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Leaving the Ghetto

In 1973, Jacob Katz, the Hebrew University professor who was one of the greatest Jewish historians of the 20th century, published a book entitled Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870It is still in print and found in part or in its entirety on the syllabi of countless courses in modern Jewish history.  Less well known is the article he wrote in 1996 in which he brilliantly condensed the main argument of Out of the Ghetto into five pages.  The article quickly outlines the circumstances under which European Jews at the end of the 18th century first began "to be integrated into the life of the surrounding society."  Katz then sketches the ways in which Western and Central European Jews transformed themselves in response to the expectations of the people whose fellow citizens they became, without abandoning their religious identity.  He concludes by addressing the following question: "Was there, then, any possibility that the Jews collectively might have been accepted in Europe on their own terms—that is, as a community, with a religion opposed to Christianity?" He doesn't seem to think so.

We republish the essay by permission of Commentary, where it first appeared.—The Editors


We know a great deal by now about how the history of European Jewry in the modern era came to its tragic end.  But what about the beginning of the period, when great hopes were abroad for a decisive change in the historical fortunes of the Jews?  Suddenly, a community which since the Middle Ages had lived in the lands of Christian Europe as a tolerated fringe group seemed destined to be integrated into the life of the surrounding society. 

The idea of their integration was nowhere initiated by the Jews themselves.  Rather it was a byproduct of the major transformations occurring throughout Europe in the wake of the French Revolution.  The different strata of society, hitherto gathered in various organizational frameworks according to rank and occupation, were expected to dissolve, and to find their place within the new national entity; there were to be no more “states within a state.”  So too with the Jewish community, which had long been administered by its own unique laws and was therefore seen to be trespassing upon the domain of the sovereign state.  It too was expected to cede its autonomy, and its members, like all other citizens, were henceforth to regard themselves as living directly under the rule of the national authority. 

The Jews would indeed leave the confines of the physical ghetto; but their old habits of internal cohesion would die hard.  So, at any rate, it seemed to outside observers.  Writing in 1793, the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte accused the Jews of Europe of acting as a united body even in the absence of any formal Jewish authority.  To Fichte, the mutual and spontaneous bonds among the various segments of European Jewry were tantamount to a kind of government, with the result that a de-facto Jewish state could be said to extend throughout the whole of Europe, a state hostile to the interests of the several European powers. 

Fichte’s anti-Jewish animus aside, was there any basis to his claim of a sort of pan-Jewish community? There was.  In this transitional period, European Jewry was divisible into two parts: the Ashkenazi, which extended from the Ukraine in the east to Alsace in the west; and the Sephardi, whose centers were in London, Amsterdam, and Venice.  Each of these two parts lay scattered over different lands of residence, across which stretched economic, familial, and religious-cultural ties.  Within each part there was a certain degree of international movement, and the two parts also enjoyed a measure of mutual economic contact and assistance. 

This is what was supposed to change.  The all-encompassing sovereign state would fulfill its obligation to absorb the Jews living within its national boundaries; in return, they would not only forge bonds with their fellow inhabitants but, concomitantly, weaken their ties with Jews living elsewhere.  As each segment of European Jewry became naturalized in its place of residence, the mobility so characteristic of the Jews in the traditional period would come to an end.


Though these assumptions were never spelled out explicitly, they were clearly on the minds of European politicians.  Thus, at the Congress of Vienna after the fall of Napoleon in 1814-15, representatives of the Germanic states debated whether the rights won by the Jews during the French occupation should remain in force.  Prussia was one country which, on its own initiative, had granted certain rights to the Jews in 1812, and it now urged the adoption of a uniform civil status for them throughout the Germanic lands. When their proposal was defeated, however, the Prussians turned around and abolished many of the laws they had themselves enacted for the benefit of their own Jews.  There is no doubt that they feared a wave of immigration that would upset the new principle of local absorption and local naturalization.

Hungary offers an example of a different kind.  During the first half of the 19th century, that country underwent an accelerated process of economic modernization accompanied by a national awakening.  This attracted a flood of Jewish arrivals from neighboring Moravia, Bohemia, and Galicia.  It also led to the unsuccessful 1848 revolution against Austrian hegemony.  Not until 1867 did Hungary gain a measure of independence under Franz Deâk, by which time Hungary’s Jews numbered a half-million. Deâk instituted a number of internal reforms, including equal rights for the Jews, but at the same time he also weighed carefully the desirability of restricting immigration. Although ultimately he refrained, it is clear that in Hungary, too, the idea of emancipation was tied up with the expectation that Jews elsewhere should solve their own problems in their own lands.

