Jews, a people who have maintained a distinct cultural identity originally based on the idea of a covenant, or special relationship, with God. The Jewish people are among the oldest of the many peoples known to history. Their origins date back at least 3,000 years, and perhaps even further. During this lengthy period Jews have settled in all parts of the world and have had an impact on many civilizations. The Jewish religion, Judaism, has exerted influence far beyond its own adherents. Christianity grew out of Judaism, and Islam accepted many of the traditions and practices of Judaism. Knowledge of the history of the Jews and their culture contributes to a fuller understanding of the history of the Western world and its spiritual life.
|II||WHO ARE THE JEWS?|
The word Jew came into existence in the 5th century bc to refer to the inhabitants of the province of Judea (now part of Israel). It derives from the Hebrew word, yehudi, and the Greek, ioudaios, for Judeans. In time it was also applied to people who originated in Judea but moved elsewhere. The Judeans were descended from the Israelites, an ancient people whose origins are shrouded in mystery.
|A||The First Jews|
Historians know little about the early history of the Israelites, but they do know that at some point the Israelites came to see themselves as bearers of a unique covenant with a single God whom they called by many names, most importantly, Yahweh. Yahweh provided them with a law and way of life, as well as with a territory—the land of Israel—in which to carry out that way of life. Acceptance of this covenant and monotheism (belief in a single God) distinguished the Israelites from most of their contemporaries, who believed in multiple gods, a practice known as polytheism, and worshiped idols, a practice known as idolatry. Israelites often separated themselves from people who did not share in this covenant with their one God.
In the 6th century bc, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered the land of the Israelites and sent much of the population of its southern province, Judea, to Babylonia. The Israelite exiles appear to be the most direct ancestors of the Jewish people. During their exile the nature of the Israelites’ identity changed as they came to see themselves primarily as a religious group rather than simply as an exiled group with a common ethnic background.
Sometime after the 5th century bc it was possible to become a Jew, although what conversion meant at that time or how it was done remains unclear. Ancient sources speak of individual Persians, Greeks, Romans, and members of Arab tribes becoming Jews during the centuries that followed the Babylonian Captivity.
|B||Maintaining Jewish Identity|
Religion, ethnic identity, and language have all played important roles in maintaining Jewish identity. Because Judaism related to so many aspects of life, including those considered secular in other cultures, being a Jew led to a strong group or ethnic identity. For example, the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) laid down dietary laws and indicated which foods were considered kosher (fit) for consumption. Jews also had their own written language, Hebrew, and distinct spoken languages developed. The best known of these spoken languages is Yiddish, which is based on the German language.
|C||Jewish Identity Today|
What constitutes Jewish identity came into question during the 19th and 20th centuries, however. Some Jews today, especially in Israel, reject the Jewish religion but insist that they belong to a distinct ethnic or national community. Other Jews, especially in the West, reject the ethnic component of Jewish identity while claiming they follow a distinct religion. Still others in the West define themselves as cultural Jews, meaning that they lack a religious affiliation and feel part of some other ethnic group, but they believe there is a distinctive Jewish culture in which they participate. And in all parts of the world there are Jews who insist that Jews are both an ethnic and a religious group. Finally, there are those who insist that Jewish religious law defines Jewish identity. In this view, anyone born to a Jewish mother, or anyone who has properly converted to the Jewish faith, is a full-fledged member of the Jewish people and religion. Thus, today there is no consensus on the definition of a Jew.
The multiplicity of Jewish identities makes it difficult to provide reliable population figures. Most contemporary estimates place the population of Jews worldwide at about 14 million. The two largest communities of Jews are in the United States and Israel. About 5.9 million Jews live in the United States, and about 4.6 million live in Israel. About 350,000 Jews live in Canada, primarily in Toronto and Montréal. Sizable Jewish communities are found in Argentina, Australia, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, and Western Europe. In every country other than Israel, the Jewish population is stagnant or shrinking, primarily as a result of low birth rates but also because of migration and assimilation into the dominant culture.
|III||A HISTORY OF THE JEWS|
The story of the Jews is complex, yet historians can tell the basic story by focusing on central elements that have shaped the way Jews lived and thought for generations. In addition, historians can describe the major centers of Jewish culture and accomplishment, as well as the tragedies the Jews have faced.
|A||The Biblical Period|
The history of the Jews begins in what historians call the biblical period. This interval can mean the period in which the Hebrew Bible was produced, or it can mean the considerably longer historical period described in the Bible.
The first five books of the Hebrew Bible are generally referred to as the Torah (meaning “instruction” or “law”), although the term is also used to refer to other bodies of Jewish literature, scriptural and rabbinic. These books tell the story of the Jewish people from the time of Abraham, who is considered the original father of the Jews, through that of the prophet and lawgiver Moses.
Most historians agree that it is impossible to draw much historical information from this narrative, not because they consider the story false but simply because there is no way to corroborate it. Archaeologists, who study the material remains of ancient cultures, sometimes help by showing that certain things could have happened. For example, a blackened level in the ancient wall around the city of Jericho indicates that an earthquake and fire might have struck the city around the time that Joshua reportedly shook the city walls and caused them to tumble down. But archaeology also raises serious doubts about the truth of certain other biblical narratives. In the end, belief in the historical reliability of these books of the Bible is a matter of faith.
Although certainly legendary in part, the narrative of the Torah was accepted by almost all Jews until recent times as the unvarnished truth. For that reason it is important to look carefully at the basic contours of this story.
|B||The Patriarchs and Matriarchs|
The story begins as God turns to a man called Abram (who later takes the name Abraham) and tells him to leave his home in Mesopotamia and travel to Canaan, where a unique destiny awaits him and his children. The Abraham stories set the tone, as Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are described as people at odds with the moral values of the polytheistic societies that surround them. While not without flaws, Abraham and Sarah are seen as far more virtuous than all others, precisely because they show reverence for God. This virtue leads to a covenant of allegiance between God and Abraham in which God promises to direct the unique destiny of Abraham’s many descendants and to give those descendants the land of Canaan as their special inheritance. Circumcision was the outward symbol of this covenant, and many Jews understand it as such to this day.
The theme that the God-revering children of Abraham and Sarah are to be different from all other people continues through the stories of their select offspring: their son Isaac and his wife, Rebecca, and the preferred grandson, Jacob, and Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah. These figures all encounter dangers outside their God-revering family. These stories came to be seen as describing the origins of the Jewish people, and many Jews refer to these figures as the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people.
|C||Enslavement in Egypt|
The biblical narrative continues with the 12 sons of Jacob, who had four different mothers. Ten sons come to hate one of their brothers, Joseph, and sell him as a slave. Joseph winds up in Egypt, where he demonstrates his ability to interpret dreams, and this ability enables him to lead Egypt out of crisis. As a result, the pharaoh, Egypt’s leader, makes Joseph his prime minister. Jacob, along with his other sons and their wives and children, join Joseph in Egypt. There the descendants of Jacob, who by then was called Israel (which can mean “He for whom God struggles” or “He struggles with God” or “God struggles”), increase enormously in number through the generations. The Egyptians begin to see them as a threat and enslave them. The story takes for granted that the descendants of Israel, known as Israelites, maintain a clearly discernible identity and do not become like the Egyptians.
After the Israelites spend two centuries enslaved in Egypt, God chooses Moses, an Israelite who has fled from Egypt, to lead the children of Israel out of slavery. Moses negotiates with the pharaoh for the freedom of the Israelites, but fails. God then visits ten excruciating plagues on the Egyptians, after which the Israelites are told they can leave. The Egyptians decide to go after them, however. As the Israelites come to the Red Sea, with the Egyptians in hot pursuit, God miraculously splits the sea so they can pass through. God then lowers the water on the Egyptians, wiping out their armed forces.
