For almost half a millennium, starting in 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 number of states on the continent. One of the last places to segregate its Jews was Venice. In 1516, the city-state's government ordered the seven hundred or so Jews residing there to live in a quarter locally known as the ghèto. Current scholarship generally agrees ghèto 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.
As centuries passed the isolation deepened. Then, in one remarkable act during the French Revolution, the Jews of France were given full citizenship. They were "emancipated." The ghetto gates were opened.
For the next century, as modern nation-states were created around the continent, the question of what to do with the Jews became intimately tangled up in the birth of each new state. Just as the question of race has had to be reanswered in each phase of America's development, the Jewish Question had to be asked and answered at each stage of European development.
It was not a smooth process. Rights were given, then taken away.But from that first action in France, Jewish Emancipation became an unstoppable force.
Something quite remarkable happened once the ghetto gates were thrown open. During the centuries of segregation Jewish community life had developed a separate existence to the surrounding society. There were points of contact in commerce and trade but the Jewish community had turned in on itself. Customs, clothes, almost all aspects of life were different inside the ghetto. Yet now, within a few short decades Jews were not only integrating but playing an increasingly important role in the life of Europe.
The transformation was startling to those who lived through it. In the early nineteenth century, Isaac D'Israeli, whose family had been expelled from Spain, lived for centuries in Venice, and then wandered north to England via the Netherlands, noted that prior to Emancipation he could count all the "Jewish men of genius or talent on his fingers...The previous ten centuries have not produced ten great men." But now everything was changing fast. His son, Benjamin, would become one of the great men of this new era, first as a popular novelist, then as British prime minister.
The events remain extraordinary to look back on. As he approached his ninetieth birthday, the historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose Austrian Jewish family lived the Emancipation story, wrote, "After many centuries during which the intellectual and cultural history of the world...could be written with little reference to the contribution of any Jews, we almost immediately enter the modern era where Jewish names are disproportionately represented."
This rapid transformation came at a heavy price. Equal rights rocked the foundations of Jewish religious practice and Jewish community life. Salo W. Baron, who was born at the end of the Emancipation era in Galicia, the easternmost extent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and who spent the bulk of his life writing and teaching Jewish history at Columbia University, compared "the internal crisis in Jewish life generated by the new equality with the crisis of the First Exile." He meant the first Babylonian exile, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the city's inhabitants were marched to Babylon to hang up their harps by the riverside, sit down, and weep. The Emancipation era was an equally shattering dislocation.
In writing this book I wanted to answer two simple questions: Why? Why was there this enormous explosion of Jewish achievement, particularly in the areas of culture and intellectual life? And, what price? What was the price paid by the Jewish community and European society for the process of integrating?
These two questions had been at the back of my mind for a long time and I occasionally did some reading to look for answers. But the decision to write a book about them came out of my work as a journalist. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, I found myself reporting on radical Islam. My ears filled with the complaints of angry Muslims everywhere from Cairo to Tehran to just outside my front door in London. A year before the London bombings of 2005 I did an hour-long radio documentary on British jihadis. One of the young Muslims I interviewed was involved in a grassroots organization that held regular meetings in London's East End, once a ghetto for Jewish immigrants, now a neighborhood of Muslim immigrants mostly from Bangladesh. At these forums we debated what it meant to be a Muslim in Britain. A panel of prominent Muslims and white Britons would discuss the issues of identity and religious faith, then take questions from the floor. Almost all the queries elided into one great question: To whom did a Muslim owe first allegiance — his country or his faith? Especially when that faith posits the idea of a single nation of the Muslims.
Over and over I heard younger members of the community, most of them born in Britain, pledging allegiance to the idea of the Muslim state. Many had come to Islam in late adolescence and early adulthood. Their experience of integration and assimilation had been disappointing. Their response had been to embrace the more radical interpretation of their religion. They were Muslims first and last, and to prove they were not of the society into which they had been born, they began to make themselves outwardly different. The young men grew beards and put on traditional dress and skullcaps; the young women voluntarily wore the veil and segregated themselves from the men.
This was not unique to London's East End. It was happening in Amsterdam, Paris, and Hamburg. When the French government began to make a fuss about Muslim girls wearing the hijab to school, I knew that the laws and traditions they invoked could be traced back to statutes passed in the early days of Emancipation to hasten Jewish integration into French society. When the Dutch government passed laws giving it the right to license imams who had to prove their fluency in Dutch, it was merely dusting off a law passed by Napoleon in 1808 and applied to French rabbis, many of whom, having lived their entire lives in the ghetto, spoke virtually no French.
I realized then that it was worth going through the agony of writing a book that answered the questions "why" and "what price" because the story of Jewish Emancipation had relevance today outside the Jewish community, and not just for the developed world's immigrant Muslim communities but for other racial and ethnic minority groups in this second age of mass immigration. The story of Jewish Emancipation is not just about a religious minority's struggles to integrate, it is about a group regarded as an ethnic and racial minority fighting for its place in society.
When, early in the presidential primary campaign of 2008, some African-Americans questioned whether candidate Barack Obama was authentically black, they were raising a question that Jews raised about themselves throughout the Emancipation period (and continue to think about). Ghetto oppression had completely defined the community, so now, in an integrated world, who was authentically Jewish?
As I began researching this book, I found additional motivation for writing it. The Holocaust hangs across Jewish history like an iron curtain. It sometimes seems that the story of the Jewish community leaps from the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the beginnings of the Diaspora to Kristallnacht, with only a few incidents, such as the expulsion from Spain and the mass immigration of our grandparents and great-grandparents to America, in between.
That's because the black weight of the Holocaust cut the connection to the era of Emancipation. The whole world knows the names of Marx, Freud, and Einstein but very few people have an understanding of how the process of leaving the ghetto behind shaped them.
The Holocaust also erased the memory of a great many fascinating figures who did not achieve the fame of that trio but whose lives and works were significant in their time and should be remembered now. This is particularly true of those who wrote in German. One of the main tasks I set myself was to rescue these forgotten people. I don't reclaim them for Jewish history alone. Their lives and achievements belong to the history of all men.
There is one other reason I wanted to tell this story. The Talmud tells us there are 613 mitzvoth, commandments mentioned in the Torah, that Jews must perform. Without violating the sanctity of the Five Books, I think there is one more: those of us born after the Holocaust have a responsibility to reclaim and retell one part of the history of our people, not just in honor of those who lived it and were murdered for it, but to help guide us to a renewed understanding of who we are.
Copyright © 2009 by Michael Goldfarb