Germans and Jews in Modern Times



Heinrich Heine sought to shed his Jewish heritage by converting to Christianity.  As a radical reminder of Jewish responses of German culture, Heine combined his belief in Bildung with a vision of modernity in rejecting Judaism.  German nationalism, however, challenged assimilated German Jews to further demonstrate their Germanness.

Somewhat later, Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) wrote that the white race was the aristocracy of human kind, and called on it to share the planet. The value of each western nation would be determined by the extent of the foreign land they mastered. This colonial rivalry between the Aryans was necessary, for "nations could not prosper without intense competition, like the struggle for survival of Darwin" (see Poliakov, p. 343). As a result, Treitschke paid almost religious tribute to war, which was echoed by Friedrich von Bernhardi (1849-1930), who considered war as "an indispensable factor of civilization" and "a biological necessity of first order" (see Poliakov,1987, p. 344). Josef Reimer described how to organize Germany into the master of Europe and Siberia. The population of this space would be divided between Germans and Germanisable elements on the one hand, and those non-Germanisable on the other. Jews and Slavs fell within the latter category of those who were to be excluded from the Germanic community of procreation and their procreation be prohibited as the case may be (Poliakov,1987).

Among German Jews, Abraham Geiger (1810–74), German rabbi, Semitic scholar and Orientalist, theologian, and foremost exponent of the Reform movement in Judaism; thus, liberal Judaism. When he received his doctorate (1833) from the University of Bonn, he was already a rabbi in Wiesbaden. He sought to remove all nationalistic elements from Judaism(particularly the “Chosen People” doctrine) and to emphasize the Jewish “mission” to spread monotheism and moral law. He shortened the prayer book, permitted instrumental music in the synagogue, abolished the second days of holidays, and advocated prayer in the vernacular. However, he opposed Sunday worship and refused to serve any congregation that broke with the established Jewish community. In 1870 he became chief rabbi of the Berlin congregations and director of the newly established seminary for the scientific study of Judaism. He was a prolific writer. His great work is Urschrift und Übersetzungen der Bibel (1857).

Paul de Lagarde (1827-1891), who became one of the prophets of a new religion under the Third Reich, envisaged a political program for the Prussian conservative party: the annihilation of various Slavic peoples-"this burden of history ... the sooner they perished the better for them and for us"; he expressed the same wish for the Hungarian people, "condemned to disappear for the additional reason that it was an old people of Turanian race, hence not better than the Turks and Lapons" (see Poliakov, 1987, p. 351). He likened Jews to bacillus and trichinae and said that one should not negotiate with them, but exterminate them. Hitler reformulated this statement in 1942: "The war that we wage is of the same nature as the one which Pasteur and Koch did a century ago."

A Closer Look at the Jewish Identity

The Jews have a 5,750 year history, tracing their origins to Biblical times. Evolving out of a common religion, the Jewish people developed customs, culture, and an ethical system which identified them as Jews regardless of their individual religious attitudes. The ancient Jews were both conquerors and the conquered. But they were among only a handful of ancient peoples to survive, despite centuries of persecution, massacres, and their dispersion amongst all of the world's nations. Where other peoples assimilated, the Jews adopted some local customs and folkways, but held onto the basic tenets of their religion and culture.

This lecture describes the history, religion, customs and culture of the Jewish people. An understanding of "who are the Jews" is a prerequisite to understanding the roots of anti-Semitism, which, in its most vile form, sowed the seeds of the Holocaust which had as its ultimate objective the total annihilation of the Jewish people.


Judaism is the religion of the Jews. There are an estimated 14 million followers of the Jewish religion around the world. Most of the world's Jews are concentrated in three countries: the United States (six million), Israel (3.7 million), and in the former territories of the Soviet Union (2.5 million). Other nations with significant Jewish populations are France (650 thousand), Great Britain (400 thousand), Canada (300 thousand), Argentina (300 thousand), and Brazil (150 thousand).

Judaism was perhaps the first religion based on monotheism, the belief in one God. All of the major Western religions find some of their roots in Judaism, i.e., Christianity and Islam.

A central tenet of Judaism is that God, the Creator of the World, made a special agreement called a covenant (berit in Hebrew) with Abraham, from whom the Jewish people descended. The covenant provided that the Jews would be blessed with God's love and protection if they remained true to God's law and faithfully worshipped Him, and be accountable for sins and transgression against God and His laws. The Jewish people have often been referred to in modern history as the "Chosen People" because of the belief that the Jews were singled out among all of the ancient peoples by God. According to Judaism, the Jews were chosen to be His servants although God is the universal Creator of all humanity.

Today, Jews do not encourage converts, although converts are accepted after they demonstrate knowledge about the faith and their sincerity in accepting its laws.  Historically, the persecution of the Jews coincides with the end of efforts to proselytize.

The tenets of Judaism include a belief in a coming Messiah (derived from the Hebrew, meaning, "the anointed one", and probably adopted from the tenets of the Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism) who will unite the Jewish people and lead them under a Kingdom of God on earth and bring peace and justice to all mankind. While Judaism recognizes an "afterlife," it is principally a "this world" religion. The Creator in Judaistic theology is all-knowing and does not have a corporal form.