Although historians can verify none of this narrative, Jews honor the story of the miraculous departure from Egypt, called the Exodus, as the transforming event in Jewish history. Jewish ritual recalls the Exodus in numerous ways, especially in the Passover holiday, which commemorates the last meal the Israelites ate before they left Egypt. The Exodus became the central event in Jewish history because it solidified the relationship between the entire people and God. Through this event God manifests concern for their welfare in an extraordinary way. The Exodus represents the beginning of a collective journey that culminates with the settlement of the Jewish people in Canaan.
|E||The Commandments to Moses|
Soon after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites begin a 40-year journey to Canaan by traveling into the Sinai Desert. There, God reveals the Ten Commandments, the basic rules and principles that have guided Jewish life into contemporary times. Numerous rules and regulations follow these ten commandments, extending into every area of life. They cover civil and criminal matters, how to worship God, what to eat and refrain from eating, how and when to rest, how to maintain the welfare of the community, and a host of other matters. Historians believe these rules and regulations emerged over many centuries and represent different schools of thought. But at the time these rules became codified into law, perhaps around the 4th century bc, Jews saw these rules as authoritative divine teaching that originated from God’s revelation to Moses.
The laws were designed to set the Israelites and their descendants apart from other peoples. Many of them commanded the Jewish people not to follow in the ways of the Canaanite peoples, especially in sexual matters. At times the laws seem to have served as a constitution for Jewish society, as they had been intended. Observant Jews continue to follow many of these rules and regulations today, although with modifications that have occurred over the centuries.
Among the commandments to Moses were instructions to set up a shrine, or Tabernacle, where a newly established Israelite priesthood could officiate at ritual sacrifices to God. This shrine was to serve as the primary location for communicating with God.
|F||The Israelites in Canaan|
By divine decree, the 12 tribes of Israel—one tribe for each of Jacob’s children—were to wander in the desert for 40 years, after which time a new generation would conquer the land of Canaan. Joshua succeeded Moses as leader. According to one biblical account, Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, swiftly subdued the inhabitants, and set up the Israelite tribal confederation, with each tribe allotted a portion of land. As other biblical accounts make clear, however, and as historians agree, things did not go quite so smoothly. The Israelites had to contend with others for control of Canaan, which they came to call Eretz Israel (“the land of Israel”).
For about two centuries after arriving in Canaan, the Israelite tribal confederation functioned mostly as a military alliance. Tribes came to the aid of one another when threatened by outside forces, especially by the Philistines, a people who lived in the southern part of Canaan. Toward the end of these two centuries a prophet named Samuel emerged as the spiritual leader of the Israelites. The military threat from the Philistines continued, however, and the Israelite tribes clamored for a king who would unite the tribes and serve as military commander for the people as a whole.
|G||The Kingdom of Israel|
The first king, Saul, did not succeed in the eyes of the biblical authors. Saul’s successor, David, was a fantastically successful monarch, according to the biblical account, achieving military goals and expanding the territory of the kingdom. Although most historians challenge this version of David’s achievements, they agree that there was a king named David who reigned about 1000 bc over at least a small kingdom. In David’s time Jerusalem emerged as a central city for the Israelite community. The Bible depicts it as the capital of David’s kingdom.
As David’s 40-year reign neared its conclusion, a battle over succession began. David chose his son Solomon to succeed him, although Solomon was able to establish his throne only after a battle with his half-brother Absalom. The Bible presents Solomon as yet another very successful monarch, who was distinguished by his wisdom and understanding. During his rule, a temple (religious sanctuary) was established in Jerusalem. The Temple became the central shrine of the Israelite people, to the exclusion of other shrines.
|H||The Divided Kingdom|
David and Solomon belonged to the tribe of Judah, and their territory occupied the central part of the kingdom. Many of the other tribes, especially those in the northern parts of the kingdom, resented the preeminence of Judah’s tribe. After Solomon’s death, around 920 bc, the unified kingdom split into two. The northern kingdom, called Israel, and the southern kingdom, called Judah, became politically separate, although they continued to have much economic and social contact.
The two small kingdoms inevitably were caught up in the imperial designs of other monarchies, particularly the Assyrians to the north and east and the Egyptians to the south and west. To survive in this situation, the kings of Israel and Judah needed to find a way to play off each of their enemies against the other. The kings seem to have done that well, but only to a point.
The Assyrians eventually conquered the kingdom of Israel, around 720 bc. The conquerors followed their usual practice of deporting the elites (ruling classes) among the native populations and replacing them with deportees from elsewhere. Many of those deported from Israel went to Mesopotamia and seem to have merged with the local population. These deportees have lived on in Jewish (and Christian) imagination as the ten lost tribes of Israel. Many of those who replaced the Israelites seem to have mixed with the remaining Israelite population and adopted elements of Israelite identity, especially the idea of a covenant with God.
The kingdom of Judah was spared the Assyrian conquest and continued developing its own religious culture revolving around the Temple in Jerusalem. From the 8th century bc onward the kingdom cultivated the worship of a single God, at a time when polytheism was the common practice. Judah’s prophets insisted that the kingdom’s destiny depended not on military might but on the state of the kingdom’s relationship with God, especially the extent to which the community avoided polytheistic worship and properly looked after its poor and powerless.
|I||The Babylonian Captivity|
Babylonians from the east ultimately overran the kingdom of Judah at the beginning of the 6th century bc, in what the Judeans understood as a sign of religious failure on their part. The Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, a catastrophe still commemorated by many Jews today in the fast day known as Tishah b’Ab (the ninth of the month of Ab). The Babylonians also exiled many of the elite members of the community, including priests who officiated in the Temple. The exile began the period known as the Babylonian Captivity.
With this exiled community, the Jewish diaspora (dispersion) began. Historians know very little about Jewish life in the diaspora in its earliest centuries, however. The land of Israel remained the center of Jewish life for many centuries.
The Bible describes the Babylonian conquest not as an imperial power overwhelming a smaller state, but as a sign from God that the kingdom of Judea had not behaved with the proper piety. It interprets the exile as punishment for sin, not as imperial policy to control a conquered enemy. According to this interpretation, the kingdom could be restored and the covenant could live on if the people of Judea repented. The interpretation could also remove geographic limits from the covenant: Jews could serve God anywhere on Earth. Historians do not know how many Jews believed the latter interpretation; they do know that it became the officially recognized ideology of the community’s religious leaders and that it was instrumental to the ability of many Jews to retain a distinct identity despite their dispersion.
The Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians in about 540 bc, some 50 years after the Babylonian conquest, and added the land of Israel to its empire. The Persians allowed the exiles to return, and some did, but others chose to remain in the diaspora. The Persians ruled through a system of vassal (dependent) states, allowing conquered populations to govern themselves within the larger framework of Persian imperial law. The Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt toward the end of the 6th century bc, becoming once again the central place of worship for the Jews. It remained so until the Romans destroyed it in 70 ce. Many books of the Bible were composed or edited into their final form during the two centuries of Persian rule, and it is clear that Jews absorbed much from Persian culture.
|K||The Hellenistic Age|
The Persian Empire, in turn, was overrun by Alexander the Great of Macedonia in the mid-4th century bc. For nearly two centuries, the Jews were ruled by Alexander and the monarchs who succeeded him in the states he had conquered. This period—between Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire and the establishment of Roman supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean in 31 bc—is known as the Hellenistic Age. During this time the culture of the Greeks (Hellenes in Greek) dominated the eastern Mediterranean region and the Near East. As far as historians can tell, the Jews continued to enjoy considerable autonomy, or self-rule, in the province of Judea. During the Hellenistic Age more books of the Bible were written or achieved their final form.
The confrontation with Hellenism (Greek culture) proved fateful for the history and identity of the Jews. Many Jews found Hellenistic culture deeply attractive and consciously absorbed many of its ideas about life. Other Jews were repelled by it, especially Hellenism’s worship and depictions of the many Greek gods and its cultivation of the human body as a standard of perfection. They objected not only to its polytheism but also to its belief in human beings and human experience, rather than the divine, as the measure of all things. Even these Jews, however, absorbed much from Hellenism.
The differing attitudes of Jews toward Hellenism produced tension in the Jewish community of Judea. That tension eventually resulted in a civil war that soon became a rebellion against Greek rule, after King Antiochus IV forbade Jewish worship and desecrated the Temple by placing a statue of the Greek god Zeus in it. Jews prevailed in this rebellion and interpreted their victory as a miracle. The rededication of the Temple in 165 bc following this victory is commemorated in the holiday Hanukkah. The Jews achieved a period of relative independence, extending from 142 to 63 bc, under the rule of the Hasmonean (or Maccabee) family, who had led the rebellion.
In 63 bc the Romans added Judea to their developing empire. Judea became a place in which Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures met amid great tension. During the rule of both the Hasmonean and Roman dynasties, many different groups or sects of Judaism emerged. Each of these sects had its own view of God, the afterlife, the Temple, and other aspects of the religion. The best known of these groups were the Pharisees and Sadducees, and later, the early Christians.
Many historians believe the Pharisees resisted Hellenism and kept the Temple ritual alive. It seems that the Sadducees formed an aristocratic priestly class. Unlike the Pharisees, who believed in a life to come and a Messiah, the Sadducees believed that people should make the best of this life. Christianity, too, began as a Jewish sect. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was about to arrive, but he angered the Pharisees by his teachings, which they feared strayed from strict observance of Jewish law. Jesus, in turn, denounced the Pharisees. After the crucifixion of Jesus, his disciples remained part of the larger Jewish community for a time, eventually diverging to form a distinct religious group.
Roman policy in Judea was uneven. The Romans sometimes ruled through Jewish kings, such as Herod, and at other times through Roman military governors, such as Pontius Pilate. Over time many Jews developed considerable resentment toward Roman rule, and in 66 ce open revolt broke out. The Romans finally crushed the rebellion in 73 ce, when they captured Masada, the fortress occupied by the last Jewish holdouts. During the war, in 70 ce, the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews still commemorate this destruction, along with the first destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, with fasting and prayer on Tishah b’Ab.
|M||The End of the Biblical Period|
During the period of Roman rule the Hebrew Bible appears to have achieved its final form. No new books were added to the biblical canon thereafter, nor were any deleted. From the 1st century ce until today, the Jews have revered and studied this sacred collection of 39 books, all of them written in Hebrew except for a few sections that are written in Aramaic.
At the end of the biblical period the Jewish community was divided, with various groups practicing the Jewish religion in their own ways. Out of this turmoil a group of religious leaders called rabbis emerged in the 1st century ce. Over the next centuries rabbis gave shape to the kind of Judaism that dominated Jewish life until modern times. The rabbis subjected each of the rules and laws of the Bible to examination and interpretation, and they developed a voluminous body of oral law called Halakhah (Hebrew from the verb halakh, meaning “to go”). These oral laws were written down during the 1st through the 5th centuries ad and became part of the Talmud and Midrash. The interpretations of the rabbis were characterized by a deep concern for fulfilling the laws and morals of the Bible. They promoted a belief in political quiescence (inactivity), insisting that only redemption through a Messiah could restore Jewish sovereignty to the land of Israel.
|IV||JEWISH LIFE IN THE DIASPORA|
The Jewish diaspora began with the Babylonian conquest in the 6th century bc. Many Jews understood their presence outside the land of Israel as exile. God had imposed exile as a punishment for their sins, they believed, and they would be unable to return to their land until God redeemed them from exile by sending a Messiah. In time some Jews interpreted exile as independent of geography. In their view exile meant exile from God, and exile could occur even in the land of Israel, especially when non-Jews dominated Israel. Other Jews did not understand their lives in the diaspora as an exile; they chose to live outside the land of Israel.
For some 2,500 years Jews have continued to live outside the land of Israel. In the early centuries of the diaspora, they established substantial communities in Asia Minor, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. Later they spread to the rest of the globe. Each Jewish community interacted with the local culture, and Jewish life and culture became remarkably diverse as a result. In particular European Jews and the Jews of the Mediterranean basin, including Spain, developed different ways of observing the Jewish religion and different identities as Jews. The European Jews (outside of Spain) are called Ashkenazim (from the Hebrew word for “Germany”) and the Jews of Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean basin are called Sephardim (from the Hebrew word for “Spain”).
|A||The Early Centuries of the Diaspora|
Historians know very little about the early centuries of Jewish life in the diaspora. During the Babylonian captivity part of the Jewish community successfully maintained a distinct identity and culture, but the circumstances of this community remain a mystery. Nor is there much information about Jewish life in the Persian Empire; what we do know is that some Jews longed to return to their land, but others remained in Persia (and later Iran) into the 20th century. The picture becomes somewhat clearer during the period of Greek and Roman rule, when substantial Jewish communities developed in Alexandria, Egypt; Cyrene, Libya; Antioch (in present-day Turkey); Rome (in present-day Italy); and cities throughout Asia Minor. Jews in most of these communities spoke the dominant language, Greek, and they based their religion on a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Septuagint. Each of these Jewish communities seems to have developed its own distinct form of the Jewish religion, which differed from the religion of the leading rabbis in Palestine. Palestine was the name the Romans had officially given the province of Judea in the 2nd century ce.
Some Jews were quite comfortable living under the domination of the Hellenistic and Roman empires. Others deeply resented their domination by pagans (followers of polytheistic religions) or the lack of respect they received from the dominant culture. In Palestine and the diaspora the Jews revolted unsuccessfully against Roman rule. Simon Bar Kokhba, for example, led revolts in Jerusalem in the 2nd century that received support from Jews throughout the region. Before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce, many Jews throughout the diaspora had sent money to support the Temple, which seems to have served as a source of solidarity for Jews as a nation. After Temple was destroyed, the Jewish communities of the diaspora no longer had this unifying mission, and they had little in common other than the maintenance of a distinct Jewish identity.
|B||The Babylonian Community|
The Jewish diaspora community that flourished best was in Babylonia. The Parthians, who ruled Babylonia and the rest of Mesopotamia until 224 ce, granted Jews considerable autonomy, and Jewish economic and religious life responded favorably. The Jews in Babylonia experienced a brief period of persecution in the 3rd century, after a Persian dynasty known as the Sassanids defeated the Parthians. Babylonian Jewry soon regained basic freedoms, however, and this community continued to grow and flourish for another 1,000 years. The learning of rabbis prospered in Babylonian religious academies and found expression in commentaries on oral law and in interpretations of the Torah. The commentaries on oral law in Babylonia produced the Babylonian Talmud—the Hebrew and Aramaic text that served as the basis of Judaism. The rabbinic Judaism that had developed in Babylonia was a further development of a form of Judaism that became dominant in Palestine in the 2nd century, due in large part to Roman recognition of rabbis as the religious and political leaders of the Jews.
|C||The Spread of Christianity|
The social and political situtation of the Jews changed markedly in the 4th century, after Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. His conversion ushered in a process through which Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and Jews were considered subversive for their refusal to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Many leaders of church and empire believed that Jews should not be allowed to remain in the Roman Empire if they continued to practice their religion, as Jews were seen as potential contaminants of the true faith, which they rejected. However, this position was rejected in favor of a view presented by Christian theologian Saint Augustine. Like other Christians, Augustine believed that the Jews fully deserved to be degraded and humiliated. But instead of arguing for their destruction or forcible conversion, he felt that they should live in a state of poverty and humiliation. In this way Jews might be punished for their refusal to acknowledge the new revelation in Christ and might serve as witnesses to the superiority of Christianity. Although harsh, Augustine’s position often served to save Jews in Christendom from annihilation.
