In western and central Europe the 19th century saw changes in the conventional attitude to Jews. Until then the Jews had not enjoyed civil equality. Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 convened and Assembly of Jewish Notables and later a Sanhedrin (the name of the ancient Supreme court in Jerusalem) which were to formulate an answer to the allegation that the Jews were strangers in the lands where they lived, and therefore did not deserve civil rights. The Assembly, made up of delegates from France, Italy and Germany stated that it was the religious duty of Jews to be loyal to the State in which they lived. Napoleon, however, did not grant them the full benefits of emancipation; they were still, in fact, of only limited equality before the law.
The move for emancipation gained momentum. In order to prepare the Jews for equality, several societies were created toward the end of the eighteenth century, particularly in Germany and Eastern Europe, to wean them away from their distinctive dialect Yiddish. Interestingly enough, this was done by way of attempting to have Hebrew replace Yiddish, as a preliminary to the final transfer of the non Jewish vernacular. Secular education was stressed by writers such as Moses Mendelsson, as was the value of creative crafts. This movement to emancipation, known as Haskalah (Enlightment), was vehemently opposed to by most traditional rabbis, who saw it as an attempt to modernise the Jewish religion. In fact, the reform movement in Judaism was one of its results. Another was the assimilationist movemnt which felt that modern liberalism had opened the way for the Jews to abandon their distinctive way of life and beliefs and assimilate completely into their host countries. Another result of Haskalah was the development of the scientific study of Judaism and Jewish history.
The first country to emancipate the Jews was the United States of America. The Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, enacted in 1786, not only guaranteed freedom of worship but provided that 'religious opinions and beliefs shall in no way diminish, enlarge or affect civil liberties'. This law influenced the Federal Constitution of 1787 which laid down that no religious test would ever be required as a qualification for any public office.
Emancipation in Germany came first to those regions conquered by the French. In 1812 all Prussian Jews were emancipated as regards residence, commerce and special taxes. The law on Jewish equality was extended to the whole of the German Empire in 1871. In England, the struggle for emancipation culminated in 1858, when Lionel Nathan Rothschild took his seat in Parliament as a professing Jew.
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Index to Footsteps through Jewish History