Judaism is traditionally decentralized. There is no equivalent to a Pope or other central, international decision-making authority who determines religious dogma or practice. Each Jewish congregation is responsible for its own affairs and is usually, but not always, led by a spiritual leader called a rabbi. Many rabbis are trained in a seminary or university established for the purpose of furthering religious scholarship and teaching. Each of the major groups of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist) has its own institution in the United States for training rabbis, and each sect, and for that matter, each congregation, maintains its own practices, traditions, and interpretations of Jewish law.

Jewish worship and study often takes place at a synagogue, and religious services often include prayer and readings from the Torah. Services held in a synagogue are traditionally led by a rabbi and assisted by a cantor, who leads the chanting and songs which accompany prayer.

Judaism traditionally emphasizes ethical conduct and the treatment of others "as one would wish to be treated themselves." Thus, the doctrine which does exist through written and oral Jewish law is continually being reinterpreted to respond to modern developments.

The Torah

The major body of Jewish law is found in the Torah, which consists of the Five Books of Moses (also known as the Pentateuch) and which forms the first part of the Old Testament. This law has been supplemented by oral law and interpretations of the law which comprise the Talmud.

There are 613 commandments included in the Torah, which also includes the "Ten Commandments." These 613 commandments govern Jewish law covering such areas as philanthropy, sacrifices, prayer, ritual purity, dietary laws, and observances of the Sabbath and other holy days. The Jewish system of law, also referred to as Halacha, includes a civil and criminal justice system which is followed by observant Jews. Halacha regulates Jewish life, such as marriage and divorce, burial, relationships with non-Jews and education.

Jewish Laws and Traditions

As is true with adherents of all religions, the degree to which individual Jews observe Jewish laws and traditions varies. Among the practices of observant Jews are:

1. Dietary Laws:  Strict Jewish law requires that Jews may not eat certain foods, such as pork, certain seafood, or food without the blood removed, and may not mix dairy and meat products at the same meal. These laws also describe how animals must be slaughtered so as to minimize suffering.

2. Jewish Calendar:  Jewish law utilizes both a lunar and solar calendar to set the dates of holidays. The dates of holidays and festivals are determined by a lunar calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon. The time from new moon to new moon is 29 days, 12.75 hours. Jewish months are thus either 29 or 30 days. Because a solar year is 365.25 days and a lunar year is about eleven days shorter (12 times 29.5), adjustments are made to the Jewish calendar to assure that holidays remain within the same season (which themselves are solar-based calculations rather than lunar) every year. A lunar month is inserted as a "leap month" as a part of this adjustment, with a total of seven months being added every 19 years.
 The Jewish Sabbath and holidays traditionally begin at sunset the evening before the day the Sabbath or holiday is observed. Thus the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah in 1990 was observed September 21st and 22nd, but began at sunset on September 20th.

3. Sabbath and Festival Observance:  The fourth of the ten commandments is "Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy" (Exodus 20:8). Observant Jews do not perform any work on the Sabbath, which is spent in prayer and religious study. In addition to the Sabbath, Jews both in ancient times and today celebrate holidays and festivals, each of which have their own rituals associated with observance. Among these are:
 Rosh Hashanah (New Year/Sept-Oct):  Rosh Hashanah marks the new year of the Jewish calendar. It is both a joyous and a solemn holiday. Jews around the world do not work and do not attend school on that day. The ram's horn (shofar) is blown ritually to serve as the beginning of ten days of repentance which culminates in Yom Kippur.
 Yom Kippur (Sept-Oct):  This is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Jews do not go to work or to school on Yom Kippur, and refrain from eating or drinking for the entire holiday. It is considered by Jews to be the day in which every individual is judged by God, and thus it is a solemn day marked by prayer and repentance.
 Passover (March-April):  Passover is an eight-day festival commemorating the freeing of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. A ritual feast on the first two nights of this holiday, called a Seder, includes the recounting of the Passover story. Ritual foods are eaten during these eight days which are not eaten at other times of the year. Observant Jews do not work or go to school the first two days and the last two days of this holiday.
 Shavuot (Feast of Weeks/May-June):  Shavuot is a festival which marks the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai by God. It is a two-day holiday which is often celebrated by having an all night study session on religious topics with friends. Observant Jews do not work or go to school on Shavuot.
 Succot (Sept-Oct):  Succot is a commemoration of the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness before they received the Torah. It is also a commemoration of the final harvest before the winter rains. It is an eight-day holiday, and observant Jews do not work or go to school the first two days or the last day. It is customary to build a structure called a Succah as a symbol of the types of structures the Israelites lived in while they were wandering in the dessert.
 Simchat Torah (Sept-Oct):  Simchat Torah commemorates the conclusion and the beginning of the cycle of Torah readings which lasts one year. It occurs the day after Succot ends. Observant Jews do not work or go to school on Simchat Torah.
 Hanukkah (Nov-Dec):  Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday which marks the victory of the ancient Israelites, led by Judah Maccabee, over the Syrian-Greek army in 165 B.C.E. (This refers to the Jewish convention of indicating years before the first century with the letters "B.C.E." (Before the Common Era).  Years in the  first century or later are followed by no letters unless there exists the  possibility of confusion with a previously mentioned year.  In that case, the  year is followed by the letters "C.E." (Common Era) instead of the letters  "A.D.") Traditionally, Jews light a candle for each night of this holiday until there are eight on the eighth day, plus an extra "shammash" candle. In recent times, it has become traditional to exchange gifts on this holiday. Although Hanukkah usually occurs during the time of Christmas, it is in no way a comparable holiday to Christmas for the Jews.
 Purim (Feb-March):  Purim is a minor festival of the Jewish calendar which commemorates the triumph of the Jews over a murderous plot by an advisor to King Ahasuerus in Persia in the fifth century B.C.E. It is a joyous holiday and is celebrated by reading the Megillah (a scroll which tells the story of Purim) by baking hamintaschen (triangular-shaped cookies containing jams) and by dressing up in costumes.