Constantine established a new capital in Byzantium (now ?stanbul, Turkey), in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. He renamed the city Constantinople. After Rome fell to invaders in 476, the Roman Empire in the west collapsed, but the Roman Empire in the east, which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire, remained strong. Attitudes toward Jews in the Byzantine Empire differed from attitudes in the Western Roman Empire and the states that succeeded it. The Byzantine Empire had far more Jews under its rule than did states in the Western Roman Empire, and it dealt more harshly with them. Jews under Byzantine rule often had difficulty making a living and, among other obstacles, they were barred from building new synagogues (places of assembly for prayer) or holding public office.
|D||Under Islamic Rule|
Islam, another monotheistic religion, arose in Arabia in the 7th century, and Islamic forces conquered much of the Byzantine Empire in the 7th and 8th centuries. For the most part Jews welcomed the change in rule. Although Jews also experienced religious and economic obstacles under Islam, conditions for them improved. The Islamic conquests extended from Babylonia to Egypt and included Palestine. For the first time in centuries the two major centers of Jewish life, Babylonia and Palestine, were under the same rulers. But the balance had shifted, and Babylonia had become the more significant cultural and intellectual center. From the 8th to the 12th century extraordinary cultural achievements took place in the Islamic world, and Jews, especially in Babylonia, participated in and benefited from those achievements.
Academies in Babylonia, headed by rabbis called geonim (plural of Hebrew gaon, meaning “eminence”), were instrumental in establishing the Babylonian Talmud as the authoritative text of the Jewish religion. They also established Babylonian customs as the norm throughout the Jewish world. The geonim fostered the principle that study was the highest religious ideal. The most significant of the geonim was Saadia ben Joseph, a remarkable 10th-century intellectual who translated the Hebrew Bible into Arabic, the language of Islamic lands. Through this translation and a commentary on the Bible in Arabic, Saadia founded Jewish literature in Arabic and became the first of many Jewish philosophers in the Islamic world. Only the philosopher Moses Maimonides of Egypt surpassed Saadia in importance. Benefiting from Saadia’s pioneering spirit, Maimonides elevated the world of Jewish learning to unimagined heights in the 12th century. The Jews of the Islamic world also transmitted philosophical works of the ancient and Islamic worlds to European Christians. They translated many of the philosophical classics from Arabic to Hebrew, and other Jews helped translate them from Hebrew to Latin, which was the written language of educated Europeans at that time.
|E||Under Christian Rule|
From the 8th century to the late Middle Ages, culture remained largely stagnant and undistinguished in Christian Europe while flourishing in the Islamic world. Beginning in the 8th century the kings of the Franks and the Holy Roman Emperors encouraged Jews to settle in Provence (now part of southern France) and the Rhineland (now part of Germany). Communities in Aix, Marseille, and elsewhere in Provence and in Mainz, Speyer, and other cities of the Rhineland became early centers of European Jewish life and retained their importance for centuries.
The encouragement of Jewish settlement resulted from an assumption that Jews had useful economic skills, especially as traders. As Jews neither owned land nor worked the land as peasants for feudal masters, they depended directly on European rulers for protection. That dependence meant that rulers could safely entrust the Jews with economic privileges without any threat to their own power. The economic privileges heightened resentment that the European masses already felt toward Jews, a resentment rooted in religious difference. The arrangement did not lead to any sustained persecution of Jews for several centuries, however.
The situation of European Jews changed in 1096, the year of the first Crusade, a military expedition to take control of the Holy Land (Palestine) from Muslim rulers. As the Crusader armies gathered, they directed their religious hostility at Jewish communities of the Rhineland, massacring the people and destroying the settlements. Local authorities lacked the forces to stop the rampaging Crusaders. In some communities, the Jews preferred to commit collective suicide rather than fall into the hands of the mobs. The Crusades inaugurated a new era in the life of the Jews of Europe.
|V||THE LATE MIDDLE AGES: 1096 TO 1492|
After the Crusades began in 1096 and aroused hostility toward Jews, surviving Jewish communities in central and northern Europe became increasingly isolated from the surrounding culture. Although Jews still exercised a fair degree of control over their religious and cultural affairs, their circumstances did not encourage thinking about much beyond their religious traditions. Jewish literature focused primarily on the Talmud. Scholars produced new and monumental commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud to make it widely known and understood among European Jews. In addition, after the Crusades mystical trends emerged among European Jews who turned inward and wished for more direct contact with the divine. The most important form of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, developed in Spain. Jewish poets also wrote elegies and dirges commemorating the sacrifices of the Jews who were killed in 1096. Jews in Germany developed their own language, which came to be known as Yiddish. Yiddish began as a dialect of the German language spoken at that time but branched off from it and became a distinct Jewish language, written in Hebrew letters.
European Jews lived in increasingly precarious circumstances after the Crusades. Accusations that they killed Christians, usually children, to use their blood for some ritual purpose became commonplace. Although Christian leaders routinely denounced these so-called blood libels as false, the stories nevertheless persisted into the 20th century. Many church leaders, however, enforced the principle of Saint Augustine that Jews should live in humiliating circumstances. Roman Catholic Church councils held in 1179 and 1215 prohibited Jews from employing Christians, prohibited Christians from living in Jewish neighborhoods, insisted that Jews wear a special badge as a mark of their degradation, and prohibited Jews from appearing in public on Easter and other Christian holy days. These councils also had a permanent impact on the economic life of Jews by prohibiting Christians from lending money to each other with interest. This prohibition left the activity of moneylending entirely to the Jews, just as additional actions excluded them from other areas of economic activity. By the end of the 12th century the Jews of Europe lived largely as peddlers and moneylenders.
|B||Expulsion from Western Europe|
Their position as moneylenders generated further hostility toward Jews and played a role in a gradual expulsion of Jews from Western and central Europe. The Jews were expelled from England (after all debts to them were canceled) in 1290. They were driven from France in 1306 and, after some had been allowed back into France, again in 1394. The German lands of the Holy Roman Empire expelled Jews piecemeal throughout the 15th century.
