Review: Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries

A work of painstaking scholarship, exhibited in 130 pages of endnotes, writes Bernard Wasserstein


Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries by David Sorkin (Princeton University Press, £27)

In 1951, Isaiah Berlin published a landmark essay in this newspaper entitled Jewish Slavery and Emancipation. He argued that the creation of the Jewish state just three years earlier had “liberated all Jews”. Israel had “restored to Jews not merely their personal dignity… but what is vastly more important… the basic freedom of choice… without which life is a form of slavery, as it has been, indeed, for the Jewish community for almost two thousand years”. Jews, whether they wished to live in Israel or not, “rightly see in it the guarantee of their own emancipation as human beings.”

David Sorkin, in his new book, scorns such Zionist triumphalism. He questions whether “a national movement predicated on emancipation’s ‘failure’ [in the Diaspora]” has resolved the Jewish predicament. Drawing attention to discriminatory treatment of Jews from Muslim lands, of non-Orthodox Jews, of women, and, of course, of Palestinian Arabs, he calls Israel’s “ingathering of the exiles” an “ingathering of inequalities”.

“It is ironic,” he suggests, “that it would be a fundamental amelioration for Palestinian Israelis were they to attain the status Jews had as a legally recognised minority in interwar Eastern Europe.” He makes a number of fair points but the comparison is strained.

I am not aware, for example, of any numerus clausus (restrictive quota) nor of “ghetto benches” for Arabs in Israeli universities. Muslims and Christians are, after all, “recognised minorities” in Israel. In any case, as Sorkin himself reminds us, such formal recognition availed Jews little in inter-war Eastern Europe.

That comparison comes towards the end of the book. But Sorkin hits the reader with an even more startling claim at the very outset: he declares that the Nazi genocide and the establishment of Israel were mere “epiphenomena” in modern Jewish history.

“Emancipation,” he insists, “was, and remains, the principal event.” This proposition is the prism through which Sorkin surveys the past half-millennium. Asserting that emancipation, a “neglected and foundational event”, has been inadequately addressed by historians — though one can hardly open any work on modern Jewry without encountering the term — Sorkin aims “to redirect the focus of modern Jewish history”.

He complains, not quite correctly, that most discussion of emancipation “focuses on individual cities, regions, or countries; it is neither comparative nor transnational.”

Here, by contrast, we have a discussion that ranges ambitiously across the world. Sorkin distinguishes two types of emancipation: “political”, i.e. the attainment of full participation in affairs of state, and “civil”, by which he appears to mean social equality.

His main focus is on the former. The book is organised into short sections that read like summaries, albeit quite efficient, of the national histories that Sorkin castigates.

The card-index impression is heightened by heavy use of cross-references and by a jerky, repetitive, writing style.

Although he repeatedly refers to emancipation as an “event”, Sorkin rather contradictorily qualifies it as “an elastic term to delineate a protracted and variegated process.” Indeed, one of the chief virtues of the book is to dispose of the Whiggish view of emancipation as the culmination of an inexorable course of improvement. Sorkin depicts it more realistically as a seesaw on which advances in one period, sphere or region were often succeeded by backsliding in others.

This is a work of painstaking scholarship, exhibited in 130 pages of endnotes. Its main utility is as a precise compendium of legal enactments affecting Jews (though the map of Polish partitions, attributed to “Cox Cartographic”, is all wrong).

Bernard Wasserstein is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Chicago

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive