Issues Around Accepting Jews in Europe in 1781 Essay

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Acceptance of Jews in 18th Century Europe


The eighteenth century brought a sea change to philosophical, scientific, cultural, and social thought. This era, termed the Enlightenment, signaled a step toward freedom from dogmatic ignorance. When the floodgates opened in central and western Europe, England, and the Colonies, social norms and governance were critically examined, questioned, and often rejected.[footnoteRef:1] The thrust was toward rationality and it invited unprecedented consideration of religion and governance. Of the many groups who stood to be impacted by the Age of Reason, none were so visibly marginalized and stigmatized as European Jews. [1: C.W. Routledge, "The Status of Jewry in Europe," Chapter 41 [companion pdf], in Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, UK, accessed March 11, 2011,]

The Nexus of Change for European Jews

The humanitarian ideals of the Enlightenment prompted several prominent German spokesmen to engage in argument about the living conditions of Jews in Europe and England, to consider issues of Jewish citizenship, and to debate available remedies that would benefit Jews but would not undermine the economies of the States. One of these men was Wilhem Christian Dohm, a German historian and political writer, who had been asked by Jews in France to use his skills, and his position as a Christian, to argue for justice and equality for Jews.[footnoteRef:2] In 1781, Dohm wrote a treatise, Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews,[footnoteRef:3] which sought to inspire rationality about the social and political conditions impacting Jews. In addition to Dohm, the influence of two other men was long-reaching and enduring. Moses Mendelssohn was a Jewish religious scholar, well-known in German society, and a friend of Dohm. In fact, it was Mendelssohn who urged Dohm to write his essay on Jewish emancipation.[footnoteRef:4] In 1782, Mendelssohn wrote a response to Dohm's essay in which he attempted to conceptually elevate Dohm's thinking.[footnoteRef:5] Johann David Michaelis, a German Bible scholar and professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Gotteingen, coarsely challenged both Mendelssohn's writing and Dohm's essay in 1782.[footnoteRef:6] Mendelssohn rebutted Michaelis' response to Dohm in 1783.[footnoteRef:7] A chain of written communication among these men thrust consideration about the status of European Jews into a cauldron of heated debate, where change could at last begin to take place. [2: Matt Plen, " Moses Mendelssohn: Herald of the Jewish Enlightenment," (My Jewish Learning: Jewish Beliefs, Theology and Ideas, Jewish Family & Life / Hebrew College, New York: NY, n.d.), accessed ] [3: Wilhelm Christian Dohm, Uber die buergerliche Verbesserung der Juden (Berlin, 1781), In Readings in Modern Jewish History, ed. Ellis Rivkin and trans. Helen Lederer (Cincinnati, Ohio: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1957, 5-7, 9-22, 50-81, accessed] [4: Plen, "Moses Mendelssohn: Herald of the Jewish Enlightenment."] [5: Moses Mendelssohn's Preface of 1781 to the German translation of Menasseh ben Israel's vindiciae Judaeorum, in Mendelssohn's Jerusalem, trans. M. Samuels (London, 1838) 1, 90-99. In The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, Paul R. Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinha (1995). Oxford University Press, 47, accessed March 11, 2011,] [6: Johann David Michaelis "Herr Ritter Michaelis Beurtheilung." In Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, Leiber die beurgerliche Verbesserung der Judan (Berlin & Stettin, 1783), vol. 2, pp. 33-51. Originally appeared in Orientalische und Exegetische Bibliotek, 19 (1782) by L. Sachs. In The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, Paul R. Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinha (1995). Oxford University Press, 47, accessed March 11, 2011,] [7: Michaelis, "Herr Ritter Michaelis Beurtheilung."]

Notions About Jewish Character

In his essay written in 1781, Dohm argued against the prevailing views that Jews were not a threat to Christianity. And while Dohm did confirm the popular notion that Jews were corrupt and dangerous to society, he extended an explanation as to why Jews behave in ways that give them that reputation[footnoteRef:8]. Dohm insisted that despicable behaviors came about as a condition of being hated, oppressed, and made to work exclusively in commerce. He believed that Jews should be able to engage in agriculture and artisan trades.[footnoteRef:9] Dohm postulated that when living conditions improved, when work restrictions were lifted, and when civil liberties were granted, Jewish behavior would also change. [8: Dohm, Uber die buergerliche Verbesserung der Juden (Berlin, 1781), In Readings in Modern Jewish History, ed. Ellis Rivkin and trans. Helen Lederer (Cincinnati, Ohio:…[continue]

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