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Was the Emancipation Good for the Jews?

Editors’ Note: Professor Salo Baron’s article, first published 85 years ago, is renowned by Jewish scholars for cogently disputing what the author famously called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history”—that our people’s historical experience was an endless series of catastrophes. His radical interpretation remains the reigning view, which “is all the more remarkable,” writes Columbia Professor Michael Stanislawski, “given that [the essay]…predated the most lachrymose chapter in all of Jewish experience: the Holocaust, in which Baron’s own parents were murdered….It is a testament to the solidity and depth of his scholarship that this new conception survived a period that a third of the world’s Jews did not.” 

The generally accepted view has it that before the French Revolution the Jews of Europe lived in a state of extreme wretchedness under medieval conditions, subject to incessant persecution and violence, but that after the revolution a new era of enlightenment came to the nations, which forthwith struck off the bonds that fettered the Jew and opened up the gates that had shut him off from civilized life. Prisoner in the ghetto, denied access to the resources and activities of Western society, distorted intellectually, morally, spiritually by centuries of isolation and torture, the Jew was set free by the Emancipation.

Fuller information concerning Jews in the Middle Ages and a more critical examination of the supposed gains after the Revolution both indicate that we may have to reevaluate radically our notions of Jewish progress under Western liberty. If the status of the Jew (privileges, opportunities, and actual life) in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries was in fact not as low as we are in the habit of thinking, then the miracle of Emancipation was not so great as we supposed.

In the Middle Ages, it is said, the Jew did not have “equal rights.” But to say that pre-Emancipation Jewry did not have “equal rights” with the rest of the population does not mean that Jewry was the subject of special unfavorable discrimination. Then there was no such thing as “equal rights.” In this period the absolute state, like the medieval state, was still largely built on corporations, here meaning legally recognized groups of people belonging to different corporate organizations, each with distinct rights and duties. The corporation of the nobility had its rights and duties, among them that of administration and defense of the country. The clergy was entrusted with spiritual and cultural affairs. The urban citizenry (not the peasant or the proletarian mass) formed the real third estate, and its chief function was the maintenance of economic life and the replenishment of the state treasury. Below these corporations was the peasant body, the vast majority of the population, in many countries held in complete serfdom.

It is, then, not surprising and certainly no evidence of discrimination that the Jews did not have “equal rights”—no one had them. The legal status of Jews was comparable to that of the third estate.

Certainly the Jews had fewer duties and more rights than the great bulk of the population—the enormous mass of peasants, the great majority of whom were little more than appurtenances of the soil on which they were born. When the land was sold they were included in the sale. None could move away without the master’s consent. The larger part of their produce went to landlords or to the state. In every legal contest the landlord was the only competent court.

In contrast to this class, the Jews were well off. They could move freely from place to place with few exceptions, they could marry whomever they wanted, they had their own courts, and were judged according to their own laws.

The disabilities under which medieval Jewry suffered have been made much of. Jews could not own land, or join most of the guilds, and were thereby effectively barred from certain branches of craft and commerce. But these were, in legal theory, restrictions made on the privileges granted them, and not limitations on any general rule of equal rights. Every corporation had similar restrictions, and in this respect the Jews’ case was no different in principle than that of other privileged groups.

Indeed, the status of the Jew in the Middle Ages implied certain privileges which they no longer had under the modern state. Like the other corporations, the Jewish community enjoyed full internal autonomy. Complex, isolated, in a sense foreign, it was left more severely alone by the state than most other corporations. Thus the Jewish community of pre-Revolutionary days had more competence over its members than the modern federal, state, and municipal governments combined. Education, administration of justice between Jew and Jew, taxation for communal and state purposes, health, markets, public order, were all within the jurisdiction of the community-corporation, and, in addition, the Jewish community was the fountainhead of social work of a quality generally superior to that outside Jewry. The Jewish self-governing bodies issued special regulations and saw to their execution through their own officials. All this self-governing apparatus disappeared when the Revolution brought “equal rights” to European Jewry.