Hostility toward European Jews intensified as a result of the Black Death, an epidemic of bubonic plague from 1347 to 1351 that wiped out as much as a third of Europe’s population. Although the plague killed Jews as well, they made a ready scapegoat and were accused of causing the pestilence by poisoning the water in wells. In many regions Europeans responded by destroying or expelling Jewish communities. By the mid-15th century few Jews remained in west Europe, and many German lands had driven out their Jews as well.
|C||Migration to Poland|
Most of the Jews expelled from Western and central Europe in the 1300s and 1400s traveled eastward into Poland, where they established what became the largest European Jewish community up to that time. In the first centuries after their arrival in Poland, Jews largely escaped the violence and persecution they had experienced elsewhere in Europe. At that time Poland was the most ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse region of Europe. During the 16th and 17th centuries Jews in Poland developed a sophisticated religious and economic life. They created new approaches to Talmudic study and produced profound studies of Jewish law and legal reasoning. In cities such as Kraków, L’viv (now in Ukraine), and Poznañ, Jews became prominent as merchants, moneylenders, and, in a few instances, physicians.
|D||A Golden Age in Spain|
The Jews in Spain entered a golden age in the 12th and 13th centuries, while Jews in the north experienced persecution. Only in Spain did a many-sided Jewish culture truly flourish in Europe. It thrived alongside Islamic culture, largely in the south of Spain, and Christian culture in the north of Spain. Many Jewish intellectuals in Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, focused primarily on Talmudic learning. Yet the Jews of Spain also received an education in philosophy, science, poetics (basic principles of poetry), Hebrew grammar, and even some history. The versatile 12th-century scholar Abraham ibn Ezra and the many followers of Maimonides, who had been born in Spain, produced numerous works in all these areas. The Zohar, the basic work of Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah, was composed in Spain in the 13th century. This text (in full, Sefer ha-zohar, or The Book of Splendor) became the cornerstone of all subsequent mystical Jewish thought.
Jews in Spain also flourished in the political and economic spheres. The Christians had reconquered almost all of Spain from the Muslims by 1248, and this created opportunities for Jews. Many Jews spoke Arabic, the language of the inhabitants of the conquered territory, and had extensive experience in providing administrative services to the government. Their fluency in Arabic enabled them to serve as cultural translators between the Spanish-speaking and Arabic-speaking populations.
The golden age of Jews in Spain did not last, however. During the 14th century Christian monastic orders became increasingly powerful in Spain and routinely preached against the Jews. The Black Death further incited the masses against the Jews. In 1391 intensive anti-Jewish preaching led to attacks on many Jewish communities. To escape death many Jews accepted baptism and conversion to Christianity. Many others converted without overt coercion.
|E||The Inquisition and Expulsion from Spain|
The large number of Jewish converts to Christianity set in motion a century-long process that culminated in the disappearance of Spain’s remaining Jewish communities in 1492. Some of the converts became sincere Christians and successfully integrated into the dominant community. Other converts, although sincere, maintained relationships with relatives and friends who continued to practice some form of Judaism. The Spanish converts who continued to practice the Jewish religion, whether out of habit or commitment, were known as Marranos.
Problems arose when a number of the converts and their descendants became prominent members of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain and the government bureaucracy. The leaders of those institutions believed it essential to determine the sincerity of the so-called new Christians for the institutions’ survival. In 1478 King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I introduced an Inquisition to Spain to inquire into the status of recent converts to Christianity, whether former Jews or former Muslims.
The Inquisition was not, as is often thought, an agency for the persecution of Jews; its sole responsibility was to determine whether newly baptized Christians had converted insincerely. Once baptized, converts could not return to their previous faith, and only baptized Christians were subject to the Inquisition’s authority. Although hardly devoid of corruption, the Inquisition was not as violent as is often depicted. Even so, no one wanted to run afoul of the Inquisitors, since defending oneself against a charge of judaizing (practicing Judaism) often proved impossible.
In 1492, after Ferdinand and Isabella reconquered the last piece of Spanish territory under Islamic rule, they decided to expel all the unconverted Jews and Muslims who remained in Spain. To avoid the expulsion order, many more Jews chose to convert, but tens of thousands chose to leave. Most went to neighboring Portugal, although many found their way east to Italy and to the lands of the Ottoman Empire, including Greece, North Africa, Palestine, and Turkey. Portugal proved to be a short-term refuge because in 1497 King Manuel I decided to forcibly convert the Jews of Portugal to Christianity. However, because he did not immediately establish an Inquisition in Portugal, many converts continued to secretly conduct themselves as Jews as best they could. In time, the descendants of these Marranos openly returned to Judaism outside the Iberian Peninsula.
The expulsion from Spain and the conversions in Portugal brought to an end one of the oldest and richest Jewish communities. Yet many of these expelled Jews and Marranos retained their distinct Spanish or Sephardic identities wherever they eventually settled.
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain also marked the end of the wholesale expulsion of Jews from European countries, at least until the Nazi era of the 1940s. However, expulsions of Jews from major European cities continued to occur from time to time until the beginning of the 20th century.
|VI||THE 16TH CENTURY THROUGH THE 18TH CENTURY|
Many changes occurred in Europe from the 16th to the 18th century. These changes influenced science, religion, philosophy, and industrial and economic life. They had an impact on Jewish life and thought as well. But first, countries in Western Europe had to readmit Jews.
|A||Return to Western Europe|
At the beginning of the 16th century, Poland had the largest concentration of Jews in the world. Few or no Jews lived in most of the lands west of Poland, but this situation changed in the 17th century, when Jews began to migrate back to the German states and to eastern France. In 1654 England readmitted Jews. In addition, many of the Marranos, who secretly maintained some form of Jewish identity on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), were able to resume open commitments to Judaism in Holland, southern France, and the German city of Hamburg.
Many Marranos settled in Holland, especially in Amsterdam, which granted them freedom of worship and offered many economic opportunities. Holland entered an era of commercial prosperity upon gaining independence from Spain in 1648. In southern France, Marrano communities developed in the port cities of Bordeaux and Bayonne. Hamburg, another important trading center, became a haven for refugees from other parts of Europe and welcomed Jews, who became financiers, importers, and shipbuilders. As former Christians, the Marranos were the first Jews who had a broad general education and fluency in at least one European language. In many ways, they were the first modern Jews and a sign of the future, although they were too few in number to exercise much direct influence on Jews in other regions.
|B||Growing Religious Tolerance|
During the 17th century a scientific revolution and the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution changed the ways many Europeans thought and behaved. The scientific revolution brought nonreligious explanations for the way the natural world operated, and the Industrial Revolution brought new forms of economic organization. Wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants had occupied Europe in the 16th century; in the 17th century these wars ended in settlements that led to greater, if often grudging, acceptance of religious differences. European trade with Asia as well as the establishment of European colonies in the Americas brought interaction with other cultures. Moreover, a greater acquaintance with the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans called many cherished truths into question.
The 17th century, then, was a period of greater intellectual openness and economic opportunity, and it had an enormous impact on all residents of the European continent. The scientific achievements, the reliance on scientific reasoning, and the exposure to non-European cultures led to a new respect for human rights during the 18thcentury, a period in European history known as the Age of Enlightenment.
|C||Debate over Rights for Jews|
Political shifts were slower in coming. Through almost all of the 18th century, European Jews lacked the rights and legal protections of citizenship. By the end of the century, however, this situation required rethinking. Enlightenment thinking had continued to spread among the elites of Europe, and the competitive environment of the Industrial Revolution made it increasingly costly to exclude anyone of talent.
In England, Holland, France, Prussia (now part of Germany), and Austria, debate regarding the political status of Jews resounded among politicians and intellectuals. Some argued that Jews must change how they thought and acted before they could be granted equal civil rights. Others felt that Jews first needed both incentives and opportunity to change their ways. Jews had long been required to live in segregated quarters, or ghettos, and because of restrictions on their size and facilities, many of these ghettos became overcrowded slums. In addition, limitations on the trades Jews could engage in meant that many were poor peddlers. Their religion called for them to wear certain garments—for example, clothing with tzitzit (fringes) for men—that set them apart from non-Jews. Education was largely limited to study of holy books.
