Commentary Magazine

Emancipation and Counter-Emancipation, edited by Abraham G. Duker and Meir Ben-Horin

Emancipation and Counter-Emancipation.
by Abraham G. Duker and Meir Ben-Horin.
Introduction by Salo W. Baron. Ktav. 413 pp. $15.00.

The recent flowering of interest in Jewish studies at colleges throughout America has been met, not merely by surprised pleasure, but also by stirring laments about failures in meeting students' needs. Among the chief complaints have been the lack of serious attention to the planning of programs and courses; the abandonment of standards in the desperate search for faculty; and the harmful faddishness that has forced a rich and ancient field of investigation to justify itself by its links with ethnic studies, the New Left, or some similar topic of current concern—the latest manifestation of the old preoccupation with “The Elephant and the Jewish Question.”1

One problem, however, has attracted relatively little discussion, though it is hardly a minor difficulty. Indeed, it lies at the root of most of the other deficiencies of Jewish-studies programs: the shortage of teaching materials. Publishers have managed to produce cascades of textbooks, readers, and series on women's studies or black studies almost overnight, even in the absence of long scholarly traditions. The latest classroom devices, audio-visual aids, films, and teaching packets are readily available. But in the Jewish field, despite distinguished scholarship and important journals with long careers, it is only recently that publications have begun to appear that cater to the interested beginner, the senior taking his first course in Jewish history or the freshman starting to think about a major in Jewish studies. The neglect is all the more apparent if the needs of a more general readership are taken into account.

It will not do to say that there are great classics—Heinrich Graetz, Simon Dubnow, or in our time Salo Baron and Gershom Scholem. Certainly, these are far more imposing figures than, say, the pioneers of women's studies. But their vast and often difficult tomes are hardly the stuff of Jewish Studies 101—or of a reflective evening after a day's work. Nor are most of the contents of the many fine journals of Jewish scholarship at an appropriate level for the novice. With the exception of Cecil Roth, one is hard put to it to think of anyone prominent in the field, writing in the English language, who before the last few years felt an obligation to write for freshmen as well as colleagues—unlike the case in other fields, such as history or economics, where one does find a Robert Palmer or a Paul Samuelson. Almost alone as consistent sources of essential materials and wide-ranging reading matter—translations of modern Hebrew literature, basic introductory books, and definitive reference works like the recent Geography of Israel—have been the Jewish Publication Society of America and Schocken Books, but they have to serve a large variety of constituencies.

Given this situation, the volume under review is doubly welcome: both for its own signal contribution to the teacher's and layman's needs, and for its promise of new books to come. The ten essays that comprise its contents have been drawn from Jewish Social Studies, a pioneering publication in which the best American Jewish scholar ship has appeared for thirty five years. And the editors indicate in their preface that further works of this kind, with student-oriented introductions, and “suitable for university courses and seminars,” will be prepared in the future Dozens of such anthologies, which bring together related but widely scattered articles (in this case drawn from issues ranging from 1939 to 1957), exist in other fields and it is heartening to see Jewish studies beginning to have access to the same resources.


The theme is an admirable choice, because every aspect of modern Jewish life is illuminated by the emancipation and, as the editors have stressed, by the subsequent negative reaction, the counter-emancipation. They pick Morris Raphael Cohen, in a ruminative assessment of the different ways both Jewish history and anti-Semitism have been explained, to set the scene. Mildly skeptical of all singleminded approaches, including the political, the economic, the geographic, and the Zionist, Cohen suggests that none of the traditional “essences,” either of Jewish survival or of persecution, is a satisfactory means of comprehension. He opts instead for an uncertain, but at least not blind, pluralism. And, striking a note that recurs throughout the book, he insists that the problems are unlikely to vanish. “Anti-Semitism is not wiped out by assimilation,” he writes, “anti-Semitism is not restricted to countries where the Jews have been emancipated.” It is foolish, he concludes, “to cover the uncertainty of the human future with the dogma of inevitable progress.”

