Emancipation & Its Discontents

Monday, December 14, 2009

“One day [Jews are] being completely segregated, [and the] next thing you know, Napoleon comes through town, tears down the ghetto gates, and we can do whatever we like, sort of.”

Thus the author Michael Goldfarb, describing the thesis of his recently published book, Emancipation. Especially in the cases of France and Germany, Goldfarb writes, there is no denying the profoundly liberating energies that were unleashed when the Jews, like a spring suddenly uncoiled, were enabled to join the larger societies in which they lived. Nor can there be any proper understanding of the larger course of modernity apart from this momentous development in history.

Reviewers have complained that Goldfarb’s picture is overdrawn and his thesis overargued. The degree to which Jews were segregated in pre-Emancipation Europe, they point out, varied from time to time and place to place; for the Jews themselves, emancipation itself never proved to be a smooth or cost-free process; and the backlash to emancipation on the part of European politicians and populaces could reach murderous heights of ferocity.

For the inside story of relationships between Jews and their Gentile environment in the springtime of Emancipation, the social historian Jacob Katz is a peerless guide. Although many (like Goldfarb) tend to regard the shifting modern attitudes toward the Jews in terms of a seesaw movement between two opposing forces—progressive enlightenment versus reactionary prejudice—Arthur Hertzberg in a landmark study shows how modern anti-Semitism in fact emerged not as a reaction to the Enlightenment but as an integral element in the thought of the great Enlighteners themselves.


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