Jewish Emancipation

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Jewish emancipation was the abolition of discriminatory laws as applied especially to  Jews  in Europe in the nineteenth century, the recognition of Jews as equal to other citizens, and the formal granting of citizenship to European Jews. Emancipation was a major goal of European Jews of the 19th century, and led to active participation of Jews in the civil society. As a result, many Jews who earlier were practically locked out of the rest of the society, turned to Jewish political movements (such as Zionism), or revolutionary movements (especially facing oppressive regimes such as in Russian Empire)  or were able to emigrate to countries offering better opportunities.

photo: Napoleon Bonaparte granting freedom to worship to the Jews. From 1904 French print.

Jews were subject to a wide range of restrictions throughout most of European history. Since the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, Jews had been required to wear special clothing, such as the Judenhut and the yellow badge  to distinguish them from Christians. The practice of their religion was often restricted, and they had to swear special oaths... Jews were not allowed to vote, and were also formally forbidden from even entering some countries, such as Spain.

During this time, the rabbi was the most influential member of the Jewish community. In addition to being a religious scholar and clergy, a rabbi also acted as a civil judge in cases in which both parties were Jews. Together with the community elders, rabbis also had other important administrative powers. The rabbinate was the highest aim of many Jewish boys, and the study of the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and the Talmud was the means of obtaining that coveted position.

Jewish involvement in gentile society began during the Age of Enlightenment. Haskalah, the Jewish movement supporting the adoption of enlightenment values, advocated an expansion of Jewish rights within European society. Haskalah followers advocated "coming out of the ghetto," not just physically but also mentally and spiritually. In 1791, France became the first European country to emancipate its Jewish population. By 1796, France, Britain, and the Netherlands had granted the Jews equal rights with gentiles. Napoleon also freed the Jews in areas he conquered. However, it was not until the revolutionary atmosphere of the mid-19th century that Jewish political movements would begin to persuade governments in Central and Eastern Europe to grant equal rights to Jews.

Dates of emancipation of European Jewry

Early stages of Jewish emancipation movements were simply part of the general popular uprising to achieve freedom and rights for minorities. The question of equal rights for Jews was tied with demands for constitutions and civil rights. Jewish statesmen and intellectuals like Henrich Heine, Johann Jacoby, Gabriel Riesser, Berr Isaac Berr, and Lionel Nathan Rothschild busied themselves with the general movement towards liberty and political freedom, rather than Jews specifically.

However, in the face of persistent anti-Semitic incidents and blood libels such as the Damascus affair  of 1840, and the failure of many states to emancipate the Jews, Jewish organizations formed in order to push for the emancipation and protection of Jews. The Board of Deputies of British Jews under Moses Montefiore, the Central consistory of Paris, and the Alliance Israelite Universelle all began working to assure the freedom of Jews.

During the Revolutions of 1848, Jewish emancipation was granted throughout Germany. Basic Rights of the Frankfurt Parliament (Paragraph 13) stated that civil rights were not to be conditional on religious faith. This was a great improvement over the Act of 1815 which allowed special legislation dealing with Jews. Jews experienced a period of legal equality from 1848 until the rise of Nazi Germany.

  Photos and text courtesy of Wikipedia.





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