Katznelson and Birnbaum, Paths of Emancipation  summary of chapter one


Note that this book was published in 1995, but began as a series of conference papers in 1989 and 1990.  As often happens, it took many years for the project to appear in final form in print.


Chapter 1 “Emancipation and the Liberal Offer”


This introduction lays out the common concerns of the other chapters, all of which examine the relationship between forms of state organization, forms of citizenship, and the ways in which Jews were “emancipated.”


The editors point to three big questions underlay the issue of Jewish emancipation:

1)      Would liberal and republican (in the 19th century sense, as these ideas grew out of the Enlightenment) ideas reshape the relationship between the state and society (we’re talking here about the idea of citizenship!)?

2)      Would Jews be included as citizens free to participate in representative politics?

3)       Would the conditions for citizenship, when “offered,” leave room for Jews to “remain meaningfully Jewish” (p. 5).


Their key idea, proclaimed in the book’s title, is that multiple “paths” that led to emancipation in each case the form of state and nature of citizenship shaped both the path towards emancipation and the subsequent relationship between Jews and the state/dominant society.


So, emancipation happened at different times and in different ways in different states.  Moreover, emancipation did not mean security or social acceptance—the extent to which Jews were still excluded or threatened even after emancipation differed from state to state as well (as did the extent to which emancipation undermined the cohesion of the Jewish community).


The editors point out that until the late 1800s, Jews studied Jewish history within the framwork of a biblical meta-narrative.  Since the late 1800s, the study of Jewish history has been tied to debates about what it means to be Jewish/the nature of Jewishness, and also has been aimed primarily at a Jewish audience.   Before the 1970s, few historians looked at Jewish history from the broader perspective of history of the Modern State (or European history, etc. 


The pioneers of modern (post 1970) Jewish historiography, like Jacob Katz, tended to fit all European-Jewish history into the framework of what happened in Germany.  (Note by MH—in much the same way that historians used to measure all modern Economic history by treating England as the norm….)


Also, important Jewish historians like Katz and David Vital (and J. Israel, I think  MH) take a Jewish nationalist perspective that colors their interpretations.  Vital, for example, sees the Enlightenment as the beginning of the end for the Jewish “nation” and believes that emancipation destroyed the Jewish community in western and central Europe (so that the only “real” Jews left were the “pre-modern” Orthodox communities in Poland/the Russian Empire).  According to the editors, Katz and Vital built on arguments of the great early 20th century historian Simon Dubnov, who argued that Jews could either sustain tradition or become modern and thus undermine their Jewishness.  (MH—I think that the editors greatly oversimplify Dubnov’s position; they also completely ignore the work of Sal Baron…)


Katznelson and Birnbaum argue that Katz, Vital, and others have failed to recognize the diverse paths towards emancipation or to see that different paths produced different outcomes for Jewish communities.  Like Jonathan Frankel and Stephen Zipperstein (whose edited book we will read next), the editors argue that emancipation did not  necessarily mean the destruction of Jewish identity (let alone the end of some kind of “real, authentic” Jewishness).  For Katznelson and Birnbaum, what mattered most in deciding such questions were the national contexts for Jews’ encounters with “modernity.”


And so, Katznelson and Birnbaum asked the authors of the essays in this book to consider the following questions for “their” countries:


1.      Was emancipation imposed from the outside (by foreign powers) or was it the result of internal (domestic) political dynamics?


2.      Did emancipation happen quickly, or was it a long, dragged out process?


3.      When did emancipation take place (comparatively early or late, etc.)?


4.      Did emancipation come before or after social and economic integration (if those things happened at all)?


5.      Was emancipation tied to the rise of liberal politics or of nationalist politics, and were Jews involved in these political movements?


6.      Did emancipation really protect Jews’ rights and security, and under what conditions were these threatened?



The function of each chapter in the book is to answer these questions, and by doing so to connect Jewish emancipation and its consequences in each country to the history of that country’s state, economy, and politics….


On pages 24-26 the authors summarize the main findings of the each chapter/case study.  The basic point is that the way that Jews were emancipated and the results of that emancipation in each country was shaped by state-building and the structure of citizenship in that country.  Also, Jews were “rational actors” who behaved (and were treated) differently in different contexts—Jews did not react to emancipation “as a bloc,” either across borders or even within the confines of one country.


On the basis of these case studies, Katznelson and Birnbaum posit the following general arguments:


a.       The local contexts of emancipation shaped conditions for Jews in the post-emancipation decades

b.      That post-emancipation conditions shaped the possibilities open to Jews re. how to be a citizen and a Jew

c.       That the sorts of political and social groups and networks Jews formed locally constituted different but all-the-same coherent responses to the post-emancipation environments, within the limits of the “opportunity structure” (what was really possible) in that state

d.      That the most important determinant of opportunities for Jewish politics/response was the type of state that existed in each country

e.       That there was no single “right way” to organize/behave politically after emancipation—no matter what choices Jews made, they generally faced a “no win situation.”

f.       Jews would “pay a price” for their identification with liberalism and liberal nationalism

g.      That many of the options for how to behave and organize as emancipated citizens really did undermine the coherence of the Jewish community

h.      That the “liberal offer” (emancipation and inclusion as citizens, but in exchange for giving up Jewish “difference”) led to complex choices for individuals and communities, but in each country those choices (the options available) were limited by the contexts of that state (what kind of state, what kind of citizenship)

i.        That accepting the liberal offer really did raise the question—what does it now mean to be a Jew?