Jewish mobility was not the only nettlesome matter which European statesmen hoped to resolve with emancipation; they were also concerned with the pattern of Jewish economic activity.  As long as the Jews lived in ghettos or in ghetto-like conditions, their occupations were defined for them by local authorities. Usually, this restricted them to brokerage and various other credit operations involving the investment of capital, from peddling to large-scale commerce and finance.  Here and there they were also permitted a craft of some sort.  Not surprisingly, with the removal of legal barriers that were supposedly to blame for the one-sided nature of Jewish occupations, it was generally believed that they would branch out into other fields.  To speed up the process, some governments offered incentives to those willing to take up agriculture or certain trades.  Most, however, simply assumed that with free citizenship, human nature would take its beneficent course. 

Still another issue tied up with emancipation concerned the substance and future of Judaism.  To outsiders, the religion of the ghetto dwellers seemed strange and foreign, the result of excessive adherence to an outdated, petrified tradition.  It was widely assumed that such a religion, with its exotic rituals and burdensome restrictions, could not stand up to the conditions of freedom.  There were, moreover, particular Jewish practices—the custom of burying the dead on the day they died, the use of rabbis as judges in financial disputes—which the state was prepared to abolish outright, holding them to be infringements upon its own jurisdiction.  In some places, the authorities even arrogated to themselves the right to make changes in religious rituals, for example by substituting German for Hebrew as the language of public prayer. 

In general, the belief was widespread that with emancipation, Jews would come to embrace the ways of the surrounding Christian society.  As to the intensity of this embrace, there were differences of opinion. Devout Christians held fast to the idea that Jews were fated to acknowledge the truth of Christianity and to convert. Many such people had earlier opposed emancipation altogether, on the grounds that the Jews deserved to be humiliated for persisting stubbornly in their error; once emancipation was an accomplished fact, they hoped it would spur the Jews to their final destiny.  Less orthodox Christians entertained such hopes as well, based in their case not on Church dogma but on the conviction that Christianity embodied an exalted philosophical or ethical message.  Still others thought it would be sufficient if the Jews reformed their own religion, so that it would no longer be an obstacle to the performance of their civic duties, or a barrier between them and their neighbors.  Finally, there were those who had themselves renounced Christianity and hoped to find in emancipated Jews kindred souls and partners in the struggle for secular ideals.


And what did the Jews make of the various visions of the future projected by their emancipators?

For an answer to this question we may turn in the first instance to the contemporaneous Jewish press. From the time of their founding in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums in Leipzig, the Archives Israelites in Paris, and the Jewish Chronicle in London tracked the struggles of both West and East European Jews for their rights.  In particular, these papers reported the readiness of Western Jews to assist their brethren in the East—a readiness which stemmed in part from feelings of solidarity but which had a self-interested side as well.  In Germany, France, and England, Jews saw their own chances in society put into jeopardy by the prospect of a new influx of Eastern Jews bearing the stamp of the ghetto. 

For a long time this threat lacked a basis in reality.  Jewish migration hardly ceased in the 19th century, but until relatively late in the century most of it originated in Germany and Austria, was destined for the United States, and did not attract much notice.  Only in the 1870′s did migration from the East gain momentum, first in Romania and then in Russia.  In Bucharest, the American consul, Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, conceived a plan to resettle half of Romania’s Jews—some 100,000—in the United States, and to this end he tried to secure the assistance of West European Jewry.  Peixotto even called for an assembly of Jewish representatives in Brussels to resolve the issue, but most did not respond; the reason, according to the contemporary writer Berthold Auerbach, was fear that such a migration would make all of European Jewry look like a band of gypsies. 

For the Jews of Western Europe, then, just as for the emancipators, the solution to the Jewish problem lay in absorption into the surrounding society.  And if Jews were thus at one with their emancipators on the desirability of local integration—which implied, willy-nilly, a loosening of their ties to Jews elsewhere—they agreed as well that integration meant the abandonment of traditional patterns of Jewish livelihood.  Though the course to be followed was not absolutely clear, one step taken by every major Jewish community from Paris to Budapest was to place Jewish boys in apprenticeships with non-Jewish artisans.  This was not an inexpensive proposition.  The necessary funds came from wealthy Jews who viewed the scheme as a way of erasing the image of Jews as hucksters out to make easy profits at the expense of those laboring by the sweat of their brow. 

On one issue, however—religion—Jewish and Gentile opinion differed significantly.  Jewish citizens aspired to be accepted into society as Jews.  Even those who saw a need for religious reform—reform that often seemed, in practice, a slavish imitation of Christian models—viewed it as a legitimate development within the Jewish faith and took pains not to include any overt symbols of Christianity.  Moreover, Reform and Orthodox Jews alike strove to establish their religion on an equal footing with Christianity.  Not only were they confident that Judaism would continue to exist, they believed it would flourish and gain a new lease on life.


Generally speaking, the process of integration began on both sides in an atmosphere of raised expectations and widespread hopefulness.  The question we need to ask ourselves now is whether this was warranted—not in the light of hindsight, of later circumstances which could never have been predicted at the outset, but in light of the realities of the time.