4. Ritual Clothing:  For centuries, observant Jews have dressed differently than citizens of their host countries while engaged in secular and non-secular activities. During prayer, Jewish males have traditionally worn the following: (a) skull cap (Kippah, yarmulka) for head covering, (b) phylacteries (tefillin), i.e., these are small boxes containing Torah passages written on parchment with leather straps which are worn on the forehead and left arm during prayers, and (c) a fringed Shawl (tallit):  these are worn during prayer.

5. Five Life Cycle Events:  Circumcision (brit milah):  male Jewish children are circumcised on the eighth day after their birth as a sign of a covenant between Abraham and God. The boy is given his name at this ceremony.
 Bar Mitzvah: at the age of thirteen, Jewish law considers boys to have reached adulthood. A special service is held in the boy's honor, and he is permitted to read from the Torah for the first time. The comparable ceremony for girls (age 12) is a Bat Mitzvah which varies in religious significance depending on the sect of Judaism.
 Marriage:  at a marriage ceremony, observant Jews sign a marriage contract called a Ketuba. The Ketuba describes the conditions of marriage. The marriage ceremony, as in many other religions, has been ritualized and often includes the breaking of a glass by the groom to symbolize the destruction of the Temple. (Mazal Tov! = Good Luck)
 Divorce:  Jewish law also recognizes divorce, made official by a document called a Get. Even if observant Jews obtain a civil divorce, the spouse is unable to remarry in the absence of obtaining a Get from a Jewish court.
 Death and Mourning: upon the death of a Jew, the body is ritually washed and placed in a coffin for burial, generally the day after death. Loved ones observe a seven-day period of mourning called Shiva at which time religious services are held in the home of the bereaved. The anniversary of the death of a parent (Yahrzeit) is observed by lighting a candle and saying a prayer (Kaddish) in memory.  (See also Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's Jewish Literacy. The Most Important Things to know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History (New York:  William Morrow and Company, 1991).)

Early History to 1250 B.C.E.

Hebrew civilization traces its roots back to c. 2000 B.C.E. when the Hebrews were one among many nomadic tribes of Semitic peoples in the northern Arabian peninsula. According to tradition, the Hebrew tribes were loosely united under the leadership of Abraham, from the Mesopotamian city of Ur. Around 1600 B.C.E., the Hebrews settled in northern Egypt where by 1400 B.C.E., according to tradition, they were enslaved. (Map)

Moses the Egyptian

Berlin's leading archeologist, Jan Assmann, suggested in his work, Moses the Egyptian, that Moses may well have been a real figure from the ranks of the Egyptian royal family leading a revolt. As such, this would explain both his clearly Egyptian name as well as need for someone, i.e., Aaron, to interpret his words for "his" people. As such, he would have been viewed in the Egyptian tradition as the Gods representative of the people and as a holy person himself. In addition, it would also lend some explanation to the Hebrews reversion back to Egyptian practices in the activities associated with the so-called "golden calf."

Religion: Basic Overview

The Jews/Hebrews of 2000 BCE were probably similar to other Semitic tribes of the Arabian peninsula, namely polytheistic and oriented towards natural phenomena. Monotheism did not emerge with any clarity prior to the period associated with Moses. Early explanations of Yahweh centered on rules governing legal and moral aspects of society. This early conception of god included sacrifices, rituals, and rewards comparable to other Mesopotamian gods. During the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, the Hebrew/Jewish prophets refined their view of god and the universe. Yahweh became the sole god of the universe, a god of righteousness. Persian Zoroastrianism of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE brought spirituality to the Hebrews, namely the ideas of salvation, resurrection from the dead, and the coming of a spiritual savior. By the 5th century, the Law received refinement through the formal adoption of the Pentateuch. The coming of a spiritual savior, in addition, signaled the first step towards reestablishing the kingdom of Israel on earth. Judaism in its final form attempted to answer the questions which continue to inspire the hearts and minds of leading politicians and thinkers of western culture into the present. The origin of humankind, of the stars in heaven and the earth below, and problem of evil, and the relation between humankind and God were outlined in the Pentateuch.

Real and Present: God as Close and Personal (ca. 950 B.C.E.)

Following the religious narrative, this period can be characterized by a the dominance of the king (David) and a vision of stability in Mount Zion (ca. 950 B.C.E.). However, David had violated the accepted covenant by taking Bathsheba as his wife. David's sins are, religiously seen, going to be penalized by the loss of their first son as well as the splitting of the kingdom. Overall, King David and his descendants are viewed as holding the position of king while Jerusalem is now equated with Mount Zion (the symbolic recipient of God's Law or Torah) while under God's unconditional protection.

