Jewish Emancipation

A History Across Five Centuries

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David Sorkin
  • Princeton: 
    Princeton University Press
    , September
     528 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David Sorkin’s Jewish Emancipation: A History Across Five Centuries is a distinctive and welcome addition to the field of Jewish history. Sorkin has already made an important contribution to the discipline from at least the 1990s by publishing widely on the topic of emancipation, particularly in his insightful article “Beyond the East-West Divide: Rethinking the Narrative of the Jews’ Political Status in Europe, 1600-1750” (Jewish History 24 [2010]: 247-56). Jewish Emancipation develops these ideas further by charting the tumultuous journey toward emancipation across three continents and five hundred years of history (circa 1550-present). Such a long durée approach allows some fascinating patterns in Jewish history to be analyzed, although some of Sorkin’s conclusions will surely provoke controversy.

There is a tendency for scholars today to focus on highly specialized, niche areas in order to set themselves apart as experts. This has led to exciting new discoveries and analyses, but these insights are rarely brought together and made accessible to the general student of Jewish history. The pioneers of Jewish history, such as Salo Baron (1895-1989) and Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891), wrote vast surveys that incorporated depth, originality, and a comparative approach. Sorkin has attempted such a global-history approach in the 21st century and is to be commended for it.

One of the key arguments of Jewish Emancipation is a call to reject the East versus West binary that portrays an emancipated West, in which Jews were threatened by assimilation and racial anti-Semitism, compared to the unemancipated East, in which Jews suffered from persecution, poverty, and pogroms. Sorkin’s three-region approach, focusing on Western Europe (Holland, England, France), central Europe (German States, Habsburg Empire), and Eastern Europe (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, Poland), allows for a more nuanced picture in which each region is shown as having had a range of approaches to Jews living in their midst. Nonetheless, Sorkin shows that emancipation rested on an unstable footing in all three regions.

Sorkin’s legal and political history documents the emancipation of Jews in Europe, North America, and Israel and the Middle East. Such an approach is truly transnational and Sorkin successfully weaves together these different histories to show how migration and political change in one world region affected Jews elsewhere. If nothing else, one learns that Jewish history is a history of migration. Besides its broad scope, the book is also highly technical. Chapter 3, for example, titled, “Juridical Equality,” considers in detail Jews’ political status country by country. Sorkin also focuses on interesting aspects of Jewish history such as the architecture of synagogues and Jewish conscription to the military. Chapter 18 on the Atlantic world is also fascinating as Sorkin surveys the emancipation of Jews in the British colonies of Canada, Jamaica, and the Thirteen Colonies.

Sorkin’s skill is to survey different countries and then to draw together the key themes and convergences. Sorkin shows that Jewish emancipation was not a linear positive trajectory. His work challenges those who see the French Revolution as a watershed moment in the history of Jewish emancipation (chapters 7-9). Regarding Russia, he shows how, for example, Tsar Alexander III (1881-1894) and Nicholas II (1894-1917) began to limit and abolish the privileges granted the Jews by Alexander II’s Great Reforms (202). Sorkin then turns to consider the state of Israel, and his chapter on this topic is forthright. Sorkin argues that emancipation for women, Palestinian Israelis, and Mizrahim is not yet a reality (chapter 26). He also argues that now that American Jews have been emancipated and “enjoy first-class citizenship”, they need to decide whether they will advocate emancipation for other groups (353). Sorkin states from the outset that “some readers may find this book’s conclusions disturbing” (12). He continues: “Neither the establishment of the State of Israel nor the flourishing of American Jewry … has definitely answered emancipation’s challenges” (12). Whatever one thinks of this statement, Sorkin is clearly writing history with present debates in mind and this clearly makes his work relevant to contemporary discourse about Jewish identity and nationhood. By showing that emancipation can easily be lost, as happened in the Holocaust, Sorkin reminds readers that both Jews and national governments need to continue to guard Jewish rights closely. In the UK, there has recently been widespread discussion of the rise of anti-Semitism, particularly in connection with the Labour Party. In light of this, Sorkin’s warning is timely as he argues that the past five hundred years have shown that Jews can very quickly lose their emancipated status.

Sorkin’s portrayal of the history of emancipation makes somber reading and in many ways fits into Baron’s lachrymose school of Jewish history. However, Sorkin does not integrate into his study the history of philosemitism, which is a potent factor in the history of emancipation. There were some brave non-Jews, albeit a minority, who pioneered calls for emancipation for a range of social, political, and theological reasons, and their contribution to the history of emancipation is largely neglected in Jewish Emancipation. In addition, Sorkin’s focus on Jews legal and political rights should not obscure the fact that Jews’ de facto rights on the ground could at times be very different to the de jure legislation passed by the state. Finally, Sorkin takes a very top-down approach to history, which means one rarely hears the voices of typical members of the Jewish community, but rather the focus is largely on the attitudes and actions of Jewish leaders.

Jewish Emancipation is largely persuasive in showing the reader that Jewish emancipation has not been a linear line of progress but has rather suffered both triumphs and tragedies. This book is accessible for the lay reader but also presupposes a vast amount of knowledge. It will make a strong contribution to scholarly debate.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Lawrence Rabone is a doctoral student in Jewish/Christian Studies at the University of Manchester.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Sorkin is the Lucy G. Moses Professor of History at Yale University. His books include The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna (Princeton), Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment, and The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780–1840.


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