In the debates about equal rights, both sides agreed that Jews needed to become more European in language, appearance, and education in order to contribute to the larger society and benefit from interaction with it. Jewish intellectuals and businessmen who participated in the movement to extend European culture to Jews began to clamor increasingly for equality. As a result of this Jewish enlightenment movement, called haskalah, they had already begun to change their languages and appearance. Led by German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin, they became important contributors to the debates, while at the same time participating in the European Enlightenment.
|D||Emancipation and Reform|
Discussions about Jewish rights had the deepest impact in France, which took up the question of who should be a citizen in the wake of the French Revolution (1789-1799). The longest debate concerned the Jews. Many of the revolutionaries opposed granting citizenship rights to Jews, arguing that the identity of the Jews as a distinct people made them unfit to be citizens of France. Others wanted to grant Jews equal rights, arguing that such rights would lead to a change in Jewish identity. As one French politician and revolutionary arguing for Jewish rights put it, “To the Jews as a nation, nothing; to the Jews as individuals, everything. They must become French!” This position carried the day, and in 1791 France granted Jews full and equal rights, a policy that came to be called emancipation of the Jews.
France was the first country to grant emancipation to Jews. Other European countries debated the issue, but none granted Jews emancipation in the 18th century. During the 19th century, however, grants of emancipation proliferated across Europe. By 1871, with Germany’s emancipation of Jews, every European country except Russia had emancipated its Jews. In all cases Jews were expected to abandon the ethnic component of their identity; to adopt the national language in place of Yiddish or Ladino (the language of Sephardic Jews); and to accept the country in which they resided, rather than Israel, as their homeland. Jews were to become one religious group among many in Europe.
New centers of Jewish culture and creativity emerged as a result of emancipation. The Prussian city of Berlin had become a major center of modern Jewish culture in the second half of the 18th century, and other important centers emerged in Königsburg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), Hamburg and Frankfurt am Main in Germany, and Paris in France. During the 19th century emancipated Jews also gained prominence in Vienna and Budapest, the capitals of Austria-Hungary. In these European cities Jews abandoned Yiddish as their spoken language and Hebrew as their written language. They began to dress and groom themselves like everyone else, with men giving up their peot (earlocks) and women their sheitels (wigs).
A new version of Judaism, called Reform, developed alongside emancipation during the 19th century. It rejected those aspects of traditional Judaism seen as incompatible with the modern political and cultural situation of Jews. Reform Judaism quickly became the majority affiliation of Jews throughout Germany, and it drew Jews in other areas as well. The reformers of Judaism removed all prayers that called for the reestablishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and that referred to Jews as a nation. They insisted that many rituals of traditional Judaism no longer had relevance to the lives of modern Jews because they served to create divisions between Jews and others. They considered only the ethical components of Judaism obligatory and declared the other elements dispensable.
Predictably, the Reform challenge elicited a strong reaction from representatives of traditional Judaism, who came to see themselves as Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox rejected any change in Jewish religion, and many rejected the entire program of modernity, insisting that Jews distance themselves from Western culture and its centers of learning.
|E||Hasidism in Eastern Europe|
Russia had annexed most of Poland’s territory, including Ukraine, in the late 18th century, gaining a large Jewish population in the process. By then the creative traditional culture of the Polish Jews had largely run its course. Russia, then ruled by tsars, experienced no sustained political liberalization as the rest of Europe had, but Jewish culture did change in the late 18th and 19th centuries. An important religious revival movement, known as Hasidism, had appeared in the region of Podolia (now in Ukraine) in the mid-1700s. Its followers were called Hasidim.
Although many people today associate Hasidism with the most traditional elements of Jewish life, it originally represented an important transformation of tradition. Seeking new ways of injecting religious meaning into Jewish life, Hasidism challenged the hierarchy of traditional values that elevated Talmudic study above all else and effectively excluded most men and all women. It insisted that many aspects of human endeavor offered opportunities for sanctifying life and achieving awareness of God’s presence, from the religious activity of prayer to singing, dancing, eating, and working. Led by an energetic group of leaders called rebbes, the Hasidim transformed Jewish life across Eastern Europe. This movement, and the opposition it aroused among traditional rabbis, brought a sense of factional identity to the previously unified Jews of Eastern Europe.
|F||Modernization and Fragmentation|
From the 15th century until the mid-18th century, the Jews of Europe were a culturally, religiously, and linguistically unified people. From 1750 to 1850, however, they fragmented into many religious groups and language clusters. By 1850 the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe still spoke Yiddish. Jews elsewhere spoke German, French, Hungarian, English, and increasingly, Polish and Russian. In 1750 almost all European Jews practiced traditional Judaism. By 1850 the majority of Jews in Western and central Europe did not, and Jews in Eastern Europe had become divided into Hasidim, opponents of Hasidism, and secularized (worldly) Jews, whose numbers were growing.
Traditional rabbinic culture remained vital and vigorous in Europe in the 18th century, but Jews also began to branch out into the European arts and sciences, for the first time becoming important direct contributors to non-Jewish culture on a large scale. Similarly, Jewish philosophy addressed the challenges of European thought and the Enlightenment in a serious way for the first time; Jewish philosophers, such as Mendelssohn in Germany, wrote in European languages and wrestled with the apparent gulf between modern ideas and the Jewish textual tradition.
|VII||THE 19TH CENTURY|
New political ideologies (systems of belief) accompanied the emancipation of the Jews and the associated transformations of Jewish life during the 19th century. The ideology known as nationalism, based on a feeling of community among people with a shared culture, proved hostile to the integration of Jews into European life. Nationalists saw integration as contaminating the unique cultural heritage of their nation. Although the nationalists ultimately lost the battle against emancipation of the Jews, they did delay it considerably in many places.
After emancipation Jews began to gain prominence in many areas of cultural endeavor. The number of Jews in the universities and working in professional fields rose to levels out of proportion to their representation in the population. In some regions Jews achieved significant representation in national and local government. Jews also became successful businessmen and bankers. Family banking dynasties, such as the House of Rothschild, achieved fantastic wealth and power. For the advocates of emancipation, this success was for the good or at least harmless. For opponents of emancipation, these developments represented the realization of their worst fears.
Having lost the argument to withhold emancipation, opponents of Jewish civil rights and political integration developed new arguments to justify rolling back emancipation. In the 1870s hatred of Jews took a new form, called anti-Semitism. Coined in 1879, the word anti-Semitism described opposition to Jews on racial grounds. Anti-Semites asserted that Jews constituted a distinct race that embodied characteristics different from, and dangerous to, the dominant European group, which they called the Aryan race. Because anti-Semites viewed these two racial types as mutually incompatible, they believed the health of European society depended on segregating Jews from Aryans. They opposed allowing Jews to participate in any institutions of European society and culture or to exercise political power. They favored making the strongest efforts to prevent Jews from marrying non-Jews.
Racial anti-Semitism combined forces with nationalist resistance to Jews, leading to the emergence of political parties that campaigned on a program of depriving Jews of some or all of their civil rights. Such parties emerged in France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. Although rarely successful in winning political office, anti-Semitic parties managed to win a few electoral victories, most importantly the mayoralty of Vienna in 1897. Vienna at the time had a large population of Jews who were fully assimilated (integrated) within Austrian culture.