The Retreat into Mythology: God as Distant and Judge (ca. 850-720 B.C.E.)

Within this time period, a new theological narrative emerges. Within this context, the historical forces at play left the early Jews subject to the forces moving within the region, which made them the object of large-power politics. Assyria and Egypt, in particular, begin to reassert them influence throughout the region. Regarding the contemporary understanding of "Jewish chosen-ness," this appears to be more the product of rabbinic Judaism rather than a product of this early history.

Within Judah itself, Solomon's death initiated a long period of military rulers, the introduction of Phoenician deities, the cult of Baal, and finally defeat by the Assyrians. As refugees fled into the southern regions, efforts were made to reconstruct history and understand God's plan for the Hebrews. This new history could be characterized as a law giver-mystery mountain model (850-720 B.C.E.) wherein Moses -- a mythic religious figure – is reemphasized as the Law-Giver, Mount Sinai is then rendered as an unknown location, and God's covenant includes conditions for God's favor. During these times, the books of Exodus and Amos are composed.

Over the course of the next century, these two models blended as groups from the North and South both settle into the city and region around Jerusalem. King Josiah (r. c. 621) reforms and pulls existing traditions together in order to provide unity to his kingdom. For example, he forbad future references to northern cities where God had been worshiped and, henceforth, only Jerusalem would be the focus for worship -- centralization of worship in Jerusalem. He placed restrictions on the actions of the king while separating the influence of the priests from the palace by discovering Deuteronomy. However, he also made himself subject to the law. Within forty years, however, the Babylonian's would destroy Jerusalem along with the temple (587 B.C.E.).

Babylonian Captivity (587-538 BCE)

The "Babylonian Captivity" determined the course of the history of the Jews for almost 50 years (until 538 BCE). While in captivity, Jewish chroniclers embellished their past with greater glory to maintain unity among the tribes, for example, now creation story includes references to seven days and the basic concept of creation as good. Babylonian influences appear also to include taking ideas from the Epic of Gilgamesh (e.g., the great flood) and the Babylonian God Tiamat (whose name referred to a sacred wind/spirit). Dated to roughly 550 BCE, creation took on three distinct characteristics. First, creation (Genesis) served to de-mythify everyone else while promoting (second) an anthropic principle, namely, that creations existed for humankind and that human beings, as such, were a good thing. Third and finally, this vision of creation also underscored creation as a free-willed independent act of a transcendent God. Creation, thus, becomes the first stage in revelation. Revelation constitutes God's intercession in history's process. The revelations at Mount Sinai to Moses, consequently, become more important than any other appearance which, in turn, underscores the significance of the Torah, both written and oral. History, in this context, becomes the setting for revelation in which both redemption and sanctification can be achieved through adhering to God's Law (or instruction) -- an action-based religious life and practice.

The Advance into Palestine, 1250 BCE to 538 BCE

Under the leadership of Moses c. 1250 BCE, some of the Hebrew tribes left Egypt for Palestine. Moses united them through God's revelation on Mt. Sinai of His covenant with them, namely through the ten commandments (Exodus 19:3 - 20:22). According to certain Jewish traditions, Mosses composed the entire Torah (or Pentateuch) during his stay on Mt. Sinai -- whose actual location eludes us even to this day. Until the formation of the kingdom of Israel by Saul in 1010 BCE, these tribes were held together by the League of 12 Tribes. Founded on the common origins and religious beliefs of the tribes, the Judges (tribal leaders) adhered to the principles passed down to them by Moses. By the 10th century BCE, the tribes split into a northern (the ten tribes of Israel) and a southern (the 2 tribes of Judah) region. The kingdom of Israel had it ups and downs. The Philistines and the Ammonites (eastern Jordan) pressured the Israelite tribes from all sides. Although Saul defeated the Ammorites and established himself as the first monarch, the Philistines, in turn, defeated Saul and the kingdom disintegrated.

A Focus on Jerusalem

Two uniquely talented rulers guided the affairs of state from 1006 and 926 B.C.E.: Kings David (1006-966 B.C.E.) and Solomon (966-926 B.C.E.). Prior to Jerusalem, Hebron had been the traditional capital of the southern regions. David, originally from Bethlehem, using mercenaries, David conducted a series of successful military campaigns against immediate threats, united Judah and Israel (northern kingdom), and captured Jerusalem, a Canaanite city of Jesubites, which became the new religious (by bringing in the Ark of the Covenant) and political capitol.

The son of David's wife Bathsheba, Solomon, became king in 966 B.C.E. Solomon maintained a centralized state administration and raised the significance of Jerusalem with the building of the Temple (ca. 950 B.C.E.) behind the palace grounds. The Temple became the place of God's residence. During the reign of Solomon, history was now being written be Solomon's scribes, who devoted a portion of their time to writing commentaries about the rule of King David -- including the less savory aspects of his life (thus, writings associated with the prophet Samuel). Solomon's own life did not correspond well to the vision of a virtuous life from traditional points of view. For example, Solomon sought marriages with the various regional leaders for political purposes. On the other hand, Solomon's scribes also wrote about the lives of Abraham, Joseph, as well as providing the more detailed insight into King David's rule.

