semitism. In England, Lionel Rothschild had been elected to the House of Commons in 1850 but was unable to serve because he could not swear allegiance to a Christian bible. Elected but unable to serve in 1852, 1854, and 1856, he was finally seated in 1858, when the House of Lords changed the oath of office to reflect a new reality.
“The Germans,” Heinrich Hesse noted, “are idealists even in their hatred.” The spectacular success of Jews in France and Germany produced a variety of cultural and religious resentment. Rabble murmur became louder and far more organized into the 1880s. Ernst Henrici, a German school teacher, started the Social Imperial Party, whose main dogma was driven by radical anti-Semitism. He attempted to paint Jews as the reason behind all of Germany’s ills and grouped them into the same pools as Marxists and Anarchists. Sadly, it foreshadowed the future horrors of Nazi Germany.
Emancipation’s Moment of Truth: The Dreyfus Affair. In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was charged and convicted for passing state secrets to the Germans. Upon being charged, his medals and badges were ripped off of his uniform in front of a public military assembly. Dreyfus was humiliated in front of his peers; he was tried, convicted and shipped to Devil’s Island for a life sentence under the worst possible conditions. His last letters to his wife contained the eternal belief that the French system would eventually right itself and that he would emerge exonerated.
Captain Dreyfus was the very model of Emancipation. His grandfather was a peddler who moved into the bourgeois as a millinery owner. The Dreyfus family lived as assimilated Jews who had achieved the Napoleonic ideal of Emancipation. Upon his arrest, anti-Semitic writers throughout France had a field day but the Parisian Jewish community remained sadly silent.
The entire case against Dreyfus rested on a piece of paper found by a cleaning lady in a trash can and it stunk to high heaven. Astonishingly, the person who emerged to blow the whistle on the entire affair was Lt Colonel Georges Picquart. Even though Picquart was a raging anti-Semite, he had a sense of justice that eclipsed his personal prejudges. He knew that the real traitor was a Major General named Ferdinand Esterhazy a subpar officer who rose due to family connections. Not only did Esterhazy speak fluent German, but his name and address were found on the incriminatory documents. Worse, Picquart knew that Esterhazy was still an active agent for the Germans and placed the country in peril.
Evidence existed as early as 1896 of Esterhazy’s true guilt but a complicit cover up at the highest levels of the French military swept matters under the rug. In 1898 Emile Zola, the greatest author of his day, penned a devastating front page article titled, J’Accuse in the newspaper L’Aurure. It was an open letter to the French President, which made Dreyfus an international cause célèbre.
It took 12 years for Dreyfus to find true justice. The Major who was a friend of the true traitor fingered Dreyfus because he was the only Jew on the staff. He committed suicide after questioning. The Army Chief of Staff resigned as did the French War Minister. Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899 and then later was exonerated in Civil Court in 1906. Finally cleared, Dreyfus was promoted to Major and Picquart was promoted to Brigadier General. However, the Esterhazy scampered out of France and lived a life of quiet retirement (and a full pension) in England.
Dreyfus found justice, even though the process was the worst of horribles. The wheels of justice did move, but at a snail’s pace. However, had Captain Dreyfus been charged with treason fifty years earlier, his fate would have been sealed and forgotten. Emancipation was real.
Dreams of Palestine. Theodor Herzl, who covered the Dreyfus Affair as a reporter for New Free Press, concluded that the chains that locked Jews inside the ghetto were gone, but little had changed in the hearts and minds of Europeans. For Herzl, the only solution was to create a Jewish State located in Palestine, which was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. Herzl, who popularized what became know as the Aliyah Movement, where Jews from Eastern Europe moved to these ancient lands to create the kibbutz movement.
By 1908, The Emancipation hit its apex. During the 60th anniversary of the elderly Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I, Jews in Vienna could survey the landscape with a sense of pride. 12% of Vienna was Jewish. Nearly 25% of Europe’s Jews lived in cities 1 million or larger. 33% of the student body at the University of Vienna were Jewish. 22% of the law school and 48% of the medical school graduates in Vienna were also Jewish. Sigmund Freud’s landmark work, The Interpretation of Dreams had invented the study of psychoanalysis. Gustav Mahler conducted the Vienna Philharmonic to global acclaim. In France, a rehabilitated Alfred Dreyfus would retire from the military due to ill health but recalled to defend France with honor during the First World War.
However in 1908, there was a storm cloud on the distant horizon because somebody else was enjoying the anniversary of Franz Joseph I. Adolf Hitler, then a young art student, quickly connected the dots between the anti-Semitic rants of Karl Lueger, Vienna’s mayor and his own hatred. Hitler soon moved to Germany and lowered a curtain of horror that covered most of the world. It is only ironic that the sole European nation that enjoys a growing Jewish population today is Germany, which proves that the spirit of Emancipation can endure anything.
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