The Jewish Experience – the fight for rights
The starting point – community relations with kings and princes
In medieval times, Jewish communities in Europe were subject to obligations and duties imposed (or, at best, negotiated by their elders) by the prince or power that governed the land in which they lived. Even in the Magna Carta of 1215, famous as the first collection of rights for English nobles and freemen, Jews were specifically denied basic freedoms. It was common for the crown to prevent Jews from undertaking most economic activities, with the notable exception of moneylending. Of course, kings across Europe soon realised that debts to their Jews could be eliminated by the vastly popular act of expelling the Jews from their realm. Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1306, from Warsaw, Lithuania and Sicily in 1483, and from Spain in 1492.
In the centuries after these expulsions, Jews remained at risk of discrimination and persecution. The Inquisition, which began in Spain, before spreading to Portugal and the Spanish territories of Central and South America, imprisoned, tortured and executed Jews for preserving their religion and customs. The last Jew to die at the hands of the Inquisition was burnt at an ‘auto-da-fe’ (‘act of faith’) in Mexico City as late in history as 1815.
In the early-modern Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it remained common practise for Jewish elders to negotiate rights and obligations with the local prince. In France, for instance, the elders of the Sephardi Jews of Southern France were bound by a different (and materially better) contract with the French crown than that negotiated by the Yiddish- speaking Jews of Alsace. Even so, in the dying years of pre-revolution France, the Crown passed a series of laws that threatened all French Jews once again with expulsion and reduced economic rights.
The French revolution
The French revolution of 1789 marked the end of the old system of royal charters with individual communities. In its place, the revolutionaries announced the Declaration of the Rights of Man on August 27,1789. Initially, the Jews were excluded even from these so-called ‘universal’ rights.
French voices in favour of Jewish emancipation argued that it was impossible to have a society in which all men of whatever condition were given equal rights and status, except a relative handful of Jews. Enemies of the Jews asserted that the Jews were bad by character and by nature.
The French Revolutionaries were thus first to formulate a ‘Jewish Question’, asking whether the hatred directed at Jews originated in the ‘bad’ or ‘inferior’ nature of the Jews themselves, or was an outcome of the oppression experienced by Jews at the hands of the majority culture. This was the ‘Question’ to which, a century and a half later, the Nazis would suggest a ‘Final Solution’.
In 1848, speaking at the funeral for the fallen revolutionaries, Rabbi Mannheimer of Vienna addressed the Austrians arguing: “You wish that the Jews killed in action be buried alongside your own victims. Then you should also permit those who participated in the struggle together with you to live here on a par with you. Accept us as free men!”
The emancipation of the Jews in France eventually took place on the basis that: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals”. A similar conclusion was reached in the Netherlands, following the revolution of 1795. Equal rights as individuals, but no group rights as a people.
The emancipation of the Jews following the French revolution began a century-long battle for emancipation elsewhere in Europe. Napoleon’s conquest of Europe briefly spread French laws across much of the continent, but these gains were temporary. Within a few decades of Napoleon’s defeat, progress towards Jewish emancipation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German principalities, Russia, and in significant parts of Prussia had reversed. Little, other than the stirring in Jewish hearts, had changed.
The revolutions of 1848 and their impact on Jews
The year 1848 saw the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history. Over fifty countries experienced revolutionary activity, which was typically liberal and democratic in nature. Widespread access to printed books enabled the spread of new ideas, such as popular liberalism, nationalism and socialism. Many revolutionaries adopted an objective of Jewish emancipation, equal civil and political rights with the rest of the citizens. Many of the revolutionaries were Jews, who fought and died with non-Jewish comrades.
By 1867, Jews in the Austro- Hungarian Empire, who had been subject to severe restrictions on where they could live and how they could be employed, were emancipated. By 1869, Kaiser Wilhelm I of the new German Empire was ready to emancipate his Jewish subjects too. Of the great Empires of Europe, only Russia would fail to emancipate its Jews until thedissolution of the Tsarist throne in 1917.
The high water mark of Jewish rights
The final decades of the nineteenth century began a sixty-year high water mark for Jewish rights in Europe. With the exception of Russia, Europe’s Jews were able to live and work freely across the Empires in which they lived. Huge numbers of Jews migrated to the big cities of Europe. However, the 1848 revolutions also marked a turning point in the development of modern anti-Semitism through the development of conspiracies that presented Jews as representatives both of the forces of social revolution and of international capital. In 1848, for instance, Eduard von Müller-Tellering, the Viennese correspondent of Marx’s New Rheinish Newspaper, declared: “tyranny comes from money and the money belongs to the Jews.” The cause celebre of this new antisemitism was the Dreyfus Affair, which gripped the world from 1894 to 1906.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus is publicly humiliated and falsely imprisoned for treason.
A new anti- Semitism emerges in Germany
The revolutions of the 1840s, and the emergence of the new, unified German Empire in 1871, provoked extreme reactions in many European communities. In particular, Protestant Germans in the north and east of Germany found themselves threatened and isolated as the rich southern and western Catholic principalities became the power-brokers of the new Empire. In response, they developed a ‘new ersatz religion of alien-free German-ness (Deutschtum)’. In 1880, the official Prussian State Historian, Heinrich von Treitschke published A Word about Our Jews, the ‘founding document of modern political anti-Semitism.’