In addition to the religious narrative, historians and archeologists debated in the 1990's whether the original city of "King David" existed at all. While clear evidence exists for the existence of a smaller city on the site prior to the 10th century B.C.E. as out outpost of the Egyptian empire, evidence for the city of David appears less prominent in recent discoveries. While the vast majority of scholars still hold to the accepted view of the origins and development of the city.

In addition to the religious narrative, historians and archeologists debated in the 1990's whether the original city of "King David" existed at all. While clear evidence exists for the existence of a smaller city on the site prior to the 10th century B.C.E. as out outpost of the Egyptian empire, evidence for the city of David appears less prominent in recent discoveries. While the vast majority of scholars still hold to the accepted view of the origins and development of the city. For those interested in these competing points of view, the magazine Biblical Archeological Review offers a number of provocative articles.

History of the Second Temple Period, 538 BCE to 133 CE

Persia's rise brought Babylon's fall and the end of the Babylonian Captivity for the Jews. The agrarian population settled in and Jerusalem was rebuilt. Until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, a political and religious revival in Jerusalem led to the rebuilding of the Temple. It also led to the prohibition of marriage between inhabitants of Judah and alien peoples. In 458 BCE, King Ezra gave the force of royal sanction to recognition of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) as the basis of the religion of Law (the Law was the gift of God).

Alexander the Great and Messianism

With the arrival of the Greeks in 332 BCE, the kingdom again entered a period of foreign influence and the development of various religious groups: the Pharisees (loyal to the Law but believing in the separateness of the Jewish life); the Sadducees (a strongly conservative group who later rejected the belief in immortality); and the Essenes (who believed in preparation for a messianic kingdom through ascetic living, rites of purification and monastic communities). It could be argued that while the Jews retained some degree of autonomy, they fate remained in the hands of others. After 63 BCE Palestine became part of the Roman Empire. Revolts against Roman rule in 66-70 AD and 133, resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the removal of Jews from Jerusalem entirely.

Four Periods in the Formation of Modern Judaism

Jacob Neusner interpreted following four periods as defining the emergence of modern Judaism. Within his work, The Way of Torah (1993), Neusner defined these periods as follows:

586 B.C.E. Destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians

The ancient Israelites, living in what they called the Land if Israel, produced Scriptures that reached their present form in the aftermath of the destruction of their capital city and Temple. Whatever happened before that time was reworked in the light of that event and the meaning imputed to it by authors who lived afterward. All Judaisms, from 586 B.C.E. forward, appeal to the writings produced in the aftermath and destruction of the First Temple. Therefore we must regard the destruction of that Temple as the date that marks the beginning of the formation of Judaism(s).

C.E. 70 Destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans

After 586 B.C.E., the Jews' leaders – the political classes and priesthood – were taken to Babylonia, the homeland of their conquerors, where they settled down. A generation later Babylonia fell under the rule of the Persians, who permitted the Jews to return to their ancient homeland. A small number did so, where they rebuilt the Temple and produced the Hebrew Scriptures. The Second Temple of Jerusalem lasted from about 500 B.C.E. to C.E. 70, when the Romans – by that time ruling the entire Middle East, including the Land of Israel, mainly through their friends and allies – put down a Jewish rebellion and destroyed Jerusalem again. The second destruction proved final and marked the beginning of the Jews' history as a political entity defined in social and religious terms but not in territorial ones. That is, the Jews formed a distinct religious-social group, but all of them did not live in any one place, and some lived nearly everywhere in the West, within the lands of Christendom and Islam alike.

C.E. 640 Conquest of the Near and Middle East and North Africa by Islam

The definition of the world in which the Jews would live was completed when the main outlines of Western civilization had been worked out. These encompassed Christendom in Western and eastern Europe, including the world west of the Urals in Russia, and Islam, in command of North Africa and the Near and Middle east and, in later times, destined to conquer much of India and the Far East (Malaysia dn Indonesia in particular), as well as sub-Saharan Africa. During this long period, the Jews in Christendom and Islam alike ordinarily enjoyed the status of a tolerated but subordinated minority and were free to practice their religion and sustain their separate group existence. Of still greater importance, both Christianity and Islam affirmed their divine origin of the Jews' holy book, the Torah, and acknowledged the special status among the nations of Israel, the Jewish people.

1787/1789 Adoption of the American Constitution and the French Revolution

Adoption of the U.S. Constitution and the French Revolution marked the beginning of an age of political change that reshaped the world in which the West, including Western Jewries, lived. Politics became essentially secular, and political institutions no longer acknowledged supernatural claims of special status accorded either to a church or to a religious community. The individual person, rather than the social group, was the focus of politics. The change meant that Jews would be received as individuals and given rights equal to those of all others, but at the same time "Israel" as a holy people and community no longer would enjoy special status and recognition.

Refocusing Jewish Intellectual and Religious Life

The focus of Jewish intellectual life following the destruction of the Second Temple was established in Yavneh. Jewish scholars met here and during the end of the second century and beginning of the third established an oral Jewish law to complement the Torah. This oral law was written down at the end of the second century C.E. by R. Judah ha-Nasi, and is known as the Mishnah. Discussion on the Mishnah was also put to writing, and is known as the Gemara. The Mishnah and Gemara together are called the Talmud. The Jewish scholars in Babylon also developed a Talmud, which eventually supplanted the Palestinian version as the ultimate authority in Jewish legal matters. New centers of Jewish scholarship were established in the diaspora, principally in North Africa and Muslim Spain by the end of the 10th century.

Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century. Jewish legal rights were restricted. During the first three centuries of Christianity, the issue that separated Jew from Christian was whether Jesus was the true Messiah. By the beginning of the fourth century, Christianity had evolved with customs, rituals and laws far different from Judaism.

Palestine was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century. Many Jews served in the Arab armies which conquered the Iberian peninsula, and settled in Spain. For centuries, Jews flourished in Spain and North Africa, and recorded achievements in science, medicine, music, philosophy and culture, i.e., the writings of Maimonides.

Jewish life in the Middle Ages was for the most part a story of social and economic isolation, persecution and massacres, e.g., during the crusades. Jews were isolated both physically and socially from the fabric of life in the Middle Ages and the period following the Middle Ages. Yet they filled an important niche. Christianity outlawed usury, the lending of money. Jews were permitted to fill this vacuum by acting as moneylenders and financiers.


At first, Jews in the diaspora segregated voluntarily. This was partly for self-protection, but it was perhaps more the result of the requirements of the Jewish religion: to be close to a synagogue and other religious institutions. The concept of segregating Jews involuntarily behind walls was developed in ancient times, but it was not actually implemented as a policy until 1462 in Frankfurt, Germany. The idea caught on in the rest of Europe and became the norm in the 16th century. Unlike its modern 20th century counterpart, the ghetto of 16th century Europe permitted Jews to leave during the day and do their business. While the ghettos permitted Jews to live peacefully, conditions were often crowded and inadequate. However, the isolation of Jews in ghettos had the effect of eliminating assimilation with the host communities, and preserved and enhanced the survival of the Jewish culture.

Those governments unwilling even to tolerate Jews who were segregated in ghettos expelled them. At one time or another, all Jews were expelled from England in 1290 (also on the 9th of Av according to tradition), France (1306 and 1394), Austria (1420), and Spain (1492). There were local expulsions throughout Europe including those in Germany. Some expulsion policies were reversed when governments realized that the Jews served a useful purpose.

It was not until the Enlightenment (see Lecture 5) that Jews had the opportunity to participate in modern society free from persecution. The fundamentalist acceptance of Jewish law underwent a severe challenge, and the result was the development of reformist movements which eventually culminated in the establishment of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements.

Jewish culture developed for roughly 1000 years in parts of pre-World War II Europe -- 2000 years if one includes the Mediterranean basin. Jews of both Western and Eastern Europe created a culture of religious practice, arts and music, language (principally Yiddish), and education. It was an entire culture which the Nazis sought to make extinct.

There were distinct differences in the cultures of Jews who settled in the "East" and "West" in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Generally, Jews who settled in Western Europe (France, Holland, Germany, Austria, and Italy, for example) were more assimilated than their "eastern" counterparts of the Soviet Union, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Rumania, and Hungary. They were more likely to speak the language of their host nation, less likely to be religiously observant, more likely to inter-marry, more likely to be urban settlers, more likely to be middle-class, more likely to be formally educated, and more likely to affiliate with generic political parties which represented more than just Jewish interests. Western European Jews were more likely to be accepted by their host countries as full citizens. For the most part, they were able to live side by side with their non-Jewish neighbors, free from the threat of physical attacks and anti-Semitism. Eastern European Jews did not feel safe from pogroms. For many Jews in Western Europe, they were Jewish by religion, but identified with their host country. Thus, when the Jews of Germany were targeted by the Nazis, most of them had a history of feeling that they were "German" rather than "Jewish." Jews in the Modern World

Modern Jewish history has been a time struggling over the nature of what it means to be a Jew.  Considering momentarily the notion of a Jewish pre-modern history, we need only to look back to the Middle Ages for numerous reminders of the separate-ness -- both theologically and socially -- forced on the Jewish community by Christianity.  Furthermore, the Jewish and non-Jewish communities held to the assumption that the two communities got along quite well - although each had its own vision of the consequences of the coming Day of Judgement.

Two processes undermined this apparent scene of tranquility:  the Enlightenment and Emancipation.  These processes had a dramatic upon traditional Jewish social and theological particularisms, meaning the notion of "we are not one within humanity."  Whereas pre-modern Jewish history was one of understanding one's differences with the greater community, Jewish particularisms broke down this assumption and thus new answers were sought to the question of what it meant to be a Jew.

German-Jewish Heritage

Roughly two-thirds of his originally German work entitled Der Name als Stigma (Stuttgart:  Ernst Klett Verlag, 1987), Dietz Bering's The Stigma of Names adds additional insight into the pervasive nature of antisemitism in German society and culture prior to Hitler's Third Reich.  Divided evenly between historical and systematic analyses, Bering explores the various socio-political implications of attempts at isolation and identification of Jews in Germany through the institutionalization of both names and naming.  Bering's intentions are clear from the opening pages of this work:  this "book does not seek to report on excesses or complicated theories, but precisely to recall everyday occurrences ...[and]... how the normal citizen was involved in antisemitism, and in making the Jews into a `model of impeachability.'" [ix]

Bering's historical approach offers a clear insight into latent and open displays of antisemitism linked with the question of Jewish names.  Although Enlightened eighteenth-century European minds were moved by a belief in the "original equal value of [all] human beings," enlightened visions of emancipation found only a limited practice in the principle of equality in the eyes of the law. [28] As for the Jews, emancipation represented an opportunity for a relaxation of social tensions historically linked with their separation and isolation from the surrounding society as well as the implied right to practice Judaism openly without fear of reprisal.  These expectations, however, enjoyed only limited realization.  Accounting for these trends, Bering's work suggests a strong link between social and historical forces culminating in the rise of Adolf Hitler's National Socialism and its genocidal policies leading to the Holocaust.

