From the ascension to Our reign We have directed Our most preeminent attention to the end that all Our subjects without distinction of nationality and religion, once they have been admitted and tolerated [aufgenommen und geduldet] in Our States, shall participate in common in public welfare, the increase of which is Our care, shall enjoy legal freedom and not find any obstacles in any honest ways of gaining their livelihood and increasing general industriousness.Because, however, "the laws and so-called Jewish Regulations [Judenordnungen] pertaining to the Jewish nation [Nazion]" were "not always compatible with these Our gracious intentions," the present Edict would serve to amend them. It followed the "Patent of Toleration" of 1781, which granted additional but not full rights to non-Catholic Christians in the Habsburg Empire. Initially applicable only to Lower Austria, the Edict was eventually extended to the rest of the realm. It still fell short of full citizenship in the Empire (that lay some three generations ahead; 1, 2), but it was a milestone: Joseph's religious reforms were the most advanced in Europe, and mark the tentative beginning of Jewish emancipation there.
The Edict did many things, chiefly creating new but limited economic and educational opportunities. Jews could now learn or practice "all kinds of crafts or trades," though Christian masters were allowed rather than compelled to accept Jewish apprentices, and the Jews were to remain "without however the right of mastership or citizenship." Jews could live in rural regions only if they wished to pursue trades or establish factories, and secured the appropriate permission (§ 7, 10-15). The goal was to wean them away from finance, petty trade, and other supposedly characteristic unproductive, exploitative, and undesirable economic activity. For that matter, the Edict made it clear that its purpose was not to increase the number or collective status of Jews in the capital; they were to be granted residence privileges in the traditional manner, family by family, rather than recognized as a community. To that end, they had no right to public worship or printing presses (§ 1-6). Jews could now attend secular primary and secondary schools, and the earlier right to higher education was confirmed. They could also open their own schools, but under government supervision (§ 8-9). And, "Considering the numerous openings in trades and manifold contacts with Christians resulting therefrom, the care for maintaining common confidence requires that the Hebrew and the so-called Jewish language [i.e. Yiddish; JW] and writing of Hebrew intermixed with German be abolished . . . the vernacular of the land is to be used in stead." (§ 15)
The document stated (§ 25), "by these favors We almost place the Jewish nation on an equal level with adherents of other religious associations in respect to trade and employment of civil and domestic facilities." Although that language may grate on modern ears, the word, “almost,” was in fact intended to signal just how unprecedented and generous the measures were. There should be nothing surprising in any of this, for the rationale was motivated as much by pragmatism as principle:
As it is our goal is our goal to make the Jewish nation useful and serviceable to the State, mainly through better education and enlightenment of its youth as well as by directing them to the sciences, the arts, and the crafts, We hereby grant and order. . . .The Edict was followed by other regulations that both curbed the traditional autonomy or communal rights of the Jews and allowed them entry into national life, e.g. service in the military (1787) and the adoption of stable German names (1788).
What I said with regard to the latter could apply to all, for such was the nature of the bargain: "On the one hand, it implied equality of citizens and broke down the old barriers of both parochialism and exclusion. On the other hand, it made clear that the price was adherence to a unitary norm and a forced assimilation to the dominant culture." This was not entirely a bad thing, but neither was it an unproblematic thing, and that complexity, those contradictions need to be acknowledged.
As Derek Beales has shown in his masterful and definitive study, Joseph managed to be at once enlightened, despotic, and revolutionary. The enlightened absolutist state (like the early modern state, tout court, but with more vigor) was concerned above all with creating productive and loyal subjects and therefore sought to assert a unitary authority over all aspects of public life. The Jews now had to be brought into that process. Justice demanded that most discriminatory measures be removed, but there was no positive valuation of a Jewish collective identity or persistence of a Jewish culture. And the new rights—always granted rather than something to which the Jews were entitled, for we are still quite some philosophical distance from the American or French Revolutions—moreover always came with the requirement that the recipients reform their supposedly atavistic or even immoral ways and prove themselves worthy.
