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French Revolution Liberty! Equality! In the Name Of the French Republic One and Indivisible

The Central Government of the Paduan Delta Districts of Rovigo and Adria [...] decrees:

First, that the Hebrews are at liberty to live in any street they please;

Second, that the barbarous and meaningless name of Ghetto, which designates the street which they have been inhabiting hitherto, shall be substituted by that of Via Libera.

Decree abolishing the Ghetto in Padua (August 28, 1797), from The Jew in the Modern World, Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds. (Oxford University Press, 1995)


Revolution! The word sums up a century of sweeping change. In the years between the French Revolution, which inaugurated the period, and the end of World War I, which brought it to a close, the political, economic, cultural, and religious lives of most Europeans were immeasurably altered.

The French Revolution, inspired by the doctrines of the Enlightenment, ushered in a period of great hope and optimism. The stirring document the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" promised basic rights and freedoms to all, including the Jews.

Napoleon’s conquests can be credited with spreading some of the ideas and reforms of the Revolution across Europe. His defeat in 1815, however, opened up the gates to the restoration of conservatism. Nonetheless, the forces of egalitarianism, liberalism, and nationalism had already gained substantial momentum and could not be permanently arrested. By the end of the 19th century, Western Europe was essentially rid of the imperial and feudal political structures of its past. Society was now to be established on the principle of equality of all citizens before the law.
This was also the age of the Industrial Revolution. Factories began to appear across the continent, creating new industries and needs. Demands for capital and credit grew. Revolutions in transportation and communications were in the making. The rapidly expanding economy provided new opportunities for Jews to break out of traditional occupations and to enter new professions.

All these changes were accompanied by new ideas about the nature of humankind, society, and culture. The theory of evolution and psychoanalysis offered up strikingly modern visions of human development. The writings of Marx and Engels and other socialists questioned the values of the emerging industrial society. Revolutions in art, music, and literature—including Romanticism, Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism—flouted convention to explore new aesthetic frontiers. Within Jewish society, new movements—such as Reform Judaism, Zionism, and Bundism—arose to challenge the status quo.

Eastern Europe lagged behind when it came to industrialization and political liberalization. Russia did not free its serfs until 1861. Czarist subjects lacked many of the basic civil rights enjoyed by citizens in Western Europe. Jews were subject to discriminatory laws. It was only when the Czar was overthrown in 1917, that Russian Jews attained civic equality.
Rarely does change occur without creating victims. The overthrow of feudalism displaced the landed gentry from their positions of privilege and created chaos for many of the peasants whose homes and livelihoods were tied to the status of the lords they served. The industrialization of the economy left many artisans, craftsmen, and petty merchants unable to compete. New historical and scientific discoveries rocked the foundations of traditional society, leaving many confused and anxious. Some of the discontent of the 19th century found expression in anti-modernist, anti-Semitic political movements, which targeted Jews, newly prominent in the economy and in society, as symbolic of all the disturbing changes.


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