Racial anti-Semitism made fewer inroads in Eastern Europe, but Russian nationalism was deeply hostile to Jews. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, organized massacres called pogroms (Russian for “destruction”) broke out across the southern part of the Russian Empire. Although relatively few Jews were killed in the 1881 outbreak compared with later pogroms, the pogroms signaled an end to Jewish hope of becoming Russian citizens. Many Jews converted to Christianity to avoid being victimized by newly established quotas on Jews in the universities and professions.
|B||Zionism and Other Responses to Anti-Semitism|
Most Jews in Russia who reacted to anti-Jewish outbursts did so by immigrating to other countries. Of those who stayed on, some responded to the deplorable political and economic conditions by embracing socialism. Others—the fewest of all—began working toward a return of Jews to a homeland of their own in Palestine, which was then under Ottoman rule. The effort to create an independent Jewish state in Palestine became known as Zionism, after Zion, the hill in Jerusalem on which the ancient Temple stood. Zionism meant a clear rejection of the possibility of Jewish integration into the Western world.
The initial Jewish responses to anti-Semitism in Western Europe were different from those in Eastern Europe. Rejecting the racial critique, some French and German Jews called for speeding up the process of Westernization among Jews in order to narrow the differences between Jews and non-Jews. Other Jews responded by creating political organizations to combat anti-Semitism and defend the political gains they had achieved. A very small number arrived at the same conclusion reached by the Zionists of the East—namely, that Europe would never be a hospitable place for Jews. Led by writer and journalist Theodor Herzl, these Jews began to agitate for a Jewish state. Herzl had covered the Dreyfus affair in France for a Viennese newspaper. The anti-Semitism unleashed in France by accusations against Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, convinced Herzl and others that Jewish rights could be safeguarded only in a Jewish state.
The vast majority of Jews in the 19th century rejected Zionism, some quite passionately. They believed that Zionism represented a regression to an earlier tribal form of Judaism made obsolete by modernity. They insisted that the solution to the Jewish question, as it had long been called, was the moral improvement of Jews and gentiles (non-Jews) alike. In a better world there would be no room for anti-Semites, nor any need for Jews to disengage from the rest of humanity, according to this argument. This position was central to the message of Reform Judaism, which thoroughly rejected the nationalist, or Zionist, components of Jewish identity.
The political issues of emancipation and the quest for religious reform dominated Jewish culture in the 19th century, but Jewish culture also flowered in other areas. Jews emerged as writers of secular literature, enriching English, French, and German literature with novels, short stories, poems, and essays. In Britain Benjamin Disraeli, who converted to Christianity, wrote popular novels before becoming prime minister. Heinrich Heine, who converted to Christianity in order to earn a law degree in Germany, became one of the best-loved German poets.
Modern literary genres also developed in Hebrew and especially in Yiddish. Although Hebrew literature had few readers at that time, Yiddish literature revolutionized Jewish reading and thinking habits. This literature became an effective tool for modernizing the thought of Jews in Eastern Europe, especially in raising class-consciousness among Jews and promoting socialist ideals. It also served as an effective, although at times brutal, medium of social criticism. Yiddish writers such as Solomon Rabinovitz, who took the name Sholom Aleichem, used sarcasm and ridicule to motivate Jews to reshape their political and cultural lives. All the while, traditional Jews continued producing works of Talmudic scholarship.
The 19th century ended with Jewish life in political turmoil in Europe and a Jewish community fragmented over religious and political views. No unified response to the many challenges emerged, nor could it, given that European Jews were hopelessly divided regarding the central issues facing the Jewish community.
|VIII||THE 20TH CENTURY|
Jews faced unprecedented challenges in Europe as the 20th century began. Could they survive as Jews? Should they even try? Was Zionism the answer, or was it socialism with a promise of a better life, or an extension of democracy under liberalism? Jews debated these issues in Western Europe, while many Eastern European Jews ignored ideology and immigrated to North America, especially after the pogroms of 1881.
|A||Emigration from Eastern Europe|
From 1881 to 1914, 2.5 million Jews left Europe, with nearly 2 million going to the United States. Thousands more made their way to Argentina, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. Others abandoned Eastern Europe for places closer to home, such as France, Germany, and Britain.
The migrants brought with them little money and less acquaintance with their new homelands, but they were committed to escaping the poverty and discrimination of Eastern Europe and to building new lives for themselves and their families. Many of those who emigrated from Russia had formed the most dynamic element of their Jewish community. They held traditional religious beliefs for the most part, but they were also willing to disregard the rabbinic leaders back home. Those leaders looked on American life with fear, seeing it as a radically different culture that would require Jews to assimilate and lose their Jewish identity.
|B||Immigration to America|
The Eastern European immigrants to the United States joined roughly 250,000 Jews who were already there. Some of the earlier arrivals had Sephardic origins as refugees from the Inquisition, but most originated from the German-speaking lands of central Europe. All had journeyed to America seeking civil rights and economic opportunity. By 1891—a decade after the first Russian pogrom—the Eastern European migrants outnumbered the Jews who had moved to the United States before 1881. The new migrants were ill equipped to integrate into the existing forms of Jewish worship, which were mostly in Reform synagogues with English-speaking rabbis. As a result they pioneered their own form of religious life, creating the Conservative movement in Judaism, which was designed to retain some elements of tradition and embrace modern ideas as well.
Few of the migrants to the United States embraced Zionism. Most Jews wished to become integrated into the American mainstream as quickly as possible. Many chose the professions—such as law and medicine—as the goal, with education, usually at public universities, as the means. Others became significant entrepreneurs—pioneers of the U.S. entertainment industries, for example. Although some migrants and their descendants remained mired in poverty, most made their way into the American middle class and enjoyed material and political comfort unprecedented in Jewish life up to that time. Some Jews expressed concern that they had achieved this comfort at the cost of their own cultural literacy.
|C||Europe Before World War II|
In Europe, conditions for the Jews worsened during the early 20th century. Anti-Semitism remained a potent force, inflamed by the nationalism and patriotic passions that World War I (1914-1918) aroused. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires fell apart, and long-suppressed peoples under their rule achieved independence. Many of the newly created nation-states restricted the rights of minority populations under their rule, including Jews. The Germans had suffered a devastating defeat in the war, which fueled bitter feelings that helped the Nazis rise to power with a plank of anti-Semitism in their party program. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought the Bolsheviks to power, and the newly created Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) adopted an antireligious policy that threatened the continuity of Jewish life, as well as many other cultural traditions.
The Great Depression of the 1930s destroyed the economic hopes of millions of people worldwide, leading to the search for a scapegoat. Many designated the Jews. A fake document called the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, circulated in Russia in the late 1800s and published in 1905, claimed to reveal secret plans of the Jews for world conquest. After translation into many languages in the 20th century, this fabrication proved useful to many anti-Semites, including German leader Adolf Hitler, in promoting hatred of Jews. Through all of these events Jews debated how to respond, and how and whether to express themselves as Jews.
In Germany, the increased tensions caused many Jews to redouble their efforts to assimilate into the dominant culture. Other Jews returned to the Jewish community and committed themselves to greater Jewish learning. Zionism also gained support, although it remained the position of a distinct minority even after the anti-Semitic Nazi Party took power in 1933. Despite growing tensions in Germany, Jews from Poland continued to migrate in small but significant numbers to Germany. The new arrivals made the tension even greater as they were largely unassimilated and struck modern Germans, Jews and non-Jews alike, as unacceptably different.
In the USSR most forms of Jewish life experienced rapid decline in the face of government hostility. The entire structure of traditional Jewish life had almost disappeared within a decade of the 1917 revolution. The government outlawed Zionist activity as well as publication or teaching in Hebrew. Although some forms of Yiddish literature were permitted for a time, the center of Yiddish culture moved toward Poland. At the beginning of the 20th century more than 5 million Jews had resided in the Russian Empire. By the 1930s fewer than 3 million Jews lived in the USSR, and the many Jewish subcultures of tsarist Russia had withered.
