Jewish Emancipation In The East

What differed from the West?


The process of emancipation and modernization came later and more slowly for Jews in the east than to their co-religionists in the west. Eastern Jewish communities faced a significant stumbling block to any change, namely the absolutist governments that ruled them. Still, modern ideas trickled in. Books, pamphlets, and students of the Haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment movement) traveled east. Meanwhile, industrialization and urbanization created a new socioeconomic order in which Jews figured as both capitalists and workers. Jewish reactions to modernization can be further explored in other articles on this site, including pieces on socialism and emigration. The following article examines the connections among the processes of modernization, enlightenment, and emancipation in Eastern Europe. It is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, western winds brought changes to Eastern Europe. For the Jews of "Poland"–Lithuania, Volhynia, Galicia–the agent transmitting foreign influences was the government itself. The "enlightened despots" who had inherited hundreds of thousands of Jews with the partition of Poland, wanted to "reform" their new subjects according to the fashionable ideas of the French philosophes. 

The officials of the absolutist "enlightened" state were naturally ill disposed toward the autonomy of the Jews, and their desire was to turnthem all into loyal and "useful" subjects. "Useful" in the sense of the Physiocrats meant having productive occupations: agriculture and crafts. The method adopted was that of "the carrot and the stick": those who showed themselves willing to change were encouraged, while the others were bullied to enter, step by step, into a modernized mold. In this process of enforced acculturation, the Jewish state schools (established in Galicia during the late eighteenth century and in Russia during the 1840s) played a major role in the forming of westernized elites.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University

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