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Book Review: Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance

Review By: 
Bonny V. Fetterman
Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance

Americans generally relate the term “emancipation” to the liberation of African-American slaves during the Civil War—but Michael Goldfarb, a London-based journalist and former bureau chief of NPR, uses it to refer to the single most important phenomenon in modern Jewish history: the Jewish struggle for citizenship in the emerging states of modern Europe.

Revolutionary France became the first nation to emancipate its Jewish residents on September 28, 1791—but this historic moment had been preceded by years of heated debate over whether Jews could be “ameliorated” sufficiently to be French citizens. Viewed as “a nation within a nation,” Jews had their own autonomous governing structures, different language, dress, customs, trades, and religion. Even advocates of emancipation required Jews to change, and the Jewish communities of France (first Sephardim, then Ashkenazim) basically accepted their terms: Jews would strive to differ only in religion; they would become “Frenchmen of the Mosaic Persuasion.”

Napoleon carried the values of the French Revolution across Europe—literally breaking down ghetto walls and emancipating the Jews—but in most places, their newly won civil rights were revoked upon Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. In German states, where social integration had already begun, a generation of assimilated, educated Jews found themselves stranded when emancipation was withdrawn, often unable to work in professions for which they had trained, such as law, academia, and civil service. Some German Jews left the country; others attempted to remake themselves in a variety of ways, from religious reform (all the modern denominations of Judaism were born in this period, as part of the quest for emancipation) to conversion.

Gabriel Riesser, a leading advocate for Jewish emancipation and a member of one of the first Reform temples, rejected baptism for the sake of civil rights: “Nobody has ever obtained the esteem of others by begging for it,” he wrote. “The prerequisite for the esteem of others is self-esteem.” An elected delegate to the Frankfurt Parliament during the Revolution of 1848, Riesser helped draft a constitution for Germany. When the revolution failed, Jewish emancipation had to wait twenty years for the unification of the German state under Bismarck.

In his excellent popular history, Goldfarb narrates this story in sweeping strokes, relying on the published studies of historians. A host of personalities come to life—Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, and Moses Hess; Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka; Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein—described with a quote borrowed from French journalist Bernard Lazare: “Every Jew has his system, his idea of the world, his economic and social theory, his means of solving the problem of Jewish wretchedness, of anti-Semitism. He is a great builder of doctrines.”

Goldfarb illuminates the tensions of generations of European Jews living in societies where emancipation had to be won, where anti-Semitism continued to flourish, and where modern Jews now asked themselves, Who am I? What makes me Jewish? These questions remain at the heart of the Jewish identity crisis in “modernity”—the era that began with Emancipation.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.