Friday, January 22, 2010

Freedom Then

In Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance, Michael Goldfarb looks at how a people chose modernity

The following review was published earlier this week at the Books page of the History News Network.

Michael Goldfarb, who many of us know as a National Public Radio reporter and commentator (he now works for the BBC), makes his historiographic agenda clear in the opening pages of his engaging new book. "The Holocaust hangs across Jewish history like
an iron curtain," he writes.

It sometimes seems that the story of the Jewish community leaps from the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the beginnings of the Diaspora to Kristallnacht, with only a few incidents, such as the expulsion from Spain and the mass migration of our grandparents and great-grandparents to America, in between.

There's a piece of this story that Goldfarb feels is overlooked, and one he seeks to relate in Emancipation: the difficult but remarkably successful struggle of Europe's Jews to emerge from their
segregation in continental ghettos to the forefront of Western Civilization. This process, which began with granting Jews some basic civil rights during the French Revolution, was largely complete at the turn of the twentieth century. (Goldfarb treats the relatively affirmative outcome of the notorious Dreyfus Affair, which laid bare the prejudices of a presumably vanguard French society, as a vindication of this process.) Without ever minimizing the oppression and hatred that characterized the persistence and even intensification of anti-Semitism in the period, Goldfarb nevertheless considers it a triumphant epoch in which the Enlightenment laid the foundations for legal protections, economic access, and social acceptance for Jews, and one that not even the subsequent rise of the Third Reich can eradicate. Indeed, the effect of this account makes the Nazi interregnum an outlier in a not-entirely straight, but nevertheless steady, line of ethnic (and largely secular) improvement.

Goldfarb thus offers an arrestingly angle from which to view the Jewish experience. But this relatively novel end is achieved by highly traditional means. His periodization is very familiar -- 1789-1914 has long been a standard segment of European history -- and while he applies a specific filter to the events he portrays, the landscape is well known: the French Revolution, the unification of Germany, intensifying industrialization, etc. So are many of the names, whether they're relevant gentiles like Napoleon and Metternich, or not, like Freud and Einstein. (While some ethnic Jews, like Karl Marx and Gustav Mahler, were nominally Christian out of a sense of convenience, they nevertheless were widely considered Jews whether they liked it or not.) Culture and politics dominate this account, as do men; with the exception of an occasional figure like Fanny von Arnheim, whose salon was the toast of early nineteenth century Paris, women are almost entirely absent. It's not surprising that Goldfarb pours his narrative through these familiar grooves. As he explains in his acknowledgments, "I am a journalist -- a summarizer and simplifier by trade." He happens to be very good at this, which makes the book both easy to read and likely to last.

Emancipation is also notable for the largely implicit, but nevertheless provocative, questions it poses in terms of comparative experience. In the preface to the book, Goldfarb explains that its immediate roots lie in the aftermath of September 11, in which he reported on the culture of British Muslims in London and tried to grapple with their competing allegiances between national and religious identity. As Emancipation makes clear, nineteenth century Jews felt comparable tension, particularly in Central Europe. Goldfarb also notes that during the 2008 presidential campaign, some African Americans questioned whether Barack Obama was authentically black. Jews too, struggled to balance orthodoxy and modernity, and, like African Americans, have felt ambivalence within themselves and toward each other in leaving behind old ways that were both of their own choosing and imposed upon them by outsiders.

There are other questions Goldfarb elides that tend to make liberals uncomfortable. Why have Jews been so notably successful in their efforts to assimilate, while other racial and ethnic groups have foundered? Social critics like Thomas Sowell and Bernard Lewis would argue that Jewish success in the nineteenth century and beyond is the product of social values (like an emphasis on education) that have been sorely lacking in other minority communities. Goldfarb appears to be too discreetto suggest as much, or to draw even cursory contrasts between the forms of oppression that Jews encountered compared with other minorities. That's unfortunate, because his perspective as a journalist no less than a historian would be welcome.

But perhaps the most valuable thing a book like Emancipation offers is hope. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously suggested a half century ago, the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." That justice, moreover, need not be punitive. As Goldfarb suggests of some of the less well-known figures who also people his account, like Moses Mendelssohn or Ludwig B
örne, "I don't want to reclaim them for Jewish history alone. Their lives and achievements belong to the history of all men." To which one can only add, "and women." And: L'Chaim!