Jewish Emancipation: A History across Five Centuries, by David Sorkin

Geoffrey Alderman has reservations about a sweeping study of half a millennium of Jewish history

October 17, 2019
Jewish people by the seaside
Source: Alamy

What has been the most significant event in the history of the Jewish people over the past 250 or so years? You might be forgiven for thinking that it was the Nazi Holocaust, or the re-establishment of a Jewish nation state. But we need to remember that the attempted eradication of European Jewry and the founding of the modern state of Israel were both reactions to Jewish emancipation: the process by which Jews – for millennia pilloried and persecuted – became more or less full citizens of the states in which they dwelled, exercising civil and political rights.

It is this story, of how and to what extent emancipation was achieved, that David Sorkin has set out to tell. In little short of 500 pages he tells it, concentrating on Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, the US and Israel. His broad conclusion cannot be gainsaid: that far from being a linear process that began with the Enlightenment and culminated with Jewish emancipation (of sorts) in central Europe in the mid-19th century and Russia in the early 20th, emancipation was a hit-and-miss affair, with plenty of apparent advances but many incontrovertible retreats. In telling these tales, Sorkin offers an unimpeachable chronology. But mere narrative must not be confused with historical explanation. And too often the narrative that Sorkin offers lacks critical depth.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many European Jews were either not interested in emancipation or espoused the emancipatory ideal in a distinctly limited sense. In Russia, a great many Jewish religious leaders ostentatiously turned their backs on emancipation. The charismatic Hasidic rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813) famously wrote to a friend urging Jews not to welcome the liberating army of Napoleon but to remain loyal to their tsarist persecutor: “Should Napoleon be victorious, wealth among the Jews will be abundant…but the hearts of Israel will be separated and distant from their father in heaven. But if our master Alexander [Alexander I] will triumph, though poverty will be abundant… the heart of Israel will be bound and joined with their father in heaven.”

Put bluntly, what Shneur Zalman feared was that emancipation would lead inevitably to assimilation. This fear was widely shared by (among others) Sir Moses Montefiore, the virtual lay leader of British Jewry in mid-Victorian England. And it needs also to be said (although Sorkin does not) that in mid-Victorian England most Jews were totally uninterested in the emancipatory antics of David Salomons, the first professing Jew to sit in the House of Commons, and his communal arch-rival, Lionel de Rothschild. Henry Mayhew, the great chronicler of life in mid-Victorian London, reported that he “was told by a Hebrew gentleman…that so little did the Jews themselves care for ‘Jewish emancipation,’ that he questioned if one man in ten, activated solely by his own feelings, would trouble himself to walk the length of the street in which he lived to secure Baron Rothschild’s admission into the House of Commons”.

And dare I add (although again Sorkin does not) that in certain German-Jewish circles, the restrictive Nuremberg Laws were welcomed as an antidote to rampant secularisation, and that the Nazi reversal of emancipation undeniably stopped assimilation in its tracks?

Geoffrey Alderman is principal of Nelson College London. His many books include British Jewry since Emancipation (2014).

Jewish Emancipation: A History across Five Centuries
By David Sorkin
Princeton University Press, 528pp, £27.00
ISBN 9780691164946
Published 30 September 2019

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