Bering's historical analysis demonstrates two strong points: First, Jewish names often evoked negative stereotypes of Jews in the minds of contemporary Germans.  Some Jewish names, e.g., Schmuhl, stood as stark reminders of the long history of European antisemitism. [106]  Weimar culture, similarly, became a hotbed of public outcries against Jews through the use of presumed Jewish names in antisemitic publications, e.g., Cohn and Isidor.  National Socialists made extensive use of antisemitic stereotypes in their publications and public pronouncements to inflame public opinion against German Jews.  The case of Dr. Bernhard Weiss, Berlin's deputy commissioner of police, illustrates the practice.  Weiss used the courts of Weimar Germany to defend himself against the tirades of Joseph Goebbels and the Berlin Nazis but with dubious success.  He often lost on technicalities, and, even when he won, the voluminous press coverage of the cases in the increasingly antisemitic culture of Weimar's last years focused yet more hatred and calumny on him. [4-5]

Second, Enlightenment thought placed a premium on a legal and social equality which presumed a virtual societal unanimity on the nature of the newly emerging society.  A streamlined vision of modernity, Enlightenment thought had little room for Jewish religiosity or traditions.  As articulated by individuals such as Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, it presupposed, furthermore, a certain backwardness when characterizing Jewish life and thought, which in turn inhibited a proper integration of German Jews into German society. [29]  Bering's work suggests a rather significant acceptance of this position among German Jews, citing as examples, the pursuit of social integration through Christian baptism and the demonstrative support by Jews of the German cause in the First World War. [Chapters 5 and 11]

Bering's historical analysis suggests an almost linear increase in public acceptance of these and other essentially negative attitudes, leading to the framing of policies based on them under National Socialism. [144-145]  But Bering also supplies evidence that leads one to question such a conclusion.  Specifically, despite a small increase in the early 1920s, the number of German Jews seeking to change their names remains proportional to the practice within the general population.  In other words, German Jews were no more concerned about the negative image or consequences of their names than any other citizens of the German state. [124-126, 141]  Were they insensitive to insult?  Or does Bering exaggerate?

On the whole, it appears that only some German Jews responded to societal pressures to change their names.  Instead of quieting criticism, however, the practice provided new fodder for the antisemitic press which fully exploited the conspiratorial implications of invisible Jews trying to live undetected amidst good Germans.  Nazi policy, consequently, used the issue of Jewish names and naming to enhance the conspiratorial image of German Jews.  Although the question of Jewish names and naming could not in and of itself explain the eventual Nazi policy of genocide, Bering argues that it helped galvanize support for the Nazis prior to their rise to power and served as another justification for Nazi policy towards the Jews after 1933. [137]

Bering's fairly traditional historical analysis details events leading to specific Nazi policies in the 1930s.  His "systematic analysis" attempts to integrate the normal citizen into this matrix of events and to show how naming became an important component of German self-identification with both racial and religious ingredients.  The two elements of Bering's approach do not coexist comfortably.  The "phylogenetic" and "ontogenetic" aspects may prove particularly problematic for more traditional historians.  Heavily reliant on various socio-anthropological studies (e.g., Claude Levi-Strauss's Das wilde Denken (1968) and Anthony Calvello's study of the Dakota Indians), his outline of socio-psychological studies of identity, names, and prejudice assumes a stronger linkage of "attitudes toward racial and national groups" than is generally acknowledged in historical circles, suspicious of psycho-historical analyses. [194] Nonetheless, applying aspects of these studies to Jewish names in German history, Bering will persuade many readers of the all-pervasive character of German antisemitism in "everyday occurrences" and in the life of the "normal citizen."

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Jewish Assimilationism

Paralleling Jewish efforts to assimilate into German society, Germans Jews were slowly emancipated in the course of the 19th century – contrary to the emancipatory efforts of the French in Germany during the Napoleonic era.  Only after 1871 did Jews have equal status as citizens in Germany.

The quicker paths chosen by most Jews towards assimilation focused on the notion of Bildung.  While the term is only vaguely defined as German, it was assumed to carry with it a sense of Christianizing the Jews or even of exchanging their traditions for those of the Germans.  This trend in part is reflected in the contributions made by Jewish intellectuals to German literature, politics, the arts, and many other aspects of German high culture.
Key Concept:  Chosen-ness as meaning that Jews saw themselves as chosen and holding the divine inspiration, namely, the Torah.