This pessimism, exposing the somber heritage of emancipation amid its glowing hopes, darkens almost every page of the book. From the movement's earliest, 18th-century manifestations, the days of Moses Mendelssohn and of Rahel Levin's salon, of John Toland, Denis Diderot, and Friedrich Schleiermacher, the ambiguous consequences of freedom were apparent. Hannah Arendt, tracing the split between privileged and unprivileged Jews, and the perils of a middle, semi-assimilated position, quotes a comment by Frederick William IV that could be taken as symbolic, not only of her argument, but of the entire experience of the last two centuries. Asked about his policy toward Jews, the King replied: “I wish them well in every respect, but I want them to feel that they are Jews.” The two-edged nature of emancipation, apparent in all the major thinkers of the 18th and early 19th centuries, as Isaac Barzilay shows, is epitomized by that remark.

And throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries the equivocal, oscillating consequences of what at first seemed a great liberation continued. The essays take us through most of the countries of Europe that contained major Jewish communities, and everywhere the pendulum swung inexorably from periods of peace to periods of hatred and back again. Uncertainty was inescapable, for even Europe's radicals, who might have pursued the logic of their belief in the brotherhood of man, were dubious friends. Abraham Duker traces the divisions in one such group, the Polish Democratic Society, and they are equally apparent in a splendid essay on Friedrich Engels and the Jews by Edmund Silberner. This was one of the few stories with a relatively happy ending, because Engels, the non-Jew and early denouncer of Jewish capitalism, learned Hebrew and Yiddish, and gradually became a ringing defender of the Jew as laborer and downtrodden pauper. Yet even here the irony remains, for Engels's was a lonely voice in a movement that owed so much to Jews but whose heirs unloaded their aggressions on Judaism. When the leaders of the Bund elaborated their finely-wrought systems for giving Jews an autonomous place in a socialist world, their obsolescence within a Marxism that was heading in very different directions seems almost painful. Koppel Pinson correctly treats the Bund's failures as a tragedy, redeemed only by the heroism it inspired in Poland in World War II.

Among liberals, too—the stalwarts of the revolutions of 1848, for example, whose efforts are magisterially surveyed by Salo Baron, or the fighters for Italian independence, whose struggles are documented by Mario Rossi—the same picture obtains. The champions of freedom found that, for their coreligionists, freedom was perennially precarious. When one reads of Edgardo Mortara, taken from his parents at the age of six and eventually fashioned into a priest, because a serving girl had baptized him with tap water when he was eleven months old, one thinks of medieval Italy, not the 1850's.

Forty years later, as Robert Byrnes demonstrates in a lucid discussion of the career of Edouard Drumont, it may have appeared that anti-Semitism's cycle was at last in a sharp downswing in France. Drumont's virulent newspaper was in fact about to expire, but then Captain Dreyfus was arrested. Nowhere is the double-sided inheritance of emancipation more clearly displayed than in the French case: the very moment when the country at large appears on the verge of rejecting intolerance, and when a respected role in society (notably in the army) seems to augur total acceptance for Jews, the door snaps shut. The fragility of the “dogma of inevitable progress” asserts itself again.


The final essay in the book, Oscar Karbach's study of Georg von Schönerer, the founding father of modern Austrian anti-Semitism, reveals yet one more paradox: the very period of Schönerer's widest influence and the rise of Vienna's anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger, to a position as the most powerful man in Austria, was the golden age of Viennese Jewry. Few communities in the long history of the Jews have produced in one generation a galaxy to compare with Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Theodor Herzl, and their circles. Karbach does not explore the juxtaposition, but more recently Carl Schorske has revealed the common element of a revolt against liberalism in the careers of Herzl, Schönerer, and Lueger. Even in looking only at Schönerer's life, though, Karbach can expose the degree to which viciousness was again deeply entwined with the freedom Jews enjoyed—in this instance fraught with forebodings of the Nazis, who were Schönerer's heirs.


By bringing these articles together, the editors have placed squarely and accessibly before every concerned Jew, not merely the college student, the almost schizophrenic implications of emancipation. Thanks to a magnificent, 700-item bibliography, Duker has also provided the tools for further exploration of the subject: a boon for any reader stimulated by the preceding essays. But judgment seems as far away as ever. Whatever one's stance—as-similationist, political Zionist, orthodox believer, mystic, or cultural nationalist—one has much to ponder in the realization that, since the opening of the ghettos, the Jews have lived through both the finest and the most terrible years of their history, through blessings and curses whose common ancestor is enlightenment.



1 See Robert Alter, “What Jewish Studies Can Do,” COMMENTARY, October 1974.


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