For good reason, it calls to mind many of the debates about African-Americans and citizenship in the United States. It was what Leo Spitzer (25) called the “’conversionist’ approach” typical of the era:
its ideology was unequivocally saturated with cultural chauvinism: an unquestioned faith in the superiority of the dominant culture. According to the emancipators, the emancipated, to be truly liberated from subordination, had to ‘become like us.’The Jews were to be brought into the modern world, whether they liked it or not. Some did, many did not—at least at first. As Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz observe in their annotations to the 1782 decree (40), "Although generally hailed by the upper-class and secularly educated Jews, these edicts were viewed by the vast majority of Jews as sinister attempts to undermine traditional Jewish life."
The integration of the Jews into the cultural mainstream—which included the secular and scientific knowledge, of which they had been largely deprived since the Renaissance, was certainly to their benefit. Even the forced assimilation into German culture (which, after all, did not exclude the use of their traditional languages for internal affairs) was part and parcel of that endeavor. And it had far-reaching consequences.
The aforementioned observations by Leo Spitzer come from his provocative comparative study of assimilation and marginality among West African Creoles, Austrian Jews, and Afro-Brazilians. Simply put, Spitzer argues that the West, circa 1770, offered marginal groups a bargain: inclusion at the price of assimilation. With the rise of scientific racism, beginning a century later, and through the Second World War, those who had accepted the bargain found themselves both cut off from their roots and irrevocably rejected by the dominant culture. In each case, the marginal group had adopted a different assimilationist strategy: in the case of African former slaves, conversion to Christianity and adopting the manners of the proper Englishmen; in the case of Jews who rejected conversion, adopting the cultural values of the bourgeoisie; and in the case of Afro-Brazilians, “whitening,” or intermarriage with lighter-skinned partners. The forward-looking Austrian Jews moved, over the generations, from commerce into industry, and then, into the liberal professions and even the arts, in part because of opportunity and in part in order to flee the ghetto stereotype and establish their credentials.
Here, yet another parallel suggests itself. In his famous proposal for colonial Indian education (1835), Thomas Babington Macaulay was notoriously dismissive of indigenous Indian culture, and yet, in both imposing and making available English as the language of instruction for a British and western curriculum, he expressed full confidence in the intrinsic equality and potential of the colonial subjects. The aim, he said, was to create a new indigenous intermediary group, “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” He thereby set in motion a process that is to no small degree responsible for the technological and academic prowess of the elite of the world’s largest democracy.
In the case of the German-speaking Jews, the forced cultural marriage eventually engendered a genuine passion and prodigious progeny. As the brilliant Gershom Scholem observed in a classic but all-too-little-known essay, it was a unique constellation of factors:
The Jewish passion for things German is connected with the specific historical hour in which it was born. At the moment in time when Jews turned from their medieval state toward the new era of enlightenment and revolution, the overwhelming majority of them—80 per cent—lived in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Eastern Europe. Due to prevailing geographic, political, and linguistic conditions, therefore, it was German culture that most Jews encountered on their road to the West. Moreover—and this is decisive—the encounter occurred precisely at the moment when that culture had reached one of its most fruitful turning-points. It was the zenith of Germany's bourgeois era, an era which produced an image of things German that, up to 1940, and among very broad classes of people, was to remain unshaken, even by many most bitter experiences. Thus a newly-awakened Jewish creativity, which was to assume such impressive forms after 1780, impinged upon a great period of German creativity. One can say that it was a happy hour, and indeed, it has no parallel in the history of Jewish encounter with other European peoples. The net result was the high luster that fell on all things German. Even today, after so much blood and so many tears, we cannot say that it was only a deceptive luster. It was also more, both in fact, and in potentia. (33-34)Indeed, one has but to recall the names of the great German-Jewish authors, from Heine to Kafka, or the scholars of literature and the humanities. Citing Kafka’s literary executor Max Brod, who suggested the ideal of love at a critical distance, Scholem observes that the Jews loved without distance, and the Germans kept their distance without love. The tragic end of the unrequited love affair is all too well known.
• Gershom Scholem, "Jews and Germans," Commentary, November 1966, 31-38