It would indeed have been feasible for each European state to have absorbed its Jews if all had decided upon this course simultaneously.  But that was never a serious possibility.  The emancipation of the Jews required, in each state, the attainment of a certain level of political, economic, and cultural development, and in 19th-century Europe there was no uniformity on this front.

Consider the single, broadly cultural issue of relations between church and state.  Although the downfall of the ancien régime ended the subservience of the latter to the former, and hence the doctrinally driven insistence that Jews be kept in an inferior position, this was a slow process, and it did not immediately affect all states with Jewish populations.  Austria, for example, continued to see itself as a Catholic nation, and Russia as a Slavic and Russian orthodox one.  Without basic changes in these two governments, the Jews there could hardly hope to become citizens. Meanwhile, even the most liberal nations did not go so far as to deny their links to Christianity.

The promise of economic diversification also failed to materialize following emancipation.  Even with the abolition of restrictive laws, the Jews remained a distinct minority, and peculiar as well in their choice of vocations.  This is a phenomenon that is common to all religious or ethnic minorities everywhere, and it has been treated extensively in the work of modern economists (in the case of the Jews especially by Simon Kuznets).  At the time, it was commented upon by Johann Gottfried Hoffman, who made an exhaustive study of Jewish demographics.  Hoffman refuted the accusation that Jews were congenitally incapable of rough physical labor by pointing to the many Jewish peddlers who set out on the road with packs of merchandise on their backs and meager rations of dried food.  Such men were hardly less “physical” than farmers or factory workers.  Why, then, did Jews prefer peddling to other forms of work?  The reason, according to Hoffman, was social: it kept them in contact with other members of their community with whom they could observe the requirements of their religion.

Since their nonconformist faith prevented the Jews from being absorbed into their local communities, and also from integrating into the wider economy, the success of the emancipators’ project came to depend upon the hope for conversion.  From our vantage point it may seem absurd that such a hope could be seriously entertained, but in fact many Christians at the time believed in it.  And with some cause: there were more than a few cases of conversion among the Jews who first emerged from the ghetto—enough, indeed, for the German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz to speak of Massentaufe, or mass conversion.

This, however, was a serious overstatement. Instances of true mass conversion in history have always depended on a charismatic leader who draws after him an entire community.  There was, quite simply, no chance of this happening in the rationalistic atmosphere of 19th-century Europe.  Most Jewish converts tended to act out of pragmatic considerations of career and social advancement, or out of dissatisfaction with their own religion, or both.  In any event, each conversion was a personal affair, or at most involved an entire family.  Mass conversion was out of the question.


Was there, then, any possibility that the Jews collectively might have been accepted in Europe on their own terms—that is, as a community, with a religion opposed to Christianity?  When it granted the Jews civil rights, the state did commit itself to tolerating Judaism; but this tolerance took the form of a grudging resignation, which never extended beyond the absolute minimum.  A common lament by spokesmen of the German-Jewish community throughout the 19th century was that while Jews had been emancipated, Judaism had not.  By this they meant that Jewish religious institutions—the rabbinate, the seminaries, the formal community—did not enjoy the benefits granted to comparable Christian institutions.

Moreover, Judaism itself continued to be denigrated in public, especially under the aegis of the churches whose influence continued to be felt throughout the post-revolutionary states.  The churches provided secular leaders with moral legitimacy, in exchange for protection and various benefits.  As Jews kept a distance between themselves and the churches, they were in turn kept at arm’s length from the institutions of the state and excluded from the ranks of its servants.

In this indirect way, Judaism remained an obstacle to full citizenship.  In Germany, for example, universities could not appoint professors without first obtaining the consent of the local government; consequently, regulations that barred Jews from government service also kept them out of academia.  As for the enlightened professoriate, its members made no efforts to fight such discrimination: indeed, they could not see why conversion from Judaism—in their view, a move from the spiritually and ethically inferior to the spiritually and ethically superior—should present difficulties to any Jew intent on pursuing an academic career.  Theodor Mommsen, the famous classical scholar and the only Gentile to take a stand against the anti-Semitism of his colleague Heinrich von Treitschke, wrote that while he would never ask a believing Jew to convert, he could not understand why secular Jews should be at all reluctant to do so.  Apparently it never occurred to him that there was a significant difference between distancing oneself from one’s religion and embracing another.