19th Century Choices:

Surrender ----------------------Assimilation and/or Conversion
                                                           [50% convert] 

Defiance   --------------------- Segregation
                                                          [Non-Zionist; Ultra-Orthodox]

Accommodation -------------- Acculturation or Integration
                                                          [Most Jews Choose]

                                                Religious                [versus]              Secular-National
                                               Reformed Judaism                            Herzl's Zionism
                                               Modern Orthodoxy                           Political/Self-Help Groups
                                               American Reconstructionism             Germany and Poland 

German liberals, however, passed from the ideas of a rationalistic Enlightenment to a more romantic notion medieval orientation.  Three ideas circulated within the Jews community:  exile, volk, and Stamm.  Exile referred to the need to get to Eretz Israel.  In short, this was a Zionist call for a new homeland.  Volk emphasized the Jews as a religious community but still members of the German volk.  In the spirit of the 19th century, this option appeared at best to be an extreme.  Finally, there is the concept of Stamm.  Considered one of Germany's many tribes,  the Jews were simply a sub-culture within the German culture.  Consequently, as German history entered into the Weimar era, Jews were now more intellectually isolated than before.

German Jewry in the Prewar Era, 1933-1939

Until 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were passed, Nazis differed on what to do with German Jews. Jewish cultural as well as physical survival in Germany seemed possible. The Jüdische Kulturbund was organized in 1933 and provided purposeful work for professional Jewish musicians, actors, and artists who had been expelled from German cultural fields. The Jewish community as a whole, in its organized form, the Representative Council of German Jews, was not threatened until 1938, and between 1933 and 1935, there was a lull in anti-Jewish persecution. A false optimism was induced by the S.A. purge of June 30, 1934, and some Jews who had left Germany, believing that the most dangerous of the Nazis had been removed, returned to Germany after the purge. In the early 1930's, there was also general belief that the Nazi regime would be short-lived. Although 37,000 Jews left Germany in 1933, many who remained believed that they could hold on and hold out. Jewish attachment to Germany was particularly strong, and they hoped for support and protection from the non-Nazis in the Cabinet and hold-over civil servants from the Weimar Republic.

Rabbi Leo Baeck, the acknowledged intellectual and spiritual leader of German Jewry, was one of the few German Jews who was fundamentally pessimistic about the future. Soon after Hitler came to power, while addressing a meeting of Jewish communal organizations, Rabbi Baeck said, "The thousand-year history of German Jewry has come to an end." But he did not remain passive. As rabbi, he urged Jews to maintain faith in the ultimate triumph of justice. He tried to create a sense of inner freedom among Jews that could sustain them through the persecution. He also agreed to serve as the spokesman for all German Jews and became head of the Representative Council of German Jews in September 1933. The Council tried to be the political voice for all German Jews in relation to the government and in the early months of its existence tried to appeal for a redress of grievances on the basis of law. These appeals were ignored, and the Council soon began to concentrate on the urgency to emigrate particularly for young people.

The Council also negotiated with Jews abroad for political support that would not expose them to retaliation and for funds. One of its most important tasks, after Jewish children were removed from schools, was to provide a network of special schools for Jewish children who were shocked by their sudden rejection and isolation. In the meantime, "racial science" became compulsory in German schools, and all courses were nazified.

History of Israel

By the end of the 19th century, Jewish nationalism emerged as a prevailing dream. This movement, known as Zionism, envisioned a return of all Jews from the diaspora to a Jewish homeland. In the 1880s, Eastern European Jews made their way to what was then called Palestine. This was the first Aliyah (immigration) wave, the purpose of which was largely to establish agricultural settlements. Baron Edmond de Rothschild assisted with funds. The first Zionist Conference was held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, under the leadership of Theodor Herzl. It took another 51 years and the experience of the Holocaust, though, to see the Zionist dream become a reality. As a result of this official sanction for a Jewish homeland by the League of Nations, Jews were encouraged to immigrate to Palestine. The Arabs opposed Jewish settlement and there were many anti-Jewish attacks.

In 1905, a second Aliyah wave brought Jews from Russia. Tel Aviv was founded in 1908, the first all-Jewish city.  In 1917, with the British defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine came under British rule. The modern Arab states were established at that time. In November 1917, in the Balfour Declaration (named after Lord James Balfour, Foreign Secretary at the time the declaration was issued), the British government announced its intention to facilitate the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." This Declaration was endorsed by the Supreme Council of the Principal Allied Powers at a Conference in San Remo on April 24, 1920. In 1922, the League of Nations granted to Great Britain a Mandate to secure the establishment of a Jewish homeland, to facilitate Jewish mmigration and to encourage Jewish settlement on the land. By 1929 the Jewish population in Palestine was 160,000, and by the spring of 1936, with the advent of Hitler and increased German immigration, there were close to 400,000 Jews, or about 30 percent of the total population.

In 1939, the British, influenced by the Arab uprisings and the Mufti of Jerusalem, issued the White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to 10,000 per year for five years, with any further Jewish immigration to be made only with Arab consent.

At the close of World War II, the "Palestinian Question" came before the General Assembly of the United Nations. It recommended that the British Mandate be ended and that Palestine be divided between the Arabs and Jews. On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly partitioned the country into two independent, sovereign states.

On May 14, 1948, the British government terminated its Mandate. The day after, May 15, 1948, the British left the country, and David Ben-Gurion, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, declared the independence of the State of Israel.

© 2006 by David A. Meier