Europe had seen centuries of discrimination and persecution against Jews. The innovation of this new anti-Semitism was the addition of the toxic ingredient of race. ‘True German-ness’ was in the blood. These anti- Semites spurned the middle-class movements, which so many Jews had embraced, for the elimination of barriers of religion, class, geography – values that would later form the backbone of the human rights framework.
By 1892, Germany’s powerful Conservative Party had adopted as official policy the opposition of ‘the often obtrusive and corrosive Jewish influence on our national life’. In Germany’s 1893 election, overtly anti-Semitic candidates won sixteen seats in the Reichstag.
In the following decades, anti-Semitic parties representing the interests of the old aristocracy would jostle for power with socially democratic parties demanding a modern, democratic state. As the ancien regime saw their prestige and power at risk of ebbing away, they gambled on an expansionary war against their oldest enemy, the Slavs of Russia. The result was the Great War, the national humiliation of Versailles, and, eventually, the emergence of Hitler’s National Socialist Party.
Anti-Semitism, Nazism, Holocaust
The period of Nazi power, from 1933-1945, was calamitous for Europe’s Jews. Hitler’s overt anti-Semitism had won him the votes and admiration of millions in Germany and in many of the countries it occupied such as Poland. He rapidly reintroduced discriminatory policies against the Jews, then planned and put into effect the ‘Final Solution’, a dramatic attempt to answer the ‘Jewish Question’ first posed during the French Revolution. The result was slave labour, detention in concentration camps and catastrophic loss of life. Over six million Jews, as well as many other undesirable üntermenschen were murdered, including LGBT, disabled, and 500,000 Romani Gypsies.
How could the Nazis get so close to success in their plans for genocide?
Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the word ‘genocide’, was able, using his library of Nazi documents, to describe the process:
- The first step was denationalisation, making individuals stateless by severing the link of nationality between Jews and the state, so as to limit the protection of the law.
- This was followed by dehumanisation, removing legal rights from members of the targeted group.
- The third step was to kill the nation ‘in a spiritual and cultural sense.’ Jews were forced to register, wear a distinctive badge, then move into designated areas, ghettos.
- Seizure of property, the fourth step, rendered the group ‘destitute’ and ‘dependent on rationing’. Decrees limited rations of carbohydrates and proteins, reducing the members of the group to ‘living corpses’.
- Spirits broken, individuals became ‘apathetic to their own lives’, subjected to forced labour that cause many deaths, and to further measures of dehumanization and disintegration as they were left to await the ‘hour of execution’.
(from Philippe Sand’s summary of Raphael Lemkin’s analysis of Nazi Method, East-West Street (2017))
Jewish Internment in Wartime Britain
As the Second World War broke out, there were 75,000 people of Germanic origin within Britain’s boundaries. Over 30,000 of these refugees from Hitler were Jews from Germany or Austria who had arrived at the very end of the 1930s.
A slow, orderly campaign of grading the aliens into categories representing the risk to national security was ordered. But in 1940, when Italy entered the war, the security services were overwhelmed by the need to assess and grade several tens of thousands of potentially hostile British-Italians. The wartime Government, acting in response to panicked headlines in the popular press, ordered the immediate internment of all ‘enemy aliens’ between the age of 16 and 60 – even those who had already been found by tribunals to be ‘genuine refugees’ (known in official parlance as ‘friendly enemy aliens’). ‘Collar the lot’ went the order from Churchill’s government.
A number of internment camps sprung up in Britain, and soon the Isle of Man emerged as the ideal place – far from civilian and military operations – to hold the large numbers of ‘enemy aliens’. These camps were often chaotic, initially with few amenities such as furniture, beds, toilets or medical facilities. In these camps, ‘aliens’ of all sorts – pro-Nazi sympathisers, anti-Nazi Germans, and German Jews were mixed together indiscriminately.
By the middle of 1940, over 10,000 male aliens and over 4,000 alien women and children were interned in various camps around the island. Many thousands were Jews, held there without charge or trial.
Jewish detainees in Isle of Man camp, 1940
© Wiener Library
The internees were allowed some small freedoms, the ability to swim in the sea, for instance. But it would take another full year for families to be reunited in family apartments – up to that point, family visits were restricted to one per month.
Despite the constraints on their liberty, the Jewish internment experience had some positive elements. Over 200 Jewish physicians were interned, many of whom had brought their medical equipment with them. These doctors and surgeons soon mobilised to assist the camp medical teams and local hospitals with their expertise. Art flourished as did other crafts. An English-speaking synagogue was formed, meeting weekly.
In their camp newspapers, the Jewish and anti-Nazi internees were asking why the British Government preferred to intern the anti-Nazi aliens, rather than harness their minds and bodies to the war effort. Indeed, from 1941 onwards, the numbers of Jewish inmates began to dwindle as they were offered the chance to enlist or were released to work for the war effort. Nonetheless, some Jews remained interned until the end of the war in 1945.
The legacy of this internment within the Jewish internees is mixed. Many were embittered at the loss of liberty, and at the dangerous forced intermingling with Nazi sympathisers. Fritz Lustig, who was freed on joining the British Army, recalls his anger at the British popular press for their populist, anti-refugee headlines in 1939-40. “We had been vetted by a tribunal at the beginning of the war,” he said, “and we had been declared so-called ‘friendly enemy-aliens. After we had been vouchsafed, why were we suddenly considered dangerous? It was just a measure caused by the right wing papers.”
Read or download Making the Jewish Case for Human Rights in the UK as a PDF