Poland had emerged from World War I as an independent state. Many of its Jewish communities remained intact, enlarged after the war by refugees from the USSR. Poland became the center of East European Jewish life during the period between the world wars, from 1918 to 1939. It bustled with Jews of every kind—secular and Hasidic, socialist and capitalist, liberal and conservative. Polish and Jewish historians have bitterly debated how hospitable Poland was to its Jewish communities in this period. Overall, the record appears decidedly mixed. Jews participated actively in the democratic institutions of Poland, and they advanced culturally and politically. At the same time, Jews met considerable resentment from all levels of society and frequently encountered overt discrimination. Even so, Jews in Poland had a thriving culture until Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 started World War II.
|D||World War II and the Holocaust|
The rise of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany forever changed the history of the Jews. Immediately after Hitler became German chancellor in 1933, the Nazi government set out to roll back the emancipation of Jews, depriving Jews of basic civil rights, denying them access to jobs, establishing boycotts of Jewish businesses, and purging the civil service and universities of Jews. These measures turned out to be a mere prelude to the destruction that followed during World War II.
The Nazi regime set its sights on reconquering territories that had once been under German domination in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic region. Eventually the regime directed its ambitions toward conquest of all of Europe, and during the war it nearly succeeded: Much of Europe came under German occupation. The German occupying forces began the process of exterminating European Jews. The so-called final solution was the deportation of Jews to death camps (see Concentration Camp). The Nazis and their collaborators killed almost 6 million Jews, reducing the population of Jews in Europe (9.6 million before the war) by nearly two-thirds. They wiped out more than 90 percent of the 3 million Jews of Poland and killed similar percentages in the Baltic states.
The extermination of European Jews, known as the Holocaust, destroyed an entire culture. The Yiddish-speaking culture of Eastern Europe, known for its literature and theater, never recovered. In 1939 there were nearly 10 million speakers of Yiddish; in the year 2000 fewer than 100,000 remained outside Hasidic communities, and most were elderly. The Holocaust extinguished entire Hasidic communities, obliterated many of the great Talmudic academies, and killed many of the greatest writers of Yiddish literature. Although the Nazis did not succeed in killing all the Jews of Europe, they succeeded in destroying one of the most extraordinary Jewish subcultures ever produced.
|E||Immigration to Palestine|
The survivors of the Holocaust made their way to many countries after World War II. Most went to Palestine, where a Jewish community on the verge of statehood sought as many of the refugees as possible, especially the young and strong. A Jewish community had been growing steadily in Palestine after the first Zionist settlements were established there in the 1880s. From the 1880s until World War II most of the Jews who migrated had moved elsewhere. But several bursts of immigration to Palestine, together with the migration of the Holocaust survivors, swelled the Jewish population in Palestine to more than 600,000 by 1947. Led by Russian-born David Ben-Gurion, Zionists pursued their dream of an independent Jewish state, despite strong opposition from Arabs living in and around Palestine.
|F||The Creation of Israel|
In November 1947 the newly established United Nations (UN) voted to partition Palestine, creating a Jewish and an Arab state in 1948. (Palestine had been under British control after the ouster of the Ottoman Turks in 1917 and 1918.) The UN partition plan satisfied neither side, although the Zionist leaders accepted it, while the Arabs rejected it. Arabs had lived in Palestine for the 2,000 years of the Jewish diaspora. War was inevitable, and it began in May 1948, as soon as British forces departed and Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the state of Israel. Jewish forces prevailed in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 to 1949 and the state of Israel was established (Arab-Israeli Conflict).
Most Jews viewed the establishment of modern Israel as a great event in Jewish history, although a small minority opposed its existence. To most it represented a place in which Jews would always be free from persecution. For some it also represented the fulfillment of ancient prophecies that the Jewish people would once again rule themselves in their own land
The various visions of Israel were soon tested. Jews from the Arab world made their way to Israel by the tens of thousands; many had been expelled from their homes in North Africa and the Middle East. Some 300,000 had arrived by 1951. Thousands also came from Iran (formerly Persia), where Jews had lived since the end of the Babylonian Captivity. The absorption of the Jews from Arab lands severely tested the state’s ability to live up to its promise to accept all Jews. The state managed to absorb the refugees without being overwhelmed economically, but as more migrants arrived, the ongoing demand on resources created considerable tension that lingers to this day. Refugees have continued to arrive in Israel, most recently from Russia, bringing the population to nearly 6 million in the year 2000.
To many Jews, the events of the early 1950s proved that the Zionist dream was a sustainable reality. Despite this euphoria, securing the existence of the state required considerable energy. In time Israel’s security became the central focus of Jewish political activity throughout the diaspora, and it remains so today.
|IX||THE CONTEMPORARY SITUATION|
The large-scale destruction of the European Jewish community, the migration of Jews from Arab lands, the enormous growth of the American Jewish community, and the establishment of Israel forever changed the nature of the Jewish people in the last half of the 20th century. A majority of Jews today live in places different from those their grandparents inhabited, and one result is that virtually all aspects of Jewish cultural, religious, and political life have been altered. The dislocation has created tremendous stresses among Jews. People of extremely different religious and ideological orientations, who once lived in different countries and spoke different languages, now inhabit the same space—the major cities of Israel and the United States—and necessarily speak the same languages—either Hebrew or English.
Several challenges confront Jews at the beginning of the 21st century. Chief among these challenges is finding common purpose among the different forms of Judaism in the United States—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—and mitigating the severe tensions between religious and secular populations in Israel regarding the appropriateness of freedom of religion in a Jewish state. In Israel, in particular, where Orthodox Jews control religious matters and have power in the government, many secular Jews oppose the imposition of religious standards. Cultural differences in Israel have led to tensions between Jews of European ancestry and Jews who originated in the Middle East. European Jews have dominated political affairs as Middle Eastern and North African Jews have fought for more political and economic power. From the 1980s on, waves of migration from the USSR and its successor states, and smaller ripples of migration from Ethiopia, have added to ethnic tensions in Israel.
The question of who is a member of the Jewish community continues to divide Jews. Most Jews define a Jew according to Halakhah (traditional Jewish law) as anyone with a Jewish mother. But some Reform Jews insist that those who have a Jewish father may also be considered Jewish under certain circumstances. This position is under debate among Conservative Jews as well. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, reject this position entirely. They insist that acceptance of descent through the father will lead to an irreparable split in the Jewish community. Israel’s Law of Return grants full citizenship to any person of Jewish ancestry, although those who have converted to and actively practice Christianity have sometimes been excluded from this right.
Anti-Semitism remains a concern in all corners of the world. In the United States many observers regarded the nomination of U.S. senator Joseph Lieberman—the first Orthodox Jew to run for the vice presidency of the United States on a major party ticket—as a sign of diminished anti-Semitism. However, no one knows where Jewish life is headed. Jews will continue to wrestle with age-old concerns of religious piety as well as with new political and cultural concerns. Jews must deal with unprecedented levels of assimilation. In some parts of the world, more Jews are marrying outside the Jewish community than within it. The impact this will have on Jewish life is not yet known. Israel will soon become the largest center of Jewish population in the world, even as it struggles to come to terms with the Palestinians in and around it. Here, too, the impact remains unknown. The contemporary situation is one of flux, amid enormous communal tensions. How, or whether, these tensions are resolved remains to be determined.
Jay M. Harris