The Jewish Question In 19th Century Europe

Andrew Joyce writes:

The Jewish push for political advancement in Western Europe provoked other insightful assessments. In France, while the Revolution was still ongoing, there was a robust and lengthy debate on whether Jews should be considered full citizens on a par with Frenchmen in the new state. There was even significant debate with the Assembly as to whether Jews were included within the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. On December 23, 1789 a debate was once more held in the Assembly on the subject. The proceedings witnessed statements from both pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish speakers, but the most notable speech of the day came from Anne-Lois Henry de la Fare, bishop of Nancy, Lorraine, and opponent of the Jewish case. His speech was reprinted as an influential pamphlet: l’Opinion de Monsieur l’Evêque de Nancy, député de Lorraine, sur l’ admissibilité des juifs à la plénitude de l’état civil et des droits des citoyens actifs (1790). As well as echoing some of the arguments made elsewhere by figures like Michaelis, de la Fare explained that Jews and Frenchman had opposing interests, often resulting in violence because of the Jewish tendency towards monopoly, nepotism, the communal accumulation and hoarding of wealth, and extremely high levels of ethnocentrism. In Alsace and Lorraine the Jews lived almost exclusively from the proceeds of trade and money-lending. According to de la Fare: “The people detest them; in Alsace the Jews are often the victims of popular uprisings. In Nancy, four months ago, people wanted to pillage their homes. I went to the site of the agitation and I asked what complaint they had to make. Some claimed that the Jews had cornered the wheat market; others, that the Jews banded together too much, that they bought the most beautiful houses and that soon they would own the whole city.”

The Assembly proved incapable of coming to a definite decision on the Jewish position in the new state, and the matter was left to fester, resulting in the de facto granting of full political equality to Jews. However, the matter would arise again in 1806. Count Louis Mathieu Molé (1781–1855), Napoleon’s informal advisor on Jewish affairs, resurrected the discussion as part of a personal effort to rescind Jewish ‘emancipation.’ Responses to the Jewish Question often reflect some aspect of the background of those responding. For example, Luther’s fiery rhetoric was a reflection of his preacher’s penchant for the bellicose sermon, while the academic Michaelis responded to the Jewish Question with statistics and finely tuned evidence-based argument. To Molé, a diplomat, the Jewish Question was merely a facet of politics, to be negotiated via conferences and the formulation of policy. He persuaded Napoleon to convene a ‘Grand Sanhedrin’ — a kind of ‘Elders of Zion’ meeting — where Jewish leaders from across France would be compelled to attend and answer questions about the nature of Judaism and Jewish culture as it related to interactions with Frenchmen. Each of these Jewish notables was issued with Molé’s Instructions to the Assembly of Jewish Notables (1806), a summons to attend the Sanhedrin and a list of questions they were expected to answer. The message to the Jews was abrupt: “Called together from the extremities of this vast empire, no one among you is ignorant of the object for which His Majesty has convened this assembly. You know it. The conduct of many among those of your persuasion has excited complaints, which have found their way to the throne: these complaints were founded on truth; and nevertheless, His Majesty has been satisfied with stopping the progress of the evil.” Molé put to the Jewish leaders a number of questions concerning, among other things, intermarriage, loyalty to the state, Jewish attitudes to the laws of the state, and the practice of usury. Molé stated “You will hear the questions submitted to you, your duty is to answer the whole truth on every one of them.”

But, of course, the answers were far from truthful, even if they were masterfully crafted works of Talmudic argumentation. After engaging in prolonged huddled deliberation, the Sanhedrin delivered its responses, coated in saccharine obsequiousness, via its president Abraham Furtado. They were a tangle of lies. On intermarriage the Sanhedrin responded, with a sudden fondness for literalism, that the Law of Moses “does not state that the Jews can only marry among themselves,” but merely excluded marriage with the seven Biblical Canaanite nations. On the question of how Jews saw Frenchmen, the rabbis responded: “In the eyes of Jews Frenchmen are their brethren, and are not strangers.” On usury, the rabbis claimed that their religion forbade the lending of money at interest “to our fellow-citizens of different persuasions, as well as to our fellow Jews.” A total fabrication. Miraculously, however, the response of the rabbis, and perhaps some deeper influence yet to be discovered, was sufficient to extinguish the efforts of Molé at this stage. Jewish influence in France under Napoleon was able to grow largely unchecked, and not until the Dreyfus Affair of the late nineteenth century would political discussion of the position of Jews in France again reach such a height.

The defeat of Napoleon did contribute to a renewed focus on the Jewish Question elsewhere in Europe. The Congress of Vienna (September 1814 to June 1815) convened European leaders to discuss the political structure of Europe following the defeat of Napoleon, but it also led to the formation of the German Confederation. The formation of the Confederation was important in relation to the Jewish Question because Prussia had, in 1812, ‘emancipated’ its Jews, allowing them to be “considered as natives,” thanks to the networking of wealthy and influential Jews close to Emperor Frederick William III. At the Congress of Vienna, it was suggested by Prussia that their 1812 decree concerning the Jews be applied to the remaining thirty-five states in the Confederation — prompting widespread discussion in the German lands about the desirability of such a prospect. The matter dragged on long after the conclusion of the Congress of Vienna, and in 1831 it provoked ‘The Paulus-Riesser Debate.’ Heinrich Paulus was the non-Jewish professor of Oriental languages and theology at the University of Heidelberg, and a staunch opponent of Jewish emancipation. Gabriel Riesser was a bitter Jewish journalist who had been banned from holding a university position in Hamburg, and thereafter devoted himself to overcoming barriers to Jewish advancement in the German lands.

The ‘debate’ between the two figures lasted around two years and took the form of published essays in which the position of the opponent would be presented and then argued against. These debates are required reading not only because they offer insight into a crucial period in the evolution of the Jewish Question as a political problem, but also in the sense that they provide a glimpse into the development of the now-familiar Jewish reliance upon abstract values in order to mask group self-interest. The opening salvo from Paulus was The Jewish National Distinctiveness, while the strongest statement of Riesser’s position can be found in Defense of the Civic Equality of the Jews against the Proposals of Herr Dr. H.C.G. Paulus. The arguments of Paulus against Jewish emancipation can be summarized as an objection on the grounds that Jews consider themselves to be a separate, ‘chosen’ and superior race with no sympathy for the ‘idea’ of the nation or its citizens. Since the state (a political entity) was a form of apparatus designed to advance the interests of the nation (a biological entity), permitting the entry of an alien people into the machinery of the state (admission to the franchise, the bureaucracy, and the levers of power) would ultimately prove detrimental to those the state was originally intended to serve. In an attempt to counter this quite powerful and resonant argument, Riesser employed a set of tactics developed and finely tuned decades earlier by Moses Mendelssohn and his associates: the appeal to universalism and a primitive kind of multiculturalism. Riesser denied that Jews were anything other than a religious grouping and asserted that they in no way constituted a nation. As a mere religious denomination, Jews deserved to be admitted into a kind of multicultural Germany along with other religious denominations like Protestants and Catholics. He argued that the new German state should be founded not on the principle of serving the biological nation, but on abstract values like ‘justice, liberty, and equality.’ In a tactical manoeuvre that will be familiar to all of us, Riesser felt that the only argument necessary to counter the position of Paulus was that Paulus was a religious bigot, opposed to the advancement of ‘human values, tolerance, and a love of mankind.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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