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
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.
Napoleons 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 literatureincluding Romanticism, Impressionism,
Expressionism, and Cubismflouted convention to explore new
aesthetic frontiers. Within Jewish society, new movementssuch
as Reform Judaism, Zionism, and Bundismarose 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.