A phase of this corporate existence generally regarded by emancipated Jewry as an unmitigated evil was the ghetto. But it must not be forgotten that the ghetto grew up voluntarily as a result of Jewish self-government, and it was only in a later development that public law interfered and made it a legal compulsion for all Jews to live in a secluded district in which no Christian was allowed to dwell. In origin, the ghetto was an institution the Jews had found it to their interest to create themselves. Various corporations in the state had separate streets of their own; the shoemakers, for example, or the bakers, would live each in one neighborhood. In addition to their growing mutual interest as a corporation of money dealers, the Jews wished to be near the synagogue, then a social as well as a religious center. Furthermore, they saw in the ghetto a means of defense. Thus it was the Jews themselves who secured from Bishop Rudiger in Spires in 1084 the right to settle in a separate district and to erect a wall around it. There were locks inside the ghetto gates in most cases before there were locks outside. The ghetto, in the non-technical sense, was then a district in which most Jews and few Gentiles lived long before the legal compulsion which came when Christian authority found it necessary to mark the Jews off by residence district, in order to prevent complete social intercourse between them and Christians.

In this ghetto, before compulsion came and after, Jewry was enabled to live a full, rounded life, apart from the rest of the population, under a corporate governing organization. The Jew, indeed, had in effect a kind of territory and state of his own throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period. The advantages of this autonomy, lost through the Emancipation, were certainly considerable; they must have contributed in large part toward the preservation of Jewry as a distinct nationality.

The terrors of the Inquisition play a large part in all descriptions of the state of medieval Jewry. Its horrors have been fully portrayed, and many assume that whatever normal Jewish life might have been potentially, the constant incursions of the Inquisitor made it abnormal. It should be remembered, however, that the Inquisition was legally instituted only in a few European countries, and even there had no jurisdiction over professed Jews (those who did not convert to Christianity), beyond censoring Hebrew books. Therefore, far from being a special prey of the Inquisition, Jews belonged to a small, privileged group which had virtual immunity from its operations.

In the eyes of the contemporary European, the Inquisition was no more than an ordinary court of justice, proceeding along the ordinary lines of criminal prosecution in cases of capital crime. Apostasy from Christianity was punishable by death. To the religious conscience of the Western man it seemed to be a holy task to burn the body of such a criminal in order to save his soul. According to the interpretation of Canon Law prevailing throughout the Renaissance, Maranos (secret Jews) were regarded as apostates. They were, therefore, subject to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, and the governments of Spain and Portugal were acting with strict legality in applying to them the strict interpretation of apostasy laws.

As to the horrible means of procedure, we must say, with no effort to justify but to understand, that they were not extraordinary for their times. The Inquisition was a characteristic form of legal procedure, prevailing in civil as well as ecclesiastical courts, in which the judge was at the same time prosecutor and attorney for the defendant. The use of torture was based upon the belief that circumstantial evidence is insufficient, and a confession must therefore be extorted. Many also believed that such bodily sufferings were salutary for the soul. Such principles are shocking to the modern mind, but in that period they were hardly extraordinary. Nor is it surprising that Jews were tortured and killed in an age when not fewer than 40,000 Christian “witches” were burned because they confessed to relations with demons. Regarded by itself or measured by absolute standards, the position of the Jews under the Inquisition was certainly unenviable. But by comparative standards the Jews were, if anything, in a preferred position. For if as apostates or heretics they ran afoul of the Inquisition, they were no worse off than Gentile apostates or heretics, while as professing Jews they were beyond its jurisdiction.

It is noteworthy that despite attacks, periodic pogroms, and organized campaigns of conversion, the Jewish population increased much more rapidly than the Gentile population during the last centuries preceding Emancipation. In the middle of the 17th century the Jewish population probably did not exceed 650,000, out of the more than 100,000,000 inhabitants in Europe. In 1900 the European Jewish population exceeded 8,500,000, while the general population was about 400,000,000. That is, the Jewish rate of increase from 1650 to the beginning of the 20th century (when the mass of Jewry was still unemancipated) was three times the rate of Gentile increase. Furthermore, in the same period European Jewry built the great American center.

