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The return of Jews to western Europe

The return of Jews to western Europe
By the end of the 18th century Jews began returning to Western Europe from Eastern Europe. Following the humanistic perceptions that began to develop in the 18th century, Jews were readmitted into much of the Western European realms from which they had previously been expelled and banned. In addition, Western and Central European forces such as the Habsburg Empire, were expanding eastwards, annexing areas with large Jewish populations. The arrival of Jews in realms previously devoid of their presence, and their gradual integration into their new societies had two major results. On one hand, it would allow Jews in many places to become vital and important members of their respective societies.
On the other, it brought about the development of hostile attitudes and the emergence and formulation of modern forms of antisemitism. I think a lot changed with modernity, with the 18th and the 19th centuries. And partly that’s because it’s with modernity that really for the first time large parts of Europe that had not had, for any practical purposes, any living Jews in them for hundreds of years, started to really encounter large numbers of Jews, many of them coming into Europe from, in particular, from Eastern Europe. So all of a sudden a whole cultural space, let’s say from the Rock of Gibraltar to Berlin that had had very little … (There were some exceptions.
Frankfurt had, for example, a small Jewish community.) had had almost no Jews for hundreds of years but had been thinking about its world in terms of overcoming Judaism all that time, had been criticizing each other in terms of Judaism all that time, had been criticizing money lending, had been criticizing politics, had been criticizing its enemies in terms of Judaism all that time.
Suddenly you have not just ideas about Judaism, not just figures of thought, but you have all of these real Jews coming into society and many of them becoming very much like everybody else; many of them assimilating; many of them rising into all kinds of positions within society; many of them starting to speak let’s say German or French or English just as well or even better than most people in that society; many of them becoming leading writers, leading lawyers, leading all kinds of things.
So how does a society that has used anti-Judaism for so long to think about how to improve itself, to think about its own ideals, to think about what threatens it, suddenly adjust to a world in which many of its own, in some places citizens, after Napoleon in particular, are themselves identified as Jewish and are actually striving for many of the same ideals of those places, the same literary ideals, scientific ideals and even the same often patriotic ideals; many of these Jews, for example, identifying with the country and serving in the military, and becoming important politicians.
So it’s a very particular moment when you might say anti-Judaism as a way of thinking about the world and - I’m gonna use the word - antisemitism as a way of thinking about specific people you think of as really Jewish suddenly align or become mutually useful to each other. And that is a very dramatic process which I think changes how people think about everything - from politics to biology - in Jewish terms.
So I would say that what we call modern antisemitism really was born in the 19th and 20th centuries through this process of a very old and constantly changing and developing culture of thinking about the world in terms of anti-Judaism and, to some degree, philo-Judaism, - we can just say - thinking about Judaism - suddenly encountering all these real Jews and having to come to terms with that.

Prof. David Nirenberg

In the onset of the late modern period, Jews gradually began to be readmitted into the areas of western Europe from which they had previously been expelled.

How did this process influence the rise and formulation of modern forms of antisemitism?

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  • Nirenberg, David, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013).
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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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