In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emancipation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Document Collections
  • Reference
  • Legislation
  • Sanhedrin
  • Congress of Vienna
  • Emancipation Politics in Western Europe
  • Emancipation Politics in the German States
  • Emancipation Politics in Eastern Europe
  • Community
  • United States
  • 1848
  • Ottoman Empire
  • Poland
  • Russia
  • Central Europe: Emancipation Achieved
  • Limits to Emancipation
  • Politics Institutionalized
  • Diplomacy
  • War, Revolution, and Minority Rights
  • Repudiation

Jewish Studies Emancipation
David Sorkin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0122


Since the early nineteenth century, “emancipation” has been the catch phrase used to designate the release of Jews from an inferior political status through the acquisition of equal rights. The term is inherently ambiguous: “Emancipation” conflates the status and its attainment, and it assumes a single goal and process of achievement. Many historians identify “equal rights” narrowly with national citizenship in the modern state, failing to account for the diversity of Jewish experiences across Europe. Jews gained equality through myriad processes, in such polities as the city-state, nation-state, or nationalities-state; they attained citizenship by residence (jus soli) or by descent (jus sanguinis). Equality included such statuses as corporate parity, juridical equality, recognition as the “subject” of a ruler or state, and local or municipal citizenship. Moreover, equality came in various forms and was often partial and nowhere irrevocable: it could be and was lost and regained. Emancipation involved virtually every aspect of Jewish life: occupations, education, religion, and communal solidarity. It had its enthusiastic proponents, who saw it as the messianic end of diasporic Jewish inferiority, and antagonists, who saw it as a threat to the existence of Judaism or Jews. While emancipation has been studied as a local, municipal, regional, national, and continent-wide development, there is no established consensus about so basic an issue as chronology. Some scholars who employ a narrow definition of equality date the process from the creation of modern citizenship during the French Revolution (1790–1791) (Dubnow) or write of a “long century” of emancipation extending from the American and French Revolutions to the Russian Revolution (Birnbaum and Katznelson 1995, cited under Anthologies). Others see an earlier inception with the Enlightenment debates about the Jews’ political status (circa 1770) (Katz 1973, cited under General Overviews), or the Peace of Westphalia’s promulgation of a toleration (1648) that eventually spilled over to the Jews (Baron 1960, cited under General Overviews). Some see the conclusion of the process around 1870 with the unifications of Germany and Italy and the restructuring of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Katz 1973, cited under General Overviews); others date the end to the equality of Jews in Russia (April 1917), the minority rights treaties in the East Central European successor states, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia (1921–1925), and autonomy in Birobizhan (1934) and the new Soviet Constitution (1936) (Mahler 1941, cited under Document Collections). This entry surveys four centuries of emancipation (1550 to 1950). While many historians have equated emancipation with the modern Jewish experience itself, this article treats emancipation exclusively as a legal and political process.

General Overviews

The study of emancipation belonged to the process itself. Advocates and opponents wrote detailed accounts of the Jews’ legal status and debated its consequences. Government bureaucrats studied the legal status of Jews in their own country and compared the policies of other governments. The scholarly study of emancipation was concomitant with Jewish historical writing. Indeed, some would argue that emancipation was a prime motivating factor, if not the primary factor, for Jews to begin to write their own history. Only through the medium of the past could Jews convincingly vindicate their claim to equality in the present. (Graetz 1891, Schorsch 1975). There have been few attempts to provide an overview of emancipation. Katz 1973 remains the earliest monograph in English. He validates the East-West divide (emancipation in the West, either no emancipation or deferred emancipation in the East) by omitting Eastern Europe. Vital 1999, a political history of European Jewry, surveys developments across Europe. There are a number of foundational articles. Baron 1960 advocates a multi-causal conceptualization. Rürup 1969 offers a neo-Marxist approach contrasting France and the German states. Katz 1964 skillfully traces the changing terms. Sorkin 2001 proposes a tripartite division of West, Central, and Eastern Europe in the most comprehensive account of the subject to date Sorkin 2019.

  • Baron, Salo. “Newer Approaches to Jewish Emancipation.” Diogenes 29 (Spring 1960): 56–81.

    DOI: 10.1177/039219216000802905

    Dates emancipation to the mid-seventeenth century and transcends the East-West divide by organizing Europe into three regions.

  • Graetz, Heinrich. History of the Jews. 6 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1891.

    The preeminent Jewish historian of the nineteenth century who was an avid advocate of emancipation.

  • Katz, Jacob. “The Term Jewish Emancipation: Its Origins and Historical Impact.” In Studies in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Intellectual History. Edited by Alexander Altmann, 1–25. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674730878

    By tracing the history of the various terms used to describe the acquisition of rights (naturalization, amelioration, emancipation), Katz maps the shifting nature of the process.

  • Katz, Jacob. Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770–1870. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

    The standard study that focuses on three countries: France, Prussia, and the Habsburg Empire. Katz proposed the categories that many historians have used, e.g., “autonomous community,” “semi-neutral society.”

  • Rürup, Reinhard. “Jewish Emancipation and Bourgeois Society.” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 14.1 (1969): 67–91.

    DOI: 10.1093/leobaeck/14.1.67

    Suggests two models of emancipation by comparing developments in Germany and France. The analysis of the German states emphasizes the role of the tutelary state in implementing conditional emancipation and the way in which the multiplicity of states, each with its own version of emancipation, reinforced that process. The French model is insufficiently elaborated.

  • Schorsch, Ismar, trans. and ed. Heinrich Graetz, the Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1975.

    Schorsch shows Graetz’s rootedness in the emancipation process and particularly the struggle over religious reform.

  • Sorkin, David. “Port Jews and the Three Regions of Emancipation.” Jewish Culture and History 4 (2001): 31–46.

    DOI: 10.1080/1462169X.2001.10512228

    Proposes a tripartite scheme based on the nature of the state and the scope and duration of the emancipation process.

  • Sorkin, David. Jewish Emancipation: A History across Five Centuries. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691164946.001.0001

    A comprehensive study across Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and the Atlantic world.

  • Vital, David. A People Apart: A Political History of the Jews in Europe, 1789–1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198219804.001.0001

    A descriptive account of how emancipation unfolded in five countries: England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia.

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