Jewish Responses to the Modern World

To understand Jewish responses to the Nazi threat, it is important to understand the various ways in which European Jews had reacted to the development of a world in which religion did not necessarily define people’s status.  The process began at the end of the 18th century, when a number of governments for the first time enacted laws promising Jews (and other citizens) equal status, regardless of their religious identification.  Among the first countries to do this were the United States (after the American Revolution), the Austrian Empire (Joseph II’s Patent of Toleration, 1782), and especially the French National Assembly (1791, two years after the start of the French Revolution).  In some cases, notably in Austria, these laws explicitly required Jews to make efforts to conform to the surrounding community by adopting the national language, sending their children to common schools, and giving up occupations traditionally associated with Jews.  In the United States, rights were not made conditional on Jews’ behavior.  In France, Jews had to renounce membership in the Jewish community, which had had the right to maintain its own courts, collect taxes, etc.

These laws offered the Jews emancipation and the possibility of assimilation (becoming like everyone else.  In some countries, such as the United States and, to a large degree, France, Jews were able to blend into the larger community without entirely losing their distinctive identities.  Elsewhere, this proved more difficult.  Up to the Holocaust era, Jews reacted to this situation in five different ways:

(1)   Conversion:  Some Jews, usually a minority, accepted conversion to Christianity and tried to merge completely into the surrounding community.  Some converts became sincere Christians; others accepted conversion because they had ceased believing in any religion, and saw no reason to continue to accept the disadvantages of being classified as Jewish.

(2)   Liberal assimilation:  Jews adopted the language, customs, and nationality of their surrounding community.  They often initiated reforms in Jewish practices to make them more like Christian ones.  Nevertheless, they did not become Christians and they maintained some distinctive forms of behavior.  Jews following this pattern moved into new occupations that they had previously been barred from, but not usually into the most common occupations in the surrounding community, agriculture or factory work.  Dominant pattern in US, France, Germany, England, Netherlands, Hungary.

(3)   Traditionalism:   Religious Jews often tried to resist pressures to assimilate, by clinging to traditional religious practices, speaking a separate language, and avoiding social interaction with non-Jews.  Traditionalist Jewish communities continued to exist in Poland, Hungary and other parts of eastern Europe until the Holocaust.

(4)   Revolutionary radicalism:  Because some prejudices against Jews persisted even after assimilation, some Jews turned to revolutionary movements that promised to create a new society in which there would be no distinction between Jews and non-Jews.  This response was most common in societies where anti-semitism was strongly entrenched, particularly Russia and Poland.  Karl Marx, from Germany, was a symbol of this kind of response.  European socialist and Communist movements usually attracted many Jewish radicals.  In Poland and Russia, an all-Jewish radical movement, the Bund, was also powerful until the Holocaust era.

(5)   Zionism:  Another response to the perceived failure of emancipation and assimilation was Zionism, the movement to create a Jewish national state similar to other people’s national states.  The organized Zionist movement was founded in 1896 by the Austrian Jew Theodor Herzl.  Zionists argued that non-Jewish societies would never really accept Jews as equal members, and that Jews therefore had to create their own separate nation and culture.  Zionism found its strongest support in the same areas where revolutionary radicalism was attractive, particularly Russia and Poland, and in fact many—but not all—Zionists were also socialists or radicals.  Zionist efforts led to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

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