Friday, September 20, 2019

David Sorkin's "Jewish Emancipation"

David Sorkin is the Lucy G. Moses Professor of History at Yale University. His books include The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, and The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780–1840.

Sorkin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The new Constitution had definitively established the criteria for citizenship. How could one continue to defer a decision on the Jews?
I believe that liberty of religion no longer permits any distinction about the political rights of citizens by reason of their belief. The question of political existence has been adjourned; therefore, Turks, Muslims, men of all sects, are admitted to political rights in France. I request that the postponement [of the Jews’ rights] be revoked, and in consequence it be decreed that the Jews in France enjoy active political rights.
Reubell, a deputy from Alsace, immediately opposed the motion. Regnault’s defense of Duport’s motion clinched the matter. Regnault answered: “I request that all those who speak against this motion be called to order since they are attacking the Constitution itself.”

Duport and Regnault thus succeeded in casting the issue as a question of the Constitution’s integrity. This was in stark contrast to the debate on December 23, 1789: the deputies then failed to make it a vote about the integrity of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.”

The motion’s significance was evident in its tortured wording.
The National Assembly, considering that the constitution establishes the conditions requisite to be a French citizen and to become an active citizen, and that every man who, being duly qualified, swears the civic oath and engages to fulfill all the duties the constitution prescribes, has a right to all the advantages it insures.

[This motion] annuls all postponements, restrictions and exceptions contained in the preceding decrees, affecting individual Jews who shall take the civic oath, which will be regarded as a renunciation of all privileges and exceptions previously introduced in their favor.
The first paragraph addressed the fundamental ambiguity of the Jews of the Northeast’s status by admitting them to “passive” and “active” citizenship. The second paragraph abrogated all prior privileges the ancien rĂ©gime had granted. This motion thus constituted a radical break with the past. In contrast to the Jews of Bordeaux’s seamless transition, here was a true rupture, the repeal of a century or more of legislation. The concatenation of events that led the National Assembly to vote in favor of rights, and the very wording of the motion, constituted a new pattern of emancipation “out of estates.” Equality rested on the abrogation of corporations and privileges and the incorporation of Jews into the state. September 28, 1791 thus represented an alternative to Joseph II’s legislation of the previous decade of a partial emancipation “into estates.” Here instead was a full emancipation “out of estates.” From this point onwards, the two models would rule continental Europe’s corridors of power. In Central Europe “out of estates” would vie with Joseph’s conditional emancipation “into estates.” In Tsarist Russia “into estates” would, following Catherine the Great, remain the preferred model.
Readers opening Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries to page 99 would indeed get an excellent idea of the entire book. That page highlights the ambiguities that beset the emancipation process, the fact that it was never simple, clear and straightforward, but always subject to tensions and outright contradictions, that it was never a single event or a linear process but always a combination of progress and reversal, attainment and loss, in other words, a complex and complicated process that, continuing to this day, is interminable or, put differently, coterminous with the Jews’ diverse and disparate experience of the modern world.

These essential characteristics were nowhere more in evidence than during the French Revolution, which many scholars have construed as the turning point in the Jews gaining equal rights. The delegates to the revolutionary National Assembly had first discussed emancipating the Jews, that is, granting them equal rights, in December 1789. They had then tabled the issue for over a year and a half. Various Jewish leaders and their allies had lobbied continuously to get the issue revisited. The Assembly finally addressed the issue at the virtual last moment, when it was about to dissolve to allow a new representative body to take its place. Only then did some delegates realize that the Jews’ status was incontrovertibly fundamental to the constitution: to deny them equality was to deny the constitution itself. That was an irreducible and irresistibly compelling argument.

Yet the French revolution provided only one of the competing models of emancipation, and an ambiguous one at that. Emancipation “by reform,” with its own ambiguous policy of “into” and “out of“ estates continued to be an alternative. And governments in different parts of Europe applied that model in varying ways. Emancipation was truly ambiguous and interminable!
Learn more about Jewish Emancipation at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue