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Emancipation: New Possibilities and New Perils

Emancipation: New Possibilities and New Perils
We have seen that the return of Jews to Western Europe brought with it new modern forms of antisemitism. This was affected by various processes and ideologies that were being formulated at the time. One such process was the gradual emancipation of European Jews, a process which granted Jews complete legal equality and full citizenship, eliminating centuries-long restrictions. Emancipation was first granted to the Jews of France in 1791. This was a result of the 1789 French Revolution which called for the demise of the old monarchic regimes and for the granting of political equality and civil rights to all. During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, the revolutions motto of liberté, égalité, fraternité or ‘freedom, equality and fraternity’ spread across Europe.
As a result of this, Jews were granted equality in other countries and regions. For example, Prussia granted its Jews emancipation in 1812, the United Kingdom and Ireland in 1858, Austria-Hungary in 1867 and the newly unified Germany in 1871. By the early 20th century, Jews had gained civil equality throughout Europe. Emancipation opened many doors to the Jews, offering them new and better social and economic opportunities. However, as we will now see, similar to other democratizing movements, Emancipation also led to negative outcomes for the Jews. Let’s examine how a European society, which was used to seeing the Jews as socially inferior and visibly different, now handled their assimilation into civilian life.
I think we have first of all to think about the impact of emancipation on the Jews. It changed their position in society. While they were before at the real absolute margin of society … although today we know that even that was not absolute and even much before the emancipation they were not really not part of their environment. They always had contact with their environment.
But with Emancipation, with the possibility that opened up with Emancipation - educational possibilities perhaps most importantly, professional openness, even gradual political emancipation that began in the beginning of the 19th century especially in Prussia, for instance, with the legislation of 1812 but in other German countries also at about the same time - in some places small, in some places a less radical legislation. This meant that the Jews were becoming more and more part of their environment. Having had a population of capable, active, dynamic people, you see their entry into society in a very quick manner. So suddenly the Jews were dangerous in other ways that they were before.
If before what was important was their otherness, their belonging to another religion, to other social norms, to other cultural norms, suddenly the danger came from their being like us, from their trying to be not different, not other but to somehow mingle within the overall society. And this created new fears. There is this element that seems to be so capable of entering in and now we don’t know him.
Treitschke is a good example of joining the fear of the old Jews that he thought were coming from Eastern Europe, what he called people who were selling trousers “Hosenverkäufer,” the people from the lower level than those that were coming together with the fear of those who were creating in Germany what he thought was a Mischkultur or a mixed culture of element, instead of a pure Germanic or German sort of culture. So now antisemitism has, so to speak, two directions - one against the traditional, poor Jews who do the most unattractive jobs in society and one against those successful Jews who come in and enter society and become rich and famous and capable and known all over the world.
So there is another danger, another kind of danger but both of course again seem to mix in and overload each other.

Prof. Shulamit Volkov

The 19th century brought with it gradual emancipation to the European Jews, a process which granted them complete legal equality and full citizenship, eliminating centuries-long restrictions.

How did a European society, which was used to seeing the Jews as socially inferior and visibly different, handle their assimilation into civilian life?


  • Birnbaum, Pierre and Ira Katznelson, eds., Paths of Emancipation: Jews, States and Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

  • Katz, Jacob, Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770-1870 (Cambridge M.A., Harvard University Press, 1973).

  • Volkov, Shulamit, “Exploring the Other: The Enlightenment’s Search for the Boundaries of Humanity,” in Robert Wistrich, ed., Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia (Amsterdam: Published for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, by Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), pp. 148 – 167.

  • Volkov, Shulamit, Germans, Jews, and Antisemites: Trials in Emancipation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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