What of the economic situation of the Jew? Despite all the restrictions placed on activities, is it not remarkable that the most typical ghetto in the world, the Frankfort Judengasse, produced in the pre-Emancipation the greatest banking house of history? And even before Rothschild’s day, such Central European Hofjuden (court Jews) as the Oppenheimers and Wertheimers, and such West European bankers as the Pintos and Modonas, were not far behind rich Christians in financial power.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the very restrictive legislation proved in the long run highly beneficial to Jewish economic development. It forced Jews into the money trade, and throughout the Middle Ages trained them in individual enterprise without guild backing, compelled them to set up wide international contacts, and equipped them with vast sums of ready cash. With the dawn of early capitalism and the need for ready money for new manufactures and international trading ventures, the Jew fitted readily into the new economic structure.

There were, of course, many impoverished Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe. But there were not so many as there were poor peasants. And their standard of life was everywhere higher than that of the majority of the populace. Particularly in Western and Central Europe, the frequent complaints about the extravagance of some Jews, and the luxury laws of certain large Jewish communities, indicate a degree of surprising well-being. Furthermore, there existed in the Jewish corporations numerous relief agencies, a whole system of social insurance against need, in startling contrast to the often defenseless situation of the masses.

When the modern state came into being and set out to destroy the medieval corporations and estates and to build a new citizenship, it could no longer suffer the existence of an autonomous Jewish corporation. Sooner or later it had to give to the Jews equal rights in civil and public law and to impose upon them equal duties in turn. After the French Revolution one state after the other abrogated the Jews’ economic disabilities and granted them full freedom of activity. Finally, the states opened public offices to Jews, and made them citizens with “equal rights.”

Equal rights meant equal duties, and the Jew now found himself subject to military service. Political equality also meant the dissolution of the autonomous communal organization: the Jews were no longer to be a nation within a nation, but to be thought of and to think of themselves as individuals connected only by ties of creed—Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen of the Jewish “confession.” Politically, culturally, and socially, the Jew was to be absorbed into the dominant national group. Eventually, it was hoped, the assimilation would be complete.

In the face of Emancipation, traditional Jewish ideology underwent great revision. The concept of the inseparability of nationality and religion—increasingly abandoned in Europe after the bloody wars of religion—had persisted in Judaism. Now the theory was put forth that the Jewish religion—which the Jew was permitted to keep—must be stripped of all Jewish national elements. The Jew was to avow allegiance to the national ambitions and culture of the land in which he lived.

Nineteenth-century advocates of Jewish reform seized on and elaborated this view of the Jewish past. Eager to demonstrate a causal relation between the treatment given the Jew and the Jew’s general acceptability and usefulness to society, Reform advocates proclaimed in unmeasured terms the wretchedness of the age that preceded them. They explained Jewish “peculiarities” as results of oppression and the abnormal conditions in which Jews had lived.

At the end of the 19th and in the 20th century, this view was to find reinforcement from Zionism, which wished to reject the Diaspora in toto, on the grounds that a “normal life” could not be led by Jewry elsewhere than on its own soil. So, notwithstanding their profound differences, both Zionism and Reform held a view of history in which prior to the Revolution, European Jewry had lived in extreme wretchedness. The two movements differed only in that the Zionists denounced the post-Revolutionary period as equally bad. It is encouraging that Reform and Zionism have now both begun to reconsider the Jewish Middle Ages.

Surely by now it is time to break with the lachrymose theory of pre-Revolutionary woe, and to adopt a view more in accord with historic truth.

Salo Baron (1895–1989), Nathan L. Miller Professor of Jewish History, Literature, and Institutions at Columbia University from 1930 to 1963, is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest scholars of history. This article has been adapted from his essay, “Ghetto and Emancipation: Should We Revised the Traditional View?” (The Menorah Journal, 1928).