These patronizing attitudes offended the Jews collectively and individually, although as a general rule they tended to view them as vestigial and expected that in time they would disappear.  Yet the bewilderment of a Mommsen reflected a deep problem, as well as a failure to develop intellectual concepts adequate to a changed reality.  In the pre-modern era, the Jewish community had been recognized as having its own culture, at the heart of which lay its religion.  The modern state, for its part, defined the Jews solely in terms of that religion; indeed, no other category lay at its disposal.  To a certain extent this characterization was accurate, since in their transition to modernity the Jews had indeed shed all but the faintest remnants of their pre-modern culture.  Yet in a larger sense it was totally unsuitable, for whole sectors of the community had also ceased to uphold the fundamentals of the Jewish religion and its unified patterns of ritual.  What secular Jews remained attached to was not easy to define, but neither, for the Jews involved, was it easy to let go of: there were family ties, economic interests, and perhaps above all sentiments and habits of mind which could not be measured, and could not be eradicated.

Not surprisingly, the Jewish community became an enigma to observers both within and without.  Jewish intellectuals did come up with a host of theories to account for and to justify this paradoxical situation, but no one managed to coin a key phrase to define it (in the way that “pluralism,” for instance, captures the ethnic situation in today’s United States).  In fact, the reality was too complicated to be encapsulated in a simple formula.

But if Jewish observers could not find the magic words, their enemies and ill-wishers did—specifically, through the concept of race.  Originally a purely anthropological category without any necessarily negative connotation, this term no sooner gained currency than it became pressed into service to explain all the defects, real or fancied, of the Jews, from their cosmopolitanism, to their avoidance of manual labor, to their exploitation of others, to their “tribal” religion which allegedly lacked any spiritual depth or ethical foundation. Once the concept of race became infused with anti-Semitism, it became a most efficient instrument of political propaganda.  If it did not actually create, it certainly deepened the alienation of the Gentile public from the Jews, and thus, in the fullness of time, it helped to set the conditions for Nazism.


A negligible minority in a Christian world, the Jews of Europe were never the masters of their own destiny. This was so in the Middle Ages, and it remained so in modern times. Just as their seclusion from society at large had been imposed upon them during the time of the ghetto, so their attempt at integration in the modern age was likewise directed by external circumstances.

To us, looking back, this may seem to lend the saga of the European Jews a certain air of doom foretold. Yet who among us, even knowing what finally lay in store for them, can blame them for having seized the modern opportunity, or for having imagined that it spelled the end of their historic tribulations?  Who among us, desirous of honoring their memory, would dare to judge their long and ardent struggle against the vise of circumstance?

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Bob Kahan on February 8, 2013 at 11:32 am (Reply)
Both christianity and islam are replacement ideologies and as such they cannot allow any religion especially a religion on which their religion is based to exist.
Anson Laytner on February 8, 2013 at 12:44 pm (Reply)
What amazes me is that, in this essay, this great historian has completely bought into the post-emancipation terminology of Judaism as a religion. How could he write this essay and not reference the multitudinous speeches and article of the period which referred to Jews as "aliens", "a foreign nation", "wandering Asiatics" and worse? This, to me, is the crux of the matter: Jews were not accepted in Europe because they were originally from outside of Europe's tribal mix and this perception remained right up through the Nazi era (and beyond), regardless of what religion or non-religion Jews practiced.
YM on February 8, 2013 at 2:52 pm (Reply)
We Jews are an "Am", a people. We are several religions (and none at all), several ethnic groups, multi-racial and don't fit into any of the neat categories that other groups fit into.
charles hoffman on February 10, 2013 at 3:32 am (Reply)
Esav soneh Yaakov (Esau, representing the Gentile, hates Jacob, representing the Jew)... sad, but reality

Not one of the decisions on emancipation were made other than by government decree. And not one of the governments which offered up such decisions made them for any purpose other than the threat they felt by what seemed like cohesive elements within their midst.

The Jew of the 19th and early 20th century was never made to feel at home in Europe; the only differences were the way the local antisemitism was practiced. And yes, there were still pre-nazi porgroms in Poland up until WW2, and, when the war was over, the same ignorant and hate-filled pigs went right back to killing Jews as if they hadn't suffered under the same murderous Germans.

Antisemitism in Europe trumped any political or economic theory or movement, and has only receded in the virtual absence of Jews and the imminent threat to many European countries of being overwhelmed by Arab and other non-European Muslims
Ellen on February 10, 2013 at 1:51 pm (Reply)
I agree with the pitiful but truthful conclusions drawn by Charles Hoffman. The Europeans are, for the most part, hopeless. There are European philoSemites and a handful of people on the continent who don't like or dislike Jews, a priori. However, the number of Europeans who fit into this last category is amazingly small, which tells us something about the pathology of European culture: that they are still so fixated on a small group of people who have mostly disappeared from their continent.

The only difference between Europeans and Arabs in this fixation with Jews is that there are very few philoSemites in Arab countries. Their obsessions with Jews run almost entirely on the negative side of the slate.

In any case, both the Europeans and Arabs represent decaying civilizations, and their shared historic hatred of Jews, and the amount of productive energy wasted in this endeavor, certainly has to be related to this end result.

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